Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) was President of Vietnam from 1945-1969.
In August, 1942, a middle-aged Vietnamese gentleman ordered a set of business cards from a Hanoi printer. The cards were to be printed in Chinese. In one corner, they gave his profession as ‘Press Correspondent’; in another, his nationality (‘Chinese, resident in Vietnam’); and in the centre, his name: “Hồ Chí Minh”. All three pieces of information were false.
He intended the visiting cards as his travelling documents for a short trip into China – he was hoping to meet both with the wartime government of China, led by Lin Seng, and also with its Communist opponents, led by Mao Zedong. With both groups, his intention was to make common cause against the Japanese, carrying with him the fraternal greetings of the Vietminh.
He estimated that the trip would take him four to five weeks. In the event, he never succeeded in meeting any Chinese political leaders, because he was arrested on suspicion of spying shortly after crossing the border. He would spend the next thirteen months being frogmarched between southern Chinese prisons, an experience that forms the subject of his prison diaries.
Like so many aspects of his life, the reason for his arrest remains unclear. It seems that the police had received a tip-off that this self-styled ‘Press Correspondent’ was really Nguyễn Ái Quốc, a well-known communist who had been active in the 1920s. The man they had arrested physically resembled Quốc, and was roughly the age that Quốc would have been, had he lived – but the problem was that Quốc had reportedly died in a Hong Kong jail in 1932.
The truth is that Nguyễn Ái Quốc was simply another alias of the man now calling himself Hồ Chí Minh. (He was born with the name Nguyễn Sinh Cung.) The British, who had arrested him in June 1931, but who had evidently taken a liking to the man they believed was a Communist agitator, announced his death in order to protect him from extradition to French Indochina – they then released him quietly a few months later.
Ironically, his Chinese incarceration was also to end in a false death. The Vietminh representative charged with asking after his whereabouts was told by the Chinese authorities ‘chu lou’ (‘he has already been released’) but the agent understood this as ‘shi lou’ (‘he is already dead’). This meant that Hồ Chí Minh finally arrived back in Vietnam a few weeks after his own funeral, with his personal belongings already divided up by the mourners.
The name he had chosen for the trip – ‘Hồ Chí Minh’ – would become the name under which he was made President of Vietnam, a post he held from the country’s declaration of independence in 1945 until his death from a heart attack in 1969, at the age of 79. After the fall of Saigon in 1974, Vietnam’s largest city was renamed in his honour, and to this day he is known to millions of Vietnamese affectionately as ‘Uncle Ho’.