Contested Territory Cover

Contested Territory

Dien Bien Phu and the Making of Northwest Vietnam

Christian C. Lentz

Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2019, 352 pages

Book Review published on: January 17, 2020

Christian C. Lentz’s Contested Territory: Dien Bien Phu and the Making of Northwest Vietnam offers readers a fresh look at the processes behind the creation of modern Vietnam. With a focus on Dien Bien Phu and the encompassing Black River region before, during, and briefly after the First Indochina War, Lentz’s work addresses how the Vietnamese victory over the French affected the region. Equally important to the author is how the famous campaign affected the territory in terms of the population’s absorption into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRV. With a doctorate in geography, Lentz’s interests mean Contested Territory examines history through the lenses of space and territory.

Territory is an idea constructed by people and governmental institutions. Both affix meanings to land often incongruent with one another and those held by outside actors. The DRV imagined the Black River region as an integral part of the nation it sought to create. In ejecting its opponents from the area, the DRV’s People’s Army of Vietnam expanded nation-building and physically placed that area under Hanoi’s control. Lentz expressed this complexity succinctly, “[t]erritory in the First Indochina War was contested—but not simply between France and an already extant Vietnam. Rather, Vietnam was and remains a project, much like the Democratic Republic that led its postcolonial construction. Making nation and state was coeval with making as associated territory.” A multitude of ethnic groups populated what was French Indochina. Hanoi functioned as both the center of communist and Viet power in the DRV. However, Hanoi’s political and social power waned in the borderlands, particularly those where other ethnic groups enjoyed majority status. To cement its primacy, Hanoi sought the replacement of ethnicity-based identity with that of a unified, national identity. Around Dien Bien Phu, Tai, not Viet, constituted the dominant ethic group. Consequently, the DRV sought the inclusion of that territory through the allure of anticolonialism under the banner of communism. Assimilation did not transpire without the local population exercising agency—inhabitants of the Black River region pushed back against Hanoi’s intentions when possible. Thus, at the regional level, local identity effected change not always in line with directives from Hanoi.

Contested Territory is primarily the result of the author’s onsite research in Dien Bien Phu and in various government archives in Hanoi. Access to such sources cannot go understated since the Vietnamese perspective of the DRV’s emergence and the conflicts it experienced remain largely unknown in English-speaking circles. Lentz’s familiarity with the Vietnamese language and primary sources therefore fills a conspicuous gap in the secondary literature. Readers familiar with Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities will appreciate Lentz’s work for his contribution to further developing our understanding of space and power. He excels at explaining how Hanoi incorporated that hard-won Black River region into fledgling DRV. For readers seeking a detailed account of the Siege of Dien Bien Phu, look elsewhere, as Lentz’s coverage is on how Hanoi campaigned in, and then incorporated, that contested space. Books by Bernard Fall (Hell in a Very Small Place), as well as Kevin Boylan and Luc Olivier (Valley of the Shadow) offer unparalleled analysis of the siege. Contested Territory is a necessary addition to the library of scholars of the Indochina Wars.

Book Review written by: Robert J. Thompson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas