Mourning a People’s Hero

The extreme chaos that characterizes daily life in this capital of Vietnam suddenly disappeared over the weekend.

Streets normally clogged with thousands of impatient scooters, motorcycles, taxis, cars and trucks were empty. Many of the raucous sidewalk beer halls, cafés and tea shops were no longer overfilled with students, day laborers and competing mobile vendors. The neon lights outside of the karaoke bars stopped blinking, and TV sets that often show dancing pop stars or period films were silent black screens.

The quietude in this city of more than six million people was the result of the death one man — Vo Nguyen Giap, general of the People’s Army of Vietnam, who oversaw the defeats of the French and the Americans and who died on Oct. 4 at the (estimated) age of 102.

Hailed by his people and by historians and leaders around the world as a brilliant military tactician and commander, General Giap was the last of the revolutionaries who first brought communism to Vietnam.

Second only to the untouchable Ho Chi Minh, General Giap had remained an enduring symbol of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and revolutionary fervor.

Early Saturday morning, General Giap’s two-day funeral started at the memorial hall of the Ministry of Defense, a mammoth granite-walled structure often used for mourning officials and veterans. Goose-stepping soldiers in white uniforms took charge of countless wreaths and huge portraits of the military hero.

Thousands of policemen and young volunteers were deployed to provide extra security as the Communist Party general secretary, the president, the prime minister and former party bosses and government leaders led delegations to pay respect in front of the altar.

General Giap’s coffin was draped in the national flag, red with a gold star.

Many Vietnamese mourned him not only as a military hero, but also as symbol of the decency, dignity and rectitude that no longer exist in the ranks of Vietnam’s leaders. Nepotism is rampant. The current leaders are seen as corrupt and self-serving, putting personal and business gains ahead of the public good.

Over the past week, thousands of people queued up from early morning until late night, snaking around the streets from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum around to Dien Bien Phu, the street named after the devastating 1954 battle where General Giap ended French domination in Indochina.

From there, war veterans in wheelchairs, students, villagers and people from all walks of life quietly followed one another, step by step, toward the gate to General Giap’s home.

In small groups, carrying flowers, they entered the old French villa where General Giap had lived for decades, each person bowing and paying respect in front of his portrait.

Blogs, social media and news sites — many of them state-controlled, to be sure — have run continuous accounts of civility, solidarity and kindness among the mourners waiting on line. Cafés offered free bottled water, shops brought out large umbrellas to shield people from sun, and student volunteers passed out paper fans.

On social media, Vietnamese posted photos and videos of the general, many about his military triumphs. Some replaced their Facebook profile pictures with an image of the general, raising a clenched fist. Photos of General Giap paying visits to former comrades, many of them elderly men in their 80s and 90s, have been widely circulated.

The popular attitude here is that General Giap was the last of the old guard who could bring together the Vietnamese this way — that his death inspired people to exchange their normal, disorderly behavior, in this rapidly developing economy, for quieter and more dignified traditional manners. For decades, General Giap had been the flickering light for a people desperate for a truly compassionate leader, and now that light has been extinguished. Except for Ho Chi Minh, no one else in modern Vietnamese history will be remembered and celebrated in life and in death this way.

While he was the most prominent commander, leading many campaigns against the Americans, he fell out of favor within the Communist Party after the war. At one point, this military lion — who had also been a professor of history, a journalist, defense minister, among many other roles — was given the humbling post of vice prime minister for science and education.

Some of General Giap’s detractors — particularly in the West — have written about his ruthlessness in sending soldiers to die in battle. Others have lamented his reluctance later in life to speak out against the Communist Party’s abuse of power, or to criticize abuses by the current crop of leaders.

But the state-run media have been repeating all the proper salutations for his decisive military victories, his patriotic attitude, and his loyalty to the Communist Party.

Hanoi and other major cities in Vietnam are holding ceremonies this week to mourn General Giap. Then the normal chaos of life here will resume.

On Sunday, General Giap was flown from here to his home town in Quang Binh Province, in central Vietnam, where he was buried in a family plot, overlooking the sea.

The fear among ordinary Vietnamese — murmured, not openly spoken — is that General Giap’s death signals the final disappearance of moral decency for decades to come.

Nguyen Qui Duc, a former radio host, is a journalist based in Hanoi who has covered Asia for public media in America for more than 20 years.

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