Chapter One: The Making of a Revolutionary
The elderly retired man sat in the rear seat of the Russian-made chauffeur-driven automobile and stared out the windows as his driver slowly steered around the worst ruts and potholes in the ruined road. As the car made its tortuous way northward, the unlined face of the old warrior gave no hint of his thoughts, but his mind was lost in memories. Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap was returning to Pac Bo in the far north of Viet Nam, just a few kilometers from its border with China, the place of his martial beginnings. There he and Ho Chi Minh first worked together back when their country had yet to gain its freedom from the dominion of the French empire. "The memories, " he later wrote, "have not faded."
After the long trip from his spacious Ha Noi villa, Giap had rested the previous night at the tiny community of Cao Bang. "I wish the day longer and the road better," he later lamented, "so that I could revisit more easily, but that is something that I could not have." That morning, as he left to continue his journey, winter fog still covered the mountains, not lifting until they passed the hamlet of Hoa An. Seeming like pyramids, mountains around him thrust into the air above the low-hanging ground mist.
The old man's eyes lingered on scenes around him. "I know almost every mountain, stream, and town in this region," Giap wrote. "On the left side of the road is Phia But, the tallest mountain. It has a lake on one of its peaks. According to legend, many years ago a fairy came down to bathe in it. Unfortunately, she was seen by people and could not return to paradise. Every year, during the rainy season, when water spills from the mountain's heights, people claim they can see her, a beautiful lady riding a horse, carrying a fan in one hand."
The automobile neared the community of Phai Khat, where Giap's soldiers once fought their first battle against the French. It had not changed much. In 1944 it boasted a dozen houses; now its size was perhaps doubled. Many people living in the area had learned that Giap would make this trip; that once again he would return to his place of beginnings. Friends from several hamlets--Nguyen Binh, Minh Tam, Hoang Hoa Tham, and Tran Hung Dai--now gathered in the community to see him once again.
"In the past, many people thought Phai Khat was just another battle of the war," the general later mused. "For me, it is much more. In 1941, the French occupied this place and turned Comrade Lac's newly built home into their headquarters." Lac's house then and now was the largest in the community. "Because of this occupation, I decided that this place would be the objective of our first battle." Someone had erected a sign in front of the house: "Phai Khat: The Start of the Revolution. 24-12-44."
Giap smiled and waved through a car window at those who had come to see him, many dressed in colorful holiday clothing. His driver steered carefully through the community, to stop finally in front of the office of the local people's committee. As Giap slowly emerged from the rear seat, two women came up to present him with flower bouquets. "It seems like a festive day," he said with a smile to those standing nearby.
Scanning the crowd, the general looked at the faces of older people, hoping to recognize some of his former comrades-in-arms. He saw Dong Phuong Quy from the Dao Truyen region, once leader of Group Three. There was Thu Son, leader of Group One, who led his forces in the battle of Phai Phat. Nearby stood Tien Luc and Le Loi, the latter a namesake of a former emperor and warrior. All were in their sixties or seventies, now retired and enjoying their final years. "When we met," Giap later remembered, "I could not restrain my emotions and cried with joy." They reminisced about the past and the heady years of revolutionary sacrifice. "Over there, " the general said to them as he pointed at a buffalo pen standing adjacent to Lac's home, "this is the spot where we killed the French commander." After some time, Giap returned to his automobile and the driver resumed their journey to Pac Bo. "Without this trip," Giap reflected, "I doubt if I would ever have seen those old comrades again."
As Giap neared Pac Bo, the car in which he rode rumbled past the construction site of a national museum. Upon completion, it would become a national shrine dedicated to the memory of Ho Chi Minh. This would be the third time since the 1975 day of liberation that he had returned to Pac Bo cave. On that first trip, in April 1975, Giap had planted a tree as a memorial to the decades of national effort at independence and unification. Soon now he would plant a second, for tenderly packed away in the trunk of the car was a small tree he had taken from the garden surrounding Ho Chi Minh's carefully preserved home in Ha Noi.
The driver finally pulled to a stop. They had arrived. The old general gazed around him; the familiarity of the scene gladdened his heart. Dominating the area was the vivid green of Mac Mountain, and nearby chattered the blue water of the Lenin Stream. The golden sun seemed to occupy the whole world, and its blazing morning light shone across a waterfall, exposing the Pac Bo spring, the source of the stream. The water was so clear, the light so bright, Giap noticed, that he could see fish swimming among the rocks of its depths.
A small contingent of soldiers stationed at Pac Bo met the general's car and escorted him toward the cave that decades before had served as a headquarters and place of sanctuary for Ho, Giap, and their comrades. As always, looking at the cave entrance, Giap thought how it resembled the ear of a cat. Nearer the cave, Giap thought again of Ho and remarked later how the years of his leader's life could be configured by decades. At age twenty, using the pseudonym Nguyen Tat Thanh, Ho had left Nha Rong Port in Saigon to serve as dishwasher and cook aboard a French merchant vessel. At thirty years of age, as Nguyen Ai Quoc, he joined the French Communist Party and worked hard to promote the end of French colonial rule over Viet Nam. Aged forty, he started the Indochinese Communist Party. At fifty, he entered Viet Nam from China, where he had been living, to lead the resistance against the French. It was then that he met Giap. Now, walking in the warm sunlight, Giap was reminded of Ho wherever he looked.
The general passed the tree he had planted in 1975, now healthy and beautiful. He recalled Ho's advice: "When you plant a tree, you have to nourish it." Giap looked across the stream to a bush beside which Ho used to sit while fishing. The fish rarely bit, and when they did, Ho threw them back into the water.
Giap crossed a wooden bridge spanning the Lenin Stream and walked up to the entrance of the old cave. "We chose this cave because it was isolated and well hidden," Giap recalled. Although the opening had collapsed in 1979, Giap could still see a date--8-2-1941--scratched into the surface of a nearby rock. On that day Ho had arrived here at the end of a long, dangerous trip from China.
Giap spoke of his own impatience in those early years and how he wanted to begin immediately to carry the revolutionary struggle to the French. He thought of a cold night, of Ho sitting with him next to a campfire, and of the others present: Chi Kien, Vu Anh, and Pham Van Dong. Dressed like an old mountain man, Ho spoke to them about the future. Giap recalled his words. "In about five years," Ho said, "the revolution will be victorious and we will have a bright future. I only want to create one thing: to completely free our country and provide everyone with the necessities of life."
Speaking in simple words, Ho made the difficult and complex prospects of revolution easy to understand. One of those present that night--Giap was unsure who it had been--asked Ho, "How can we have a revolution without arms, and where are we going to find guns?"
Bac Ho replied, "We must rely on our own force with some outside help. When our people absorb this beautiful idea of revolution, they will create the strongest of forces. Everything because of the people; everything for the people. People first, guns last. If we have the people on our side, then we will have guns. If we have the people, we will have everything!" It was a theme that Ho, and later Giap, would always emphasize: "If we can rely on the people, no one can defeat us." Now once again at Pac Bo, Giap still remembered Ho's words. "It's a simple idea," he commented, "but not easy to follow."
As he stood at Pac Bo for the final time, Giap luxuriated in the accomplishments of his lifetime. "Following Ho's road," he later wrote, "we have defeated all invaders and gained independence and unification. Following his road, we will have civilization, happiness, a stronger country, and the creation of a society where the development of one person's freedom is the development of everyone's freedom. The stream of Pac Bo will continue to flow."
In the Christian scriptures, the physician Luke wrote, "... your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams." Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap had lived long enough to do both. As a youth, glimpses of Viet Nam's potential inspired him. He had been part of that vision. At Pac Bo, as an old man, he now dreamed of the glory years long since passed away. Without his efforts, much that occurred might never have come to pass. Through long years stretching from 1944 to 1980 he fought end ordered other men into battle against the Japanese, the French, the Americans, against other Vietnamese of the southern republic, the Kampucheans, and the Chinese. He pitted his ideas about warfare and how to conduct it against two foreign powers who successively stood on Vietnamese soil, and twice he emerged unbeaten. Yet he had no prior military schooling or training to ready him for this task. Only an intense study of military history and his own experiences guided him in the part he played in the great events of recent world and Vietnamese history.
The changes that came about in Viet Nam because of Vo Nguyen Giap began quietly enough. In the twentieth century, of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China, Annam--nearest geographically to the remnants of the imperial court at Hue--was the most troublesome to the French, and some provinces there were more difficult than others. One of the most bothersome was Quang Binh province, with its long history of stubbornness and resistance to the French. While the colonial power believed it could remain in control of these people forever, the Viets observed the fate that had befallen them and their beloved land and waited.
In central Annam, just north of the 17th parallel, in that troublesome province of Quang Binh, canton of Dai Phong ("Great Wind" or "Tempest"), subdistrict of Quang Ninh, district of Le Thuy ("Beautiful Waters"), lay the tiny village of An Xa ("Tranquil"). On 25 August 1911 a townswoman of An Xa, Nguyen Thi Kien, finished her birthing labors and presented her husband, Vo Quang Nghiem, with a lusty red-faced baby boy. They gave him the name Vo Nguyen Giap. As with all Vietnamese, he would always be known by his given name.
Giap was not the first child born to Nguyen Thi Kien and Vo Quang Nghiem. He was sixth in birth order. Their first child died as a small boy. Then Kien again gave birth to a boy who also died in infancy. Kien's third child, a girl, lived for a time before dying of amebic dysentery. Nghiem and Kien must often have wondered why they were so cursed; why they seemed destined to have no children to enrich their lives and carry on their line. A family without children in Viet Nam was pitiful, pathetic, the object of both sympathy and derision to townspeople, who gathered at the marketplace to gossip endlessly.
Then Kien was again pregnant. Fear often wracked her heart as her delivery time approached. But this time Kien and Nghiem could rejoice. Their fourth child, a daughter, was a healthy baby, whom they named Vo Thi Diem. She was followed by another daughter, Vo Thi Lien. Then in 1911 Giap was born, the first male child to live, and, according to a CIA report, even he reportedly had health problems throughout his life. He was followed by Vo Thuan Nho, a brother, and another sister, Vo Thi Lai.
Vo Quang Nghiem named Giap well. There are few family names in the land, perhaps fifty in all, and so many people who bear the same name may not be related. Giap's middle name, Nguyen, is one of them, but, as in his case, is not always a family name. Perhaps he bore this name to remind him of some distant lineage with the Nguyen rulers of the land. The family name, Vo, means "force"; Giap means "shield" or "armor." They were bellicose names for a tiny infant but they presaged the course of Giap's life.
Quang Binh, in which he was born, and the two provinces immediately to its north, Ha Tinh and Nghe An, formed the major portion of the thinnest part of the nation and traditionally were among the most impoverished sections of the country. Most inhabitants of the tranquil hamlet of An Xa were poor peasants. There were only three or four important landlords; others held only tiny holdings or rented their land. The hamlet was surrounded by poor, sandy soil on which grew rice and sweet potatoes. Local folk might barely eke out their living, but they were proud of Quang Binh's special landscape. There were the rivers--the Gianh, the Nhat Le, and the Kien Giang. Lake Bau Tro, two miles north of Dong Hoi, had the shape--so people said--of a Chinese ink pot. Then there was the large natural lake of Hac Hai, about one and a half miles across, with a similar shape. From these waters, rivers and lakes alike, generations of Vietnamese caught fish for their daily meals. Around the shores of Lake Hac Hai grew a variety of watermelon, so special that selected samples were offered to the emperor each year in July. Nearby was the peak of Dau Mau, where children played in the caves and grottoes which dotted its slopes.
People not only were proud of their rice fields and nearby jungles and the hazy horizon of mountains but also took pleasure in knowing that from their stock were many who had risen to national prominence: esteemed scholars and writers, military advisers to emperors, poets and philosophers, tutors for royal princelings. The people of An Xa and of all Quang Bing province were a rural, poor, proud, nationalistic folk, restive under French rule. They were not easy to control and had little respect for their rulers, whether Chinese, French, or Vietnamese. They rebelled against the Chinese, and against the French in the 1880s (and would do so again in 1930). They would later resist North Viet Nam's land reform program of 1956. And when Giap was a child, the adventures of local partisans were still fresh in their memories.
In An Xa, except for some few houses topped with red-tiled roofs, most family homes were of mud, straw, and bamboo. Each had a small patch of land in the rear and a tiny yard in front used for drying harvests of rice and sweet potatoes. Vo Quang Nghiem, Giap's father, was one of the fortunate few to have a tiled roof on his modest one-story home, comfortable enough by local standards. The house was easily recognizable, for in Nghiem's yard grew a large wild tea tree, which he kept pruned in topiary fashion, trimmed skillfully until it looked like a giant tiger. During the day, to passing boys and girls, it looked like a shaped tree; after dusk and at night the beast became real and alive, and children hurried their steps as they passed by or swung in wide circles to avoid it entirely.
Inside the main room of the house, Vo Quang Nghiem kept his family altar, for he was a Confucian and very attached to ancestral tradition. On it stood pictures of maternal and paternal ancestors. Nearby was a large bowl on which their names were engraved in Chinese characters. Flowers decorated both sides of the altar, on which also sat a copper basin. Nghiem daily lit joss sticks, kept in a nearby ceramic bowl, and stuck them into sand in the bottom of the basin. Their perfume wafted on the currents of the thick, heavy air. The house also included a cooking area and sleeping rooms.
Vo Quang Nghiem--his given name meant "the serious one"--was a member of the tiny middle-class population of An Xa, a rice farmer who tilled his own land and rented another small parcel but for a number of years still found time to serve as a practitioner of traditional Asian medicine. After unsuccessfully treating his daughter who died of dysentery, Nghiem withdrew from the healing profession and turned to teaching local children to read. In his classes they learned to recognize both Sino-Vietnamese characters, in which much of Vietnamese literature and history was written, and the newer quoc ngu, or romanized alphabet, devised by Alexandre de Rhodes and favored by French rulers. By training, Nghiem was steeped in the Confucian classics. The people of An Xa respected Nghiem and considered him to be a man of distinction, for he was a lettre, a scholar, and that was always a matter of importance in traditional Viet Nam.
His fellow townspeople addressed him as Ong Cuu Nghiem--Mr. Nghiem of the low mandarin rank of ninth grade, civil corps. He served as a clerk of the administrative office for the province of Quang Binh and consequently spent much time at Dong Hoi, provincial capital of Quang Binh. He served as tong tho van, dispatcher for all official correspondence, and this lowly post gave him much distinction within his home community.
Cuu Nghiem was also a proud patriot, old enough to remember the days when northern Annam and Tonkin had been free from French control. Nghiem's father fought in the great Can Vuong uprising against the French that began in July 1885 when Emperor Ham Nghi fled their control and called for his people to save the monarchy from foreign oppression. The movement, however, lacked weapons and a coherent strategy and collapsed in 1896. Cuu Nghiem still remembered that revolt and was glad his family had been involved in the first organized resistance movement against French rule over Viet Nam.
Nghiem's civil duties meant that Nguyen Thi Kien sometimes cared for the family farm in addition to her other duties as housewife. Devoted to her plants and to the land, Kien found her greatest happiness in working with her hands in the soil. A daughter of a member of the Can Vuong movement who had been a rebel commander of an entire province, she remembered that struggle against the French as well as her husband did, and delighted in telling her children, and later her grandchildren, how her father had fought against the French colonialists.
Passionately interested in Viet Nam's past, Nguyen Thi Kien had a retentive memory and, although illiterate, was able to recite by heart Vietnamese poems and sophisticated texts such as Kim Van Kieu, Nhi Do Mai, Tong Tran, Cuc Hoa, and others. Years later, Giap recalled: "Memories of the resistance against the occupation were still very fresh. In the evening, in the light of the oil lamp, my mother would often tell me of the grueling trials she underwent during the Can Vuong campaign, in which my grandfather had participated." Giap later told how "I can still recall my earliest childhood deeply bathed with feelings of love for our country." On some evenings, before bedtime, Giap's father also recited poems, one of which, "The Fall of Hue," told of the French sack of the imperial capital in 1833. In this way his home was filled with nationalistic fervor, an emotion that would never leave him.
Cuu Nghiem taught Giap to read their language as it was written in pre-French days, when Sino-Vietnamese characters were used, during the year between his fourth and fifth birthdays. Even as a small boy, Giap liked to study, and his father encouraged him in this by keeping a glass jar near at hand, filled with the boy's favorite sweets and delicacies, to reward him for good performance. His first book in the romanized alphabet was Au Hoc Tan Thu ("New Manual for Small Children"), a volume filled with patriotic images of Viet Nam's past. It had only recently been published by authority of Emperor Duy Tan (1907-16), deposed by the French for efforts to incite an insurrection among Vietnamese troops used by France in the trenches of World War I. In that book, Giap later recalled, exaggerating its influence upon a small boy, "I discovered our forebears, our martyrs, our duty to expunge the disgrace of past humiliations." He learned that although his country might, as Caesar had once written, be divided into three parts, his ancestors were not "Gauls."
With other village urchins, young Giap spent many hours in play. Running barefoot through the hamlet, they spun tops wound by pieces of string, shot games of marbles, fought loud battles of war, trailed after wandering ducks and geese, and threw stones. Although some older boys played soccer, the most popular game was da kien, which demanded both skill and patience. Many coins then had a small, square hole in their centers. Boys thrust a twist of paper or feathers or banana leaves through the hole to make a shuttlecock. The object of the game was to keep the coin spinning in the air as long as possible by kicking it with feet, knees, or ankles. When the shuttlecock fell to the ground, another player took his turn. Alternatively, two boys could play at the same time by batting a shuttlecock back and forth.
Da cau was a game similar to soccer, but the number of players was not fixed; it could be played by many or a few, depending upon how many were free from chores. Boys used a variety of makeshift balls. In season they relied on a kind of fruit that looks much like a green grapefruit but much larger. Or they could make a ball with rags or old clothes, tied tightly with thread to kick back and forth. Small boys spent endless hours and pleasant days in such fashion.
As they grew older, boys of the hamlet fell heir to traditional jobs for those of their age. Dressed in short cotton jackets and pants, they took part in family chores, as Giap did. He herded ducks and watched after the family water buffalo, sitting on its rump for hours on end as it wandered grazing. He also pounded rice and, typical of the custom in Quang Binh province, sang the ho gia gao, rhythmic worksongs, that helped keep workers moving in harmony as they threshed rice.
From the time Giap was five until he was eight, he attended school in An Xa. Even as an old man his voice softened when he recalled the first day he left home for the village's kindergarten. "My mama and I were separating for the first time," he said, "and we both wept." His school clothes consisted of a long robe that hung below his knees: in summer white, in autumn and winter black. Beneath his robe, winter and summer, he wore white trousers and black slippers, his head topped by a black turban. Morning sessions at school began at seven-thirty and ran to eleven-thirty, resumed at two-twenty and lasted until five. At noon, Giap went home, ate lunch with his parents, and, as a young boy, took a nap before returning to his classes. If he faltered in his lessons, his teachers beat him with a long, thin bamboo stick, held at the ready for use on unworthy pupils. As he grew older, he engaged more in play with friends after the schoolday ended.
His primary school, although supervised by the French, who established its curriculum, was taught by Vietnamese. A large part of his studies consisted of instruction in the Vietnamese language, and beginning in his third year, he was introduced to the French language for a few hours each week.
For centuries, Vietnamese society had been influenced by the teachings of Confucius. The basis for much of Giap's education was thus a Confucian respect for mandarins, ancestors, relatives, and parents. Many of Giap's lessons focused on how to behave in one's family and in society: younger brother to elder brother, elder son to father, family to village, village to emperor, and emperor to heaven. In the Vietnamese world, individuals and society blended into a harmonious whole. As well, he studied arithmetic, history, geography, literature, and natural science. Geography lessons initially emphasized the land of Viet Nam, but as the school years rolled by, Giap also learned of the world beyond its borders.
In history, Giap absorbed stories of past heroes: Le Loi, who wrestled independence from Chinese occupation in 1428; Tran Huong Dao, who fought the Mongols in 1283 and 1287; Phan Dinh Phung, of the Can Vuong movement; Ly Thuong Kiet, who commanded a successful invasion of Champa in 1069 and then directed a war against the Sung Dynasty of China; Nguyen Hue, who fought against a Chinese occupation of the north and then declared himself to be Emperor Quang Trung; and others. From primary school through all the remaining years of his studies, Giap gloried in committing to memory stories of the past. He learned of emperors who resorted to total war when faced with invaders. He read how they appealed to their people to rise up and smite those who desecrated the soil of Viet Nam. He learned those lessons well.
Giap's days of schooling in An Xa ended when he was eight. Nghiem enrolled him in the canton (tong) school at the nearby market town of Dai Phong, equivalent to the fourth- and fifth-grade classes of a modern public school. At nine, he attended district (huyen) school, and then at eleven he went to the province (tinh) school.
In 1923, the twelve-year-old Giap received his official certificate for having completed his elementary studies (diploma des etudes primaires complementaires). It was not easy for Vietnamese youth to achieve even this level of education, for French rulers limited the number of schools and encouraged illiteracy; an ignorant population was more easily controlled. The following year Giap took the entrance examination (concours d'entree) to qualify for additional schooling in Hue--and failed. He spent the next months in an intensive round of study and preparation, desperately hoping to pass on his next attempt. When he took the examination again, in 1925, he finished second among all those tested that year.
Cuu Nghiem enlisted the support of one of his friends, the Roman Catholic priest Rene Morinot, a man widely respected in the area. Father Morinot willingly recommended young Giap for further schooling in Hue. Cuu Nghiem and Kien were happy to send their eldest living son to study at the Quoc Hoc, or Lycee National, in Hue, a French-language school and a seedbed of revolution. Giap already showed signs of leadership. He would fit in well at his new school. He quickly showed his intelligence and was an excellent student, particularly in literature and history. Officials of the school posted student academic rankings at the end of each month. During his two years at the Quoc Hoc, Giap ranked first each time the grades went up except for one month when he ranked second.
Annam had only three such schools: in Hue, Vinh (Nghe An), and Qui Nhon (Binh Dinh). Ngo Dinh Kha, a high court official and father of the later southern president Ngo Dinh Diem, founded the Lycee Quoc Hoc in 1909. He wanted a school to provide students with an exceptional course of study in both traditional and modern education, as free from French influence as possible. It accepted students from primary schools who had received their diplomas and who were able to pass the entrance examination.
Ngo Dinh Kha put together a good faculty. Many teachers at Quoc Hoc were nationally famous. Ung Qua, professor of French literature, served as tutor to Crown Prince Bao Long. Pham Dinh Ai, who taught physics and chemistry, became ammunition technician for Giap during the years of the Viet Minh war with France, serving from 1948 to 1954. He later moved south and was elected a senator there during the second republic. Nguyen Duong Don, math and geometry teacher, became minister of national education in the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of the southern half of the country from 1954 to 1963. Nguyen Huy Bao, who taught philosophy, became dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Saigon. Mai Trung Thu, teacher of drawing, was a famous artist whose paintings were exhibited many times in Paris during the 1930s. Nguyen Thieu Lau, professor of history and geography, was author of several historical research publications. Another history teacher, Nguyen Lan, edited a dictionary of Vietnamese classics.
This competent faculty turned out exceptional students. Some of those who attended Lycee Quoc Hoc later became important figures in Vietnamese history, including Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham Van Dong (who served as prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam from 1958 to 1988), and Ngo Dinh Diem.
The curriculum at Quoc Hoc was similar to that at other French-run schools and nearly identical to what was required in France for a baccalaureate degree there. All instruction was given in French save for study of other languages, Vietnamese was a required first "foreign" language; English was the second. Pupils studied French literature from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, the history of France to the end of World War 1, the geography of all departments of France and its possessions, mathematics, physics, and chemistry. It was a rigid and rugged curriculum.
After four years of study, students received the diploma des etudes primaires superieures indochinoises (DEPSI). Those who completed seven years obtained a baccalaureate degree. Although the school was open to both boys and girls, girls were outnumbered six to one. Most girls admitted as students were graduates of the neighboring school of Dong Khanh and participated in only three of the classes offered (classes secondaires) at the Quoc Hoc. By the time Giap enrolled in 1925 the size of the student body was about twelve hundred.
After reaching Hue, Giap rented a room in a private boardinghouse that was also home to four or five other boys enrolled at the lycee. He was eager to begin his coursework. At the lycee, he found that most of his teachers were Vietnamese, although there were a few French males assigned as instructors. One of Giap's classmates, Le Si Ngac, remembers him and the school well. "He was a nice boy, very bright, very smart, very good in school. We were in every class together. He was an excellent student. For a time we lived in the same small boardinghouse."
Ngac, an aged man who now lives with his son in McLean, Virginia, recalled that "we were taught in French, except for one class. We studied French history, but very little Vietnamese history. During my time, when we graduated, we knew more about French history than our own Vietnamese past."
It might not have been taught in school, but there were other ways for those boys to know the stories and legends of their country. Shortly after arriving at the Lycee Quoc Hoc, Giap came under the influence of a famous revolutionary nationalist, Phan Boi Chau, who lived under house arrest in Hue, not far from the school. Giap was not alone in this, for many of the boys looked at Chau as their hero. Giap himself recalls that "serious and hard-working, students at Quoc Hoc were very interested in politics."
Le Si Ngac, Giap's roommate at the boardinghouse, was thrilled to have an opportunity to listen to such a great man. "Chau came to Quoc Hoc after his release by the French and made a speech. He attacked the French colonial system, so we were politically influenced by him. When you live under a French regime, you hate it. You hate it! Viet Nam was like a puppet, a marionette, with the French holding the strings. Everybody knew it. You resent it. Giap listened to him.... Giap decided to do something about it."
Only recently arrived in Hue, Chau was a subject of interest wherever people stopped to talk, for he was one of the great leaders in the anticolonial movement. Seemingly destined as a youth for a bureaucratic career in one of those minor posts allowed by the French, he was led by his keen patriotism to follow a different path. He formed a nationalist group, the Restoration Society (Duy Tan Hoi), in 1903. Two years later he fled to Japan, a popular Vietnamese refuge, where he wrote patriotic calls to anti-French feelings, asking his countrymen to join in creating a modern state in the homeland by substituting a western, scientific education for the traditional Confucianist system in place there.
Ordered to leave Japan in 1908, Chau moved to China, where, in 1912, he organized the Vietnamese Restoration Society (Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi), modeled after the great Sun Yat-sen's party. Imprisoned by the Chinese for a time, he was released in 1917. In Shanghai, Chau met Ho Chi Minh, then operating under the alias Ly Thuy. As heads of rival nationalist, revolutionary groups, they immediately distrusted each other, but in their quarrels Ho struck the first blow. In June 1925, for 100,000 piastres, he betrayed Chau to agents of the Deuxieme Bureau, Surete Generale du Gouvernement General pour l'Indochine (abbreviated as 2d Bureau)--the French police--and he was seized while passing through Shanghai's international settlement. Ly Thuy later rationalized that his was a good act. It stirred up resentment in Viet Nam against the French, which was necessary for the revolution, and the money helped Ho finance his work in Canton.
Taken under guard to Ha Noi, Chau was tried by French colonial courts, convicted of treason, and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. His prison term was commuted a few months later to permanent house arrest in Hue by the newly arrived French governor-general, Alexandre Varenne (1925-28). Chau lived under this arrangement for the last fourteen years of his life, dying 29 October 1940, one of the most respected Vietnamese of modern times.
For whatever reason, the French allowed Chau to receive visits, and over the years many schoolboys like Giap came to his home to listen to his fiery visions. Sundays were a favorite time for Giap to visit the old revolutionary. "Often he told us about world events. On the walls of his house were portraits of Sun Yat-sen, Lenin, and Sakyamuni. We were of those youths so eagerly searching for the truth."
Whether he was speaking at Lycee Quoc Hoc or to individuals and small groups at his home, Chau's message was the same: love for country, inspiration for what it could become, resolute resistance to the French, and the need for action. Time and again he spoke with Giap about democracy, the problems of Viet Nam, and abuses by the French colonial government. "The cock is crowing! Arise," he once told Giap, "arise and prepare for action!" One day Chau declaimed that "the oppressed people will rise up one day and fight for their independence. And on that day, woe to the French!"
Thus from the time of his enrollment at the lycee in 1925, Giap's political awareness began to grow. Soon he invited other students to his boardinghouse room, where initially they discussed their classes at school. As their trust in one another grew, they talked, sometimes in whispers, of world problems and French colonialism in Viet Nam. Those who gathered respected Giap for his excellent scholarship and his taste for revolution. In moments of repose, free from studies and talking politics with his friends. Giap sometimes crossed Hue's Perfume River to the Citadel, where he stretched out on top of the bore of a French cannon standing in the shade near the gates of the old Imperial Palace. There he continued to ponder the things he was learning and the shape his life might take in years to come. Perhaps, he thought, he might become a teacher in order "to instill in the young feelings of patriotism and love of the freedom being trampled under foot by the foreign colonialists."
"The Quoc Hoc of Hue," Giap has said, "was indeed the cradle of the student patriotic movement of Annam." His quoc ngu teacher, for one, emphatically shared his own anticolonial views with students. Excited by hearing such opinions from teachers and from Chau, Giap and his friends became ever more convinced that one day France must release Viet Nam from its bondage. They passed patriotic poems and essays around among themselves and gloried in the sentiments they read. Giap discovered nationalist newspapers such as Le Paria ("The Pariah") and Viet Nam Hon and carefully read them.
Then in 1926 during Giap's second year in school, Hai Trieu, one of his friends, lent him a small book that would change his life. Disguised with a false cover and title embossed in Arabic letters, the pamphlet was actually an essay written by Ho Chi Minh, then using the pen name Nguyen Ai Quoc. Entitled Le proces de la colonisation francaise ("Colonialism on Trial"), it inflamed Giap's imagination. He went out into a field and climbed a tree so as to read it without interruption. The essay, he recalled, "inspired us with so much hatred, and thrilled us." It was the first strand of the cable that would eventually bind his fortunes with those of Ho Chi Minh and the revolutionary cause in Viet Nam. Enraptured by the ideas of worldly revolutionaries elsewhere, Giap avidly read French-language texts of other writings by Nguyen Ai Quoc and studied the works of Marx and Lenin.
Feelings among Quoc Hoc boys grew ever more tense as they talked and studied about their land's problems under the rule of France. There came a time when talk was no longer enough. They called for actions that might demonstrate their anti-French sentiments and patriotism. "We `blew up' whenever chance provided an occasion," Giap recalls, and there was an abundance of opportunity. They demonstrated when the French turned down a request from Phan Boi Chau that he be freed from house arrest. Their ire rose again when Phan Chu Trinh died. Trinh, an Annamite and a leading reformer, had been imprisoned in 1908 for his part in supporting a peasant demonstration (the Revolt of the Long Hairs) in Annam. After a time at the prison island of Poulo Condore, he was sent into exile to France. In 1925 the French allowed him to return to Viet Nam, where he died the following year.
His funeral caused a widespread explosion of patriotic feelings. At Lycee Quoc Hoc, in memory of Trinh, the boys dressed themselves in white mourning clothes. According to Giap, this act enraged the French headmaster, who, with his supervisors, was in any case "hard and inquisitorial" with the students. At about that time Giap also took it upon himself to collect money to help those held in French prisons.
The breaking point for Giap in his relations with the school administration came in 1927. The headmaster, whom Giap had nicknamed "the tyrant of Quoc Hoc," charged another student, Nguyen Chi Dieu, with cheating during an examination. Dieu, well known for his anticolonialist opinions, was one of Giap's close friends. Giap was certain there had been no cheating; he knew his friend too well. He believed the headmaster had made up the accusation simply as a way of ridding the school of a troublemaker. It was an injustice Giap could not overlook.
Giap and Dieu talked with their closest friends and classmates, who, in turn, talked to other students. They participated in a protest, a "quit-school movement." Both boys were surprised at the extent to which others took up this cause. It spread quickly throughout the lycee, then next door to Dong Khanh, the girls' high school, then even into area parochial secondary schools run by the Roman Catholic Church, and across the face of central Annam.
Although the Quit-School Movement quickly collapsed, lycee authorities solemnly and righteously expelled Giap from the Quoc Hoc. Giap was not surprised--he had acted in full knowledge of the probable consequences--yet his expulsion still left him raging with anger. To vent his feelings, Giap wrote out an article in French--"Down with the Tyrant of Quoc Hoc"--which he submitted to Phan Van Truong, publisher of L'Annam, a French-language newspaper in Saigon. It was then the only newspaper openly criticizing French colonial policies and was widely read as far north as Hue. Truong published the piece. It was Giap's first venture into journalism. He was sixteen years old.
Remaining in Hue after leaving the Quoc Hoc, Giap organized an underground reading library. Most of the documents he collected were supplied by French Communist organizations. For a time he and Nguyen Chi Dieu pondered the possibility of fleeing Viet Nam. Perhaps they should go abroad to join others in exile there. "Difficulties prevented us, " he said later. "However, we continued to hope and wait for a favorable occasion."
In those unsettled days following the end of his schooling, Giap sometimes traveled back to An Xa to see his father, Cuu Nghiem, and his mother, Kien. He was filled with turmoil, and the peace of his home village gave him an occasional sense of calm. During one of those home visits, his schoolmate Nguyen Chi Dieu visited him there and told of a newly organized group, the Tan Viet Cach Menh Dang (Revolutionary Party for a Great Viet Nam), known as Tan Viet. The secret group advocated political and social reform. Dieu was already a member. Perhaps Giap might be interested as well.
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