The city is best known for the events which occurred there during the First Indochina War, the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, during which the region was a breadbasket for the Việt Minh. The city was formerly called Thaeng.
The provincial capital, Dien Bien Phu, is mostly a mix of ethnic Viet Kinh (the majority ethnic group of the country) and White Thai, with other minorities inhabiting the outlying areas, but is best know for the battle of the same name which pretty much marked the beginning of the end — or more like the end of the beginning of the end — for the French involvement in Vietnam.
The long, wide valley that encloses the town was the scene of a fierce, 57-day siege on French positions that decisively ended French rule in Indochina, and, in doing so, inspired anti-colonialist, revolutionary movements around the world and set the stage for some of the most pivotal events of the second half of the 20th century.
In the 1950s, the town was known not only for its famous opium traffic, generating 500,000,000 French francs annually, but more so for a fierce battle that would result in a major realignment of world geopolitics. It was also an extensive source of rice for the Việt Minh.
The region was fortified in November 1953 by the French Union force in the biggest airborne operation of the 1946-1954 First Indochina War, Operation Castor, to block Việt Minh transport routes and to set the stage to draw out Việt Minh forces.
The battle was significant beyond the valleys of Điện Biên Phủ. Giáp's victory ended major French involvement in Indochina and led to the Geneva accords which partitioned Vietnam into North and South.
Now little remains of the battlefield itself — the trenches, barbed wire, encampments, and battle lines that once criss-crossed the terrain have long since been erased to make room for development and agriculture.
But a handful of war vestiges have been carefully preserved, constituting a series of exhibits that tourists can view and learn from, with or without a guide, in the course of a day.
This is, by far, the chief reason any tourist ever visits Dien Bien Phu at all, and for French travellers looking to get in touch with that important, decidedly chequered, chapter of their history, a stop here is de rigeur. But for most other travellers, a trip to A1 Hill and the museum will offer all the coverage of the event that they need.