Searching for the Real 'Uncle Ho'

An American visitor probes enigma of Vietnam War by examining leader's legacy

AS many Vietnamese in Hanoi will tell you, the man they fondly call "Uncle Ho" put their country on a path of almost constant fighting for the past six decades.Ho Chi Minh, who founded the nation's Communist Party in 1930, is long gone, but his tattered, Spartan nation may not see a full stop to warfare until later this year, when Vietnam is expected to settle conflicts with China and in Cambodia. Now that peace is at hand, the aged colleagues of Ho who still run this poor Asian country decided last June to elevate the "thoughts" of Ho above the fast-retreating ideologies of Marx and Lenin. Visitors, of which there are not many in Vietnam, are offered any number of sites where they can encounter Ho's "thoughts," battlefields, mementos, and even his remains. "We don't have as much feeling about Uncle Ho today as in the past," said my bicycle-rickshaw driver, Vinh, as we passed a billboard with a kindly looking Ho waving down at us. "Children know him only from books, and the others are too busy making money." American visitors, especially those who have yet to come to terms with the war called simply "Vietnam," can unravel the complex issues of that war by making a quest to find the "real" Ho Chi Minh. Even his close comrades, whom I have sought out on many trips to Vietnam, say Ho was an enigma, a cross of fiery patriotism and violent communism - and, sometimes, gentle Confucianism. Those traits have been used selectively by friends or enemies to portray him as either a killer or a savior, a pusher-over of dominoes or an anti-imperialist hero.

Hanoi is still the city Ho knew The trail to Ho Chi Minh best starts in Hanoi, which has changed little since its French colonial days because of its isolation by war. Hanoi is still the city Ho knew. Tall trees enclose broad boulevards that glow a warm amber from the ancient walls of pagodas and the yellow-ocher paint of French colonial homes. Old poets and writers, wearing burgundy berets, still relax on low rattan chairs at outdoor cafes, reading novels or whispering with glancing looks. Too poor to own cars, the people of Hanoi enjoy pedaling silently on bicycles in the evening, past the city's many lakes made pink by the sunset. In one old French building, I sat down with Ho's former personal secretary, Vu Ky, the keeper of Ho's artifacts and papers. Was Ho an ardent communist or just a patriot who used communism to liberate his country? "Uncle Ho didn't care about communism except that it was concerned about colonized people," said Vu Ky. Other top communists in Vietnam would disagree. Still, as a semi-cult figure, Ho is portrayed as the father of what is now the world's second most-populous (after Cuba) communist nation, just as George Washington was elevated to become the father of American democracy. Ho's "thought" is hard to find. He did not write much, unlike Mao or Lenin, preferring action. In June, outgoing Communist Party chief Nguyen Van Linh tried to describe Ho's ideas: "President Ho Chi Minh is a radiant symbol of the combination between class and nation, nationalism and international, national independence and socialism." The jargon fails on the ears of Vietnam's peasants. By official account, Ho never married or even had a girlfriend, a fact that allows him to be portrayed as a wise and kind bachelor-uncle. "Even peasant women cite Ho's sayings to chastise local party officials," says Vietnamese journalist Vu Tuat Viet. Pictures of Ho hang in many Vietnamese homes and his image has been on postage stamps since 1945, when he emerged from a jungle hideout and declared Vietnam's independence in a Hanoi square. That square today is dominated by a Soviet-built granite mausoleu m, like Lenin's in Moscow, which hundreds of people solemnly walk through each day to catch a glimpse of Ho's embalmed body. He died in 1969. Etched in the cornice of the tomb is Ho's most famous quote: "Nothing is more important than freedom and independence." Last year, which marked 100 years since Ho's birth, a giant museum was opened in Hanoi devoted to his life. Inside is a 20-foot statue of the man with a beneficent expression. His right hand is raised in one of the classic positions of Buddhist sculpture, the gesture of reassurance. Inside are many of his letters, depictions of the wars against the French and Americans, and venerated artifacts, including a Chinese- style jacket, Ho's French bicycle, and sandals made from a rubber tire. Ho's personal taste is expressed in a simple house where he lived out later life in Hanoi. He designed it in the style of the mountain people of northern Vietnam. The rough wood columns he preferred have been prettified with a smooth wood veneer. Next to the house is an earthen bunker where Ho hid during the American bombing raids. In the city's old quarter is the home where Ho wrote Vietnam's Declaration of Independence, craftily modeled after the America's Declaration. The interior has been restored with original furnishings, but the facade has been covered with marble. In many bookstores, Ho's most popular book can be found in English, a compilation of poetry he wrote while in prison. Most of the poems have political undertones, such as this one: The spring breeze is blowing over the whole country, driving away the mosquitoes.

Souvenir kitsch: Ho as Caesar My favorite example of souvenir kitsch is a mother-of-pearl shell etched with Ho's profile, looking like a Roman Caesar. Ho tried to pattern himself after Lenin, whom he just missed meeting in 1924 (Ho arrived in Moscow during Lenin's funeral). Perhaps speaking of himself, Ho found Lenin attractive for "his disdain for luxury, his love of work, his integrity, simplicity, and nobleness of mind." Halfway down Vietnam from Hanoi is Ho's birthplace in Nghe Tinh province. Rice paddies and sharp hills surround the humble wooden home where he was born and the communal house where he learned from Confucian scholars. His father was a mandarin thrown out of the royal court; his mother died when he was 10. His name at birth was Nguyen Sinh Cung, but over a lifetime of surreptitious activities he took at least 70 aliases. He was first widely known as Nguyen Ai Quoc, or Nguyen the Patriot. His final name me ans "he who enlightens." The name Ho Chi Minh is hard to miss in Vietnam. Near his birthplace is the start of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of jungle paths that Ho's army used to fight in the south. The taking of Saigon in 1975 is called the Ho Chi Minh Campaign. The youth group of the Communist Party is the Ho Chi Minh Youth Union. Saigon, of course, is now Ho Chi Minh City. More than 30 official researchers now probe the missing details of Ho's life, of which there are many. The work is important to the aging communist leaders, because communism is flagging. "We Vietnamese are pursuing the way marked out by Ho Chi Minh," says Vu Ky.

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