Hero or villain? In Vietnam, there’s no question where his legacy stands. Some thoughts about Hô Chí Minh and the country’s contemporary history.
The guidebooks may disagree, but I consider the heart of modern Ho Chi Minh City to be a larger-than-life statue of its namesake. The guidebooks may point you to the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral, but I defer to Hô Chí Minh himself, standing in the heart of broad, pedestrian-friendly Nguyen Hue boulevard. Unveiled in 2015 on the 125th anniversary of Hô’s birth, the statue stands a long block south of the elegant People’s Committee Building (“City Hall”), once the French colonial Hôtel de Ville.
For a generation of Americans like myself, whose coming of age paralleled the years of the Vietnam War, Hô was the enemy personified. Here, he’s Bác Hô, “Uncle Ho,” and he is something of a folk hero. You can’t even look at a bill of currency — whether 500 dong or 500,000 dong (about US$23) — without seeing his face, the white goatee streaming off his chin like Spanish moss from a sycamore. When I researched his biography, I came to understand why he is so revered.
As a young man initially educated by his Confucian scholar father, Hô Chí Minh (a name that he adopted in 1938) grew up resenting the French colonial occupation of Indochina, which then included Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. He left home at 21 and spent the next three decades abroad, working first as a cook aboard ships, then at hotel restaurants in Boston, New York and London.
Influenced by the civil-rights movement in the United States — as well as by his own readings about the 18th-century American Revolution — he moved to Paris as the First World War came to a close and joined the Vietnamese nationalist movement. When that group petitioned Allied leaders to include a provision in the Treaty of Versailles ending French rule in Vietnam, it was ignored.
Hô spent most of the next 20 years in the Soviet Union and China, where he embraced Marxism and communism. He returned to Vietnam in 1941 to lead the fight for freedom against not only the French, but also Japanese imperial forces.
In 1945, Hô proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, with himself as president. His request for an American seal of approval was met with silence by US President Harry Truman. China and Russia stepped up to fill the void after the French surrendered to Hô’s Viet Minh troops at Dièn Bién Phu in 1954. By the Geneva Accords, the country was divided at the 17th parallel into the communist north, with its capital at Hanoi, and the republican south, focused on Saigon.
In 1955, the US government began sending aid and advisors to the Republic of (South) Vietnam. The North, meanwhile, was quietly infiltrating, building discreet trails and supply lines through neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
Hô stepped down as president in 1965, about the same time that the first US combat troops arrived in Vietnam. (He died in 1969.) But the stage was set for 10 infamous years of bloodshed. Eventually, North Vietnam won the war, its tanks bursting through the wrought-iron gates of Saigon’s Independence Palace in April 1975. The two regions were formally reunited as one Vietnam in 1976.
Today, the War Remnants Museum is a rude reminder to Western visitors that the Americans didn’t always play nice during the “American War.” Without doubt, the account rendered here is a biased one — but it’s hard to look at graphic photographs of atrocities like the notorious My Lai massacre or the Agent Orange attacks, whose victims still haunt Vietnam’s streets. Captured US tanks, warplanes and artillery are presented in the museum yard.
Independence Palace has been renamed Reunification Palace. It welcomes visitors on tours of its vintage-1960s hallways and various rooms, including the basement “bunker” and telecommunications center. I’ll take longer looks at both of these sites in future blogs.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking at Uncle Ho’s smiling, paternal face on billboards and posters throughout the city that now bears his name.
Next: Stacking the dominoes