It might appear curious in the west that Vietnam is courting old foes in Paris and Washington. The Communist-controlled, one-party state has little in common with the democratic western states that it humiliated between the end of the Second World War and 1975.
But western observers often fail to sufficiently recognise that Vietnam defeated three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council between 1954 and 1979 and the most recent of those victories weighs most heavily around the necks of decision makers in Hanoi.
China, while it was still reeling from Mao Tse Tung’s disastrous reorganisation of the military, suffered huge losses when it attacked its far smaller southern neighbour in 1979.
And today, while Vietnam is happy to receive high-profile US delegations and the current visit by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, it remains silent about its military triumphs in 1979.
China’s growing military might in the South China Sea means it increasingly appears capable of controlling who is allowed to enter the straits that carry around US$5 trillion in trade each year, has left Vietnam looking for allies.
To offset the might of China, Vietnam is consolidating its business and military ties with France.
After signing several trade deals in Hanoi, Philippe marked one of his country’s heaviest colonial defeats.
Jacques Allaire, 94, former colonel and prisoner of war, accompanied Philippe to the remote valley where the decisive, 56-day battle of Dien Bien Phu ended French colonial rule in Vietnam.
“This is like being in a dream, I’m thinking of my comrades, of all my men,” said a tearful Allaire, who was held as a prisoner for more than seven months after the French surrender.
He called the area unrecognisable from 1954.
“It was a small village, far from everything. Today it’s a city, which proves that Viet Minh fighters didn’t fight for nothing,” the one-time colonel said.
The battle in the hilly, remote valley left 13,000 dead on both sides in under two months, as the Vietnamese outnumbered and surrounded amassed French forces.
Despite their superior weaponry, the French were bombarded with artillery.
The loss of the hilly outpost on the border near Laos effectively ended the eight-year colonial war.
The stronghold at Dien Bien Phu was established in an attempt to cut Viet Minh supply lines into Laos and to maintain a base for operations, but it was soon isolated.
The Vietnamese cut the roads into Dien Bien Phu, meaning it could only be supplied from the air. Renowned Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded the outpost with 40,000 men, and despite heavy US aid, the French stronghold was overrun on May 7, 1954.
The current French visit mirrors that by US Defence Secretary James Mattis in October, when he toured locations of American folly.
The French prime minister called for the two countries to remember their “common past … in a peaceful way”.
President Emmanuel Macron has already made considerable efforts to address France’s bitter war in Algeria, which echoes loudly across the decades in both countries.
Dien Bien Phu led to Vietnam’s division into the north, under Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, and the US puppet regime in Saigon. The subsequent, far bloodier American war, which ended in 1975, left large swathes of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia covered in toxins and unexploded bombs and opened the door for the Khmer Rouge to seize power.
Vietnam appears keen to forgive the French and US blunders of resisting nationalist instincts by giving arms to flawed dictatorships. Instead, it sees Beijing is already dominant in the other former French colonies of Laos and Cambodia and that the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, has been far less strident in opposing Chinese maritime advances than his predecessors. For strategically isolated Vietnam, the French and American wars seem distant indeed.
France is now one of Vietnam’s most important allies, with bilateral trade worth US$7.6 billion and close military ties.
Quizzed about his decision to visit the site of a crushing French defeat, Philippe said: “What I find surprising is the fact so few people have done this before me.”
Then-president Francois Mitterrand also visited Dien Bien Phu in 1993.
Philippe, who inspected France’s former underground command bunker and lit incense at a memorial, said: “For those who lived through those moments, I know the emotion is very intense and once again the message that I want to convey, is a message of admiration, of respect and of pride.”
Hanoi’s reconciliation with Paris and Washington might provide some hope that bridges can be built with Beijing. But the irresistible rise of the People’s Republic, its proximity to Vietnam and the overlapping territorial claims with Vietnam in the South China Sea, make reconciliation far more complex. It must be hoped that Vietnam’s bloody post-1945 history will convince the Communist authorities in both countries to avoid warfare.
The Vietnamese triumph at Dien Bien Phu. Vietnam is happier to commemorate its military humiliation of France and the US than that of China. Picture credit: Flickr