Tran Dang Khoa - About General Giap
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Editor’s message: Tran Dang Khoa was named Vietnam’s genius poet following the publication of his first collection of poems, “The yard corner and Sky interval,” at age 9. Vietnamese people, old and young, know his poems by heart. His book “Đảo chìm” or “Submerged Island,” featuring the lives of Vietnamese soldiers stationed on Truong Sa or Spratly archipelago, has been much admired by people of different generations. Tran Dang Khoa is now working for Voice of Vietnam Radio. The columnist is a “page-view generator” for different features of VOVonline, particularly the newly-launched “Editors’ Blog,” where he shares his concerns and thoughts about what’s happening in the country. Selected VOVonline Editors’ Blog columns are also now available at VOVworld.vn.
(VOV) - A story about the legendary general being my first houseguest of the New Year happened long ago. It slept silently in some corner of my memory until a VOV reader woke it up.
I was dump founded when the VOV online newspaper found a photo of me and General Giap and posted it on its popular website. I was also amazed by readers’ comments, which have been extremely sharp and much more interesting than my own articles. At the launch of this blog on the website, I said I sincerely welcomed comments from readers because I think my job is just to open a forum of discussions for all of you.
I never imagined this forum would attract such a large number of visitors both young and old. Some visitors are senior party members, some are mere youths and some refer to themselves as my nephews. Some have asked to hear the story of General Giap being my first houseguest of the New Year. That’s the reason I’m now talking about it on this blog.
Dagestan poet Rasum Gamzatov makes the reasonable point that if you go out into the world, you can show your ID card or passport to identify yourself. For a nation, its ID papers are its scientists, poets, writers, composers, painters, politicians and generals. They are the passports of nations in the larger world.
I once accompanied the Vietnamese delegation to the World Youth Festival and was very surprised to receive a warm welcome from a vast sea of people chanting “Ho Chi Minh- Giap- Giap. Ho Chi Minh Giap Giap”. It was easy to understand why they were calling President Ho Chi Minh’s name, as he was a prominent leader and world cultural figure. What about Giap Giap? Were they saying something in English? After listening for a while, I realized they were calling the name of General Giap. For the world, this name is synonymous with Vietnam without any explanation. Along with Tran Hung Dao, Nguyen Trai, Quang Trung, Nguyen Du, and Ho Chi Minh, General Giap has become a passport for the Vietnamese nation around the globe.
At this moment, the legendary general is sitting in front of me- a kind and righteous old man in a bright red complexion and a cloud of white hair. He is like a Buddha in a children’s fairy tale.
- On the occasion of the New Year, I wish the General health and happiness. I wish you all the best of luck.
- Thank you for your kind wishes.
More than ten years ago, writer Le Luu and I and reporters from the Army Literary Arts Magazine visited the General and wrote the article “Talking with brother Van” (the General’s nickname) on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu victory. The article was printed in the Army Literary Arts Magazine in early May, 1994. Two weeks later, I visited the US where the American poet Bruce Weigl told me: “I read the article by you and Mr. Luu and saw the photo of you, Mr Luu, and general Giap. In the photo, general Giap is the youngest, then Mr. Luu and the oldest one is … you”.
General Giap smiles kindly:
- They were joking. Foreigners love jokes. In fact, I’m not young any more and you are not old yet!
- Yes, I know they were joking, but that joke showed their love for you. It’s obvious that our people, our soldier love you, but even the enemy that you defeated respect you. It’s not easy to be respected and admired by the enemy.
General Vo Nguyen Giap seems not to pay much attention to my words. He just smiles- a gentle smile. The general has not changed much since I last met him 10 years ago, though he passed the advanced age of 70 long ago. It seems the invincible General Giap is even winning the war against old age. His eyes are still bright and youthful and his mind is still sharp. In the early days of spring, I asked him to reveal his secret for staying so energetic. He replied gently:
- I don’t have any secrets. Just do exercise, live peacefully and don’t think only of yourself.
According to the General’s daughter, Physics Professor Vo Hong Anh, the General lives very moderately. He gets up early to do exercise, then walks around his garden. He has breakfast at 7:30. He eats only a small bowl of soup and a slice of bread. He has a small lunch and eats little for dinner- a small bowl of corn soup, vegetables and a little rice. But, he works every day from 8 o’clock in the morning. He receives guests or attends seminars according to the schedule arranged by his secretary. He also reads books, all kinds of books about the military, sciences and famous figures we all as novels, poems and literary criticism.
The General presents to me some books and copies of interesting articles on science and economics that he has enjoyed. I’m surprised that he reads so much and I think this explains why he is so wise. Human wisdom is contained in books and it’s no wonder that Karl Marx told his daughter that exploiting books was what he enjoyed most.
- I have read Tra’s (General Pham Van Tra- late Vietnamese Minister of Defense) memoirs, in which he told some stories about me. I was very moved by one statement in the book: General Vo Nguyen Giap regretted every drop of blood shed by his soldiers. The writer understood me well.
Then General Giap falls silent. His face takes on a gentle sadness. He looks like a mountain in the sunset. He seems to be recalling his echoing past. At the battle of Dien Bien Phu, he was the Commander in Chief, but he knew thoroughly every unit whose head could directly report to him its situation and casualties.
General Giap is a cautious person. Before each battle, he thoroughly studied the terrain and made detailed plans: where the soldiers should march, how long it would take them to reach the battlefield, what types of weapons they had, how long the battle would take and how the soldiers could withdraw safely from the enemy’s attacks. Only after he worked out his plan in all necessary details, did he launch the attack.
It might surprise you to think of a legendary and invincible general thoroughly preparing his retreat before a battle. Was that his secret for winning? It might also surprise you to know that when he won a fight, other people applauded while the General himself sat alone in his headquarters mourning the loss of his soldiers. Only a few people were aware of his tears. I remember the year of Mau Than (1968) and a verse by Huu Thinh:
“Back from a fight
Seeing redundant weapons, bowls and chopsticks
They are so redundant
That survivors could not see themselves as lucky people
Many intentions we had for the Mau Than campaign…”
That might be the reason Major General Nguyen Chuong, Commander of Army Corps 29 and one of General Giap’s staunchest officers allocated part his land to for the construction of a temple to worship martyrs. “All these soldiers were brothers in arms with us on different battlefields and tragically laid down their lives. Their parents were dead and they had neither wives nor children yet. Nobody would burn incense to them on the new-moon and full-moon days of the lunar month. I’m lucky to be a survivor and to have received a piece of land from the army. I set up this small temple to invite the soldiers’ souls to return to me”. General Chuong instructed his children to take care of the martyr’s souls after his death.
And that might be the reason General Giap refused to let me read his memoirs. Actually, he has written the memoirs or told his story to others to be written down. His memoirs are about Uncle HO, the Party and the people’s struggle. It was a glorious period in the nation’s history, and it’s a story about the leader, the people, the soldiers and the nation’s revolutionary struggle seen through the eyes of a general. The general and his fate remains largely unknown.
- My life has nothing to tell. Compared with Uncle Ho, the people and the soldiers, I’m just one drop in a vast ocean.
That’s what General Vo Nguyen Giap says. He is a modest man. What does he wish for? If he remains healthy and it’s possible, he wishes to return to former battlefields to visit poor people who shared with him a cassava and a tattered blanket. I suddenly recall an elderly ethnic minority man I met on the way to Muong Phang (the place, where Dien Bien Phu Campaign Headquarter located). That old man told me excitedly:
- The General? I know the General. I have met him a few times. This is the General’s homeland. Some years ago, the General returned home. The General talked to us in our dialect. He is our patriarch. His house is over there.
The old man pointed up Muong Phang mountain. A thick forest nestled below a vast range of bare hills. In Dien Bien and neighboring areas, most of the forests have been destroyed. At midnight, I saw distant flames lighting up the sky. Local people were burning forests to clear farmland. There’s no way to prevent this. The people are hungry and have to cut down the forest. Many mountains are now bare, but Muong Phang remains luxuriant. I walked in the shade of the trees listening to birds twitter. Trees in this forest are neither cut down nor broken. Here, people are poor and hungry, but they take loving care of this forest.
They call the forest “The General’s forest” and consider it a sacred temple consecrated to the general. For a general, it is a great joy with which few are blessed in this life. …/.
Tran Dang Khoa.