With France’s return to Vietnam, the ranks of the Viet Minh swelled, and fighting quickly broke out between French and Viet Minh forces. Almost immediately after the war, the French, who did not recognize Ho Chi Minh’s government, set up a rival government in the south. By 1949, when the French reinstalled Bao Dai as figurehead, the two sides had fought to a standstill. The fighting between the French and Viet Minh came to be called the First Indochina War and would last for another five years, until 1954.
As the war progressed, the French developed a military strategy based on maintaining fortresses, called “hedgehogs,” in DRV territory. The French also developed a strategy that called for the occupation of the outpost of Dien Bien Phu in the mountains of northern Vietnam, near the border with Laos. The French would build a large central base there and surround it with three artillery bases, luring Viet Minh forces into assaulting the central base and then destroying them in the crossfire from the artillery bases. French forces took Dien Bien Phu in late 1953 and then put their plan into action.
As expected, the Viet Minh did attack Dien Bien Phu in early 1954, but Viet Minh commander General Vo Nguyen Giap saw through the French plan. He had Vietnamese peasants on bicycles carry components of artillery guns piece by piece into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu, often right under the eyes of French troops. Viet Minh forces then reassembled the artillery pieces in the mountains. Using these strategically placed guns to destroy the French airstrip supplying the central base, Giap launched an offensive with 40,000 troops, and Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh on May 7, 1954.
Although Dien Bien Phu was a stunning Vietnamese victory, many more Vietnamese actually died than French. Historians are quick to highlight Vo Nguyen Giap’s military brilliance, but his victory came at a high cost, with probably around ten Viet Minh casualties for every French casualty. As in the war with the United States that would come later, the Communist Vietnamese forces proved far more willing to accept a high death toll than their enemies.
The defeat at Dien Bien Phu humiliated the French and turned the tide of French public opinion against the war. The French government, wanting to end the fighting, organized the Geneva Conference, which lasted until July 1954. At the conference, diplomats from France, Vietnam, the United States, the USSR, Britain, China, Laos, and Cambodia declared a cease-fire and decided to split Vietnam officially at the 17th parallel, into Communist-controlled North Vietnam (under Ho and the Viet Minh) and South Vietnam (under Bao Dai).
The Geneva Accords, as these agreements were called, also required French withdrawal from North Vietnam and Viet Minh withdrawal from South Vietnam. The accords also promised reunification of Vietnam after free elections, which were to be to be held by July 1956. As it turned out, these elections were never held.