What did General Giap mean to Vietnam?

A crowd at General Giap's funeral procession
Image caption Tens of thousands of people turned out for General Giap's funeral procession

When a very elderly war hero, whose greatest exploits lie back in the distant past, dies, you expect the lines of stooped old veterans, their medals gleaming on their chests, lining up to pay their respects.

You also expect a grand, official funeral - although in the case of Vo Nguyen Giap it took the ruling Communist Party a few days to decide how grand it should be. It then decided, in view of the massive shows of affection for Gen Giap by the public, to make his funeral the most elaborate since the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969.

What you don't expect is lines of young people, their faces as mournful as those of the veterans, expressing the same intense admiration and respect for him - some wearing shirts or bandanas proclaiming their love for Gen Giap.

Vietnam is a young country - nearly half the population is under 25. They were not even born when Vo Nguyen Giap was sacked from the politburo in 1982, and pushed to the margins of political life.

The weary old Marxist slogans still trotted out by the party have little appeal to the younger generation, who are exposed to the consumerism and opportunities created by the market economy.

Today in the centres of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City the same shopping malls and global brands are as visible as they are in any other south east Asian city.

Marxist idealist

Gen Giap, though, stuck loyally to those tired slogans to the end of his life, in explaining his victories over the French and the Americans.

He never wavered from the script, or offered any sense of doubt or crisis he might have felt during the long war, when his forces often lost battle after battle, and suffered staggering casualties.

Instead, he spouted the historic inevitability of a communist triumph.

In a rare personal reflection he once said the death of his wife and infant daughter in a French colonial jail in 1943 had ruined his life. His wife's sister was executed by guillotine.

Image caption General Giap's death united young and old in grief

He himself experienced immense hardships hiding in the hills of northern Vietnam.

He did sometimes describe himself as a romantic - but he was not romantic about people, whose lives he was willing to sacrifice in enormous numbers, but about the ideas he absorbed as an earnest young pupil in the Lycee Quoc Hoc in Hue.

He was from a generation of Marxist idealists who believed completely in the rightness and irresistibility of revolution, whatever the human cost. And he was very tough - tough enough to order the killing of thousands of non-communists in 1946.

So why is he now being idolised by people of all ages?

The answers I got were revealing.

Indirect protest

Everyone cited the same qualities that they admired in Gen Giap. He was a simple, courteous man, who lived a simple life, they said. And that he was a great patriot, who had led the country to victory and independence - up there with Ho Chi Minh, they said.

A few made the point that there are no leaders like that any more.

Those are two qualities that reflect the most incendiary grievances felt against today's Communist leaders - that they have allowed corruption and self-enrichment to get out of hand, and that they are not sufficiently tough in dealing with China, Vietnam's giant neighbour, one-time conqueror, and challenger for control of islands in the South China Sea, or East Sea as the Vietnamese call it.

One man told me he was sad General Giap was no longer around to defend Vietnam over the East Sea issue, as if a 102-year-old could somehow have rallied the country to fight China.

As much as he was a die-hard communist, Vo Nguyen Giap was a nationalist, who believed any sacrifice was worth making to achieve a united, independent Vietnam.

He understood how powerful an idea this was in a country with a deep-rooted folk history of resisting foreign occupation - that he could use it to mobilise much of the population to endure all manner of suffering for his "People's War". And he oversaw remarkable victories, against first-rate, Western armies.

Image caption Mourners queued to pay their respects to Gen Giap at his burial ceremony

Nationalism is still a powerful force in Vietnam, but it is also a way people can lash out at the party tangentially, without risking the same punishment they would receive if they criticised it directly.

One young woman, Trinh Kim Tien, has become something of a celebrity because of her prominence in recent anti-Chinese protests, which she joined initially in outrage over the death of her father at the hands of Vietnam's notoriously rough police force. They are calling her "Miss Protest".

Criticism of the party over corruption and economic mismanagement has exploded recently on the internet.

This year has seen an unprecedented debate over the constitution, which the party began when it proposed some mild reforms.

One group of prominent intellectuals and former party members came back with a far more radical proposal, including ending the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

In vain, the authorities keep jailing bloggers, but they have in effect lost control of the internet.

It is in this context that the adulation of Gen Giap should be seen. He was in fact unwaveringly loyal to the party, and only occasionally said anything that could threaten its authority.

But in death he is being seen as a symbol of everything that today's Communist leaders are not; charismatic, heroic, clean-living, a true patriot.

Within hours of the funeral cortege passing the massed crowds who had come to say farewell to General Giap on the streets of Hanoi, they were back to normal. Young couples were posing, as they do every Sunday, in their wedding costumes, in parks, or in front of glitzy designer shops.

Theirs are very different values from his, as will be their lives.

But for a moment, an old war hero captured the hearts of an entire nation.

More on this story