A picture book to remember General Vo Nguyen Giap

(No.11, Vol.3, Dec 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

The passing of any great and or famous figure is likely to trigger a surge of interest in any recordings or writings he or she may have left behind. Those anxious to learn more will also try to get their hands on any biography or literature about the person. Within days of his demise, my local bookstore, perhaps Saigon’s best-known, located as it is on the central boulevard of Nguyen Hue, was festooned with memorabilia of General Vo Nguyen Giap. Even now as I write, two months later, a whole bookcase prominently displayed to the left as you enter is packed with books by the man himself on war strategy and biographies and tomes on the times he lived in and influenced. Most of these are in Vietnamese.­­­ I have, however, come across an attractive hardback the shape and size of a photo album that chronicles his life in mostly black and white photographs and text, from infancy to just a couple of years before his death. This tome is bilingual which is useful if you are learning Vietnamese or, like me, have a family which uses both English and Vietnamese. Allow me to give you a glimpse as to what lies between its covers.

Late General Vo Nguyen Giap
Photo provided by Tran Tuan

As Giap lived from 1911 until October 2013, this book is not only about a man but also about a mostly turbulent century through which Vietnam managed to survive and emerge triumphant and confident about its prospects for the next one. It begins in relative tranquillity in the commune of Loc Thuy in what is now Quang Binh Province in the central area of the country. The very first picture is of the tranquil Kien Giang River near which he was born. We see the rustic house in which he first saw light, family photos and the secondary school from which he was expelled for organising a protest against injustices. This early revolutionary fervour shines through in the arraignment photo taken before being given a three-year jail sentence by the French at the tender age of seventeen. Another very poignant early photo was taken of him with his young wife and baby daughter. The text explains this was just before he was ordered to leave for China. The couple never saw each other again; his wife died in prison at the hands of the French soon after.
Scenes now shift to the northernmost province of Cao Bang, from whence Giap organised resistance, with the thatched Na Lua hut Headquarters and rudimentary living conditions shown. We see Giap with his liberation army successfully occupying the wide Ba Dinh square in Hanoi after the August 1945 uprising and pictures of him along with Uncle Ho in the newly formed Resistance Coalition Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (predecessor of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam). Remarkably, he is also pictured with French General Le Clerc visiting a unit of the Vietnam Liberation Army in 1946.
Attempts at peaceful transition soon broke down, of course, and Giap and his men are seen back in the countryside for eight years fighting to end French colonialism. There are many photos of groups in planning sessions. In three pictures, Giap looks quite dashing on horseback and also in one crossing a river in a canoe. There is an interesting shot of him addressing captured French soldiers, most of them as is clear by their appearance, Algerians. There is also a colour photo of a letter dated 1948 from Ho Chi Minh, appointing Commander in Chief Vo Nguyen Giap to the rank of general.
The next twenty pages will be of great interest to many. They are of the crucial Dien Bien Phu campaign. Of course, now come remarkable photos of conscripted minority men carrying goods, weapons and medicines to the battle front and regulars hauling artillery up steep jungle-clad slopes. We see these guns firing and troops rushing forward to complete the rout. The flags are raised on the enemy positions. Some of the ten thousand captured French troops are shown, along with a snap of General de Castries himself and the French command facing the final humiliation of defeat.
Next, and this where I came in, having seen night after night as a schoolboy and up to second year of university scenes on TV news from the ‘American War of Destruction’ as it is termed here. Now we see it purely from the eyes of Vietnamese cameramen. There are pictures of Giap planning tactics again (some with Uncle Ho) and of his bolstering the troops and visiting the wounded. We even have a shot of him on the Ho Chi Minh Trail taking time to inspect a rare forest orchid with another soldier knowledgeable on the matter. Then, the taking of Buon Ma Thuot town, the collapse of the southern army in the Central Highlands and the final thrust through to Saigon are all chronicled. The iconic photos of the tank smashing down the gate of the Unification Palace cap this section off.
Peace breaks out after 1975 and everything is brighter, not least because most of the pictures are now in colour. The general is still most often in his uniform, reviewing troops at military parades, talking to mother heroines, revisiting famous sites from his campaigns and at hospitals visiting brothers-in-arms who fade away much earlier then he does.
Time rolls on and we now have the chance of seeing the general’s more human side. He is depicted in an international friendship series of photos, meeting with foreign dignitaries from Brezhnev to Jaques Chirac, right up to Hugo Chavez. We see the great man in daily life with his family and in his twilight years pursuing his many interests, from gardening to piano playing to writing at his desk, swimming, working out, meditating and worshiping before a shrine. Now one that really caught my attention - and the photographer must have intended something - is a shot of him seated on a bench at Geneva railway station underneath a poster for Pax (Latin for peace) Assurance Company.
It was a long life and to come back full circle, the final pictures are of him on trips back to his beloved homeland of Quang Binh. Now this province is special for me too, having worked there on a public administration reform project. Who should I see ushering the general around Dong Hoi town among the adoring crowds, but my old chum Mayor Phuong. I use the normal English word for the head of a town’s local government. It is just that I find the official term a bit of a mouthful and not so warm.
Hopefully, there will be an updated edition to show the country’s outpouring of emotion when he died, the state funeral and his final resting place on Bird Island at the northern end of his province. I was surprised he did not choose his home village in Le Thuy district, but a Vietnamese friend told me that this was him making his last intelligent point. He spent his life fighting for the land of Vietnam. The next perceived threat may be from the sea. Giap’s spirit is on hand to guard Vietnam’s East Sea.
For those who Giap’s recent passing has stirred up curiosity and wish to know more about the man who is on a par with Sun Tsu and Clausewitz as a military genius, this is a good book. For those who have a strong interest in twentieth-century Vietnamese history, it is also a must have. Place it on your salon table. It will be sure to provoke some conversation as you sip tea and chomp on fruit with your guests. As for me, I lay down this book with a sigh of gratitude. At least I have never had to live through interesting times as did the general!
‘Dai Tuong Tong Tu Lenh. General and Commander in Chief Vo Nguyen Giap’ is published by Culture and Information Publishing House, Hanoi 2011. Tran Manh Thuong is the compiler. VND390,000. Contact Mr Minh at 0908124407 to buy the book.

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