Vietnam Sees Massive Public Mourning for War Hero


HANOI, Vietnam -- The death of wartime Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap has triggered public mourning in Vietnam the likes of which have been unseen since Ho Chi Minh passed away more than four decades ago. And given the current leaders, it may not be witnessed again, according to many of the 150,000 people who lined up to pay respects to the so-called "Red Napoleon."

The ruling Communist Party orchestrated the sendoff for Giap, emphasizing his leadership in the wars first against France and then United States. But it ignored his later years, when the general's popularity allowed him to air rare public criticism of the ruling elite.

Still, the death of the country's last old guard revolutionary inevitably stirred reflection by some on the country's current leaders, only one of whom fought against the Americans. Giap's passing comes as the government is struggling against public dissatisfaction over corruption and a faltering economy.

"I'm not sure we will have a third leader like Giap and Uncle Ho, " said Tran Thi Thien, who rose at 3 a.m. to pay tribute outside the Giap family home in Hanoi this past week. "I hope the current leadership would look at how people love and respect Gen. Giap to improve themselves and better lead the country."

On Saturday, Giap's body was laid in state in Hanoi. The country's top leaders, along with veterans and diplomats, paid their final respects ahead of Giap's funeral Sunday in his home province. Afterward, members of the public were allowed to pay their respects, with tens of thousands of people waiting in a line that stretched about three kilometers (two miles).

Nguyen Thi Phuong, a 30-year-old woman from Hanoi, waited for five hours before being able to pay her last respects to Giap. "My 6-year-old daughter asked me why do you go to his funeral? I told her we go to pay our highest respect to a man without whom we and the nation could not have what we have today," she said.

The national flag was flown at half-staff, and unrelated public events were canceled. The country's cable television provider blocked access to international sports and entertainment channels from Friday until Sunday.

Among the crowds watching coverage of ceremony on a big screen in a park close to the funeral home was an Italian Communist, who had traveled to Hanoi to join the mourners.

"In the '60s and '70s, we were shouting `Giap, Giap, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam will win,' " said Polo Giovanni. "And Vietnam won, and this represented hope for my generation and for humanity."

The mourning period has gone smoothly in a country where very little happens in public without the blessing of the ruling party. State media coverage projects a united nation, bolstering a government whose legitimacy still rests in part on its history of expelling foreign invaders.

But here and there, cracks have appeared: News of Giap's death first spread over Facebook, a wrinkle that would have underlined to the old guard how information now flows beyond their control. The public mourning was also unscripted. Some 150,000 people lined up over five days outside Giap's house to pay their respects, an outpouring of emotion that surprised his family, according to Giap's personal secretary, Col. Trinh Nguyen Huan.

Giap is best remembered for leading Vietnamese forces to victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

His Chinese advisers told him to strike elite French forces fast and hard, but Giap changed plans at the last minute and ordered his jungle troops, clad in sandals made of old car tires, to besiege the French army. The French were defeated after 56 days, and the unlikely victory led not only to Vietnam's independence, but hastened the collapse of colonialism across Indochina and beyond.

"He was an outstanding general, but he was a very simple man and very down to earth," said Nguyen Chan, a 78-year-old who fought in Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and on Saturday was watching the ceremony on the big screen. "For us, he was a commander in chief, a teacher and also a father."

Throughout most of the war against the United States, Giap was defense minister and armed forces commander, but he was slowly pushed aside after Ho Chi Minh's death in 1969. The glory for victory in 1975 didn't go to Giap.

He stepped down from his last state post, as deputy prime minister, in 1991. But despite losing favor with the government, he became even more beloved by the Vietnamese people. At age 97, Giap opposed the proposed expansion of a bauxite mine, in part because it was to be operated by a Chinese company. This angered the party because it helped legitimize charges by its critics that Vietnam's party is too close to its fellow Communists in China, the subject of popular nationalist anger in Vietnam.

"Giap was a critical figure in contemporary Vietnam history, however one part of his life will always be associated with his question of authority," said Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert at the City University of Hong Kong. "His legacy will be used as badge of legitimacy for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but this is occurring at a time when Vietnamese are questioning the direction of their country."

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