Country Overview > History > Historical Characters



1. Nguyen Trai

2. Ho Chi Minh

3. Vo Nguyen Giap

Nguyen Trai

Born in Thang Long, now known as Hanoi, his grandfather was the Great Minister Regent Tran Nguyen Dan and a brilliant career beckoned early. Alas, his father was accused of coming from a common family and marrying a royal princess under false pretences and, consequently, was banished to his home village to become a lowly village school teacher. Nevertheless, Nguyen Tran’s genius soon shone through and he rose as a scholar and man of action. From an early age he demonstrated those virtues which are so important to Vietnamese culture: humanism, devotion to the country, selflessness and diligence. The connection between these virtues and the lessons of Confucius are clear.

However, it was through the Vietnamese resistance of Chinese domination that Nguyen Trai achieved his most well-known feats. He had, at the age of twenty, achieved the rank of Head of the Supervision and Censure Office of the Royal Court and was awarded a Doctoral Laureate through his performance in the mandarinate exams. This performance helped to rehabilitate his father, who also received a court position. Yet Dai Viet, the northern Vietnamese state, was crumbling as the power of its ruling Ho Dynasty was trickling away. Chinese expansionism, which had already led to a millennium of colonization of the country, once again threatened. An invasion from the north led to a decade of colonization, during which Chinese rulers attempted to eradicate Vietnamese culture and Nguyen Trai was forced to live in penury. Eventually, armed resistance became a powerful force and Nguyen Trai took up arms to help as best he could. The story of the resistance by the Viets in the mountainous regions, which are said to have thwarted as many as 100,000 Ming troops, followed by the victories culminating at the Bach Dang River are quite well-known. Nguyen Trai described the resistance as “… the hurricane which blew away the dry leaves, and the stubborn ants which caused dykes to collapse.”

What is perhaps less well-known is the persecution of those successful heroes by smaller, jealous individuals who subsequently took power. Nguyen Trai was persecuted for some years for manufactured offences and, despite eventually being proved innocent, lived a life of semi-disgrace for the rest of his life. His powerful verses reflect this change of fortune and he came to reject the blandishments of this world.

Ho Chi Minh


Liberation of Vietnam from French colonial rule and unification of North and South Vietnam.


The French begin to take control of Vietnam in the 1860s. The entire country is made a French protectorate in 1883. Under French colonial rule Vietnamese are prohibited from travelling outside their districts without identity papers. Freedom of expression and organisation are restricted. As land is progressively alienated by large landholders, the number of landless peasants grows. Neglect of the education system causes the literacy rate to fall. Vietnamese anticolonial movements being to coalesce early in the 20th Century but are actively suppressed by the French.

Mini biography

Born 19 May 1890 in the village of Kim Lien in Annam, in central Vietnam. His father is a public servant attached to the imperial court. Ho is the youngest of three children. He receives his basic education from his father and the local village school.

Ho attends the prestigious National Academy school in Hue but leaves before graduation. He works for a short time as a teacher in a South Annam fishing town before travelling to Saigon, where he trains as a kitchen hand and pastry cook’s assistant and takes a course in navigation.

Vo Nguyen Giap

Early Life:

Born in the village of An Xa on August 25, 1911, Vo Nguyen Giap was the son of Vo Quang Nghiem. At 16, he began attending a French lycée in Hue, but was expelled after two years for organizing a student strike. He later attended the University of Hanoi where he earned degrees in political economy and law. Departing school, he taught history and worked as a journalist until he was arrested in 1930, for supporting student strikes. Released 13 months later, he joined the Communist Party and began protesting against French rule of Indochina. During the 1930s, he resumed work as a writer for several newspapers.

Exile & World War II:

In 1939, Giap married fellow socialist Nguyen Thi Quang Thai. Their marriage was brief as he was forced to flee to China later that following the French outlawing of communism. While in exile, his wife, father, sister, and sister-in-law were arrested and executed by the French. In China, Giap joined with Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Vietnamese Independence League (Viet Minh). Between 1944 and 1945, Giap returned to Vietnam to organize guerilla activity against the Japanese. Following the end of the World War II, the Viet Minh was given power by the Japanese to form a provisional government.

First Indochina War:

In September 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and named Giap as interior minister. The government was short-lived as the French soon returned to take control. Unwilling to recognized Ho Chi Minh's government, fighting soon broke out between the French and the Viet Minh. Given command of the Viet Minh's military, Giap soon found this his men could not defeat the better-equipped French and he ordered a withdrawal to bases in the countryside. With the victory of Mao Zedong's communist forces in China, Giap's situation improved as he gained a new base for training his men.

Over the next seven year's Giap's Viet Minh forces successfully drove the French from most of North Vietnam's rural areas, but were unable to take any of the region's towns or cities. At a stalemate, Giap began attacking into Laos, hoping to draw the French into battle on the Viet Minh's terms. With French public opinion swinging against the war, the commander in Indochina, General Henri Navarre, sought a quick victory. To accomplish this he fortified Dien Bien Phu which was situated on the Viet Minh's supply lines to Laos. It was Navarre's goal to draw Giap into a conventional battle where he could be crushed.

To deal with the new threat, Giap concentrated all of his forces around Dien Bien Phu and surrounded the French base. On May 13, 1954, his men opened fire with newly obtained Chinese 105mm guns. Surprising the French with artillery fire, the Viet Minh slowly tightened the noose on the isolated French garrison. Over the next 56 days, Giap's troops captured one French position at time until the defenders were compelled to surrender. The victory at Dien Bien Phu effectively ended the First Indochina War. In the ensuing peace accords, the country was partitioned with Ho Chi Minh leading communist North Vietnam.

Vietnam War:

In the new government, Giap served as minister of defense and commander-in-chief of the People's Army of Vietnam. With the outbreak of hostilities with South Vietnam, and later the United States, Giap led North Vietnam's strategy and command. In 1967, Giap oversaw the planning for the massive Tet Offensive. While initially against a conventional attack, Giap's goals were both military and political. In addition to achieving a military victory, Giap desired the offensive to spark an uprising in South Vietnam and show that American claims about the war's progress were wrong.

While the 1968 Tet Offensive proved to be a military disaster for North Vietnam, Giap was able to achieve some of his political objectives. The offensive showed that North Vietnam was far from being defeated and significantly contributed to changing American perceptions about the conflict. Following Tet, peace talks began and the US ultimately withdrew from the war in 1973. Following the American departure, Giap remained in command of North Vietnamese forces and directed General Van Tien Dung and the Ho Chi Minh campaign that finally captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in 1975.