October 27, 2013

Discover Myanmar's historical treasures

Editor's note: CNN's On the Road series explores the culture, heritage and customs of a country, covering popular culture, food and drink, design and architecture, sport, technology and innovation. This month, we bring you greater insight into Myanmar, revealing the places, the people and the passions unique to this intriguing south-east Asian nation. Watch the episodes at 2300 on October 23 and 24, October 26 at 0930 and October 27 at 0800 (all times GMT).

Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) -- After decades of a military junta rule, the south-east Asian country of Myanmar is opening up, and the government is working hard to welcome a plane loads of visitors from around the world.

Myanmar's turnaround from pariah state to becoming this year's must-see destination has been remarkable. Much of the country is untouched and rich in both historic and architectural heritage.

There is plenty to discover for the tourist who wants to go off the beaten track.

Below CNN takes a look at some of Myanmar's most magnificent treasures.

Shwedagon Pagoda

The golden stupa of Yangon's 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda shines over the city. The pagoda is covered in hundreds of golden plates and there are thousands of encrusted diamonds on the stupa, glittering in all different colors, reflecting the rays of the sun. It's a majestic site and impossible not to notice when visiting the former capital of Myanmar.

"In Myanmar, it is very important for our religion," says Kyaw, a guide at Shwedagon. "Because most people from here, mostly Buddhist people, have to come here at least one time in their life."

Myanmar is one of the world's most devout Buddhist nations -- the majority of Burmese are Buddhists and the 100-meter-tall Shwedagon is their most sacred temple. Legend says it enshrines eight of Buddha's hair, that were given to two merchant brothers by Buddha himself.

At times the pagoda has also served as a rallying point and a source of strength against the former military regime, or as in the 1920s and 1930s resistance to British Colonial rule.

Colonial architecture in Yangon

The architectural heritage of Yangon is rich and evidence of the former British Empire is almost at every corner. Buildings from the colonial era stretch out across the city, telling stories of a time long gone.

Yangon has one of the highest number of colonial period buildings in all of south-east Asia, built during the British rule in Burma, which lasted from 1824 to 1948. Buildings like the City Hall, the former High Court and Strand Hotel attract many visitors.

But these iconic buildings are under threat, since renovating and preserving their crumbling facades is costly. The Yangon Heritage Trust is trying to ensure these buildings don't meet a bulldozer, so the country's past can be maintained.

One building in particular could be seen as the monument to Myanmar's political rebirth.

The Secretariat, the Minister's building during the British rule, has been standing empty for years, but played an important role in the history of Myanmar. This is where the leaders of the independence movement in the late 1940s were assassinated -- among them General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's Nobel laureate, and a former political prisoner.

That her father lost his life in the assassination room is one of the reasons why the Secretariat could now be preserved. "I think just a couple of years ago this was not on the agenda at all and I think we were in real danger," says chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, Thant Myint-U.

Bagan, ancient city in the Mandalay region

A journey through Myanmar inspires silence. And there is one journey in particular that in the 19th century inspired young poet Rudyard Kipling to write his poem "On the Road to Mandalay".

Traveling along the lifeblood of the country -- the river Irrawaddy -- feels like being on a trek back in time. Along the river there are fishing villages where life hasn't changed for decades. The cruise along the river gets you to places not so easily reached by car or rail.

But there is one destination that leaves every visitor breathless -- Bagan.

Bagan is an ancient city situated in central Myanmar, in the region of Mandalay. Considered one of the world's most spectacular and significant archaeological sites, it consists of more than 2000 pagodas and temples built by the kings of Bagan between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Marcus Allender, founder of travel site for Myanmar, Go-Myanmar, wants to simplify travel to the country.

"[This] is a country that's had massive shifts over the past 1000 years and there are dozens of ancient capitals, Bagan being the most famous one. There are loads of them and there is just so much to discover," Allender says.

"And then when you get the Buddhism going through that, it's a deeply religious country, [with] all the pagoda's everywhere. It makes it special."

By Paula Newton and Jenny Soffel, for CNN

October 16, 2013

In Rwanda, Studio Space as Catalyst


KIGALI, Rwanda — Born in Burundi and raised in Rwanda, the artist Bruce Niyonkuru has never traveled outside East Africa, but he believes his works have universal appeal.

The artist’s recent piece, “Young Talented Artists’ Dilemma” (2013) is a colorful painting depicting the faces — some fat, some thin, one crying and from a variety of angles — of artists he has known over the years. It is a work that he hopes communicates the daily struggles that artists in Rwanda face.
“When I started painting, I did not have money to even buy materials, and I did not know of any place to help me grow my talent,” said Mr. Niyonkuru, 21. “In Rwanda, society does not see being an artist as a profession. Most people think I am jobless and I am just painting for fun.”
Two years ago Mr. Niyonkuru joined Ivuka Arts Kigali, an arts center that opened in 2007 and has been integral to the growth of the Rwandan contemporary art scene. Not only has he had the chance to develop his artistic practice, he was also featured in a group show last year at Charlie Dutton Gallery in London. The show, titled “Rwanda,” presented eight artists who have worked out of Ivuka Arts, which functions as an outdoor studio space and gallery and offers workshops for young artists.
Ivuka’s founder, the artist Collin Sekajugo, who was born in Uganda and raised in Kenya, has also made community activism a cornerstone of the center, setting up Saturday art classes at three orphanages in Kigali and creating a dance troupe for disadvantaged children called RwaMakondera.
Several artists who started out at Ivuka have gone on to set up galleries and art centers in Kigali of their own — including the Inema Arts Center, Bwiza Arts Kigali and Uburanga Arts — which were all modeled on Ivuka’s pioneering structure.
“Rwanda is a place that has a huge stigma to overcome,” said Emmanuel Etim, a Washington-based filmmaker who has been working with Rwandan film students on documentaries about the creative sector in the country.
“People within the country are hungry for progress, and to me Ivuka is a symbol that you can do something that does not have to be so orthodox,” he added. “It serves as a place where people really feel that freedom to express.”
The 1994 genocide devastated Rwanda — as many as one million people are estimated to have been killed in 100 days — and the war debilitated the country’s social structure, its schools and its economy. Things in the cultural sphere, including contemporary art that even before the war had been practically nonexistent, were not picked back up again for a long time, while the country tried to heal.
“People know Rwanda is a place with a horrible history,” said Emmanuel Nkuranga, an Ivuka alumnus who founded Inema last year with his brother, Innocent Nkurunziza. “But when kids do good art, it is showing there is a hope and an energy now. We are trying to engage kids in thinking about seeing their country as a place to be proud of.”
Even though there is some arts education in primary and secondary schools, there are still no higher education art schools in the country, meaning that many artists have either had to study abroad or are self-taught. Though The National Art Gallery in Nyanza has focused on exhibiting contemporary art from east Africa, there are no Rwandan-educated professional curators and gallery owners in the country.
Ivuka was the first space to try to work on these fronts. “Art history did not really make any progress,” said Lia Gieling, a Dutch curator who has helped rebrand The National Art Gallery, which used to be the Rwesero Art Museum. “I do not mean that negatively, but Rwanda was so captured in its own traditions, captured between the hills, so the country was not open to the world.”
Mr. Sekajugo has set out to change that. Describing himself as a self-educated artist, he first arrived in Rwanda in 2001 to explore his mother’s family roots. Over the next several years he met many young artists who had raw talent, but no space to work and no place to hone their art skills.
“When I came here, I fell in love with Rwandan culture, but I saw nothing in terms of art here,” Mr. Sekajugo said at Ivuka, which in the Kinyarwanda language means “to be born.” “My dream was to create a space that could bring together all these struggling, surviving, hard-working groups of people, and to use art as a life-changing tool.”
By 2007, he had saved enough money to open Ivuka, which requires no money or specific qualifications to join, and began attracting people from across Kigali.
“I don’t have to bite my tongue to say that we created the art scene here,” said Mr. Sekajugo, who has since set up a similar program called Weaver Bird Arts Community in Masaka, Uganda. “There have been challenges,” he acknowledged, referring to the need to travel back and forth to Uganda to buy supplies. “And I am trying to drag them into different forms of artistic expression, doing more sculpture work and photography.”
Dozens of artists — both local and visiting — have since passed through Ivuka. In addition to the London show, they have been featured in exhibitions in Edinburgh and at Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies in New York. In September, a number of artists from Ivuka and other local art centers participated in an exhibition organized by the U.S. Embassy in Kigali of artwork inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Over the years, Ivuka has not only developed the mentoring programs with local orphanages, providing the materials to paint as well as technical instruction, it now also runs a jewelry-making co-operative for disadvantaged women that was started by Mr. Nkurunziza.
“It is a cultural center for Kigali,” said Kate Saffin, who curated the London and Edinburgh shows last year. “It’s not like New York or London, where you have these industrial warehouses where no one knows there are artists round the back of the place. They paint outdoors, the neighborhood knows about it, people are always poking their heads in to see what is going on.”
While Ivuka has a grittiness to its location — with crumbling steep steps and an overflowing gallery with paintings stacked up on the floor — Inema has a more slick and professional feel. It offers a specific space for the Nziza jewelry co-operative and also has a small shop selling the works of the women.
But there, too, people work with local orphanages and with families that are led by older children, under programs called Art With a Mission. The McGuffey Art Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, is currently showing an exhibition of works from Inema-based artists and pieces done by the children involved in those programs.
“I see Collin more as a mentor now, rather than just an artist, someone who is innovative in art and pushing others,” Mr. Etim, the filmmaker, said of the Ivuka founder. “The fact that there are other groups and centers similar to Ivuka shows me that his mentoring has helped spread that hope.”

October 15, 2013

Partner Spotlight: Give Children A Choice

Phosy Preschool, Xieng Khouang Province, Lao PDR

Give Children A Choice (GCAC) is a non-profit organization with the mission of providing sustainable education programs for underprivileged children as means of escaping poverty. As the organization’s name suggests, successful education from an early age provides children with the luxury of choice, something many impoverished children are denied. By building and filling preschools predominately in Laos, GCAC is empowering youth since it’s launch in 2002 by providing education in the most formative years of their lives.
With aid from donors, government officials, partner organizations, and the villages where GCAC operates, the project begins with the construction of preschools from the ground up. Once the education infrastructure is in place, GCAC provides funds to train effective teachers, materials emphasizing the importance of hygiene and nutrition, and an environment to thrive.

In only 70 to 90 days, GCAC establishes effective preschools that will educate youth for generations. School provides confidence among youth and fortifies success in higher levels of education. Positive social skills and emotional development are nurtured by attending preschool.  Additionally, participation in preschool results in greater high school graduation rates and university attendance.

“Nothing makes us smile more than the opportunity to give children choices by offering them a better life via an education.”

But the children are not the only ones who directly benefit from GCAC’s projects. Villagers, parents of students, and the local community are involved in every step of the process, and ultimately feel a sense of ownership and pride in their success. A core concept of GCAC is the empowerment of villagers to create and sustain education programs.

Featured on their website, www.givechildrenachoice.org, are a myriad of completed, successful projects. On such project was the construction of a preschool in the Laotian village of Pak Nga. Upon arrival in March 2005, GCAC was the first foreign visitor to set foot in the village. But just six months and many new friendships later, the first preschool was finished and ready to be utilized. Since the school’s completion, GCAC has been pleasantly notified that many other villages have asked for preschools of their own. Currently, the school and students are thriving and eager to learn.

Like Give Children A Choice, Friendship Tours World Travel (FTWT) values education because of the empowerment and opportunity it supplies. We partnered with GCAC because we believe in their mission and have complimentary values. Our educational travel programs promote sustainability, local connections, and peace to evolve students into global citizens.

FTWT also offers socially-conscious travel that incorporates many levels of community service and social-entrepreneurship. Students are invited to contribute their skills and talents toward advancing a project; such as shooting, producing, and editing a promotional video for an NGO. Additionally, fundraising and supplies-collection generate resources for organization addressing a community problem. To increase awareness of social problems, students engage in letter-writing campaigns, interviews, and press conferences. Each trip involves direct cultural-exchange activities with local children.

Please explore GCAC’s website to learn more about their mission, completed projects, or to donate. Anything helps in the mission to construct preschools, secure supplies, and ultimately change the lives of whole communities forever. 

October 10, 2013

Cuba once more seeks U.N. condemnation of U.S. embargo

(Reuters) - For the 22nd consecutive year, Cuba will ask the United Nations to condemn the United States economic embargo against the island, a top Cuban official announced on Monday, accusing Washington of tightening sanctions in place for more than half a century.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who stated before taking office that he wanted to recast long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations, has been a disappointment to the Cuban government, which expected him to do more to dismantle the embargo.

The embargo, fully in place since 1962, has done "astronomical" economic harm, Deputy Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno said during a news conference to present Cuba's annual report on the damage wrought on the Communist-run Caribbean island by U.S. sanctions.

Last year the vote at the U.N. General Assembly was overwhelming, with 188 nations - including most of Washington's closest allies - condemning the embargo. Only the United States, Israel and the tiny Pacific state of Palau supported it.

This year the debate and vote is scheduled for October 29.

Obama has lifted some restrictions on travel and on the sending of remittances to the island, but Moreno said the embargo and its enforcement had been broadened in other areas.

"The blockade not only is being maintained, but strengthened in some aspects," Moreno charged.

"I ask what right does the United States have to sanction companies that are not North American," he said, charging that since Obama took office in 2009, fines against embargo violators, domestic and foreign, had dramatically increased and totaled $2.5 billion to date.

Cuba says the embargo is a blockade because it punishes third country companies for doingbusiness with Havana.

Many critics of Cuba's one-party system, including dissidents on the island, also have called for lifting the embargo, saying it is counter-productive.


Moreno said foreign banks were increasingly cautious about any transactions involving Cuba due to U.S. pressure, something confirmed by numerous foreign businessmen in Havana.

"Banks calculate the risk versus the gain in doing business with Cuba, even if transactions are legal," said a foreign banker who asked to remain anonymous.

"Given that Cuba is on the U.S. terrorist list, many times banks decide it is not worth that risk and potential hassles and the trend has accelerated in recent years," he said.

Cuba held the news conference, where it announced the draft U.N. resolution calling for an end to the embargo, at the William Soler children's heart center to emphasize that the sanctions do not discriminate between the country's political leadership and innocent people and amounts to what it calls "genocide."

The hospital's director, Eugenio Selman-Housein Sosa, said his center often lacked the most modern equipment and medicines because U.S. companies predominated in some sectors and Washington's regulations on checking end-users made business next to impossible.

"In the case of Cuba this becomes dramatic," he said, because the sanctions "impede the acquisition of products that literally signify the difference between life and death."

Always contentious U.S.-Cuba relations thawed briefly under Obama, but progress came to a halt when Cuba arrested U.S. contractor Alan Gross in Havana in December 2009.

Gross was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting up Internet networks in Cuba under a controversial U.S. program that Cuba views as subversive.

The two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations, have renewed immigration and postal service talks suspended after Gross's arrest, but there are no signals of any major improvement in the foreseeable future.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by David Adams and Mohammad Zargham)

October 8, 2013

Harvard-Westlake Super-Star Teacher Speaks about Traveling with Us

Cheri Gaulke, the Upper School Head of Visual Arts at Harvard-Westlake School and teacher of Video Art at introductory and advanced levels, and her students are embarking on an educational adventure to Rwanda this upcoming January with Friendship Tours World Travel (FTWT). Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide when hundreds of thousands of Tutsi were slaughtered by the Hutus. As this significant date approaches, it’s important to remember and reflect on the atrocities committed during the Rwandan genocide. Cheri and her students hope to spread awareness through the creation of Visual Arts.

Cheri with Lao children, 2013

FTWT: Why did you become a teacher? What do you love about it?

Cheri Gaulke: Two of the things I love about teaching video is developing critical thinking skills within my students and developing collaborative skills as film is a collaborative medium. For the critical thinking part, we live in a media-saturated world and yet we do not learn how to be media literate…To not be a passive “couch potato” but rather an engaged and intelligent consumer of moving images is life changing…As savvy media producers themselves, students can have an impact on their world.

Why do you like leading trips of students abroad?

CG: I love travel and being exposed to different ways of thinking and being. Taking students to different countries opens up worlds of consciousness for them and allows them to better know who they are. I love the kinds of trips that I am doing with FTWT because it is not just about going and seeing, but also about students reflecting upon their experience and giving back. We charge them with the responsibility of doing something with their experience by turning it into a video documentary, a news article, a photographic exhibition, or whatever form of public expression that they desire. In doing so we are challenging and empowering the students as agents of change.

Cheri with Harvard Westlake students interviewing a
UXO victim at the COPE Center in Vientiane, Laos, 2013

What do they learn on these experiential adventures that can’t be taught in the classroom?

CG: Instead of learning about war in a textbook, they see where a war was fought, meet people affected by it, and they get to confront who they are as US citizens and what their role is in relation to these issues. It makes history tangible and personal.

Leading these trips is a lot of work and responsibility. Why is it “worth it” to you?

CG: Being a teacher is a never-ending experience of being a learner. Travel offers a lot of learning. I love getting to know students in an environment outside of the classroom, where we share in a process of being challenged by looking at difficult issues and pushing through to making art out of those experiences.  It is a lot of work but it also makes me a better person – more open to change, more experienced with transforming life experience into art.

Have you traveled abroad with other tour providers before? Why is working with Alethea and Friendship Tours better/ more rewarding?

CG: I have done a little travel with other providers. Alethea’s values match mine. Most trips are simply about visiting places and learning about them. Alethea’s values go way beyond. She’s all about a much deeper mission of learning about war and peace. As a person who has been passionate about fighting against injustice my whole life, I love how these trips introduce these ideas to students. What better reason to study history than to not repeat its mistakes? What better reason to meet people different than yourself than to realize we may not be that different.

What I saw on the trip to Laos is 15 year olds many of which had never traveled outside of the US and who certainly knew little about the Vietnam War and nothing about how Laos was illegally bombed by our own country. Now those young people know Laotians who have been personally affected and these young people deeply care about them and are working hard to let others know about their plight. That’s truly amazing and represents the beginnings of a generation of peacemakers.

Cheri and Harvard Westlake students with UXO survivor, Mr. Yelee and
his family.  The group assisted the family with basic needs and continued
to raise funds for the family after their return from Laos, 2013.

What would you say to a teacher who is considering taking students abroad for the first time?

CG: Go for it. But work with someone organized, smart and passionate like Alethea, because your trip will result in a more profound experience for the students and yourself.

Alethea Tyner Paradis, Director of Friendship Tours World Travel
and Cheri Gaulke

October 4, 2013

Vo Nguyen Giap, renowned Vietnamese general, dies in Hanoi

Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese military commander and national folk hero who organized the army that defeated the French and then the Americans in 30 years of Southeast Asian warfare, is dead. That war ended in 1975 when the last remaining U.S. military forces evacuated Saigon, leaving behind a war-torn and battle-scarred nation, united under Communist rule.
He died Oct. 4 in a hospital in Hanoi, a government official told the Associated Press. He was 102. No cause of death was immediately reported.
Gen. Giap was the last survivor in a triumvirate of revolutionary leaders who fought France’s colonial forces and then the United States to establish a Vietnam free of Western domination. With the Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, and former prime minister Pham Van Dong, who died in 2000, Gen. Giap was venerated in his homeland as one of the founding fathers of his country. To military scholars around the world, he was one of the 20th century’s leading practitioners of modern revolutionary guerrilla warfare.
From a ragtag band of 34 men assembled in a forest in northern Vietnam in December 1944, Gen. Giap built the fighting unit that became the Vietnam People’s Army. At the beginning, its entire supply of weapons consisted of two revolvers, one light machine gun, 17 rifles and 14 flintlocks, some of them dating to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, said Cecil B. Currey, Gen. Giap’s biographer.
But the original 34 men took a solemn oath to fight to the death for a Vietnam independent of foreign rule, and they promised not to help or cooperate with colonial or any other foreign authorities. By August 1945, when the surrender of Japan ended World War II, they had become an army of 5,000, equipped with American weapons supplied by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, to use against the Japanese who had occupied Vietnam.
For almost three decades, Gen. Giap led his army in battle against better-supplied, better-equipped and better-fed enemies. In 1954, he effectively ended more than 70 years of French colonial rule in Indochina, dealing a humiliating defeat to a French garrison in a 55-day siege of the mountain-ringed outpost at Dien Bien Phu. To millions of Vietnamese, this was more than a military victory. It was a moral and psychological triumph over a hated colonial oppressor, and it earned Gen. Giap the status of a national legend.
Twenty-one years later, on April 30, 1975, came the fall of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. This ended a prolonged and bitter war between Vietnamese communists, based in the north, and the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam, which was based in Saigon and backed by the military might of the world’s greatest superpower.
In an internal power struggle three years earlier, Gen. Giap was replaced as field commander of the communist forces, and in 1975 he watched from the sidelines as the army he created and nurtured took the enemy capital. Nevertheless, 25 years later, he would recall the fall of Saigon as the “happiest moment in this short life of mine.”
With the capture of Saigon, Vietnam was united under a single governmental authority for the first time since its partition into North and South Vietnam after the 1954 French defeat. Gen. Giap was defense minister in the Communist government that ruled the new Vietnam and a member of the powerful politburo.
But it was as a military leader that he made his mark on history.
In the course of his career, Gen. Giap commanded millions of men in regular army units, supplemented by local militia and self-defense outfits in villages and hamlets throughout Vietnam. He journeyed to the remotest areas of his country on recruiting missions, and he learned the art of combat the old-fashioned way — by fighting.
He waged all manner of warfare: guerrilla raids, sabotage, espionage, terrorism and combat on the battlefield, and he involved as much of the civilian population in this effort as he could. Peasant women carried concealed arms, ammunition and supplies to hiding guerrilla soldiers. Children passed along information about troop movements through their villages. Everyone was a lookout for enemy aircraft.
“All citizens are soldiers. All villages and wards are fortresses, and our entire country is a vast battlefield on which the enemy is besieged, attacked and defeated,” Gen. Giap was quoted as saying.
To survive, he had to be flexible and adaptable, and he was. Facing an overpowering array of U.S. bombs and artillery, he employed a tactic that was sometimes likened to a boxer’s grabbing an opponent by the belt and drawing him too close for his punches to be effective. In close combat, the bombs and artillery shells of his enemy would be of limited use, but Gen. Giap’s men, operating in small units, could fight more effectively.
In the end, Gen. Giap would outlast his enemies. The French grew tired of paying the price of fighting him in Southeast Asia, and so did the United States, after 58,000 American deaths in a war that promised no more than a stalemate.
He said: “The United States imperialists want to fight quickly. To fight a protracted war is a big defeat for them. Their morale is lower than grass. . . . National liberation wars must allow some time — a long time. . . . The Americans didn’t understand that we had soldiers everywhere and that it was very hard to surprise us.”
To at least one U.S. military commander, this strategy was apparent even in the early years of American involvement in the hostilities. Marine Corps Gen. Victor Krulak, in a 1966 memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, wrote that Gen. Giap “was sure that if the cost in casualties and francs was high enough, the French would defeat themselves in Paris. He was right. It is likely that he feels the same about the USA.”
A master of military logistics and administration, Gen. Giap directed construction, maintenance and operation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, down which a steady stream of men and arms flowed from North Vietnam to support the war in the South.
Under his command, a corps of 100,000 Vietnamese and Laotian laborers slogged under 70-pound packs through swamps and jungles, up and down mountains to deliver the supplies, weapons and ammunition to fuel the fight. From a network of mountain footpaths used by peasants and travelers for centuries, they built a 12,000-mile system of camouflaged roadways and spurs, much of it in the neutral territory of Laos. Some sections were two-lane paved roads, capable of handling tanks and heavy trucks. Others were primitive dirt roads. There were air raid shelters, rest stops and bridges. All of it demanded unremitting repair and upkeep.
Gen. Giap was a hard-line and tenacious Communist, and one of the early members of the Vietnamese Communist Party, which was founded by Ho in 1930. In the late 1940s, he led a program aimed at eradication of non-communist political organizations in Vietnam that is said to have caused the death of thousands. One technique of this campaign was to tie opponents together in batches like cordwood, then throw them into the Red River and let them drown while floating out to sea. This was known as “crab fishing.”
From a manpower base of peasant farmers, Gen. Giap constructed a paramilitary guerrilla force, which he then transformed into an army of fully trained soldiers through a combination of rigorous training and political indoctrination.
In three decades of combat, he is said to have had more than a million of his soldiers killed, a casualty level that would have cost any U.S. general his command. “Every minute hundreds of thousands of people die all over the world. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand or tens of thousands of human beings, even if they are our own compatriots, represents really very little,” the French writer Bernard B. Fall quoted him as saying.
Metaphorically, Gen. Giap was described in Vietnamese as “Nui Lua,” which means roughly “volcano beneath the snow.” On the surface, his personality was cold and arrogant, but he was seething on the inside and capable of fearsome explosions. Colleagues said he was impatient, dogmatic, energetic and loyal to his friends.
He was ambitious and not above personal vanity. To several interviewers, he suggested that he could be considered an Asian Napoleon. Time magazine, in a 1968 article, described him as a “dangerous and wily foe . . . a tactician of such talents that U.S. military experts have compared him with German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.”
Vo Nguyen Giap was born Aug. 25, 1911, in the province of Quang Binh in an area of central Vietnam, which, with Laos and Cambodia, was then part of the French protectorate of Indochina. His native village of An Xa consisted primarily of straw and bamboo huts, alongside a few tile-roofed buildings. As a boy, he attended local public schools, where his teachers beat him with a thin bamboo stick whenever he faltered in his lessons.
At age 12, he failed the first examination that would have allowed him additional schooling. French colonial authorities discouraged advanced education throughout Indochina, knowing that an ignorant population would be easier to control. But the young Vo Nguyen Giap spent the next year in intensive study, and on his second try, he passed the exam that allowed him to attend secondary school in Hue.
There, in 1926, the future general read a book that would change his life and influence the history of Southeast Asia. Its title was “Colonialism on Trial,” written by Ho Chi Minh. Gen. Giap would recall years later that Ho’s book triggered in him an abiding hatred of the French, and it launched him on the revolutionary journey that would become his life’s work.
He read other writings of Ho and studied the works of Karl Marx and Vladi­mir Lenin, organized an underground reading library and in 1927 was expelled from school for organizing a strike in support of a student who he was sure had been falsely accused of cheating. He wrote under pseudonyms for a reform-minded newspaper, became active with the Communist Party and was jailed for revolutionary activities from 1930 to 1932.
On his release, he won a scholarship for a school in Hanoi and received a baccalaureate degree in 1934. Later he taught history and French at a private school in Hanoi, and he was admitted to the French-managed University of Hanoi’s law school, where he received a doctorate in 1938.
In 1939 he married Quang Thai, a fellow member of the Communist Party, whom he had met in prison years earlier. She gave birth to their daughter, Hong Anh, in January 1940. Four months later, the central committee of the Communist Party decided to send him to join Ho, who was then living in exile in China, where he was preparing plans for the revolution he intended to launch.
Soon after Gen. Giap left for China, his wife was taken into custody by French authorities and held in a prison facility that would become known 30 years later in the United States as the “Hanoi Hilton,” where downed American fliers were held as prisoners of war. Quang Thai would die in prison, either by suicide or while being tortured. Since her arrest, their daughter had been cared for by Gen. Giap’s parents. But not until late in World War II did Gen. Giap learn of his wife’s death. In 1947, his father would also die while in French custody, refusing to publicly denounce his son, although he never agreed with his communist ideology.
“He carries in his soul wounds that even time cannot heal,” Hong Anh told Currey in a 1988 questionnaire, speaking of her father.
In the spring of 1941, Ho and Gen. Giap had returned to Vietnam from China. At a remote hamlet called Pac Bo, Ho convened a meeting of the central committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party and created the organization that would become known as the “Viet Minh,” to wage a war of independence against the French and the Japanese, who had occupied Vietnam after France fell to Nazi Germany early in World War II. Also to be eliminated were the Vietnamese “jackals” who collaborated with the enemy.
During the war years, Gen. Giap began traveling regularly to the hamlets and settlements of the Vietnamese countryside, laying the recruiting groundwork for the army he intended to raise. In July 1944, after the collapse of the Nazi collaborationist government of Vichy France, he wanted to launch an armed insurrection in Vietnam, but Ho vetoed the idea. The time was not ripe for open rebellion, he said.
But with the end of World War II in 1945, it was possible to begin guerrilla operations against the French, who returned to Vietnam expecting to reclaim their colony.
Throughout the late 1940s, Gen. Giap orchestrated hit-and-run operations against French forces. His plan was to entice the enemy to expend valuable energy in fruitless pursuit of an elusive quarry in remote areas or tie him down in an unproductive or static position. “Use the feint, the ambush, the diversionary outrage,” he wrote in a training manual adapted from the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. “The enemy may outnumber you ten to one strategically, but if you compel him to disperse his forces widely, you may outnumber him ten to one locally wherever you choose to attack him.”
His army suffered heavy casualties in the Red River offensive against the French in 1951, but the Viet Minh regrouped and vanquished the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Just a month before that siege ended, top French military officials traveled to Washington, hoping for a pledge of U.S. assistance. There, on April 7, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared: “You have a row of dominoes set up and you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. . . . The loss of Indochina will cause the fall of Southeast Asia like a set of dominoes.”
No U.S. assistance was given to the French at Dien Bien Phu, but the domino theory that Eisenhower had articulated in response to the French request would influence U.S. military policy in that part of the world for the next two decades.
At the Geneva Conference that followed the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam was divided into two countries: north and south. In the north, the Communist Party ruled under the leadership of Ho. With the French colonialists out of the picture, an ambitious land-reform program was undertaken, for which Gen. Giap would later apologize. “[W]e . . . executed too many honest people . . . and, seeing enemies everywhere, resorted to terror, which became far too widespread. . . . Worse still, torture came to be regarded as a normal practice,” he was quoted as having said by Neil Sheehan in his Pulitzer-winning 1988 book, “A Bright Shining Lie.”
In the south, the United States replaced France as the major foreign influence. CIA operatives worked to blunt communist initiatives, and by the early 1960s, U.S. soldiers began arriving as “advisers” to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Men and supplies flowed southward from Hanoi, and indigenous guerrilla units throughout South Vietnam began raiding government troops and installations. The United States increased its level of support, which by 1968 had reached 500,000 military personnel.
Arguably, the turning point of the war came during the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was orchestrated by Gen. Giap. To launch this campaign, he had directed the movement of 100,000 men and tons of supplies to strategic points throughout South Vietnam. On Jan. 30, communist forces attacked 40 provincial capitals and major cities, including an unsuccessful but widely publicized assault on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The offensive failed militarily, Gen. Giap’s forces suffered heavy casualties and a hoped-for civilian uprising against the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam did not happen.
But politically, the offensive was devastating in the United States, where it shattered public confidence in U.S. policy and led Johnson to decide against seeking reelection as president.
In the next four years, Gen. Giap orchestrated guerrilla raids by small units against South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. In the spring of 1972, he was relieved of his command after his Easter offensive failed in the face of massive U.S. attacks, which included the bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of Haiphong Harbor. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese losses were said to have included more than 100,000 fatalities. Gen. Giap retained his position as defense minister, but command of the Vietnam People’s Army passed to longtime disciple Van Tien Dung.
U.S. involvement in the war officially ended in January 1973 with the signing of peace accords and the withdrawal of American military forces. Without U.S. support, the South Vietnamese military collapsed in two years.
“American soldiers were just like any others,” Gen. Giap said years later in response to a question from a former U.S. service member. “When led well, they fought well.” Rarely, if ever, did the general comment publicly on the millions of Vietnamese boat people who fled the country after the communist takeover or the stagnation of the economy under Communist Party leadership.
After 1975, Gen. Giap faded from the public scene. He resigned as defense minister in 1980 and was dropped from the politburo in 1982. He continued to lead ceremonial functions and lived in comfort in a government-assigned villa in Hanoi. In 1992, he was awarded Vietnam’s highest honor, the Gold Star Order, for contributions to “the revolutionary cause of party and nation.”
In 1946, after the death of his first wife, Gen. Giap married Dang Bich Hai, the daughter of a former professor and mentor. They had two daughters, Vo Hua Binh and Vo Hahn Phuc, and two sons, Vo Dien Bien and Vo Hoai Nam.

By Bart Barnes