By Heather Marie Stur
Observing the responses here in Vietnam to the death of General Vo Nguyen Giap, who passed away on October 4 at the age of 102, has offered a fascinating glimpse into Vietnamese culture and the meaning of the revolutionary generation to Vietnam’s national identity. During the three days of national mourning, the normally crowded and chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh City were quieter. In Hanoi, where Giap lived, lines of tearful citizens waited through the night to pay their respects in front of his house. State-run television stations went dark, and entertainment events were cancelled. These expressions illustrate that the general occupies a central place in Vietnamese identity and in the memory of the country’s struggle for independence. Even though political infighting within the Politburo had gradually pushed Giap out of power beginning in the 1970s, he is being remembered as one of the most important figures in modern Vietnamese history. To the Vietnamese I’ve talked with, what matters is what General Giap represents, not the more complicated political realities.
When I asked my students in my U.S. foreign relations classes what General Giap meant to them, those who spoke called him a national hero on par with Ho Chi Minh. They talked of his leadership in the defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and his commitment to independence. The conversation reminded me of how important Dien Bien Phu is to the memory of Vietnam’s freedom struggle. Those who mentioned the war with the U.S. did so only in passing, which may have to do with the fact that their teacher is an American, or it could because Giap had begun to lose power during the conflict with the U.S. One student said that Giap is important because he, along with Ho Chi Minh, truly lived the Communist ideals that they had preached, and that he should serve as an example to today’s young people who have been led astray by consumerism. My students seemed to grasp the significance of having one of Vietnam’s “founding fathers” alive during their lifetime, especially when I reminded them that no American living today was around when George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, two men we studied quite a bit in our class, lived. That they were this close to their country’s founding generation did not seem to be lost on my students.
Yet they talked about Giap in mythic terms as though he was more a symbolic idea than a man who enjoyed receiving guests and listening to Beethoven all the way to the end of his life. Media coverage revealed this dichotomy, too. Mourners associated him with the very notion of Vietnamese independence, as if he and the ideal were inseparable. But newspapers and magazines have featured sentimental stories about how he met his first wife, Nguyen Thi Quang Thai, on the train from Hue to Vinh and how the two young revolutionaries fell in love. It also seems to be important that Giap will be buried in his hometown in Quang Binh province according to the wishes of his family, rather than in Hanoi along with most high-ranking figures. It is as though this proves he was simply one of the people.
The responses to and coverage of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s death has shown that the Vietnamese, like Americans, want their national heroes two ways at the same time – larger than life and just one of us. They can bring down a colonial oppressor, but we can also imagine having a beer with them. They are unflinching in war, but they have known true love. Tears have been flowing freely for General Giap, a man who is known internationally as one of the most brilliant military strategists of the 20th century, and who some here call “uncle.”
Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a Fulbright Scholar in Vietnam, where she is spending the 2013-14 academic year as a visiting professor in the international relations department at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. She is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow in the Southern Miss Center for the Study of War & Society. Her first book, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. She is currently working on two books, one on Saigon in the 1960s, and one on the fall of Saigon in 1975 and its aftermath. She received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in history and a B.A. history and journalism from Marquette University.