HANOI -- Hoang Bao was barely 20 years old when he trekked to Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam to fight the French, facing his enemy full of hatred and ready to die for his country’s independence.
More than 60 years after the communists’ shock victory in the epic battle, the site of which French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will visit Saturday, retired colonel Bao is happy to call his former foe a friend.
“We have no hatred toward the French any more,” 85-year-old Bao told AFP in Hanoi, wearing his dark green military uniform decorated with medals.
But he said there are important lessons to be learned from the bloody 56-day fight that sparked the collapse of France’s colonial Indochina empire and paved the way for northern Vietnam’s independence.
“The French didn’t learn our history well, so they lost... Vietnam is different from other countries, we are not willing to surrender,” he said.
Vietnam’s win over the French led to the country’s division into the communist-ruled north, headed by revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, and a pro-US southern regime.
That set the stage for two decades of war which would end with unification and America’s defeat in the Vietnam War in 1975.
Today France is one of Vietnam’s most important allies, with soaring trade worth $7.6 billion and cosying military alliances.
Philippe is the second senior French leader to visit the site after President Francois Mitterrand in 1993.
The French premier, who will travel to Dien Bien Phu with several French vets, said the trip is a chance to pay respect to the thousands who fought in the war.
“I want to pay tribute to the dedication, the self-sacrifice, the immense courage of the fighters on both sides,” Philippe said in an interview with Tuoi Tre newspaper this week.
The ferocious battle in the rugged, remote valley killed 13,000 people on both sides in under two months, as Vietnamese fighters hemmed in French forces -- equipped with superior weapons -- and bombarded them with heavy artillery.
Facing the French in battle was complicated for some fighters, whose lives were closely intertwined with their colonial rulers, sometimes going to school or working alongside them.
But driven by patriotism and a fierce thirst for independence, many Vietnamese took up the struggle fortified by bitter memories of invasion by the Chinese, Japanese and French.
They were also buoyed by Communist slogans that urged everyone to pitch into the war effort.
“One slogan was: We would rather die than be slaves again and (we will) sacrifice everything for independence and freedom,” said Tran Quoc Hanh, an 83-year-old former colonel who trekked thousands of kilometres to the battle site in 1953.
The battle for Dien Bien Phu is still bittersweet for many who wear the victory as a badge of honor, but lament the steep death toll.