He stares wide-eyed and innocent, thin of face, with his moustasche and trademark long wispy beard slightly curved at the tip, from the all denominations of banknotes issued in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  Ho is the father of the country, the leader of the revolution, one time prime minister and president for life and enduring inspiration.  But what sort of man was he; this one time teacher, waiter, cleaner, and  chef at the Drayton Court Hotel in West Ealing: a man of simple tastes, a remarkable intellect, a compassionate leader of his country, a dangerous revolutionary, a tyrant or all of those?  And what is his legacy?

He was born Nguyen Sinh Cung ,  the second son of a poor rural family living near the centre of Vietnam.  His father was a Confucian scholar, teacher and magistrate, who was later demoted for abuse of power but also because of Cung’s nationalist activities.  While Cung  was still at primary school his parents separated.  His elder brother went with his father down south, Cung went with his mother and sister to Hue.  But at the age of 10, his mother died and he went to live with his father.  He received a French education at the Lycee and then left to teach at a small school on the border. 

In 1911, he left on his great adventure.   He sailed to Marseilles and from there went to Paris, where he took jobs as a cleaner, a waiter and a cook, but spent all of his free time reading history and newpapers to familiarise himself with western politics.  The following year he travelled to America.  He worked in Boston and New York and made contact with Korean Nationalists.   1913 saw him in Britain, where he worked for a time as a pastry chef at the Drayton Court Hotel in West Ealing.  Returning to France, this idealistic and handsome young man restyled himself as Nguyen ai Quoc (Nguyen the patriot) and embraced communism as the only type of government that would restore the rights of his people from French colonial oppression.  He even attended the Versailles peace conference in 1919 in a borrowed tuxedo and bowler hat and petitioned for recognition of the civil rights of the Vietnamese people.  He was ignored.  That same year, citing quotations of the American Bill of Rights, he petitioned President Woodrow Wilson to remove the French from Vietnam and replace them with a nationalist government.  Wilson ignored him too.  Two years later he and a group of like minded revolutionaries, founded the Parti Communiste Francaise.  Later that year he visited Moscow and  became Comintern’s principal theorist on colonial warfare in Asia.  While in France, he had a relationship with the dressmaker, Marie Braire.

In 1923 he was in Moscow and China, where he betrayed Pho Bo Chau, the head of a rival revolutionary faction to the police in Shanghai.  His excuse was that he hneeded the money for the communist party and he expected Chau’s trial to stir up French resentment. 

In 1926 he married Zeng Xeiming and when criticised for this, he replied that he needed a Chinese woman to help him learn the language and to keep house.  He was married in the same place as Chou en Lai and lived at the residence of Mikhail Borodin. 

But he was soon on his travels again.  In 1927, he was in the Crimea recuperating from TB.  He then travelled to Italy, Switzerland and Germany.  He was imprisoned by the British in Hong Kong in 1931.   In 1938 he was adviser to the Chinese communist party which forced the evacuation of the nationalist government to Taiwan.

By 1940 Quoc adopted the name Ho Chi Minh, (bringer of enlightenment) and the following year returned to Vietname to lead the Viet Minh independance movement against the Vichy French and Japanese occupation.  In this he was supported by the United States but later imprisoned by Chiang Kai Chek for his revolutionary activities.  On his release he lived with a Tay woman, Du Thi Lac and had a son by her.  

In 1945, Ho ignited the August revolution,  persuading the Emperor Bao Dai to abdicate.  He issued an American style Proclamation of Independance and petitioned Harry S. Trueman for support. Trueman failed to reply.  That same year, 200,000 Chinese nationalists arrived in Hanoi.  Ho agreed to dissolve his communist party and hold elections.  He then negotiated with the French in which Vietnam was recognised as an autonomous state in the French union, but his real purpose was to drive out the Chinese.   As soon as the Chinese troops left, fighting broke out with the French.   The following year the Viet Minh went on a purge of rival revolutionary groups and banned all rival political parties.   By 1950 Stalin and Mao, no doubt impressed by Ho’s single min ded ruthlessness, had recognised his government and given promises of support.  

In 1954, Ho defeated the French paratroopers at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  The French ceded sovereignty to Ho’s government and the Geneva accords divided the country along the 47th parallel into the communist North and the non communist south, providing electrions were held in 1956 to unify the country.  US Colonel Edward Lansdale working in Siagon for the CIA persuaded the Vietnamese catholics to move south by claiming that the virgin Mary had herself moved south out of distaste for communism.  This propaganda was no doubt backed up by Ho’s land reform in which hundreds living in the north were accused of being landlords and either tortured and executed or fled south.  

Ho ignored unification of the country by elections and instead started supplying the southern rebels, the Vietcong via the Ho Chi Minh trail while moving his own forces south.  The French will still supporting the corrupt Diem government in the south, but Diem was assassinated by his own troops, a n action supported by America.   But fearful of a domino effect, in which the whole of south east Asia would come under communist influence,  Johnson committed combat troops to support South Vietnam in 1964.   it was a war neither side could win.  America had overwhelming fire power and helicopter mobility.  The Vietcong knew the country and could best wage a guerilla war merging into the jungle.  But Ho, ever the strategist,  recognised the weakness of the South Vietnamese forces and vulnerability of the Americans to public opinion at home.  He risked all in the Tet offensive, which, although a tactical failure was a great moral victory.  Americans lost heart and began to negotiate  a withdrawal. 

Ho didn’t live to see Vietnam reunfied.  Never of robust health, he died of diabetes and heart failure in 1969 but up to his death, he insisted that his forces continued to fight in the south.  Time and politics were on their side.  When the communist tankis rolled into Saigon, soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City, in 1975, they bore banners proclaiming, ‘You are always marching with us, Uncle Ho.’     

Forty years after his death, Ho Chi Minh, is revered in Vietnam as a great patriot.  Despite his wishes to be cremated, his ashed scattered on mountains in the north, the centre and the south of his coutnry,, he was embalmed in Moscow and his body lies in the big square mausoleum adjacent to the presidential palace and where he lived his simple life in a House on Stilts by the lake.

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