Image: Vietnamese commuters pass a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.
Richard Vogel  /  AP
Vietnamese commuters pass a billboard with the portrait of former communist leader Ho Chi Minh, in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, on March 23.
updated 4/28/2005 3:29:08 PM ET 2005-04-28T19:29:08

Vietnam may be striding toward a capitalist future but it still clings to the memory of a communist leader born 115 years ago in a thatched, dirt-floor hut ringed by rice fields.

Among communism’s giants, Mao Zedong is played down in China, Stalin is reviled and Lenin has lost his luster in Russia, but the red star of Ho Chi Minh still shines brightly in Vietnam.

His portrait — gaunt and goateed — hangs in millions of homes and offices, including those of foreign companies. Children and senior officials get big doses of “Uncle Ho’s” teachings.

And his birthplace in this central Vietnam village is probably the country’s prime pilgrimage site. Each year, some 1.5 million people reverentially view the simple rustic dwellings where he was born and spent his boyhood. Visitors also flock to the museum where the likeness of this man who espoused an atheistic doctrine is enshrined over a Buddhist altar clouded by incense.

Visitors swell during special times. In the days leading up to Saturday’s celebrations on the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam War’s end, hundreds of veterans, their chests ablaze with red and gold medals, have been arriving from across the country.

But the influence Ho wields goes beyond that of the historical figure who led the Vietnamese to victory over France and then the United States — making possible the unification of North and South Vietnam six years after his death in 1969.

'Main ideology'
“Ho Chi Minh’s thoughts remain the main ideology, actions and policy of the communist party and people of Vietnam,” said Tran Khac Viet of the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy, which schools the country’s ruling elite.

Ticking off Vietnam’s core directions, the political scientist argued each was embedded in Ho’s thought.

What about the country’s embrace of free market economics? “In his will, Ho Chi Minh said he wanted to see Vietnam a much more prosperous country,” Viet said.

Vietnam becoming a more open, democratic society in the future? “Uncle Ho said people were the masters and the government only a servant of the people. We are following his definition that the government is for the people, by the people, of the people,” Viet said.

The country’s continuing communist political system, the rapid transformation of an agriculture-based economy into an industrialized one, an open door to foreign investment and the Internet also are justified by Ho’s interpreted texts and myth.

Ho is decidedly less popular in the former South Vietnam, and it’s doubtful that the younger generation in the north — especially the urbanized segment — spends a great deal of time meditating on Ho.

But indications are that a 2000 survey of the postwar generation by Youth Magazine still holds true. In that poll, Ho was voted the person they most revered, followed by Vo Nguyen Giap, the “Red Napoleon” who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu and at age 93 the last of the old guard still alive.

The magazine’s poll issue, which authorities promptly removed from the stands, also said that Microsoft founder Bill Gates was seven times more admired than anyone in the party’s Politburo and that many young people couldn’t name the country’s leaders.

Father figure
The founder in 1930 of Vietnam’s communist party, Ho is certainly more popular among the rising generation than communism itself, many foreign experts say. The young, still nationalistic, focus on Ho as father of the country, the man who sundered the foreign yoke.

The purges and other ruthless deeds of his regime are ignored, not known or unacknowledged. Treasured is the image of a humble, simple-living father figure. Having posters of pop star Britney Spears next to one of Uncle Ho, as they do in Hanoi, poses no contradiction.

The sentiments of the older generation in the north, those who suffered through decades of conflict and deprivation while Ho led the country, are less equivocal.

“Every Vietnamese loves him. I didn’t know much about Ho when I was young but when he called I followed. Everybody did,” said Do Van Viet, a 75-year-old veteran, paying his respects at Ho’s birthplace.

The medaled ex-colonel fought against the French and Americans and was wounded eight times. But his proudest moments, the old warrior said, were meeting Ho on four occasions.

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