General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the Vietminh against France and the People’s Army of Vietnam against the United States, is 100 today. ‘It has always been hard to see in the colourless Ho Chi Minh and his bookish general Vo Nguyen Giap the towering military geniuses of their reputations,’ Murray Sayle wrote in the LRB in 2002, ‘but there is no doubt about their patriotism.’ Here’s an extract from Sayle’s account of the battle of Dien Bien Phu:
Giap adopted a Chinese plan to tunnel through mountain-tops, fire over open sights at the French camp, and then drag the guns back into their tunnels. To cross the open ground around the fortress, the Vietminh dug two hundred miles of trenches, siting anti-aircraft guns in the forward saps, gradually choking the French airstrip and forcing supply drops from ever greater altitudes, which inevitably scattered them among the Vietminh. On the eve of the final attack reinforcements armed with non-recoiling cannon and multi-tube rocket-launchers arrived from China. Dien Bien Phu’s garrison of 12,000 capitulated on 7 May 1954. The following day, an international conference on Indochina opened in Geneva.