DIEN BIEN PHU , Vietnam (AFP) - War veterans, communist leaders and diplomats gathered in Vietnam's Dien Bien Phu town on Wednesday for an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the country's seminal victory over French colonial forces.
The bloody, 56-day battle in this remote, northwestern valley ended on May 7, 1954, precipitating both the collapse of France's colonial empire and Vietnam's emergence as an independent nation.
"Dien Bien Phu was a victory for all the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia," as it ended French dominance in Indochina, said President Truong Tan Sang at a colourful ceremony featuring marching bands, flower-bedecked military floats and regiments of goose-stepping soldiers.
During the battle, artillery boomed across the valley and there was hand-to-hand fighting. Dien Bien Phu and its surrounding hills were filled with the rotting corpses of soldiers from both sides.
"Everyday, I would climb to the top of the hill to assess the situation. At night, I approached French lines to figure out their military position, how they had deployed their troops," veteran Hoang Rong Binh, 83, told AFP.
Binh worked in a three-man team as a reconnaissance soldier and said life was "very hard" during the battle. "I am very emotional today," he said, wearing his full dress uniform at the 60th anniversary event, which was attended by France's ambassador to Hanoi.
"We had to find where the enemy was to take each base... When the French parachuted in supplies we had to find them first." Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh told AFP the victory was "an historic, golden turning point," for Vietnam.
"It was a victory that helped end colonialism and brought Vietnam her independence," he said after visiting the largest cemetery for Vietnamese soldiers who died in the battle.
- 'I hope they rest in peace' -
One of the key sites of the battle, Eliane Hill, Tuesday was crawling with Vietnamese tourists, who climbed on decaying French tanks and explored the deep trenches that criss-cross the area.
"In only one month we built some 400 kilometres (250 miles) of trenches around Dien Bien Phu - these were key to our victory," war veteran Ngyuen The Tran, 81, told AFP.
Tran said he had returned to Dien Bien Phu from his native Hai Duong province - 50 kilometres west of the capital Hanoi - to pay his respects to his fallen comrades.
"I hope that they will rest in peace forever," he said, adding that he was happy to see the area - which he remembered only as a bloody battlefield - had changed.
"When I come here, I see the town is beautiful and I am very happy." The battle cost an estimated 13,000 lives on both sides.
Female veteran Nguyen Thi Tang, 81, a Vietnamese army messenger, told AFP she met her husband in the trenches of Dien Bien Phu.
"I could not believe Vietnam could defeat the French troops. It was an amazing victory. But I also feel sorrow in my heart as after Dien Bien Phu the Americans came and caused us much loss and pain." France's defeat led to Vietnam's division into the communist North and pro-US South, setting the stage for two more decades of war.
The fight against American forces and their surrogate regime cost at least three million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives before it ended on April 30, 1975 when the country was reunified.
But without the victory at Dien Bien Phu, reunification could not have happened, the director of the Dien Bien Phu museum, Vu Nam Hai, told AFP.
"Dien Bien Phu was a special victory," he said.