A chance encounter with Gen Giap and what it meant

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Giap's Legacy: Military genius also symbolized egalitarian nature of Vietnamese society, notes long-term expat

Vietnamese soldiers parade a framed portrait of late General Vo Nguyen Giap in a convoy taking his coffin to an airport before being flown to his home town in the central Quang Binh province for burial, in Hanoi on October 13, 2013.  Millions of people lined the streets of Hanoi, chanting, crying, waving and praying as they bid farewell to Vietnam's revered independence hero Vo Nguyen Giap.  PHOTO: AFP

I was chatting with my wife online when she asked: "Do you know General Giap died today?"

My thoughts went immediately to my father-in-law, who, like millions of Vietnamese, hero-worshipped the man for the daring, decisive role he played in the David vs Goliath fights for Vietnam's independence from colonial and imperial forces.

In our living room, pride of place goes to an enlarged photograph of my father-in-law with General Giap, taken while the latter was visiting Hungary and the former was with the Vietnamese diplomatic mission there.

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My thoughts also went to a brief, chance encounter with the great man himself in Hanoi two decades ago.

I had an invitation to a cultural celebration organized by the army at an auditorium on Kim Ma Street.

As I entered the hall a bit late, two young women greeted me at the door and ushered me into a seat in the back rows. I appeared to be the only foreigner at the event, and they chatted away merrily, asking me the usual questions one was asked by every Vietnamese one met those days: Where are you from? What do you do? How old are you? Where do you work? Are you married? How much do you earn? and so on.

Just over a year into Vietnam, I was excited, curious and fascinated by everything I saw around me. The traditional music and patriotic songs sung by the cadets kept me riveted because I placed them in the context of the stupendous courage and determination involved in defeating the French and the Americans.

I tarried awhile after the program finished because I wanted to thank the two women for being so welcoming and friendly. Soon they appeared, walking up the steps to the exit, flanking a short, distinguished man, who they chatted with incessantly.

On spotting me, they coolly linked their arms into his on either side and led him to me, saying with childlike delight: "Look, there is a foreigner here."

Graciously, the gentleman smiled at me, shook my hand and left. There was certainly an element of shock at the realization that I had just shaken hands with a legend, but the real shock and awe was the familiarity and ease with which the young women interacted with General Giap.

The chance encounter with the general underlined for me the most attractive facet of Vietnamese society a lack of class consciousness, a strong base of egalitarianism and dignity of labor. Nobody really seemed to throw their weight around. I had noticed this all around me (outside expatriate circles) when I arrived in Hanoi early in 1993.

The perception of an equal society was reinforced many times over subsequent years. Once, the military attaché at the Indian embassy told me he was amazed that when he went out with senior Vietnamese army personnel, their driver would share the table with them whenever they stopped for lunch or other refreshments.

Vietnam was a dream come true and the unexpected meeting with General Giap exemplified this as nothing else did.

For me, his passing is a marker for a mortal weakening of the egalitarian foundations that Vietnamese society seemed to have built up during its independence struggles.

The solidarity and sense of community required to throw off the yoke of foreign domination has over the last two-and-a-half decades been replaced by an each-one-for-themselves approach promoted under the dominant neoliberal development paradigm as natural and desirable.

Vietnam's most captivating charm has had less to do with its beautiful, unspoiled landscapes and more to do with its people, whose spontaneity bespoke of an unspoiled, non-worldly wise nature.

That charm has been dwindling at astonishing speed even as leaders and commentators extol the virtues of greater global integration and paint the picture of a modern, industrialized nation surging to great prosperity on an export-oriented growth policy a policy that has palpably laid waste to, polluted and depleted the nation's precious natural resources land, water and air.

The social impacts of this development have been severely damaging as well. The endemic crime and corruption on view today cannot be addressed with any degree of efficacy if the egalitarian foundations are not restored.

But how can they be restored if leaders and the people are not able to envision such a society, and be willing to work towards that common goal?

Such visions are typically dismissed as utopian and wishful thinking these days, but these were the ideals that energized revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap.

Right now, the contrast between fighting for public good and harvesting gains for oneself is stark. The sacrifices made by General Giap's generation will be in vain if their ideals are jettisoned for the convenience of the so-called free market, which is anything but, as we have seen.

As we mourn his passing and celebrate his achievements, I am hoping against hope that General Giap's life will not be packaged and reduced into a glorious paean sung by those not aware of the real nature of the achievements of the revolutionary generation. 

We have seen this happen to the likes of Che Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Their iconic value has become a commodity to be bought and sold; and the message of their lives lost in the cacophony of a consumerist marketplace.

My prayer is that the same fate does not befall General Giap.

May his soul rest in peace.

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By Hari Chathrattil*

* The writer is a foreign copy editor who works for Vietweek. The opinions expressed are his own.

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