So inextricably is the life of Ho Chi Minh intertwined with Vietnam’s emergence from colonial rule that his biography is largely an account of the country’s struggle for independence in the twentieth century. As Ho adopted dozens of pseudonyms and never kept diaries, uncertainty clouds his public life and almost nothing is known about the private man beneath the cultivated persona of a celibate and aesthete, totally dedicated to his family – a concept that embraced all the Vietnamese people.
Ho’s origins were humble enough – he was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890, the youngest child of a minor mandarin who was dismissed from the Imperial court in Hué for anti-colonialist sympathies. Ho attended high school in Hué but was expelled for taking part in a student protest; he left Vietnam for France in 1911, then spent several years wandering the world. He worked in the dockyards of Brooklyn and as pastry chef in London’s Carlton Hotel, before returning to France in the aftermath of World War I, to earn his living retouching photographs. In Paris, Ho became an increasingly active nationalist, and caused quite a stir during the Versailles Peace Conference when he published a petition demanding democratic constitutional government for Indochina. For a while Ho joined the French Socialists, but when they split in 1920 he defected to become one of the founder members of the French Communist Party, inspired by Lenin’s total opposition to imperialism.
Ho’s energetic role in French Communism was rewarded when he was called to Moscow in 1923 to begin a career in international revolution, and a year later he found himself posted to southern China as a Comintern agent. Within a few months he had set up Vietnam’s first Marxist-Leninist organization, the Revolutionary Youth League, which attracted a band of impassioned young Vietnamese eager to hear about the new ideology. But in 1927, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese nationalists, turned against the Communists and Ho was forced to flee. For a while he lived in Thailand, disguised as a Buddhist monk, before turning up in Hong Kong in 1930 where he was instrumental in founding the Vietnamese Communist Party. By now the French authorities had placed a death sentence on Ho’s head, for insurrection; he was arrested in Hong Kong but escaped with the help of prison hospital staff, who managed to persuade everyone, including the French police, that Ho had died of tuberculosis.
Ho disappeared again for a few years while the fuss died down, before reappearing on China’s southern border in the late 1930s. In 1941, aged 51, he re-entered Vietnam for the first time in thirty years, wearing a Chinese-style tunic and rubber-tyre sandals, and carrying just a small rattan trunk and his precious typewriter. In the mountains of northern Vietnam, Ho, now finally known as Ho Chi Minh (meaning “He Who Enlightens”), was joined by Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham Van Dong and other young militants. Together they laid the groundwork for the anticipated national uprising, establishing a united patriotic front, the League for the Independence of Vietnam – better known by its abbreviated name, the Viet Minh – and training the guerrilla units that would eventually evolve into the Vietnamese People’s Army. But events conspired against Ho: in 1942 he was arrested as a Franco-Japanese spy when he crossed back into China to raise support for the nationalist cause, and he languished for more than a year in various prisons, writing a collection of poetry later published as the “Prison Diary”.
Meanwhile, however, events were hotting up, and when the Japanese occupation of Vietnam ended in August 1945, the Viet Minh were ready to seize control. Ho Chi Minh, by this time seriously ill, led them to a brief period in power following the August Revolution, and then ultimately to Independence in 1954. For the next fifteen years, as President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Uncle Ho took his country along a sometimes rocky socialist path, continually seeking reunification through negotiation and then war. But he didn’t live to see a united Vietnam: early in 1969 his heart began to fail and on September 2, Vietnam’s National Day, he died. Since then, myth and fact have converged in a cult placing Ho Chi Minh at the top of Vietnam’s pantheon of heroes, true to Confucian tradition – though against Ho’s express wishes.