Photos of Vietnam’s most famous living war hero, General Vo Nguyen Giap, show him as a frail white-haired figure engulfed in a white military uniform. As the general celebrates his 100th birthday, a public outpouring of support indicate that while his frame may have diminished over the years, his reputation has not.
Rising from humble beginnings as a school teacher, General Vo Nguyen Giap joined the resistance against French colonial rule, becoming a close friend of Vietnam’s first president, Ho Chi Minh. His crowning moment came in 1954 when he helped defeat the French at the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu.
A 2000 file photo shows a Vietnamese woman using a bicycle to transport goods to market as she walks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail near the town of Trung Hoa in Quang Binh Province northwest of Ho Chi Minh City.
The epic supply line the Ho Chi Minh trail, a system of about 2,000 paths through jungle and mountains, is credited as being one of Giap’s initiatives, as was the final offensive against South Vietnam in 1975.
Colonel Nguyen Huyen has been Giap’s assistant since 1976. He says the general continues to be the centre of attention, with well-wishers flocking to his hospital bed, where he has been for nearly two years.
The colonel says dozens of people, including the country’s top leaders, have brought the general flowers and presents to wish him well.
One American veteran who fought in the Vietnam War and now lives in the country, Chuck Searcy from Veterans for Peace, describes the general as a remarkable man whom many veterans of the war regard as a patriot who served his country with humility and heroism.
Giap left the country’s ruling politburo in 1982. Some say it was over an internal rivalry. Others claim he wanted to make room for a younger generation. But even after leaving front line politics, he continued to make his views heard.
In 2009 he sent an open letter to the government, calling for an end to Chinese-run bauxite mines in the Central Highlands because of damage to the environment and local ethnic minorities.
Historian Duong Trung Quoc says despite his age, all of the general’s opinions are still highly valued by the government, not just those on bauxite mining.
He says the general also raised his voice on other issues like the building of the National Assembly on Thang Long Citadel, a historic relic, and a call to protect Ba Dinh square.
Many of the people who attended 11 weeks of anti-China protests in the center of Hanoi carried posters of the general with the words “We are not afraid.”
Nguyen Quang Thach, 36, was a regular participant. He is one of eight people detained by police overnight on Sunday after defying a ban on public protests issued a few days before.
“He is the most famous and the most talented general in our history. He has won many battles against France, America and China,” said Thach.
Thach says protesters used the general’s image to show the Chinese his spirit was in the hearts of the Vietnamese people.
“I want our army to have his spirit in their hearts. I want to send a message that in Vietnam we have Mr Giap’s spirit in our army and we are not afraid of any enemy,” Yhach added.
Historian Quoc, says this respect extends to members of the government.
He says the Vietnamese government still fully respects him as he is an old revolutionary leader.
But how much influence he has over politics, Quoc says, depends on the development of a political system that is undergoing changes at the moment.