Võ Nguyên Giáp passing away at 102 truly marks the end of an era for Vietnam

8 October 2013 - History

I’ve only had the pleasure of visiting Vietnam once so far, and I am the only tourist I know whose #1 priority on my next trip there is to visit Điện Biên Phủ.  I am young enough to have only learned about Điện Biên Phủ through the Billy Joel song “We didn’t start the fire”, and North American enough that my school teachers focused far more on the 1960-1975 era in Vietnam than anything before or after.  Of course, I also consider the French to be among the least impressive imperial stories in Asia, and have my share of reverence and admiration for the most unexpected of underdogs that overthrew them and preserved much of the charm that attracts visitors to them at least as well, if not far better than, its neighbors north of the border.

Vo Nguyen Giap (right) plans with Ho Chi Minh to attack the French at Dien Bien Phu.

For years I have been reading stories about “Uncle” Hồ Chí Minh and general Võ Nguyên Giáp, and long wondered if it was a typo that Võ, born in 1911, still seemed to be alive and well according to so many sources.  Of the “top four corpses” a 2nd world tourist might see lying in state, Hồ Chí Minh’s is the 2nd oldest (d. 1969) after Lenin’s (d. 1924), and noticeably older than Mao’s (d. 1976) and Kim Il Sung’s (d. 1994).  One of the longest lived originals of the Soviet revolution was Vyacheslav Molotov, who died in 1986 at the age of 96.  Normal variances from Vietnam’s average life expectancy (which was probably lower than even Russia’s in 1911) still make it quite surprising that such a figure would have lived to the enviable age of 102.

General Vo around age 100 with a painting from his younger days with Uncle Ho in the background.

A visitor to Vietnam in the past few years might feel the era of Ho and Vo had already passed a long time ago, and that even as an officially “Socialist Republic”, Vietnam like its larger neighbor to the north has been embracing more foreign investment, international trade, share listings, and other outright forms of capitalism.  Over half of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 30, and not only do many not remember Dien Bien Phu, or the Fall of Saigon, many probably have little memory of the Soviet Union, the cold war, and what the whole fuss about not being capitalist was all about.

One of many earlier photos of Vo Nguyen Giap with Fidel Castro – there seem to be ones of them together as recent as a few years ago.

There seems to be a lot of mourning of Vo’s passing in some papers in Latin America, especially those sympathetic to Cuba and Venezuela.  

Vo with Hugo Chavez in 2006

RIP General Vo, as much as he may have been the fighting enemy of the west and of the capitalist 1st world, at least before 1975, there is no denying the world has lost a figure that at the very least is worth studying and admiring for his determination and victories against some of the biggest and most powerful forces of the 20th century.

Perhaps one of his better posters

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