Vo Nguyen Giap’s strength was his immersion in the real world
Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese military commander, died on October 4 at the age of 102. When he visited India, I was asked to host him as part of the Planning Commission, and the general left quite an impression on me in the week we spent together. So much so that Vietnam is on the top of my list of places to visit.
Giap was a straightforward, soft-spoken man with great curiosity. About halfway through his visit, when we had become comfortable with each other, he told me a story that was important to him. The siege in Vietnam was almost over and the general knew that the enemy had no option but to surrender. He had slept fitfully in the weeks before. Confident of the outcome, he handed the reins over to his second-in-command and drove out into the countryside. He saw a light in a paddy field and walked towards it, telling the peasant there that he was hungry and tired. He got a meal of rice and fish, and ate and slept. He awoke to the radio announcing that Giap had won. I know, he said. I am Giap. Just like that, he had moved effortlessly into history.
He told me about their struggles. How, when he would go to a village with his comrades, they would carry a microscope and show the women the germs in the water. Then they’d boil it, and lo and behold, the germs would be gone. The practice of drinking water with a few tea leaves goes back to that. The few tea leaves are for show. The boiling was essential. Again, so simple and direct, no histrionics required.
Like many Asian leaders, he admired India and its fight for independence. We have so much to learn from each other, he said. In Vietnam, the river valleys were doing well, but the hills were a problem. He would say that if this problem was not addressed, inequality would increase. I could already foresee the Vietnamese miracle economy. I also anticipated his own contribution in terms of a solid, scientific and technological base for the reforms under way. He held personal responsibility of policies for science and technology at the highest levels in his country.