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Seminar on “Ho Chi Minh’s Cult in Contemporary Vietnam”

VIETNAM STUDIES PROGRAMME SEMINAR

Monday, 18 November 2019 – Dr Olga Dror, Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University, delivered a seminar on “Ho Chi Minh’s Cult in Contemporary Vietnam” at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Organised by the institute’s Vietnam Studies Programme and chaired by Dr Le Hong Hiep, the seminar outlined the factors that gave rise to Ho Chi Minh’s cult in Vietnam, the extent of such a cult within as well as outside Vietnam, and the prospects of such a cult enduring into the future.

Dr Olga Dror (standing), explores the manifestations of the reactions to Ho Chi Minh’s cult in the political, cultural, and religious discourses in different parts of Vietnam and abroad. Dr Le Hong Hiep (seated on stage) moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Dror observed that Ho Chi Minh – unlike his counterparts Lenin, Stalin, or Mao – was personally more involved in establishing his own cult of personality. Ho Chi Minh penned a series of books on himself using a variety of names, and sought to create an image of himself that was exceptional yet modest, frugal and humble. The gazetting of his birthday as a public holiday was also the result of a petition campaign which he was actively involved in. Ho Chi Minh took it upon himself to establish his own personality cult, as he felt that no one else was suited for the job. This is the key difference between Ho Chi Minh’s cult and the other figures mentioned above.

The establishment of the cult of Ho Chi Minh was important for the propagation of socialism in Vietnam. In the lead up to and after the 1954 Geneva meeting, most Vietnamese were illiterate and uneducated. Ho Chi Minh’s cult, therefore, made it easier for the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to better connect with the people through the personality of Ho Chi Minh. While the need to resist the French, for instance, was relatively self-evident, the need for socialism was less so. The cult of Ho Chi Minh, Dr Dror pointed out, helped bridge this gap.

Dr Dror also noted that at its peak, books on Ho Chi Minh – on his moral qualities, his role in the establishment of a socialist republic, as well as his poems – would fill entire bookstores. There are some 14 official Ho Chi Minh museums across the country, and countless more unofficial memorial sites as well as temples where he is worshipped. The ‘exporting’ of Ho Chi Minh’s image is also an important part of this cult of personality, with the CPV seeing particular value in demonstrating that Ho Chi Minh’s influence extends beyond Vietnam.

There are signs, however, that public interest is waning. Books on Ho Chi Minh are no longer as popular, especially after generous subsidies for its printing ended. Ho Chi Minh museums also struggle to attract visitors, leading to a realisation that a ‘doi moi’ of sorts is needed to revitalise interest. The public outcry that ensued after plans were unveiled to build an expensive Ho Chi Minh statue in Son La province, one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, also indicates increasing public fatigue for such grand projects. 

Dr Dror concluded the seminar by fielding questions from the audience. Issues raised during the Q&A session included the modern-day mobilising power of Ho Chi Minh’s personality cult, the degree of gap between Ho Chi Minh’s cult as portrayed and Ho Chi Minh as an individual in real life,  as well as the compulsory teaching of ‘Ho Chi Minh Thought’ in schools and universities.

A participant engaging Dr Dror in the Q&A session. (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)