January-March 1954: Prelude to The Battle of Điện Biên Phủ

On 28 April 2018, Colonel Phạm Thanh Tâm, at eighty-six years old, displayed the demeanour of a man calmed by a lifetime of conflict. His home, located in the Tân Bình District of Ho Chi Minh City, was initially donated to him by the fully independent Vietnamese government after he retired from the army in 1989 and moved to Ho Chi Minh City permanently.

It was a huge plot; thin, but cavernously long and four storeys high, in the style of most Southeast Asian shophouses. Upon entering, the hallway passed a room for scooters, a storeroom and another empty room until, in the bowels of the house suddenly filled with cool air, a working kitchen led into a busy living area. Here, a daybed, sofa, armchair, and shelves, dressers and stools overflowed with papers, magazines and newspapers, interspersed with stacks of sketches inside plastic sleeves. These pieces Tâm kept for posterity, and for the memories of his time during Vietnam’s last two major conflicts during the First Indochina War and the Second Indochina War respectively. Some pieces, however, were so degraded they were unlikely ever to be exhibited, not to mention bought by anybody except faithful enthusiasts and collectors. If not a war room, then it was certainly a room of war; the same paper-hoarding-environment for any active journalist or reporter.

Despite physical signs of his growing years, Tâm flicked through piles of sketches with a mental alacrity that belied his age, remembering the time, place and situation of each piece in astounding detail. Although, given the history he retold through his sketches, maybe it was not that surprising… the memories that he conjured so easily would be difficult for anyone to forget.

Tâm also had an exhibition at the Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts at the end of April 2018. In preparation for the forty-third anniversary of Reunification Day, also known as the “Fall of Saigon” or “Victory Day” on 30 April, Tâm had been given a retrospective of his work, showcasing him as the influential, prolific and integral persona in Vietnamese art history that he so rightly deserved.

It was only with historical context and the words of Tâm’s own ghostly recollections, however, that his exhibited pieces took on the gravitas one would imagine they should have. Other than occupying the ground floor of one block of the museum, a grand building typifying French-colonial architecture, there was little else signifying the exhibition’s importance. The walls were peeling with damp and the floor was slippery with dust; hanging wires were brittle, rusty and wrapped in thick cobwebs. Relying only on natural light streaming in through open doors and windows, running into rooms as defined yellow blocks no more illuminating than torch beams, coupled with LED tube lights releasing weak miasmas from high ceilings, the exhibition reflected the gloomy subject of war.

The condition of the Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts, largely indifferent to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, said more about Vietnam’s contemporary dedication to art as a whole than its appreciation of artists like Tâm. Clearly juxtaposed to the gleaming glass and steel skyscrapers in the city centre, Vietnam could be forgiven for overlooking its culture of art while rising as Southeast Asia’s fastest growing tiger economy. It was a situation that many hoped and believed would change sooner rather than later.

Nevertheless, viewing Tâm’s brave reproductions of war, hanging doggedly on the museum’s antique walls, with his softly-spoken stories reverberating in Vietnamese inside the inner-ear, it was impossible not to remember Mistah Kurtz’s words in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: “The horror, the horror…”


When dawn broke over Điện Biên Phủ on 13 March 1954, the battle lines had been drawn; at Điện Biên Phủ as well as across the world. France had slowly lost support from its allies and stood almost completely alone defending their now fractured empire in Southeast Asia. Losing Vietnam, their jewel, seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

In a move that would exemplify America’s double-tracking policies over Vietnam in the future, President Dwight D. Eisenhower originally refused to send military support for the French in February 1954, declaring at a press conference, “I cannot conceive of a greater tragedy for America than to get heavily involved now in an all-out war in any of those regions.” [1] Eisenhower’s experience of Korea had, for the time being, dulled any arrogant assumptions that modern America could defeat the “Red Menace” in the East. However, facing the threat of communism in Southeast Asia with American military intervention was not quite the same as ensuring war continued to infect the region like a virus. Two months later in April, as the Geneva Conference began discussions over the First Indochina War, America vetoed a move towards the cessation of hostilities in Indochina, the only one to do so out of four additional members: France, the United Kingdom (UK), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). President Eisenhower’s administration would later agree to send aid to the French in Vietnam after the Geneva Accords were signed in July – not mention an on-going military “advisory” role in Vietnam during the battle of Điện Biên Phủ.

The pretext behind France’s occupation of Điện Biên Phủ lay in the prickly Hedgehog concept [2] conceived by Colonel Louis Berteil. By the end of 1953, the Việt Minh had overrun large parts of Laos, from the northeastern border with Vietnam as far inland as Luang Prabang and the Plain of Jars. Under the very real threat of losing the whole of northwest Vietnam to People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and Việt Minh forces, as well as a growing feeling of losing Vietnam in general, Commander-in-Chief Henri Navarre was called upon to find an “honourable political solution” by French Premier Rene Mayer.[3] Navarre’s solution was two-fold. First, establish an airhead fortress at Điện Biên Phủ adjacent to Việt Minh supply lines leading from the northern border with China into Laos, thereby crippling the enemy’s expansion. Second, lure the Việt Minh into a battle out in the open where French forces could best employ their superior firepower and air support. Hence, on 20 November 1953, Navarre initiated Operation Castor, the initial occupation of Điện Biên Phủ, chosen for its proximity to Laos as well as the pre-existing airstrip built by the Japanese during World War II.

French forces took Điện Biên Phủ with ease in November, quickly establishing an airhead fortress surrounded by satellite positions Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Claudine, Dominique, Elaine and Huguette around the vital airstrip. To the north, they established Gabrielle and, roughly five miles to the south, Isabelle. However, even with such a show of strength, the plan suffered from two major setbacks. The plan was rejected outright by every major subordinate officer under Colonel Christian de Castries. A year previously, at the Battle of Nà Sản,[4] astounding casualty figures had proved that, despite the effectiveness of the Hedgehog concept in drawing Việt Minh troops into open confrontation, the absolute reliance on air support, an underestimation of enemy troop size and huge losses to French forces[5] made it a battle that French officers were unwilling to replicate. Perhaps most worryingly, the French sustained such huge casualties despite the Việt Minh not having anti-aircraft or artillery capabilities, and French forces occupying the high ground. Both of these points would be reversed at Điện Biên Phủ.

Also, in hindsight, the appointment of Colonel Castries to lead French forces at Điện Biên Phủ was a bad one according to future historians.[6] Colonel Castries, a cavalryman, was unsuited to trench warfare, the style of warfare that ultimately dictated large parts of the battle at Điện Biên Phủ. Despite having the availability of heavy artillery and tanks[7], Colonel Castries’ firepower would be rendered ineffective against troops camouflaged in inaccessible terrain with orders to constantly reposition themselves.

At the start of the battle, Điện Biên Phủ bristled with steel and flesh. French forces were camped in the open plains enclosed by Việt Minh hidden in the surrounding jungle hills, led by the indefatigable General Võ Nguyên Giáp. In what would prove to be the PAVN and Việt Minh’s winning strategy, General Giáp had ordered antiaircraft and heavy artillery battalions to set up on hillsides with the expectation to break camp and move elsewhere after every salvo to confuse French counterbattery fire. In addition, General Giáp had spent months meticulously stockpiling soldiers, ammunition and supplies in the hills, even going so far as to build wooden artillery pieces as decoys, as if decorating the jungle with paper tigers. On the eve of battle, Vietnamese troops outnumbered the French four to one. Also, Việt Minh forces had US M101 105mm howitzers and mortars supplied by the PRC, as well as vicious, Soviet-made Katyusha rocket systems and anti-aircraft guns.[8]

Phạm Thanh Tâm went to Điện Biên Phủ as a twenty-two-year-old reporter and illustrator for the heavy artillery newspaper. He came out, however, an artist. His sketches of artillery fire support bases at Điện Biên Phủ would win him the third prize at the National Art Exhibition in 1954. A lifetime later, Tâm’s personal diaries were eventually published in the book Drawing Under Fire: War Diary of a Young Vietnamese Artist.[9] It is from this book that Tâm’s harrowing – yet inspirational – account of the battle adds an intensely personal, Vietnamese perspective to a library of books on the subject, baptised by Bernard Fall’s Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Điện Biên Phủ.[10] Unlike Fall, however, Tâm’s frontline account personifies the unquenchable Vietnamese spirit against better equipped imperialist forces; Tâm’s version imbued in places with surprising humour, light-heartedness and hope in what must have been terrifying and demoralising circumstances.

As well as Tâm, other artists flocked to the decisive battlefield of Điện Biên Phủ, no doubt filled with the same feelings of patriotism, duty and patriotic optimism over the final expulsion of colonial rule. Lê Huy Toàn, Văn Giáo, Tô Ngọc Vân and Nguyễn Văn Tỵ all walked across North Vietnam and secretly encamped themselves in the hills with PAVN and Việt Minh forces. Like Tâm, they faced the enemy unarmed – or, at least, without arms to call their own. Instead, their knapsacks were filled with sketching paper, paintbrushes, pigments, Chinese ink, chalk, and pencils. Weaponless as they were, it is remarkable to think that they traipsed through the same bloody trenches, slept in the same deep quarters twenty feet underground and helped dig the same tunnels inching closer to French front lines as the soldiers around them.

Together with Bernard Fall, the historical events that followed have been well documented by the likes of Philip Davidson, Jules Roy[11], Andrew Forbes[12], Martin Windrow[13], even Henri Navarre[14] and General Võ Nguyên Giáp[15] themselves. These analytical accounts benefitted from well-researched hindsight over plans, communiques and records by professional ex-servicemen, war-correspondents, writers and historians; there are even silent footage video recordings taken by French videographers to draw from. However, to understand the battle from the “other” side, from the perspective of the Vietnamese, there are no better sources than the on-the-spot sketches, paintings, diary records and memories from artists like Phạm Thanh Tâm.


[1] The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Vol. 1 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), p. 593.

[2] “Hérisson” in French.

[3] Phillip Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975, 1988, Oxford University Press, New York.

[4] From 23 November to 2 December 1952.

[5] The French are purported to have lost two battalions.

[6] Phillip Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975, 1988, Oxford University Press, New York, p. 199

[7] M24 Chaffee light tanks supplied by America.

[8] 50,000 Việt Minh troops against 16,000 French troops. Davidson, Ibid, p. 223.

[9] Phạm Thanh Tâm, Drawing Under Fire: War Diary of a Young Vietnamese Artist, August 15 2005, Asia Ink, London.

[10] Bernard Fall, Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu, Reprint edition April 2002, Da Capo Press, New York.

[11] Jules Roy, The Battle of Dienbienphu, 2002, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York.

[12] Andrew Forbes, and David Henley, Vietnam Past and Present: The North, 2012, Cognoscenti Books, Chiang Mai.

[13] Martin Windrow, The Last Valley, 2004, Da Capo Press, New York.

[14] Henri Navarre, Agonie de l’Indochine (in French), 1958, Plon, Paris.

[15] Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu, 1964, Foreign Language Publishing House, Paris.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *