It was my great fortune to spend this morning with one of Vietnam’s towering giants, soldier, writer, scholar and so much more, Huu Ngoc, now 104 years of age. I met him twice before, in 2004 and 2010.
His living room in Cau Giay district is simple at first glance, but filled with the treasures of a truly amazing life.
Stacks of his 37 books and thousands of articles are everywhere. Huu Ngoc happily shows his latest book, the two-volume “Cao Thom Lan Gio”. It is 1.000 pages written by hand at the age of 99, and typed by younger relatives.
“It is definitely my last book. I cannot really see well enough to write anymore, Ngoc says in fluent English with a slight French accent.
On the wall, there is a big black and white photo of himself with his beloved wife Trinh and their daughter Dich Van. The family had just been re-united after the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which led to the collapse of French colonialism in Indochina.
Ngoc fought there in the final battle, while his wife took care of the wounded as an army nurse. His beloved Trinh passed away some months ago, and their daughter just turned 70.
Next to the family photo, there is a small blurred photo. A very young Huu Ngoc is standing there between President Ho Chi Minh and Vice President Ton Duc Thang and a high-ranking delegation from the German Democratic Republic.
“Our leader was in desperate need of a translator. He was fluent in French and English, but the Germans only knew their own language. I had learned German from a German prisoner of war, who had fought with the French, so i jumped in as Uncle Ho’s personal translator,” Huu Ngoc says with a grin.
LET ME SHARE with you some excerpts from our wide ranging conservation this morning, carried out at around 90 decibel or so, due to Huu Ngoc’s fading hearing.
Here is what he had to say about China and the legacy of Confucianism: “The Chinese have believed for 21 centuries that the almighty emperors all are sons from heaven. They still believe that, and the present emperor, called President, certainly aims to rule the world.”
ON THE AMERICANS: “They are our friends, but they are not good readers. So when I wrote my very thick book “Wandering through Vietnamese culture”, I asked my wonderful friend Lady Borton for help. She cut down the American version of my book to one third to help me, and her fellow Americans to understand my message.”
ON UPSETTTING the Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller during his official visit to Vietnam in 2004: “I tried my best to humour the minister and help him understand why we did not welcome French colonialism.”
“Uncle Ngoc, As you may recall, I was there as a note taker from the Embassy. Do you remember what you said to him?”
“Tell me, young friend.”
“You know, our foreign minister at the time had very close personal ties to France, and he became upset, because you talked so much about French brutality and exploitation. Then he asked you, if you did not have anything good to say about the French.
You replied:”Oh yes, Minister. I can mention one thing. You see the beautiful Vietnamese lady over at the door. Look at her Ao Dai and the nice cut exposing a small triangle of her beautiful skin right above her thigh. Before the French the Ao Dai looked more like a soldier’s tent. I am very grateful to the French for introducing that beautiful cut!”.
ON A HAPPY and long life:”Uncle Ngoc, when we met the last time in 2010, you gave me a very important advice to follow to achieve a good life.”
“Yes I remember. I told you to be strong as a tiger. I hope you listened well.”
“Uncle Ngoc, you also reassured me back then that the future is always better than the past.”
“Yes, I think I said so. If you still believe that, you are a bigger optimist than me!”
Uncle Ngoc then challenges his failing eye sight and writes a personal dedication for me in his 665 pages “Sketches for a portrait of Vietnamese culture.” The book was a present from my ex-wife in 2002, and with Ngoc’s dedication in it, I am concerned she might steal it back.
Never the less, Uncle Ngoc then starts singing an old military song for us as his farewell salute.
The above is written with a very big thanks to the eminent Toui Tre journalist Huong Hoang, who helped me find Huu Ngoc again on this rainy Saturday morning in Hanoi.