Uncle Ho

Gentle Sun...a soft
breeze...a flower smiles
At the top of a tree...a
shining branch...
The hum of a chorus of
Men and beast feel the
change coming
What is more natural?
After unhappiness, here
comes joy.

(From Notebook From Prison by Ho Chi Minh, 1942)



In Vietnam, it is hard to escape both the image and the influence of Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he was called by his followers. From his embalmed corpse in a mausoleum to endless statues throughout the country to countless posters and souvenirs bearing his likeness to his ideology which shapes Vietnam to this day, his presence is felt throughout the country whose independence he fought for so bitterly.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

Posters with Ho Chi Minh's image

T-shirts with Ho Chi Minh, tourist wearing Ho Chi Minh T-shirt


Even today, much of his life story is unknown and this mystery contributes to his demi-god status in Vietnam. The image most of us have of Ho Chi Minh is of a thin, almost frail figure in a simple, peasant garb and sandals. This image belies his role as a revolutionary and nationalist obsessed with winning independence for Vietnam.

Images of Ho Chi Minh


Born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890 in Vinh province in Central Vietnam. The area was ruled by a puppet emperor who was controlled by the French. At this time political and military power was held by the French. His father worked at the imperial court until he quit his post and became an itinerant teacher and dissident. Ho's mother died when he was 11. When he as a teenager, Ho studied in Hue. He became a schoolteacher and was a participant in a number of tax revolts. This activity earned him a file in the dossiers of the French police. The file described his appearance as "awkward...mouth half open."

Images that reflect the influence of French culture on Vietnam


In 1911, with the Ba, Ho found a job as a cook on a French passenger ship and for three years he sailed the world with stops in African, Mediterranean and American ports. He lived in London from 1915 to 1917, working in the Carlton Hotel kitchens and attending meetings of a secret Asian society and socialist groups.

In 1917, Ho Chi Minh moved to Paris which was home to numerous radical groups including leaders of the French unions. He worked as a gardener, sweeper, waiter, photo retoucher, and oven stoker during his six year stay in France, but more importantly, Ho became an active socialist and took on the name Nguyen Ai Quoc, "Nguyen the Patriot."

While in Paris, Ho did enjoy some bourgeois pleasures, including American cigarettes (preferably Camels and Lucky Strikes) and the music of Maurice Chevalier.

Woodrow Wilson came to France in 1919 to sign the treaty ending World War I and Ho thought Wilson's doctrine of self-determination also applied to Asia. He tried to present the President with a list of France's abuses in Vietnam, but was turned away.

Inspired by the Russian Revolution and Lenin's anti-imperialist beliefs, Ho joined the newly formed French Communist Party in 1920. Ho moved to Moscow in 1923. At the 5th Congress of the Communist International in 1924, Ho spoke of the important role of oppressed peasants in the revolution. Ho Chi Minh began work as a spy for Moscow, under a variety of aliases and disguised as a Chinese journalist or a Buddhist monk. Often listed as dead, he would reappear in new places like Rangoon or Calcutta.

In Canton in 1924, Ho formed the Vietnamese Association of Revolutionary Youth or Thanh Nien. Canton was home to many Indochinese activists and exiles. When Chiang Kai Shek banned the Communist Party in 1927, Ho fled to Thailand. In 1930 Ho and members of Thanh Nien brought together different splinter groups and formed the Vietnamese Communist Party. Ho was very much a skilled political operator. He acted as a mediator between various factions, won and kept the confidence of Moscow, and wielded increasing influence among the Vietnamese communists. After the formation of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Ho claimed to be celibate to demonstrate his moral character, but he had at least two wives. One wife was the sister-in-law of Vo Nguyen Giap (Ho's close friend and ally), who was guillotined by the French.

In 1940, when Japanese forces moved into Vietnam, the French, loyal to the Vichy regime, collaborated with them. To Ho, the Japanese were no better than the French and he urged his followers to fight both. Ho crossed the border into Vietnam for the first time in thirty years and in a remote camp formed the Viet Minh, or Vietnam Independence League. At this time he took his nom de guerre, Ho Chi Minh, or "He Who Enlightens." The aim of the Viet Minh was to "unite all patriots, without differences of wealth, age, sex, religion or political opinion, to work together for the liberation of our people and the salvation of our nation."

Circumstances forced the new organization to seek help from Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang did not trust Ho because he was a communist and had him arrested. Ho spent 18 months in prison in China. While imprisoned he wrote his Notebook From Prison, a collection of poems written in Chinese. Ho's release was arranged through Chiang Fa-k-uei, a warlord, with the understanding that the Viet Minh would support Chiang's efforts against the French in Indochina.

In 1945, the Japanese completely overtook Indochina and imprisoned or executed the French officials. Six months later, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, defeating the Japanese. The French and Japanese were eliminated as enemies of the Viet Minh. Vo Nguyen Giap (Ho's faithful ally and military strategist) led forces into Hanoi on August 19, 1945. On September 2, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent using language strikingly similar to that in the Declaration of Independence. Thus began nearly three decades of battle for Vietnam's independence.

Many shops fly Vietnamese flags on September 2, Vietnam Independence Day

Posters that commemorate Vietnam's independence in 1945


In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to negotiate with Ho Chi Minh using tactics he used with congressmen. Johnson said "Old Ho can't turn me down," but he did, proclaiming "We will never agree to negotiate under the threat of bombing." There was no lessening Ho's commitment to independence, even as war ravaged his country. The West underestimated Ho Chi Minh's commitment and his willingness to sacrifice millions of his countrymen.

Images of the cost of war from the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City


In the last years of his life, Ho Chi Minh was less actively involved in the government, though he continued to wield enormous influence. He became more of a symbol to the people. The moniker Uncle Ho symbolized how Ho Chi Minh stood for the unity of the divided Vietnamese family.

Ho Chi Minh among his people

Contemporary poster with Uncle Ho and the Vietnamese family


From 1958 until his death in 1969, Ho lived and worked in a lakeside house in Hanoi. The house stands on stilts. The simple interior with minimal furnishings can only be viewed from the outside stairway.

Views of Ho Chi Minh's house, Hanoi


Ho Chi Minh died on September 2, 1969 at the age of 79. Ho specified in his will that his heirs "...divide my ashes into three and place them in three ceramic urns: one for the north, one for the centre, one for the south." Instead, his body was embalmed and put on display in a glass casket in a mausoleum modeled after Lenin's tomb in Moscow. Every year his body is flown to Russia for a "checkup" by the Soviets who performed the embalming.

Various views of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum at night

The Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi pays homage to Ho with displays of his letters, drafts of speeches, photos, his cane and his pith helmet. The museum also highlights what was going on in the world at the same time that Ho was developing his doctrine. This includes paintings by Picasso and surrealist painters, early films, the Eiffel Tower and jazz.

The Ho Chi Minh Museum., Hanoi


Ho Chi Minh was a key figure in the anti-colonial movement in Asia and was one of the most influential communist leaders after World War II. As a revolutionary, he waged the longest battle against the colonial system and caused a national crisis in the United States, the strongest of capitalist countries. With Yugoslav leader Tito, Ho was one of the creators of national communism.

Ho Chi Minh, 1890-1969



This page was created for Howard Besser's Digital Collections of Still and Moving Images Course at UCLA, Winter 2000