22 February-11 March 1954: Phạm Thanh Tâm’s Journey to Điện Biên Phủ

Phạm Thanh Tâm describes his march to Điện Biên Phủ with artillery Division 351

In February 1954, together with an arts group consigned to F351 artillery division comprised of artists, writers, musicians, singers and actors, Phạm Thanh Tâm began his journey from a military training camp near Kunming, Yunnan in southwest China, to Điện Biên Phủ. His training was an example of Chinese support for the Việt Minh at the time, allowing free movement over the border and assistance with training, equipment and supplies. The expedition would total over three hundred miles covered on foot, taking the troupe past the border-town of Lào Cai, liberated in 1950 as seen by Tô Ngọc Vân, through the town of Yên Bái in Việt Minh controlled territory – through harsh jungles, along poor roads and over rough mountain terrain.

Tâm started his diary at the town of Bên Ngọc as he began the two-hundred-mile hike from there to the front lines at Điện Biên Phủ. Immediately, Tâm revealed the personal realities for him and his band, and probably young Việt Minh soldiers in general, by admitting, “…it does concern me that I am rather thin.”[1] At the crossing over the Chạy River at Bên Ngọc, Tâm described the village as a “grim sight… gouged with craters,” with lifeless trees “burnt to a cinder.” Clearly the site of a French bombardment, Tâm was struck by a family of French collaborators killed in the raid.

At Yên Bái, the capital of Yên Bái Province, the mood was in stark contrast to his reaction to the devastation at Bên Ngọc. The town bustled with people, “relaxed… cheerful… and unafraid of French bombers.” The streets were busy with trade and children played in bright, colourful clothes. Tâm described young people reading tales of soldiers fighting against invaders in the town library.[2] Tâm spent the night there with his friend Thạch and his family, buoyed by their hospitality in plying him with fresh papayas and sugar cane.

On 22 February, Tâm and the band of artists left Yên Bái. At an average walking speed, the journey to Điện Biên Phủ should have lasted roughly five days along smooth roads. The fact that it took twenty-one days of hard, exhausting marching gives some impression of the rough terrain they covered.

Four days after leaving Yên Bái, they arrived at the Black River. While there, Tâm recalled an eclectic mix of people moving along Route 13, an arterial highway part of the 600 miles of road laid by Vietnamese engineers throughout the northwest of North Vietnam. Writing in situ, Tâm took confidence in this incredible feet, displaying a young patriot’s naïveté in thinking these newly laid roads would allow more forgiving movement for the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). “What I do know is that, from now on, we no longer have to fight our way through the jungle, up steep hills and down ravines and for that I am extremely grateful!”[3]

Tâm observed that civilians and soldiers were working on the roads alike, attributing this dedication to the inspirational leadership of Hồ Chí Minh – or “Uncle Ho” as he was affectionately referred to. It is a feeling that was reinforced when they reached the Lũng Lô Pass, where young civilian men and women were building a field combat bridge over a deep gorge. Despite being dangerous work, Tâm noted that they applied themselves with laughter and jest, even under the condition that, once used, the bridge would be dismantled after the ensuing conveys had passed over it. Tâm drew immense confidence and enthusiasm from the commitment of these workers and their spirited support of the resistance against the French:

“We could never have organised volunteer youth teams to work so hard on such large public works without the Resistance movement under the leadership of Uncle Ho and the Vietnamese Labour Party,”

Phạm Thanh Tâm, Drawing Under Enemy Fire: War diary of a young Vietnamese artist.

Other groups of people added to his sense of pride along Route 13, as well as offering intimate experiences of historical facts later recorded by historians. A dance team from Vĩnh Phúc, filled with girls considered underage to be contributing to the war effort, had escaped from French-occupied territory to entertain soldiers at the front at Điện Biên Phủ. In one example, “Sister Bau” explains to Tâm that she had previously disagreed with the “restricted feudal ways of her village,”[4] a clear reference to Hồ Chí Minh’s Lao Động policy over agrarian reform and landowning classes. Only after a “political ideology course” was Sister Bau convinced to leave her village and join the fight. Like Tâm, the young girls underestimated the difficulty of travelling so far on foot on roads that were periodically intact or ruptured – travel made even more difficult by 45lb packs.

Tâm’s pride was bolstered by the porters he met and the weight of the burdens they carried. While provided equipment by China, trucks and motorised transport was reserved primarily for Việt Minh military endeavours. Supplies like rice and water were carried by men, women, boys and girls, not least of all because some military encampments were inaccessible by road. Tâm cites Mr. Duy carrying 190lbs of supplies and another forty-seven-year-old man who was decorated for carrying a 100lb load as well as a sick woman for over six miles.

The art troupe started their wartime contribution of providing theatrical entertainment to ease worries and anxieties along Route 13. When meeting a “battalion of pack bicycles,”[5] Tâm recalls how the troupe used bamboo mats, nylon sheets and cake wrappers to replicate an enemy fuselage for a play. Two pack bicycles were used to power the lighting for the set. Innocuous as it may seem, regular soldiers and volunteers in the war held writers like Tâm, artists, dancers and musicians in high regard. For a bicycle porter like Thuyết,[6] peddling 500 pounds of supplies, over double the normal amount, with only one wooden brake to protect him from steep ravines, a night like the one Tâm documented did wonders to morale:

“As the night drew on, all of us, including older delegates… started dancing and singing and took bets as to who would be the first to win the enemy flag. We were in good spirits, although emotions were running high and there was tension in the air as we prepared for the battle to come.”

Phạm Thanh Tâm, Drawing Under Enemy Fire: War diary of a young Vietnamese artist.

On 26 February, Tâm and his troupe moved further along the Black River. Travelling with the same bicycle battalion they entertained a day earlier, Tâm experienced his first run-in with French surveillance planes and the trepidation of being spotted – a worrying precursor to later being attacked by bombers. He describes how, at night, the bicycle porters had to extinguish their headlamps and small fires for cooking rice – a luxury they had enjoyed so far on the journey – were forbidden to avoid detection.

After crossing the Black River, Tâm illustrated how the hard realities of war became ever more apparent, including the geographical makeup of far northwestern Vietnam, in the approach to Điện Biên Phủ. More so, the effects of those realities began to seemingly shake Tâm’s previously resolute enthusiasm. Passing through the Cò Nòi Valley, through towns Hát Lót, Nà Sản[7] and Sơn La, Tâm could not help but comment on how the valley’s natural beauty had been “spoilt by old tin cans and barbed wire the French leave behind when they abandon camp.” Before reaching Sơn La, Tâm confesses his guilt at having knocked over a bicycle carrying a heavy load of rice, bending one of the wheels as it fell.

On 6 March, Tâm and the band of artists reached the Pha Đin Pass occupied by the Meo tribe, part of the Thai ethnic minority. Up until March 1954, the Pass had been the stage for successive French involvement as a key strategic area in the region. As well as a catchment for conscripts recruited to the French Far East Expeditionary Corps in Indochina, several battalions of which were made up of Thai minorities, the Pass was heavily bombed, repeatedly destroying roads and creating a deadly minefield for soldiers charged with detonating bombs littering the area.

When talking to Thủy, company commander for 151 Regiment part of the 351 heavy artillery division, Tâm described how Thủy’s regiment had worked for three months, twenty hours a day, to rebuild the roads that had been bombed by B24s, B26s and Hellcats – sometimes numbering thirty planes a day. In one instance, Thủy recalled a mammoth effort to repair the roads in anticipation for General Võ Nguyên Giáp during the three month period;[8] one hundred men worked fifty hours non-stop to refill a mile of road with two-and-a-quarter tons of soil at night without torches, constantly under threat from French flares. “All our troops and supplies have to cross here to get to Điện Biên Phủ,” Thủy told Tâm. “It’s our duty to our people and our nation to keep it open. And we are confident of ultimate victory!” Despite Thuy’s resolute regiment of road-builders, referred to as “The Tigers of Pha Đin” by the Army newspaper, Tâm prepared himself before the twenty-mile hike over “between heaven and earth,”[9] noting in his diary: “Even then I never expected the track to be so vertiginous and dangerous!”[10]

A day later, Tâm wrote from the other side of the Pha Đin Pass. Here, he was met by a “teeming”[11] mass of PAVN sappers, labourers, youth brigades and artillerymen. With one hundred and thirteen miles to go to Điện Biên Phủ, via Tuần Giáo, now following Route 41, Tâm took note of the changing scenery, from the “eerily quiet” mountains to the “hollowed out” roads, jungle and hillsides.

Making relatively quick progress, Tâm reported that he and his band were six miles from the front on 10 March. It becomes obvious that they were part of a much larger exodus and had reached the rear guard of forces sent to Điện Biên Phủ. Interviews Tâm conducted at the campsite on Route 41 highlight the finer points of General Giáp’s strategy.

Reconnecting with C804 company – the same group he trained with in China – Tâm’s friends gave grisly accounts of their efforts battling French artillery from the campsite since the end of January 1954. They described how their teams hauled 105mm cannons through impassable mountain jungle, continuously changing position after a series of orders and counter-orders often given before they had even set up an encampment. Their accounts emphasise the two-ton cannons, making ropes out of bamboo and unreliable winches that could snap at any moment, causing the cannons to roll back down the mountain and, in unfortunate cases, crushing soldiers on the way down. All the while, they were bombarded by French artillery, bombs sometimes landing as close as thirty feet from their positions. They also detailed how they went on regular reconnaissance missions to spot enemy artillery. They suffered heavy casualties, recalling blown limbs, disembowelment and soldiers lost after being buried alive by bomb blasts. Together with the exhausting work, having to do it under such terrifying conditions paints a picture of Sisyphean exertion. Tâm noted how C804 company were awarded a third-class medal for pulling their cannons over twelve miles in seven days.

Perhaps most enlightening was Tâm’s interview with Comrade Nguyễn Đình Ước, commanding officer of regiment 675 of the heavy artillery division 351. Later a Political Commissar for 351 division, Ước’s vocal dissatisfaction with renewed orders implied less revolutionary zeal and more rational sympathy for his troops among officers of his rank. Describing how his troops crossed fifty hills in pursuit of French forces into Upper Laos, their mission was aborted after shooting down three French planes and destroying one heavy artillery installation. Angered that they were not given permission to pursue the French further into Laos, the men also complained about being “skin and bones”[12] on their return to base camp after a meagre supply of rations. In answering their complaints, Comrade Ước cited the preparations to attack the French military airbase in Mường Sại,[13] which the Vietnamese counted as a victory, even though they were ordered to withdraw in late-February. This supports the theory that the Laos operation was General Giáp’s plan to divert French attention from Việt Minh troops marching to and surrounding Điện Biên Phủ.

Despite hearing these frustrations, Tâm later learned from the radio that Việt Minh commandos blew up eighteen enemy planes at Gia Lâm[14] and sixty planes at Cát Bi.[15] It was revealed that there were American as well as French pilots involved in the raids, further demonstrating minor American military support for the French at the time.

A day later, on 11 March, two days before the official start of the battle of Điện Biên Phủ, Tâm arrived in good spirits, joining PAVN troops who displayed high morale despite the long marches, arduous preparations and experiences of individual horrors. “I have arrived at the command post of my division at Điện Biên Phủ!… Morale is high. We are all certain of victory.”[16] Even more uplifting for Tâm, the last two miles were covered in a truck, the first vehicle he had taken during the whole three-hundred-mile journey, further suggesting how low PAVN forces were on basic motorised transport:

“How happy I was to be in a truck for these last two miles, I didn’t care how cramped we were!”

Phạm Thanh Tâm, Drawing Under Enemy Fire: War diary of a young Vietnamese artist


[1] Phạm Thanh Tâm, Drawing Under Enemy Fire: War diary of a young Vietnamese artist, 2005, Asia Ink, London, p. 47. Unless stated otherwise, all other quotes from Phạm Thanh Tâm are taken from this account.

[2] Tâm notes the title of the book as, Doi Dao Nhon (The Sharp Knife Brigade). That a number of different people were reading the same book/series, might point to the breadth of literacy in northwestern villages at the time.

[3] Phạm Thanh Tâm, Drawing Under Enemy Fire: War diary of a young Vietnamese artist, p.50.

[4] Ibid, p. 54.

[5] Ibid, p.55.

[6] A bicycle porter who Tâm talked to on the evening of the theatre performance.

[7] The Battle of Nà Sản took place between 23 November-2 December, 1952. General Võ Nguyên Giáp was repelled leaving 1,544 dead and 1,932 wounded prisoners. Despite their victory, French forces abandoned Nà Sản in August 1953 as they sought a political solution to evacuate Indochina. Nà Sản was used as an example of Colonel Louis Berteil’s Hedgehog concept and a deciding factor in its use at Điện Biên Phủ.

[8] General Võ Nguyên Giáp had already ordered a large-scale military confrontation at Điện Biên Phủ after French forces occupied the area in November 1953.

[9] Pha Đin is translated in the local Thai dialect as “between heaven and earth.”

[10] Phạm Thanh Tâm, Drawing Under Enemy Fire: War diary of a young Vietnamese artist, p.58.

[11] Ibid, p.61.

[12] Comrade Nguyễn Đình Ước’s words, Ibid, p. 69.

[13] 31 miles southwest from Điện Biên Phủ.

[14] Gia Lâm(airport in Hanoi)

[15] Cát Bi (airport in Hai Phong)

[16] Phạm Thanh Tâm, Drawing Under Enemy Fire: War diary of a young Vietnamese artist, p.72-76.

Leave a Reply

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