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Vietnam celebrates '54 victory over French

DIEN BIEN PHU, Vietnam -- Vietnam yesterday proudly celebrated the 50th anniversary of its impossible victory over the French, a bitter lesson for the colonialists -- and later the Americans -- about underestimating a determined country fighting for independence.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu was a bloody 56-day siege that killed more than 2,000 French and three times as many Viet Minh soldiers before France surrendered on May 7, 1954. It led to the end of colonialism in Indochina and foreshadowed the doom that would come to US forces 20 years later.

Vietnam remains very poor, but Defense Minister Pham Van Tra said a nation's strength is not measured in wealth and that Dien Bien Phu should serve as a reminder to powerful countries that occupy weaker nations today.

''When a country realizes that national independence is above all, no other forces can oppose them," Tra said in an interview.

Tra was among about 15,000 people who filled a rain-soaked soccer stadium where young soldiers in green and white uniforms goose-stepped around the field and about 2,500 performers reenacted the battle that fills every history book here.

''My parents were coal miners exploited by the French. I hated them, and I had to join the army to kill them," said Nguyen Van Quy, 74, who still carries shrapnel from the battle in his head. ''I always believed that we would win."

As the mock battle was played out, imitation tanks spewed smoke as Vietnamese troops closed in. The crowd cheered and clapped as a performer dressed as the French commander, Colonel Christian de Castries, eventually emerged from his bunker, waving a white flag, just as he did 50 years ago.

France also remembered the battle, with the government hosting French veterans at a morning ceremony in the cobblestone courtyard of the famed Invalides landmark in Paris. A military band played the national anthem and military songs.

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