Catherine Karnow’s portrait of general Vo Nguyen Giap, a history teacher, who barely knew how to fire a gun. Trained  by US military advisers during WWII,  Giap went on to become the commanding general of one of the most formidable armies of the 20th century.

25 years ago, the late journalist and historian Stanley Karnow travelled back to Vietnam to finally meet the legendary Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap. Karnow’s daughter Catherine, a young photographer, went along a few months later and came to share her father’s unique access to the enigmatic North Vietnamese General.

Stanley Karnow, a veteran reporter of the wars against the French and subsequently the US-supported Saigon regime, was one of the very first Americans who anticipated the implications of the US engagement in Vietnam. Shortly after the Kennedy administration came into power, Karnow asked the President’s primary adviser Robert Kennedy, if Vietnam should not be seen as the major foreign policy challenge for the US.

“We got 30 Vietnam’s a day,” Robert Kennedy retorted.

Karnow went on to cover the war until the end in 1975. As the first American journalist after the war, he was allowed to visit communist Vietnam in 1982 on a research trip for his widely admired ‘Vietnam – A History’.  To Karnow’s frustration, Giap along with other enigmatic top figures like Le Duc Tho was unavailable.  ‘Only’ Prime Minister Pham Van Dong – a legend in his own right – would speak to Karnow.

Eight years later, Giap finally agreed to talk to Karnow. The outcome was a fascinating interview with the old general in the New York Times.

On this rare occasion, Giap shared with Karnow his life from the early days, when he was expelled from school for subversive activities against the French Colonialist regime, the death of his first wife in a French prison, the sleepless nights before the final battle at Dien Bien Phu, The 1968 Tet Offensive, and the ‘final victory’ in 1975, when the North Vietnamese forces and their Southern allies moved into Saigon.

Here is how Karnow heard Giap, reflecting on a long life at war:

A typical retired general, Giap now devotes much of his time to revisiting battlefields and addressing veterans. ”If I had not become a soldier,” he reflects, ”I probably would have remained a teacher, maybe of philosophy or history. Someone recently asked me whether, when I first formed our army, I ever imagined I would fight the Americans. Quelle question! Did the Americans, back then, ever imagine that they would one day fight us?”

He gripped my hand as we parted, saying: ”Remember, I am a general who fought for peace. I wanted peace – but not peace at any price.” With that he walked off briskly, leaving me to contemplate the cemeteries, the war monuments and the unhealed memories in France, America and Vietnam, and the terrible price their peoples paid.”

Here is a link to the full interview:


In the interview, there is no indication of any kind of personal hostility from Giap towards the Americans. On other occasions Giap spoke highly on his very first encounters with US military personnel. During WW II, Giap and his comrades received weapons and training assistance from the US Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of CIA.  At the time, the US saw the Vietnamese guerillas as important allies against the Japanese occupation forces in Vietnam.

Giap himself fondly remembered, how a young American soldier, Henry Prunier, had trained him to throw hand grenades. In 1995, Giap spotted Prunier in a visiting US delegation to Hanoi. Giap picked an orange from the bowl in front of him and lobbied it hand grenade style to Prunier, the General’s way of showing his visitors that he had not forgotten the past.

During WW II, the relations between the Vietnamese resistance leaders and the so called ‘Deer Team’ (the code name for the military advisers) became cordial to the point that US team leader assisted Ho Chi Minh in drafting the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence.


Ho Chi Minh and Giap posing with the members of The Deer Team, the US military advisors, who assisted the Vietnamese resistance movement in their struggle against the Japanese occupation forces during VWII. Giap is seen in the white suit and tie, Henry Prunier is seen behind to the right of Giap.

Just a few months ago, I had the privilege to meet Catherine Karnow in Hanoi at her exhibition of photos, taken in Vietnam during the past 25 years. Her works are some of the very best I have seen on post-war Vietnam.  In my eyes, her portrait of Vo Nguyen Giap is the finest of them all.

Ms. Karnow and the Art Vietnam Gallery made a print available for me, which is now on the wall in our home here in Hanoi.  Below the portrait is a comfortable couch, perfect for reading once again her father’s 1983 tour de force ‘Vietnam – A History’.  His compelling narrative was instrumental in making me pack my bags for Vietnam as a young reporter in those days.

In 2013, General Giap, Henry Prunier and Stanley Karnow all passed away at the age of 102, 91, and 87, respectively.  Catherine Karnow continues to work around the globe, turning out some truly amazing work. Here is a link to her website:




HCM Today, I hand over my blog to Ho Chi Minh on the occasion of his 125th Birthday. Here is a poem from his famous Prison Diary written in 1942, in a Chinese jail. He was held there under unspeakable conditions as a suspected spy. Once released, his condition was so poor that his US VWII military trainers,  the famous Deer Team agents, reported to Washington, that they feared he soon would be dead. At the time, Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh guerillas were considered an important US ally in the war against the Japanese.  Ho Chi Minh did recover in his jungle hide-out, but remained frail until his death in 1969.   


Before the gate, a guard with a rifle on his shoulder.

In the sky, the moon flees through clouds.

Swarming bed bugs, like black army tanks in the night.

Squadrons of mosquitoes, like waves of attacking planes.

I think of my homeland. I dream I can fly far away.

I dream I wander trapped in webs of sorrow.

A year has come to an end here.

What crime did I commit?

In tears I write another prison poem.


Ho Chi Minh and the later general Vo Nguyen Giap with the “Deer Team” – the US agents from the OSS (later CIA) who trained the Vietnamese guerillas during the VWII struggle against the Japanese occupation of Vietnam.


I hand over my blog today to the Thanh Nhien newspaper, lashing out against the State Owned Enterprises in today’s top story. The story is written by the Bloomberg Hanoi office. 
Vietnam’s state-owned enterprises were once its biggest employers, the largest revenue earners, the main growth drivers. Now, in criticism rarely seen since the nation was unified 40 years ago, their dominance in the economy is being debated.
Dissatisfaction with state companies has been simmering in recent years, particularly after the global financial crisis when they were blamed for amassing piles of bad debt that crimped lending. As the government tries to spur economic growth, lawmakers are pressing for a rethink of these firms and greater support for private-sector businesses, instead.
“We need to change our mindset on the concept of state enterprises,” said Tran Du Lich, a member of the National Assembly economic committee and a lawmaker. “The government needs to stop giving preference to state companies and create a more balanced policy for all sectors in the economy.”
The view that the state sector should be taken down in influence is gaining currency decades after the “Doi Moi” reforms of 1986 brought market-oriented change to Vietnam. While Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is aiming for record share sales this year, a leadership transition in 2016 limits the possibility of a complete overhaul of the inefficient and sometimes corrupt state companies that have held back an economy forecast to be among the fastest growing in the region.
State companies’ contribution to Vietnam’s gross domestic product fell to less than a third last year from about 56 percent before the reforms, while the private sector contributed 43 percent to GDP last year, data from the statistics department showed. SOEs also had only about 10 percent of the total workforce in 2014, while the private sector had 86 percent.
Leading role
The government has come under increasing pressure to overhaul the system after state-owned Vietnam Shipbuilding Industry Group, now renamed Shipbuilding Industry Corp., defaulted on a $600 million offshore loan in 2010, prompting concern the country’s banking system may collapse. Two former executives at Vietnam National Shipping Lines were sentenced to death in 2013 for embezzlement.
The parliament in 2013 considered a revision to the constitution to remove language stipulating that the state sector will have the “leading role” in the economy. Lawmakers eventually adopted a watered down version that affirmed their dominant position to protect workers’ welfare, they said then.
While the number of state companies has more than halved to about 5,600 now from 12,000 in 1990, they still take up almost half of public investment, tie up 60 percent of bank lending and make up more than half the nation’s bad debt.
“State enterprises are no longer competent enough to play the key role in the economy,” said Le Dang Doanh, an economist and former government adviser in Hanoi. “They use up a lot of resources, but their contribution is not in proportion. The government must encourage private enterprises more for the sake of the economy.”
Limited resources
Efforts to boost the private sector have yielded mixed results: while foreign investment into Vietnam has surged in recent years, it is directed primarily at export-focused makers of apparel, shoes and electronics. Success elsewhere has been limited, in contrast to the global ascent of Chinese companies including mobile phone maker Xiaomi Corp. and e-commerce firm Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. that also circumvented a system favoring state enterprises.
In Vietnam, government support for private companies is “negligible and inconsistent,” and they face many challenges including limited financial resources as most banks favour state firms, said Hoang Van Dung, vice chairman of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hanoi.
Very reluctant
Despite the growing resentment of SOEs, there may be little political will to alter the landscape significantly, with a leadership transition looming next year, said Christian Lewis, Asia analyst at Eurasia Group in New York.
“Politicians will be very reluctant to challenge the wealthy and powerful vested interests in the state-owned sector at a time when they need financial backers and backroom influence,” Lewis said. While more companies are being partially privatized, the volume of state ownership is not seeing a precipitous drop, “indicating that the government is not willing to give much ground on ownership and management questions,” he said.
Six of the top 10 companies by market capitalization on the benchmark VN Index are still partly state-owned, compared with four out of five in 2000 when the index was established with five stocks.
Their continued dominance “is evidence that the government doesn’t want to loosen its grip on SOEs,” said Nguyen Dinh Cung, head of the planning and investment ministry’s Central Institute for Economic Management in Hanoi. “The state sector is still considered as key for the economy. That view must be changed since this has affected policy making and left the private sector at a huge disadvantage.”


I dag for 40 år siden sluttede Vietnam-krigen endelig, efter det meste af landet var lagt i ruiner og 3-4 millioner menneskeliv gået tabt. I dagene forinden svirrede rygterne om, at kommunisterne havde planer om at foretage et sidste skånselsløst blodbad under indtagelsen af Saigon. De sidste amerikanere og de fleste vestlige journalister flygtede over hals og hoved. Som eneste danske journalist blev Jens Nauntofte tilbage for at dække magtovertagelsen.  Min blog er i dag overladt til Jens i form af disse uddrag fra hans dagbog ‘Gul Stjerne over Vietnam’.


30. april 1975

Ved daggry vågner vi ved lyden af de sidste helikoptere, der løfter bagtroppen ud. Kl. 08:56 letter den sidste Sea Knight fra betonkolossen. Et par minutter forinden har den sidste amerikanske bulletin forladt Saigon. Sendt til The White House Situation Room, hvorfra (præsident) Ford og (udenrigsminister) Kissinger følger begivenhederne: LADY ACE 09 afgår med CODE TWO, et synonym for ambassadør Graham Martin. Knugende sin håndtaske og Stars and Stripes letter Superhøgen.

Graham Martin

Ambassadør Graham Martin under et sidste kaotisk møde med Saigon’s pressekorps. Billedet er taget af det amerikanske nyhedsbureau AP’s fotograf Ky Nhan, som 30. april troppede op på sin arbejdsplads med sine hidtil hemmeligholdte nordvietnamesiske forbundsfæller.


Det går stærkt nu. Befrielsesfronten er på vej ind i centrum, radiostationen er besat. Ved postkontoret i Le Loi gaden, hvor også telexcentralen ligger, er der stuvende fuldt af mennesker, som vil sende sidste telegrammer ud af landet. Langs Saigon Floden er der stærk forvirring, der er skydning på den anden side af floden, både læsset med mennesker stævner ned mod havet, en slæbebåd kommer tæt forbi os. På dækket sidder et halvt hundrede mennesker med kufferter og bylter. De håber vel på at nå så langt ud, at de bliver samlet op af de amerikanske evakueringsskibe.


Foran Nationalbanken er der opløb. Skaren har samlet sig om to unge nordvietnamesiske soldater, der er blevet smidt af på hjørnet af den store bankbygning. De holder vagt. De bliver nidstirret. Grønne uniformer. Flade hjelme og sorte Ho Chi Minh-sandaler. De er ikke et år over tyve, de står og klamrer sig til de erobrede M-16 geværer, tydeligt generte over den intense opmærksomhed de vækker.

En tøvende konversation er så småt i gang. Den ene tager imod en cigaret og lyser op i et stort smil da den bliver tændt for ham. Så følger hans kammerat eksemplet.


Imens strømmer soldaterne ind i byen. Vi ser dem nu overalt, mens vi kører mod paladset. Et sted går en nordvietnamesisk soldat med en lang række tilfangetagne Saigon-soldater. Fortovene er fyldt med henslængt militærudrustning. Stålhjelme, våben, støvler – og bukser. Man ser unge mænd på gaden kun iført sorte shorts. Kapitulationen taler sit eget kontante sprog.


Ved paladset kører tre T-54 tanks med et smæld gennem det elegante gitterværk og tværs over plænerne. I et hjørne af parken får en gruppe Saigon-soldater skrupler og åbner ild. Kanontårnene drejer 180 grader og i et par minutter er alt blåt og hvidt. De jublende mennesker smelter chokeret væk. Så er der stille igen, og folk kommer frem for at fraternisere med de unge soldater der hopper af vognene hele vejen end gennem alléen. Et par hensynsfulde soldater fejer senere de blodige rester af paladsvagten til side.


Præsident Minh forsøger her at overdrage magten til den nordvietnamesiske kommissær Tung, der senere bliver verdensberømt under sit rigtige navn Bui Tin for sit bidende svar: “Det kan De ikke, De kan ikke overdrage noget De ikke har.” Bui Tin lever i dag i eksil i Paris efter et voldsomt opgør med ledelsen i det vietnamesiske kommunistparti.

inde i Hallen venter præsident Minh. Ved hans side står premierminister Vu Van Mau, der har nået at fungere i sit nye embede i 36 timer.

– Velkommen, udbryder Mau med sit mest strålende smil. Også Min smiler, men lidt krampagtigt. Kommissær Tung fejer forbi dem ud på balkonen for at hejse fanen over paladset, så folk i Saigon kan se, at magtskiftet er fuldbyrdet.

Minh forklarer Tung, at han er rede til at overdrage magten. Tung afviser det. Han mener ikke, at Minh har nogen magt at overdrage.


På AP’s kontor dukker fotografen Ky Nhan frem i døren. I tre år har han arbejdet for bureauet som dets fotograf, og bureauchefen George Esper finder, at han er en behagelig samarbejdspartner. Altid villig til at tage derhen, hvor der sker noget.  Pludselig får han øje på de fire nordvietnamesere, der står ved siden af Ky Nhan, to af dem er officerer. De første Esper har set. Måbende stirrer han fra den ene til den anden. Siger så ind i telefonen: Mit bureau er okkuperet af Viet Cong. Så lægger han rører på.

Med et stille smil siger Ky Nhan, at han i de tre år også har arbejdet for Befrielsesfronten.


Hen mod aften slutter Vietnam-krigen. De sidste modstandslommer er nedkæmpet. Også faldskærmssoldaterne, der havde forskanset sig i et skibsværft er blevet tavse. En stribe mortér-granater har ramt plet.

Det har været en lang dag. Lige fra Graham Martin lettede med LADY ACE 09 i morgentimerne og efterlod flere hundrede grædende vietnamesere, som ikke fik et lift med ud til ‘den frie verden’. Lige fra det buldrende indtog af panserkorpset, slaget om paladset, og til nu, da Tran Van Bom og hans veninde sidder trætte på Underhusets trappe og undrer sig over, at fra i dag vil hele deres liv skifte karakter. De er kommet på junglen ind fra stenbroen.

Saigon siger i dag farvel til sig selv. Saigon, den gamle luder: beregnende, forlystelsessyg, grisk og kærlig. Altsammen er det forbi.


Det Saigon Graham Greene så forelsket beskrev er også væk. Idag ligger Rue Catinat oversået med opadvendte stålhjelme og militærstøvler. Da klokken blev fem sad der ingen på Continentals terrasse og drak vermouth cassis eller pastis. Der var tomt. Men da mørket sænker sig, sidder de trætte partisaner der og sludrer.


Siden krigen er Jens vendte tilbage til Vietnam mange gange, hvor jeg har haft stor fornøjelse af hans selskab – senest i 2014, hvor jeg overtalte ham til at stille op foran sit gamle Hotel Continental. Det sort-hvide foto, han holder, er taget i 1975 og viser Jens stående på sin gamle altan på øverste værelse. Bagefter gik ved ned på en af Saigons legendariske, frankofile sidegade-restauranter. Det blev en lang aften med masser af røver-historier og kølig Beaujolais, serveret af rødmende servitricer, der for første gang oplevede Jens rulle charmen helt ud.