BOOK REVIEW / Old ideals die young

FOLLOWING HO CHI MINH: Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel by Bui Tin Hurst & Company pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
BUI TIN is a Vietnamese patriot, aged 68. Like all patriots of his generation in Vietnam, he joined the Viet Minh as a teenager, in 1945, and followed Ho Chi Minh into the mountains of North Vietnam to fight for his country's independence.

He is careful not to describe himself as a revolutionary, because that is one class of person he is wary of nowadays. But in fact Bui Tin witnessed or took part in all the great revolutionary events in modern Vietnam's history, from the battle of Dien Bien Phu which led to the end of French rule nine years later in 1954, the building of the Ho Chi Minh trail at the beginning of the 1960s to the final offensive which saw the collapse of the American-backed Saigon regime in 1975. After that came the invasion of Cambodia in 1979. Bui Tin was riding on the first tank to enter Phnom Penh, just as he was on the first tank to reach Saigon - where he took the formal surrender from what was left of the American-backed regime.

Bui Tin is an idealist who became a soldier who became a journalist who reached the top of his profession, ghost-writing the autobiographies of Vietnam's leaders and sitting on the editorial boards of Quang Doi Nhan Dan, the newspaper of Vietnam's army, and Nhan Dan, the Hanoi equivalent of Pravda. Along the way he was growing more and more disillusioned with the management of the peace, and towards the end revealed that Ho Chi Minh's will had been faked by his successor Le Duan.

In 1973, when Western reporters met him for the first time in Saigon, he was the spokesman for North Vietnam's military delegation at the four- party ceasefire control commission. A jaunty, lively man with bright eyes, he was so talkative and keen to respond to any question that he was mobbed by hacks when he appeared in public. In 1989 when I met him again in Hanoi he had an exhausted, broken look; his memoirs show he was getting ready for exile, courtesy of the French Communist Party newspaper L'Humanite, which had invited him to Paris. He never went home.

Today he lives in France, chucked out of the Vietnam Communist party after he broadcast a series of commentaries on the BBC's Vietnam language service questioning the party's right to govern, blaming it for the country's decline over the 20 years since the "liberation" of Saigon. He holds them responsible for the squandering of talent and resources, for the rigid ideology which binds the population in scrawny sackcloth while permitting corruption and immorality to wash over the country from the top down.

Morality and principle feature strongly in Bui Tin's view of the world. Emerging from the mandarin class, he has an unworldliness which lives side by side with his immense practicality. He divides his world between the intelligentsia, who are fit to govern, and professional revolutionaries whose sole claim to leadership was a spell in French prisons. They, he says, hijacked the Vietnam Communist party from a weak Ho Chi Minh, put their ignorant placemen in authority, turned their backs on ordinary people, did not understand that change was taking place in the world and worst of all, had a peasant mentality.

The villains of this story are Le Duan, Le Duc Tho, who negotiated the short-lived 1973 Paris peace agreement with Henry Kissinger, Truong Chinh whose land reform programmes in the 1950s led to the deaths of many innocent people, and all the party bosses since the death of Ho Chi Minh. His hero is General Vo Nguyen Giap, the great military strategist, icon of all those anti-Vietnam war protests in the 1960s. He was a man of talent who was pushed aside by mere "door painters", opportunists, party hacks and incompetent oafs. Like Bui Tin, General Giap was a member of the educated classes.

Put like that, it is easy to mock Bui Tin. But his picture of Vietnam's ruling communist party hierarchy makes it easy to take his side. His, you know, is the voice of decency, even though his prejudices seem odd and snobbish. In an earlier world he would be described as a paternalist, a one-nation Tory even.

There are many gems here for the historian of the Vietnam war and students of communism. Forever the nationalist, Bui Tin blames the party's excesses on foreign influences from Peking and Moscow. He blames the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964 - which led to Lyndon Johnson's despatch of ground forces to Vietnam and the beginning of the bombing of the north - on stupid party hacks defying General Giap, who had ordered Vietnamese gunboats to avoid US warships.

Running through these startling "revelations" there is a pervasive melancholy. You find the same mood in other Vietnamese writing, both classical and modern, and most recently in the Sorrow of War, the acclaimed novel by Bao Ninh. Both Bui Tin and Bao Ninh were former soldiers who discovered, when the war ended in 1975 and the North took over the South, that everything they had fought for was a sham.