The Vietnamese teenager who captured a French general

The Vietnamese teenager who captured a French general
79-year-old Dien Bien Phu veteran Hoang Dang Vinh during an interview with AFP at his home in the northern province of Bac Ninh.

BAC NINH, Vietnam - One of Vietnam's last surviving veterans of the battle of Dien Bien Phu recounts with pride the day in May 1954 when, aged just 19, he captured the commander of the French colonial forces.

Hoang Dang Vinh's display of military prowess earned him the supreme honour of meeting revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh - "Uncle Ho" - the future founding president of modern Vietnam.

Sixty years ago, after two months of hard fighting in the Dien Bien Phu valley, Vietnamese troops unexpectedly but conclusively defeated the country's colonial master France.

"The sky was filled with tall columns of black smoke from burning vehicles. The fields were covered with dead soldiers and destroyed military equipment," said Vinh, now a 79-year-old retired colonel.

After machine gun fire and grenade attacks, Vinh and other Viet Minh communist independence fighters approached the fortified French camp and eventually entered the bunker of Commander Christian-Marie de la Croix de Castries.

Exactly what happened next has not been recorded in the annals of history and Castries is no longer alive to tell his story, but historians confirm the general outline of Vinh's account, even if some details are uncertain.

Castries, then 51, who was promoted to the rank of general during the battle, insisted the day after his liberation in September 1954 that the white flag of surrender was not raised on his command.

But Vinh's memories paint a different picture.

"We called to the people inside to surrender but nobody came out. A few minutes later, some French soldier waved a white cloth parachute," he said.

Vinh and a few other soldiers, including the leader of his company, Ta Quoc Luaat, entered the bunker and the French officers inside "stood up and put their hands in the air - but only Castries remained motionless".

"I was ready to shoot him," said Vinh, who came from a poor peasant family and joined up as a private at 17.

But instead he shouted "hands up" - the only words of French he knew.

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