Vietnam mourns a national hero

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Mourners wait to pay their respects to Vietnamese hero Vo Nguyen Giap in Ho Chi Minh City

Last week saw the passing of General Võ Nguyên Giáp, who many Vietnamese think of as the last true Vietnamese hero. He was a brilliant military strategist who was instrumental in Vietnamese victories against both the French and the Americans. Most noted for leading the victory against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, he earned the respect of the Vietnamese people not only in his wartime successes, but also due to his humble and down-to-earth character. He is also respected by his countrymates for speaking out openly when he felt the government was moving in a direction that was not in the best interests of the nation, most notably at the age of 92 when he voiced his concerns over plans to expand a Bauxite mine in the Vietnamese highlands and the decision to allow Chinese control of the mine.

His funeral has been declared a state funeral, with concerts cancelled, entertainment venues closed and television programming altered to pay respect to the national hero nationwide. While the funeral proper will be held in the capital Hanoi, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese have paid their respects at memorials that have been set up across the country. I went to observe the proceedings at Reunification Palace here in Ho Chi Minh City – formerly the headquarters of the government General Vo helped overthrow.

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Members from all levels of Vietnamese society came to bid farewell to their champion, among them many highly decorated military personnel.

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And some not so decorated, but equally proud.

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As people entered, they were given a small black sticker to wear on their chest to signify mourning.

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Many brought chrysanthemums as a symbol of their respect for the late general.

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Young and old, rich and poor alike flooded in to honour their wartime hero.

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This woman was particularly passionate, singing nationalistic songs at the top of her voice as she waited to enter the chamber which held the General’s shrine.

Inside one of the large rooms within the palace was a shrine to General Vo which consisted of his photograph on the wall in front of which was a small table with candles and a pot in which incense could be placed. To the right just outside the room was a small brass band. Mourners were brought in in groups and one or two representatives of each group could place incense in the pot on the altar. The band would then play a short refrain during which mourners would bow their heads as a sign of respect, and then they would exit and the next group would be ushered in. There was a natural orderliness which amazed me after having spent so many years in China. Everybody was respectful and calm, nobody jumped queues or pushed, and barely a word had to be spoken to direct mourners throughout the day. There was a palpable sense of community and unity which I wish I could bottle to share with others – it’s something difficult to capture in image or word.

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One of the guards at the entrance to the building – more for show and formality than anything.

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After exiting the room, mourners could then write their own personal message for the general in one of the books provided in a second room.

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It was evident just how loved and respected General Vo was by the Vietnamese people, and not since Ho Chi Minh’s funeral has the nation shown such an outpouring of love and respect.

I stumbled on a blog post that I think is representative of how many Vietnamese people feel about Vo Nguyen Giap’s passing. It’s a young Vietnamese’s expression of honour for the general, and his sadness at feeling that today’s leadership lacks the character the people saw in General Vo. I am not supporting or rejecting the opinions expressed, but I feel it gives insight into how meaningful this day was to so many Vietnamese citizens. You can read his post here: R.I.P General Vo – The National Hero.

I left Reunification Palace and headed back home. On my way I saw the multitude of traffic police out to ensure the day ran smoothly, and restaurants and cafes that had all closed for the weekend in honour of the General.

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It was nice to see a country shut down due to honour rather than disunity.