Tens of thousands of Vietnamese are streaming into Hanoi for two days of official mourning beginning today for Vo Nguyen Giap, the revolutionary general of the army that won independence from France and defeated the U.S.
The national funeral for Giap, who died Oct. 4 at age 102, will take place tomorrow and his body will be transported to his home province of Quang Binh in central Vietnam for burial on Oct. 13, the government said. All public entertainment events will be canceled between noon today and noon Sunday.
“There is nobody who has the stature that comes anywhere close to Vo Nguyen Giap,” said Jonathan London, assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Asian and International Studies.
As the general in charge of the Viet Minh and a confidant of independence leader Ho Chi Minh, Giap led a “people’s war” against French forces that culminated in victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the peace agreement that divided Vietnam into north and south. As Vietnam grapples with an economic slump partly caused by mismanagement of state companies and its leaders struggle to restore confidence, Giap came to serve as a reminder of Vietnam’s independence struggles.
Even as Giap remained a charismatic figure to his soldiers during the American war, his influence waned amid political infighting within the Communist Party, said Lien-Hang Nguyen, associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky. Giap, who was a Politburo member from 1951 to 1982 and served as deputy prime minister and defense minister, was sidelined during the 1960s by Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan and Politburo member Le Duc Tho, she said.
“Eventually he was pushed out by Le Duan and Le Duc Tho,” Nguyen said. “He never spoke about what happened to him.”
In his later years, Giap spoke out against “reckless development” that damaged the environment and the “unaccountability of state leadership,” London said in a phone interview. “People at the highest level of authority of the party and state didn’t necessarily care for him, but wouldn’t dare say anything about him publicly.”
The nation’s leaders are grappling with an economic slump as banks struggle with bad debt largely incurred by state companies. Vietnam’s economy expanded 5.25 percent last year, the slowest pace since at least 2005, government data show. The Ministry of Planning and Investment forecasts the economy will grow 5.4 percent this year and 5.8 percent next year.
In June, lawmakers cast historic confidence votes on senior officials including Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. While they kept their jobs, Dung garnered a poor rating from almost a third of lawmakers. Last year, Dung apologized in a televised broadcast for “shortcomings and weaknesses of the government” in managing state companies.
Since his death, Vietnamese clutching yellow daisies and umbrellas to shield against the hot afternoon sun have formed lines outside his home on Hoang Dieu Street in Hanoi that stretch nearly a kilometer to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
Old and young soldiers, college students and office workers have traveled for hours, some arriving as early as 3 a.m., to pay respects to Giap’s family. Young men hoisting a large painting of Giap and Ho Chi Minh parade through the throng, stopping so people can pose for photos next to the picture.
A Facebook page commemorating Giap was set up by his family, the state-owned Thanh Nien newspaper said online Oct. 8.
“I came here to see him for the last time,” said a red-eyed Nguyen Ngoc The, a retired soldier wearing his uniform and war medals who waited in line for four hours to pass through Giap’s house. “I could not stop crying. My face was full of tears. I consider Giap as my father.”
Ngo Vinh Tuyen, 75, recalled meeting Giap during a battle in 1972 when the general handed out cigarettes to soldiers. “Giap was very thoughtful,” he said.
Giap is also remembered as a military leader whose strategies caused the death of countless Vietnamese soldiers, London said.
His military career started when he took charge of forming guerrilla units after returning to Vietnam from China, where he had met Ho Chi Minh. Although lacking formal military training, he took control of the military activities of the Doc Lap Dong Minh Viet Nam, known to the Western world as the Viet Minh.
In September 1945, just after the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent, which led to full-scale war against France.
The “people’s war” led by Giap was an all-out societal mobilization that included a willingness to sacrifice troops to make it clear to the enemy that it was involved in a drawn-out war of attrition. That culminated in the victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the division of Vietnam.
Within a decade of the French defeat, Vietnam was pitted against another Western power, as U.S. involvement increased in what is known locally as the American War.
“The aggressor army of the U.S. imperialists, although over-supplied with arms and ammunition, cannot escape the doom that has befallen the other invaders on this soil,” Giap wrote in 1972.
In the eyes of many Vietnamese, Giap remains a symbol of decisive leadership that brought independence to the country.
“We all love him,” said Dao Thi Hoai, 33, who took a day off from her job at an airline ticket agency to visit Giap’s house. “We are grateful to him.”
Tran Van Hien, 22, a student at the National Institute of Education Management in Hanoi, spent an entire day standing outside the gates of Giap’s home. “No one can replace him,” he said.