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Who Was "Uncle Ho"?

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's greatest revolutionary and patriot, was demonized in the West during the Vietnam War and at the same time canonized as a saint by the Vietnamese, especially after his greatest dream of an independent, united Vietnam was achieved. His martyred image is just as skewed as his vilification in the West. So who was Uncle Ho?

Ho Chi Minh's life is an allegory of the Marxist struggle in Vietnam, or so young Vietnamese school kids are taught: the ultimate "hero's journey out," where Ho left his homeland, picked up socialist ideals, and returned to raise the flag of revolution. The truth is a bit more complex.

Born Nguyen Tat Thanh on May 19, 1890, in the village of Hoang Tru near Vinh, just north of Hue in central Vietnam, Ho spent his young life looking over his father's shoulder as Dad studied to be a mandarin (high government official). While living in Hue, he saw his mother and sister die -- experiences that steeled him for a harsh later life. Ho's father was a thinker and had many friends who were active in radical politics, and from an early age Ho was exposed to lots of revolutionary talk. Ho studied only briefly at university before setting out on his own, walking the length of Vietnam and working as a teacher here and there from 1906 to 1911. He spent time in Nge An, Hue, Quy Nhon, Phan Thiet, and Saigon (all places with "Ho Slept Here" tour spots). Like Che Guevara's motorcycle trip around South America, Ho Chi Minh's formative wanderings in Vietnam were a major part of his identity. He developed his compassion and understanding of the Vietnamese people and also saw up close their struggles under a colonial yoke.

Leaving from Saigon in 1911, Ho set sail as a cook on a ship. Reputedly, this was the time when he gained his worldly perspective and began to understand notions of the world as a class struggle, a kind of Darwinian fight that can have only one solution: an ongoing peasant/proletariat revolution. He connected with other free thinkers abroad, working in kitchens in London, and then moved to Paris, where he changed his name to Nguyen Ai Quoc ("Nguyen the Patriot"). His ideas began to gain clout among fellow dissidents, and he became involved in underground print journalism while building a Rolodex of fellow revolutionaries.

He traveled between Moscow and China, a revolutionary peripatetic, for most of the 1930s, and grew a large following. As a founder of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), he was under constant suspicion and surveillance, at one point fleeing to Hong Kong and then on to the south of China, where he formed the League for an Independent Vietnam, whose members, later soldiers, were called the Viet Minh, and then Viet Cong in the war with the United States. Imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek in 1940, Ho changed his name to Ho Chi Minh ("Enlightened One") and returned to Vietnam via surreptitious border crossings and long stays in hide-out caves in the far north (near Cao Bang).

On August 19, 1945, after the surrender of the Japanese in World War II, Ho Chi Minh made his "Declaration of Independence" that borrowed language from U.S. and French documents of freedom. Thus began the armed revolution.

Outwardly an ascetic, Ho was reputedly a ladies' man, and stories of his nighttime dalliances, real or imagined, pepper more recent histories. He is even said to have taken up with a French woman and to have fathered a number of children. Diminutive and delicate, Ho was a leader who lived a spartan existence, upholding the ideals of egalitarian revolution, living in a simple two-room building on the grounds of the former imperial palace (you can see his home near the mausoleum in Hanoi).

Ho Chi Minh died from natural causes in 1969, just 6 years short of seeing his dream of a unified Communist Vietnam. Nearing death, Ho was explicit about his wishes to be cremated, his ashes divided into three separate portions and distributed at sites in the north, center, and south to celebrate the reunification of the country. He asked for no pomp or circumstance, no grand tomb or homage to his remains. The hulking mausoleum, set on the site where he declared independence in 1941, would have him turning in his grave if he weren't, in fact, embalmed and set on a palanquin for general public viewing. A visit to the mausoleum is a quirky highlight of any trip to Hanoi.

Following a long tradition of deifying war heroes, Ho Chi Minh's image is everywhere: on cabs, in shrines, and in long rows of portraits hung in family rooms, sanctified in the family pantheon as one of the great immortals.

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