David Lan Pham

General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911- 2013)


Vo Nguyen Giap with Ho Chi Minh in the first periode of Viet Minh
and Vo Nguyen Giap in the last years of his life

Quang Binh was the border province between ancient Vietnam and Champa.  In the 17th century it was the battlefield during the civil war between the Trinh and the Nguyen.  The Gianh River separated the Dang Trong (Nam Ha)  from Dang Ngoai (Bac Ha).  The Northern part of the Gianh River, Bac Ha or Dang Ngoai, was controlled by the Le and Trinh.  The Southern part of the Gianh River, Nam Ha or Dang Trong, was controlled by the Nguyen.  In the 20th century Quang Binh was the native province of President Ngo Dinh Diem, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Venerable Thich Tri Quang and General Do Mau whose political legacy excited their supporters and opponents to argue with one another.

In the following pages I try to expose my personal reflections on General Vo Nguyen Giap, who died on October 4, 2013, at 102.

Vo Nguyen Giap: The Teacher

Vo Nguyen Giap studied law.  It was said he refused to study the colonial administration.  Some people deemed he received his licence en droit in 1937.  Some said he did not.  He married Nguyen Thi Quang Thai, younger sister of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, who was executed by the French in Hoc Mon in 1941 after the failure of the Communist- led revolt in Cochinchina.  Nguyen Thi Minh Khai was Le Hong Phong’s wife.  She was believed to have intimate relations with Lin (Ho Chi Minh) in Hong Kong in 1930.  Vo Nguyen Giap taught history and geography at Thang Long School, a private school in Ha Noi after his marriage.  Teaching was a means of making living for most Vietnamese intellectuals.  Many revolutionaries, regardless of their Nationalist or Communist tendency, used the teaching umbrella in the private or public schools to camouflage their revolutionary activities.  Like the priests, the teachers have influence on theirs students and their parents.  Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, Vo Nguyen Giap, Hoang Minh Giam, Tran Van Tuyen (Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang- Viet Nam Kuomintang or Viet Nam Guomindang), Tran Khanh Dzu (writer Khai Hung, Viet Nam Kuomintang), Vu Hong Khanh (Viet Nam Kuomintang), Ho Van Mich (Viet Nam Kuomintang), Ta Thu Thau, Phan Van Hum, Ho Huu Tuong, Doan Van Truong (Trotskyite), Nguyen Ngoc Huy, Nguyen Van Kieu (Dai Viet), President Nguyen Van Thieu’s brother, were teachers.  In order to to earn their living and to have safety during their underground activities the Communists wore the teachers’ clothes.  When they seized power the teaching class was the most disadvantageous one.  They console the teachers with the slogan:

Neither bronze statue
Nor tombstone
But glory.

Few teachers are admitted to the Communist party.  In Communist society only the members of the Communist party improve their life by holding important positions in the government or in the party.  The teachers’ standard of living is almost miserable.  They are not trusted by the regime.  They are prestigious in the populace.  They are the hyphen between the intellectuals and illiterates, between the rich an the poor.  This is unacceptable in Communist society in which only the Communist party is the most intelligent, prestigious and influential.  In the Communist country the titles bac si (doctor), luat su (lawyer), duoc su (pharmacist), kien truc su (architect)... are unchanged.  But giao su (professor) is called giao vien (school teacher); sinh vien (collegiate) hoc sinh (student); khoa truong (dean) hieu truong (principal) etc.  Doing so the Communist authority has its own politico- psychological reasons although the International Teachers’ Day is solemnly celebrated every year on November 20.  In the past the students respected their teachers according to the Confucian tradition.  In Communist society To Huu taught the student through his verse:

Teacher, if you don’t follow the Party (Communist Party)
I won’t follow you.

In our time there were three teachers entering politics and holding important positions.  They were Vo Nguyen Giap, Nguyen Van Tam and Tran Van Huong.

Tran Van Huong (1903- 1982) was a true teacher.  He graduated from Ecole Normale Supérieure in Ha Noi.  He joined the resistance against the French.  Disappointed by Ho Chi Minh, who turned the resistance more sanguinary and Communist than patriotic, he left the muddy war zones for the city.  He compared Communism to the Black Death and Colonialism to cholera.  Both the microbial diseases are deadly.  He lived in Sai Gon without collaborating with either the French nor the Bao Dai government.  He earned his living by working for a pharmacy as a secretary.  He was Mayor of Sai Gon twice, Prime Minister twice, Senator, Vice President and eight- day President after Nguyen Van Thieu’s resignation.  He was not a successful statesman but he was a virtuous and courageous teacher whose pavery and heroism was undeniable when he protested President Ngo Dinh Diem’ s dictatorship and resigned to become the principal of Minh Duc School, a private school run by Mr. Nguyen Ngoc An in Trang Bang before he was imprisoned by the Diem Administration in 1960.  Tran Van Huong wrote Lao Trung Lanh Van, a book of poems, in prison.  He said “No, thank you” to the US Ambassador to the Republic of Viet Nam and to the French government suggesting to help him leave Sai Gon before and after the fall of South Vietnam.  He decided to stay in Sai Gon in spite of any danger, poverty, starvation and humiliation the Communist regime brought to him.  He refused to go to the Radio Station to praise the new regime.  He refused to receive his citizen’s right while some 500,000 military and civil servants of the Republic of Vietnam were detained in the Communist re-education camps throughout the country.  The eight- day President died in poverty in 1982.

Nguyen Van Tam (1893- 1990) had been a teacher before becoming a doc phu.  He was the first Vietnamese doc phu to be appointed Chief of Tan An province in 1946 by the French.  He was Minister of Security, Minister of the Interior, Governor of Northern Vietnam and Prime Minister (1952-1953).  He was well known for his Je fais la guerre on the first day of his premiership.

Vo Nguyen Giap was not a professional teacher.  Teaching was a temporary job helping him implement his politico- military dreams.  His hands were stained by his compatriots’ blood when he was Minister of Security and Minister of the Interior.  Compared with Tran Van Huong he lacked the teacher’s virtue and ethics.  Tran Van Huong was simple and uncorrupted when he was on the top of power in South Vietnam.    In a photo taken in the war zone during World War II we see Vo Nguyen Giap in white with a tie, putting on leather shoes and standing besides bony and skinny Ho Chi Minh putting on a short and slippers.  This photo showed Vo Nguyen Giap’s love of luxury and smartness.   It also reflected Ho Chi Minh’s demagogy for no subordinates like Vo Nguyen Giap and Pham Van Dong dared to put on white suits and ties, leather shoes and velvet hats while their leader (Ho Chi Minh) put on a short and slippers.  This ridiculous photo taken in the war zone was widely spread as a means of propaganda.  Tran Van Huong was courageous when he criticized Ngo Dinh Diem’s dictatorship and resigned.  We cannot find such a courage in Giap, who had some common grounds with Nguyen Van Tam only (ambitions, love of power, Ministry of Security, Interior, army, Je fais la guerre).    Nguyen Van Tam was believed to be Francophile.  How about the relations between Vo Nguyen Giap and Dang Thai Mai (his colleague and father in law) with Louis Marty, Director of the Service of Security in Indochina?  Is this the deadly point for Vo Nguyen Giap?

Vo Nguyen Giap: The General

Vo Nguyen Giap taught history and geography in 1938 at Thang Long School of which the principal was Hoang Minh Giam.  It was about a private Junior High in Ha Noi.      The history of Viet Nam was not mentioned in the curriculum although some scholars deepened their studies of the Vietnam history due to the existence of Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient and to the birth of the Japanese doctrine of East Asia Co- Prosperity.  Vo Nguyen Giap admired Napoleon I he knew through his French teachers of history and geography at Lycée Albert Sarraut.  His dream was to become a famous General.  It came true after Pham Van Dong took him to Guangxi to see Old Tran (Ho Chi Minh) in 1940.  He attended a primary military training course taught by the Guomindang instructors in Guangxi.  At that time there were many Vietnamese revolutionaries in Yunnan, Guangxi, Guangdong.  They were of different political tendencies.  Some were Communists.  Some were Nationalists (Viet Nam Guomindang).  Some were pro- Japanese (Viet Nam Restoration Alliance) although China was facing Japanese invasion.  Nguyen Hai Than, Truong Boi Cong, Vu Hong Khanh, Ho Hoc Lam were Generals or Senior officers in the Guomindang Army.  The Chongqing government trusted them.  Hoang Van Hoan, a member of the Communist party, took advantage of Colonel Ho Hoc Lam’s protection during his revolutionary activities in China.  However, the Vietnamese Communists had to hide their Communist backgrounds for Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek was a staunch anti- Communist although he reluctantly agree on the second Nationalist- Communist Alliance in 1936 after the Xian incident.  Vo Nguyen Giap was a General without graduating from any Military Academy.  Until 1944 he commanded 34 guerrillas armed with obsolete weapons.  In 1944 the OSS officers in Yunnan gave Ho Chi Minh some pistols, grenades and medicine.  They taught the Viet Minh how to use weapons, how to throw grenades etc.

A Vietnamese teaching history, Vo Nguyen Giap knew Napoleon in ignoring Quang Trung Nguyen Hue.  Maybe he knew the latter but, due to his xenophilia, he blindly followed the French historians speaking highly of Napoleon he admired.  Napoleon won the ground battles but the French were defeated  in the naval battles of Aboukir (1798, 1801) and Trafalgar (1805).  Nelson won the naval battle of Trafalgar but he died in combat.  In 1813, 1814 and 1815 Napoleon was successively defeated in Leipzig, Paris and Waterloo.  The Napoleonian Empire collapsed. 

Quang Trung Nguyen Hue was invincible in the ground and naval battles in the course of his military career although he did not learn any tactics or strategy from any Military Academy.  

Napoleon and Giap’s common ground was to build their personal exploits and glory at any cost regardless of sufferings or death of others.  In 1799 General Napoleon Bonaparte returned to France to head a coup to overthrow the Directory to become the first Consul in leaving  his soldiers in Egypt.  He proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon I in 1804.  For the sake of honor and glorious future he left his amante Desiree to marry Josephine  then divorced the latter to marry Austrian princess Marie Louise.   In order to please Robespierre and to show his loyalty to the dictator he did not hesitate to repress the demonstrations in Paris by artillery fire.  Vo Nguyen Giap did the same thing when exterminating  the members of Viet Nam Guomindang, Dai Viet, Duy Dan, Thiet Thuc in 1945 - 1946.  In the battlefields he sacrificed his soldiers without any regret.  None of his sons and of the Communist leaders’ was seen among the fallen Communist militants in the battlefields.  Quang Trung Nguyen Hue and Napoleon Bonaparte shared hardship and danger with their soldiers in the battlefields.  This heroic and chevaleresque character was absent in Vo Nguyen Giap and other Communist Generals.  After two Vietnam wars lasting 30 years a million Communist militants found their death in the battlefields while none of the Communist Generals was killed in combat.  Some people doubt Vo Nguyen Giap military ‘genius’, arguing that:

  1. from 1946 to 1950 Viet Minh did not win any face-to-face battle except for some scatter ambushes.
  2. Viet Minh launched the border campaign in 1950 after they received military aid, politico- military advisors from the People’s Republic of China.
  3. In 1951 the Viet Minh were bitterly defeated by General Jean De Lattre de Tassigny.  The Communist historians attributed the mistakes to the Chinese advisors.  But the victories of Cao Bang, Lang Son, Dien Bien Phu... were from Giap’s military ‘genius’!  The victory of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 ended the Vietnam War I.  If it came from Giap’s military ‘genius’ i.e. the Viet Minh were the true winners why did Pham Van Dong accept the country’s partition easily and passively at the Geneva Conference?  For what reasons did Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai play an active role at the Geneva Conference?  Is there any country in the word that struggles for independence, wins the war and accepts its partition?  Malaysia became independent in 1957 without an armed struggle.  Its territorial integrity was respected.  Its area including Sarawah is bigger than itself under pitish rule.


Ho Chi Minh - Vo Nguyen Giap - Vietnam Communist party

Frankly speaking those people who adhered to the revolutionary parties such as Viet Nam Guomindang, Viet Nam Thanh Nien Cach Mang Dong Chi Hoi (Revolutionary Youth Association), Dang Cong San Dong Duong (Indochinese Communist Party), Dai Viet (Great Viet), Duy Dan (Populist Party)... in the 1920s and 1930s were patriotic.  Vo Nguyen Giap was a member of Tan Viet Cach Mang Dang (Revolutionary New Viet Nam Party) maybe because of the influence of Dao Duy Anh, his former teacher.  Tran Phu, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Dang Thai Mai were members of Tan Viet leaning toward the Dang Cong San Dong Duong (Indochinese Communist Party).  Tran Phu was the first Secretary General of Dang Cong San Dong Duong.  Until 1940 Vo Nguyen Giap met Ho Chi Minh for the first time through the intermediary of Pham Van Dong.  Ho Chi Minh (his then nickname was Ong Gia Tran- Old Tran) paid attention to Vo Nguyen Giap maybe because of the following factors:

  1. Giap’s intelligence
  2. his birth place in Central Vietnam
  3. his first wife was Nguyen Thi Quang Thai, younger sister of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, who shared some romantic memories with Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong in the 1930 although she was married to Le Hong Phong, Commissioner of the Comintern’s Central Committee, in 1935.

The Triumvirate Ho Chi Minh- Pham Van Dong- Vo Nguyen Giap prepared to grab power after Japanese capitulation.  At that time Ho Chi Minh was not familiar with Ha Noi.  He lived in Hue and Sai Gon.  On the contrary Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap were familiar with Quoc Hoc School in Hue and Lycée Albert Sarraut in Hanoi.  As for Pham Van Dong, he had revolutionary activities in Sai Gon after his adhesion to Viet Nam Thanh Nien Cach Mang Dong Chi Hoi (Revolutionary Youth Association).  In Northern Vietnam there were many Communist adherents, who were miners in Hon Gai, workers of the Nam Dinh Textile Factory, of Chemin de Fer (Railroad), of Hai Phong Cement Works, landless farmers in the Red River delta, the Tho, Tay, Nung... in the border areas.  They were deeply influenced by Chinese culture.  They were under the leadership of Truong Chinh and Hoang Van Thu, who were executed by the French in 1944.  Hoang Van Thu was of the Tay ethnic; Chu Van Tan of the Tho ethnic.  Chu Van Tan was  Minister of Defense in Ho Chi Minh government in 1945.   Vo Nguyen Giap had his important role of exterminating the non- Communist parties and of consolidating Ho Chi Minh’s position in the Vietnamese Communist machinery.  The Chinese Communists did not take control of mainland China yet.  Truong Chinh remained unknown.  In 1951 he became Secretary General of Dang Lao Dong Viet Nam (Vietnamese Workers’ Party). 

In 1946 Ho Chi Minh asked Vo Nguyen Giap to use his personal prestige as a teacher of history to explain the reason why Ho Chi Minh signed the accord of March 06, 1946 Giap compared to the Brest- Litovsk treaty.  To the French Vo Nguyen Giap was a capable and ambitious man.  In 1946 President Ho Chi Minh flew to France with General Salan. The French General asked Ho whether he was afraid of Giap overthrowing him by a coup during his absence.  Ho Chi Minh said he turned him an important person.  He could not do anything without Ho.  Ho’s immediate answer reflected Giap’s real capacity that is quite different from what the Western authors and reporters thought about him.  Ho Chi Minh was Giap’s mentor.  In 1956, on Ho’s orders, Giap criticized Secretary General Truong Chinh violently.  The latter resigned.  Soon after that Giap’s soldiers plunged the Quynh Luu peasants protesting the Communist land reform into blood and tears.  Giap was considered pro- Soviet, a good General and an intellectual in the Politburo of Dang Lao Dong Viet Nam.

Truong Chinh ranked 3rd in the Party’s Politburo after his resignation.  Le Duan replaced him  as Secretary General of the party.  Le Duan was a worker of Chemin de Fer (Railroad).  He deserved to be the leader of the party of the working class in conformity with Lenin and Stalin’s definition The Communist Party is the party of the working class. 

Truong Chinhwas born into a rich, feudal and mandarin family.  His pseudonym reflected his Maoist tendency.  It was named after the Long March (Van Ly Truong Chinh- Wan Li Chang Zheng) launched by Mao Zedong in 1934- 1935. 

Le Duan’s level of education was very modest.  In imitation of the Soviet Union he was not Secretary General but First Secretary of the party.  In 1945 Le Duan was not in Ha Noi.  His name was forgotten by his comrades because he was freshly freed from the Poulo Condore prison when Trinh Dinh Thao was Minister of Justice in Tran Trong Kim government.  During the Vietnam War I Le Duan and Le Duc Tho was in Southern Viet Nam.  Le Duan and Le Duc Tho collaborated with each other to consolidate their positions in Dang Lao Dong (Workers’ Party).  Le Duan was the architect of the National Front of Liberation.  In the Politburo of Dang Lao Dong there were many Commissioners born in the South of the 17th parallel.  General Nguyen Chi Thanh, Vo Nguyen Giap’s rival,  was among them.   Thanh was a Maoist strongly supported by Truong Chinh.  Le Duan was proud of his political leadership but he was jealous of Vo Nguyen Giap’s education and international reputation.

Le Duc Tho (Phan Dinh Khai) was arrogant and haughty.  He neither liked nor looked up to Vo Nguyen Giap.  His father was Tong Doc (Governor; Province Chief) in   feudo- colonial time.  His younger brothers Dinh Duc Thien (Phan Dinh Dinh) and Mai Chi Tho (Phan Dinh Dong) were Generals and Commissioners of the Party ‘s Central Committee.  Le Duc Tho himself adhered to the Indochinese Communist Party before Vo Nguyen Giap.  He attended the French lycée.  In 1973 he shared the Peace Nobel Prize with Henry Kissinger.  Le Duan and Le Duc Tho were wise to use Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap’s stagnant reputation in the Viet Nam War II.  General Nguyen Chi Thanh directed the war in South Vietnam politically and militarily.  After Nguyen Chi Thanh’s death Pham Hung held his position in South Vietnam. In appearance Vo Nguyen Giap was Deputy Premier and Minister of Defense.  He had no real power.  He was considered ‘defeatist’ by the hawkish like Le Duan, Le Duc Tho, Nguyen Chi Thanh, Pham Hung.  During the Tet Offensive (1968) Vo Nguyen Giap was hospitalized in Hungary.  It was rumored he was afraid that the Americans would drop atomic bombs!!  He never came to any place on South Vietnamese soil before April 30, 1975 while Le Duc Tho, Van Tien Dung, Tran Van Tra, Pham Hung, Nguyen Van Linh, Vo Van Kiet were seen during the Ho Chi Minh Campaign.  Giap did not have any military contribution to that campaign leading to the fall of the Republic of Viet Nam.

In the early 1980s General Giap was eliminated from the government and the Central Committee of the party after being  in charge of the Family Planning Program.  Pham Van Dong was still Prime Minister until 1986.  In 1984 his name was not mentioned in the 30th Anniversary Ceremony of the Dien Bien Phu Victory.  In the late 1990s Do Muoi, Secretary General of the Viet Nam Communist Party, President Le Duc Anh, tried to expel him from the party by accusing him of having relations with Louis Marty, opposing the party, selling military secrets to the Soviet Union, being coward in the Dien Bien Phu battle, and in the people’s war in South Vietnam etc.  Even General Nguyen Chi Vinh, Nguyen Chi Thanh’s son, bullied General Giap, who resigned to his lot.  The Sinophile eclipsed the Russophile.

General Giap did not have any regret when the Chinese Communists invaded and occupied the Paracel Islands.  He had no tear of mercy for his compatriots in South Vietnam, the war losers, mercilessly maltreated by the Communist war winners.  It is surprising to compare Vo Nguyen Giap to Vo Van Kiet.  The former was more educated than the latter.  Giap’s reputation was worldwide while Kiet’s was local.  But Kiet was more courageous and humane than Giap when speaking of ‘millions of happy people and millions of unhappy people’ after April 30, 1975.  No matter these words were his true tears or crocodile’s tears, at least Kiet knew the deep feelings of his Southern war losers.  He was courageous to choose Nguyen Xuan Oanh, former Vice Premier of the Republic of Vietnam, as his economic advisor, to ask the Police of the littoral provinces to free members of the Patriotic Intellectuals Association, who were arrested and imprisoned for attempting  to escape Viet Nam by boat, to support the economic openness policy to let the populace survive...when he was Head of the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City.  In the Communist country such initiatives were dangerous for the initiator, who could be disciplined by the party, removed from his leading position, expelled from the party to live and to die in misery.  Kiet had his gut when thinking of others.  He was better than Giap for having the future economic perspective.  Mr. Ramses, a former US advisor in South Vietnam, I met in the Philippine Refugee Camp, compared Le Duan to King Minh Mang and Vo Van Kiet to Marshal Le Van Duyet.  I was startled in front of an American, who was aware of the Vietnam history.

Vo Nguyen Giap was famous thanks to 30 years of continual wars in Vietnam after WWII in light of Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party’s leadership.  The United States is an economic and industrial superpower in the world.  Its economy is in recession.   It becomes the world biggest debtor because of two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Vietnam underwent continual carnage and bloodshed in 30 years just to obtain the HERO title, to be the anti- capitalist fortress, to accomplish its international obligation or to be the anti- Communist fortress!?  The Vietnamese people have to adjust their thoughts seriously and carefully not to blindly praise ‘HEROES’, who loved bloodshed, disunited the people, destroyed manpower, the people’s intellectual forces, and national resources so that our country won’t be ever really independent and our people ever free and happy.  I stop writing here to let the readers think and comment.  We cannot build a house with a brick.


David Lan Pham, F.A.B.I.


Cái Đình - 2013