Contested Territory

The definitive account of one of the most important battles of the twentieth century, and the Black River borderlands’ transformation into Northwest Vietnam.

Published in April 2019 with Yale University Press in the Agrarian Studies Series.

Historians regard the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954 as the conflict that toppled the French empire in Indochina and triggered the decline of colonial rule in Southeast Asia. This new work of historical and political geography ventures beyond the conventional framing of Điện Biên Phủ’s history, tracking a longer period of anticolonial revolution and nation-state formation from 1945 to 1960. Examining everyday struggles over agrarian resources such as food, land, and labor, Christian Lentz argues that a Vietnamese elite constructed territory as a strategic form of rule—a product of powerful, ongoing socio-spatial processes. Engaging newly available sources from Vietnam’s National Archives, as well as documents from the French military and other overseas archives, Lentz offers a novel way to conceptualize territory as a contingent outcome of grounded and embodied spatial contests.

*Winner of the 2021 Harry K. Benda Award for outstanding first book in any discipline by the Association of Asian Studies.
*Selected by Choice as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2019.


“A brilliant, original work that makes a valuable, ground-level contribution to our historical understanding of a major event of the global twentieth century.”—Ben Kiernan, Yale University, author of Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present
“Emplotting the history of Ðiện Biên Phủ into the story of Vietnam’s multiethnic Northwest, Christian Lentz poses questions about space, power, and territory that will stay with readers long after the final page.”—Bradley Camp Davis, author of Imperial Bandits: Outlaws and Rebels in the China-Vietnam Borderlands
“This masterfully-researched book offers an innovative approach to our understanding of how people and places once considered marginal became integrated into Vietnam’s national project and how its state territory was produced.”—Oscar Salemink, University of Copenhagen
“An extraordinary achievement of historical and political geography as well as agrarian studies”—Emily T. Yeh, author of Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development
“In this definitive study of Ðiện Biên Phủ, Christian Lentz brilliantly illuminates issues of territory and territoriality, processes of nation-building, contests over land and labor, and relations between local peoples and the state.”—Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Harvard University
“Developing theories through the field and archives, Lentz compellingly demonstrates the mutability of territorial arrangements. The emphasis on grounded struggles adds a crucial dimension to the process of making territory.”—Stuart Elden, author of The Birth of Territory
“At long last, a deep history of Dien Bien Phu that takes us beyond the conventional narratives and hagiographic tropes. Based on exhaustive research and adept deployment of theory, Contested Territory will be required reading for anyone interested in the Vietnamese revolution specifically and the fraught construction of nationalist spaces more widely.”—Lien-Hang Nguyen, Columbia University
“This political ethnography of territory-making on the frontiers of an emergent Vietnam takes us on a front-seat ride through processes of state formation and agrarian transformation.  Set in the decades preceding an iconic war, it contains lessons for scholars of Southeast Asia and beyond.”—Nancy Peluso, Henry J. Vaux Distinguished Professor of Forest Policy, University of California, Berkeley