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Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu

4.31  ·  Rating details ·  1,727 ratings  ·  106 reviews
From the acclaimed scholar and reporter, a thorough and revealing account of the historic turning point in Vietnam's long struggle--the 1954 battle for Dien Bien Phu

Like Gettysburg, Stalingrad, Midway, and Tet, the battle at Dien Bien Phu--a strategic attack launched by France against the Vietnamese in 1954 after eight long years of war--marked a historic turning point. By
Paperback, 568 pages
Published April 18th 2002 by Da Capo Press (first published November 1966)
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Average rating 4.31  · 
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 ·  1,727 ratings  ·  106 reviews

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Apr 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: france, asia
Bernard B. Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place is undeniably a classic of military history. It has at one time or another been an assigned text at the U.S. Naval War College and West Point. Fall had an unusual career as an academic who conducted field research by accompanying first French forces and later Americans into combat in Indochina. Such dedication to his work eventually cost him his life.

Hell in a Very Small Place is the definitive account of the battle at Dien Bien Phu -- a debacle that
Hai Quan
May 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I have read this book years ago.I wish to read it again but I lost the copy .I am now reading DIEN BIEN PHU, 50 Nam Nhin Lai ( DBP , 50 years Looking Back) in Vietnamese by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the prominent participants in this famous battle.

It would be repetitive if I would write a review of his book , since I have already wrote a review of THE LAST VALLEY , which was about the same battle. ( Readers are invited to read my reviews of The Last Valley as well as The Lions Of Kandahar as t
Jul 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
According to Michael Herr, author of the popular Dispatches, Fall's account of French defeat at Dien Bien Phu a decade earlier became the secret cult classic text among reporters and some officers for understanding the fate awaiting American mission in Vietnam. Fall, a victim of the war he covered through two decades, was French himself, and in addition to heroically detailed account of the battle -- strategies, stories of individual acts of doomed bravery -- provides insight into same element o ...more
This book should be read following a read of "Street Without Joy". The level of detail within this book is nothing short of brilliant. The follow through at the end of this book only adds to the substantial level of work that Dr. Fall placed within the effort. He was truly the first embedded journalist in French-Indochina and this work will remain an important piece of military history for many years yet to come.

Dr. Fall's life was a "book" all unto itself and any person taking on the reading o
Nov 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Given access to a large amount of French military archives, Mr. Fall wrote an extremely detailed account of the Siege of Dien Bien Phu in the standard battle narrative. There are a bounty of names for units, tanks, guns, planes and hills, and ranks of officers and the enlisted, and plenty of villages, and towns unknown to westerners, and code-names, bases and military time. Yet, for all that rhetoric, Dien Bien Phu was an important precursor to America’s intervention in Vietnam, making this volu ...more
Sean Chick
Apr 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Hell in a Very Small Place is considered a classic piece of military history. It is detailed, personal, and well argued. The book was also written before the Tet Offensive, offering its own time capsule into the battle's consequences and the uncertainties of that time. As they say, in retrospect everything seems inevitable. ...more
Michael Burnam-Fink
Jun 05, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: vietnam, 2011, history, war
The next time someone accuses the French of being cheese eating surrender monkeys, I will be forced to slap them. Dien Bien Phu is one of those battles that has shaped the course of history. In 55 days of brutal siege warfare, the Viet Minh under General Giap defeated a French garrison, ending French involvement in Vietnam, and setting the stage for America's bloody war. Published in 1966, this book was required reading in Wasington policy circles, and drove Lyndon Johnson’s obsession that the b ...more
Dec 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: war-vietnam
Extremely researched. The great Bernard Fall interviewed all the people he could find all over the world to get the details right. Not a book for everyone to read if you are not interested in those minor details. More for those interested in the military. Quite a remarkable achievement.
Aaron Crofut
Apr 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Bernard Fall knew how to write an excellent history book, even if it was basically a current events book at the time. In analyzing the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, he perfectly balances the strategic, tactical, and personal stories of the siege. The strategic aspect is the most important for voters, as it is the one we are most likely to have an influence upon. I could easily imagine the tactical considerations important for study by anyone going into combat. The personal facet is perhaps the ...more
Jon Frankel
Sep 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall is a masterpiece of military history. Fall was born in Austria and moved as a child to France, where as a teenager he fought in the Resistance. His mother was murdered in Auschwitz. After the war he moved to the US to study and taught at Howard University. He traveled extensively in Vietnam starting in 1953 and was a frequent war correspondent. He wrote about the French Indochina War in Street Without Joy. That book was handed out in the early sixties t ...more
Brett C
Dec 30, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: asian-studies
Military history by a great war journalist. Full of information and highly detailed. I had a hard time getting into this one but it was still a good book.
Jul 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Bernard Fall was a remarkable man. He had a master's degree in political science with additional post-graduate work in international relations. He became a professor at Howard Univ, but in 1953 he began traveling in Vietnam, accompanying French troops. He made several trips to Indochina during both the French and American wars in Vietnam. His books combine history of the events he saw with the analysis and perspective of his education. The result was a set of invaluable books. He died in 1967 wh ...more
Jim Barber
Nov 24, 2020 rated it liked it
So I loved detailed books about battles in the Vietnam War. This is about what happened to the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It was awful on so many levels. The book is really amazing and deserving of four stars, if not five. But as good as it is, it was almost too detailed, and it lacked the narrative drive that other battle books I've read about the American experience in Vietnam possessed. From a research perspective, however, this is incredible. And the ending really puts the entire siege ...more
Matthew Gleason
Sep 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Hell in A Very Small Place is often considered to be the seminal work of Bernard Fall...and I can state that it is indeed an incredible piece of literature. While Street Without Joy is equally compelling as a narrative of the French Struggle in Indochina, Fall masterfully weaves in the grand strategic importance of Dien Bien Phu. It is really two tales in one, a tale of the gallant men who defended the French position, and one of the strategic players that put the “fortress” on death ground.

As a
Matt S
Apr 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: the-vietnam-war
It is shameful that people have no knowledge or only mere cursory knowledge of the name, of Dien Bien Phu. Why firebase operations continued and continue to this day as a manner of conducting operations other than war or warfare operations is an astounding denial of hard learned knowledge by people who have not experienced 57 days of shelling. I fear many who read this lack context to sufficient sympathize or imagine what an environment like this would be like, but I hope that the concentration ...more
Rich Hasler
An exhausting and heart wrenching account of the horrors of military combat. It certainly provides many insights into the context in which the US became embroiled in the conflict in Indochina at the time. It would be well for many of todays critics to pay attention more to historical context. This is a very good one!
Al Berry
Jul 20, 2017 rated it liked it
'In 1940 the French didn't know how to use tanks, in 1954 they didn't know how to use planes' is Fall's quick and dirty summation. While not quite as good as his 'Street without Joy' Hell in a very small place is still a very good read on the most important battle fought since World War 2. Fall is an excellent writer with keen insight, a must read for any student of history. ...more
Liam || Books 'n Beards
...[General] Giap had decided to accept trial by battle at Dien Bien Phu, it remained only for 15,000 French and 50,000 Viet Minh troops to act out the drama in pain and blood and death.

Dien Bien Phu is a battle which holds a surprising amount of interest to me - much like Stalingrad, it's an example of the desperate heroism that humans are capable of when their back is to the wall and they have nowhere else to turn.

Martin Windrow's excellent accounting of the siege, The Last Valley: Dien Bi
To read Fall today is to be struck by his deep understanding of French counterinsurgency efforts in Indochina and other parts of the empire and their clear relevance for what the Americans sought to achieve in Vietnam. Results [of counterinsurgency] could be measured only over a period of many years, and success required an effective host government that in the end could carry the burden on its own. Moreover, notwithstanding counterinsurgency theory’s emphasis on nonmilitary measures, large-scal ...more
Sep 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
The standard of how modern military reportage should be written. A book that some translations lack the punch of the original in French and further lose a bit of the flow, still is better than any other work of the period and is the equal or better any other coverage of a battle.

Bernard Fall's almost sparse prose details the evolution of the modern post WWII battlefield through the events of one engagement that effectively ended French involvement in Viet-Nam. The reader also meets for the firs
Dec 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: cold-war
It's easy to see why this became a classic. Fall's prose flows easily as he maintains an excellent middle ground examination of the failure of the French High Command coupled with both heroic and cowardly deeds of the French, Moroccan, Algerian, T'ai, and Vietnamese on the ground. As it is all to often in war, the men far behind the lines dither and dictate policy while the boots suffer and die for it.

This book I would also argue is paramount to understanding the French army's role and treatmen
Joseph Fuller
Dec 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Excellent and well documented campaign history. Not for the casually interested. Good catalogue of every mistake military leaders can commit— unrealistic objectives, untested assumptions, divided/rivalrous commands, chauvinistic assumptions, poor communications. The reader will gain respect for the courage of many of the participants.
Stephen Morrissey
Great books can transport a reader from an armchair to any place in the universe, and Bernard Fall succeeds in parachuting the reader into the hellish battlescape of Dien Bien Phu. Fall's book is impressively stuffed with information, objectively related, about the French forces, troops, and politicians behind the scheme to send a large contingent of troops into the far northwestern reaches of Vietnam and strike a decisive blow against the nascent communist-nationalist forces under Ho Chi Minh.

Goran Ozanic
Aug 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Really great book about the battle that broke the back of the French colonial empire and led to an end of the First Indochina War.

Author describes the battle in great detail, with information on almost every day of the siege. There is also a great deal of information about the time before the battle, and all the mishap concerning the French intelligence and underestimation of their enemies, and how it ultimately made them lose the battle/war. I really enjoyed reading the whole book and even tho
Jun 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, leadership
Not a period of the last century I knew much about. Understanding what happened at Dien Bien Phu and the related history of that post-World War II time period definitely helps one understand better why the US-Vietnamese war occurred and why it was a failed venture given how we entered into it. Given the US history of being anti-colonial (at least up to that time), we could have better staved off communism by helping the Vietnamese boot the French out--the communist would not have been able to wi ...more
Jan 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Dien Bien Phu is a story of unmatched courage, grit, and bravery. Prior to reading this book, all I knew about the battle of Dien Bien Phu is that it's often called France's "Waterloo" in Vietnam and was the precursor to America's involvement in the war.

The French soldiers, and the Foreign Legion, fought with unparalleled valor for an extended period of time. The loss of this historic battle was caused, not by a lack of fighting spirit, but by lack of leadership, planning, and a thorough underst
Pham Tuyet
Mar 21, 2021 rated it really liked it
This book, hell in a very small place, is a very one sided book ,the French side, Fall unfortunately did not have access to Vietnamese archive , so he was not able to write about the side of the Vietnamese army. Fall also constantly preferred the Chinese helping the Vietnamese but he did not once mentioned about how the French got all the help from the Americans. And to say that the French lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu was due to non white soldiers in the French force? What about the Vietname ...more
An incredibly detailed history of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, and the failure of both French and American imperialists to understand the Vietnamese insurgency as a nationalist one not a communist one. The detail of the research is impressive. One criticism is that it is mostly a general's view of history, detailing how battles played out, with less analysis of the experience of people who actually lived through it (especially the Vietnamese themselves). One fascinating thing he details is the n ...more
Terry Tucker
Nov 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I first read this book 16 years ago. Then I went to Afghanistan in 2006 and was fortunate enough to work with Skip Booth. He is an expert on Dien Bien Phu and has actually walked the ground. I read everything i could get shipped to the APO on Dien Bien Phu.

I have re-read this and my perspective based on my past experiences in conflict zones remains unchanged. This book is invaluable for the lessons in guerrilla war, leadership, tenacity, politics and failure. Many historians attribute WW II to t
Keith Budzynski
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was one of the best books that I have read in a while. There is a lot of detail about the situation, the siege, and the events afterwards. I have read short stories or articles about Dien Bien Phu, but never any more in depth information. This book lays it out well and you learn a lot of about many of French participants. It is important to remember that this book was written over 50 years ago during America's war in Vietnam. I think there are some positives that come with the freshness of ...more
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Bernard B. Fall was a prominent war correspondent, historian, political scientist, and expert on Indochina during the 1950s and 1960s. Born in Austria, he moved with his family to France as a child after Germany's annexation, where he started fighting with the French Resistance at age 16, and later the French Army during World War II.

In 1950 he first came to the United States for graduate studies

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