by Craig Stevaux
I had every reason to think I knew Udon Thani. After all, I’d lived in the Northeastern Thai provincial capitol for five years at the height of the Vietnam War. I knew the main roads that spun off the three aligned traffic circles on the highway that ended at the Mekong River, only 51 kilometers to the north. I knew the soi, the narrow alleys that melted into teeming markets, dazzling Buddhist temples, and quasi-secret brothels. I knew Udon in all its colorless vulgarity, its grimy concrete and sinking sidewalks, the GI bars and the Deep Throat Massage Parlor. I knew the Chicken’s Asshole Restaurant where in a secondfloor room wealthy Chinese merchants reclined on cushions JabbatheHuttstyle while young Thai waitresses in short skirts handfed them. I knew where the CIA headquarters sat, and I could spot an American spook from a block away. I spoke Thai and understood the grumblings of people I passed. But then, on my most recent return visit, as I headed back to the city after touring a doctor friend’s country home, something happened to remind me how little I actually knew. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so dumbfounded. Thailand always had a way of presenting me with small epiphanies, no matter how much I thought I understood the kingdom. On each trip, something happened. This time, as the doctor’s black Lexus flew over the two-lane macadam road twixt spindly stands of teak and dusty cassava fields, now and again swinging out and around laboring ten-wheeled trucks piled to overflowing with sugar cane, my friend took his hand off the wheel long enough to point off in the direction of a copse of coconut palms set against a cloudless sky. “Ho Chi Minh used to live here in Udon,” he said casually. “In the village right over there. Ban Nong On.”
Here was something I’d never heard. None of my friends or former students had ever alluded to Ho Chi Minh’s presence in Udon. Little did I realize this was not the only surprise in store for me.
I’d first arrived in Udon with the onset of the monsoons in 1970, a fledgling Peace Corps English teacher cast adrift among five thousand U.S. Air force personnel, a military juggernaut that steamrolled this strategically important citycloser to Hanoi than Bangkok. Udon served as home to a major American airbase, launch point for the air war over North Vietnam and attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a complex web of paths and roads that traversed the mountainous terrain of Laos. Could it be that America’s arch-enemy, the man inspiring a people and a nation my countrymen were at war with had once lived only a few kilometers outside Udon?
I was familiar with the popular stories of the manhow he’d rescued several American airmen shot down over Vietnam during the Second World War; how he’d appealed to President Truman for U.S. support for Vietnamese independence in accord with principles embodied in the U.N. Charter, only to be ignored; how, on September 2, 1945, in Ba Dinh Square on the western edge of Hanoi he announced in words unabashedly taken from Thomas Jefferson the creation of a new nation: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Twelve kilometers west of Udon, a large, multi-colored sign beside the road announces the “Ho Chi Minh Educational and Historical Tourism Site.” Leaving the highway and driving into the village of Ban Nong On, I return to the Udon I knew in the 1970s: plank pole houses seared by a merciless sun, an obsolete oxcart and ancient loom nestled in the shade underneath, a decrepit rice granary leaning precariously on its wooden leg poles. Past is present here.
Situated at the end of an unpaved soi and set against a backdrop of towering bamboo, a neat compound occupies a large clearing of hardpack and struggling grass. A brick walkway leads to the single-storied thatchroofed main building. The wellbuilt structure is divided into two rooms: the smaller one contains two wooden beds and a desk; the larger one resembles a combination dining hall, meeting room, and dormitory as a row of wooden pillows is set atop raised platform at one end. Thickset wood beams support the thatch roof. But, this hardy structure cannot be original. Set on a concrete slab, this is surely a modern reconstruction. Out back lies a small, but solid kitchen. Several boxy outbuildings dot the tidy, dying lawn: a sturdy, wooden rice granary, a thatchroofed pig pen containing statues of piglets, and a chicken coop. As I survey the compound, a rooster wanders about the struggling grass. I see no docent. In fact, there aren’t any other visitors. I stroll through an open display area beside the main structure where photos captioned in Thai and Vietnamese chronicle milestones in the life of Ho, but there’s no printed material to take away. Vases of flowers and incense top a table before a white bust of the nationalist hero that’s displayed alter-style. Beside it stands a donation box. Outside, I spot a lone woman in a sarong who’s watering potted bougainvillea that erupt in revolutionary red along the walkway. I approach her in search of a handout that will help me make some sense of this place. “We had printed brochures,” she tells me, “but they’re all gone.” Just as I turn to leave, she adds, “But if you want to know the history of this place, you can talk with Uncle Korn. When he was a boy, Ho Chi Minh stayed with his parents. He’s always home. He lives right over there.” She points off toward the towering stands of bamboo that border the compound on the east. “On the next soi.”
Forty-five minutes, two farms, half a dozen dogs, a cow, and one sandy oxcart trail later, the pickup bounces to a stop in front of a ramshackle pole house set amid expansive shrimp ponds bordered by coconut palms. The air is surprisingly cool under a cloudless sky.
The requisite dogs, chickens, discarded tires, and spare engine parts dot the area surrounding the house. I stride through a few curious puppies and a couple of other dogs too sundrunk to notice me. At the same time, from the shade beneath the house, a robust, barefoot eightyeightyear-old Korn Tonchai wades through more puppies towards me. He’s dressed in a threadbare, green shirt with a missing breast pocket, the traditional checkered sarong-like Thai phakhaoma, and a navy blue knit cap. I raise my hands in the Thai prayer-like gesture of wai and introduce myself to this moon-faced man whose wispy, five-inch long chin whiskers wave in the breeze. We take seats at a stone table beside the house, and Korn’s Thai wife, age 60, pours tea into old Chinese cups. A calendar of Thai King Phumibol Adulyadej is prominently displayed on an exterior wall. Korn’s wife retreats beneath the house to sit on a bamboo slat bed.
For the past year his health has been declining, Korn informs me in the local dialect of Laotian. An oxygen tank is propped up against an exterior wall. (”I can’t get along without it.”) “I can’t sleep,” he says, but his squinting eyes twinkle. I explain I’ve just come from the museum, that I was directed to him, whereupon with harrumphs and snorts, Korn shakes his head.
“I told them the way it was,” he says in a resolute voice, “but they don’t listen to me.” Them, I’m to learn, includes the local Vietnamese Association, a provincial governor, and just about anybody else responsible for the reconstruction of Ho Chi Minh’s jungle sanctuary. “That pig pen and chicken coopset right on the ground. This is really wrong. In those days, there were boa constrictors the size of tree trunks. And tigers!
“In the old days, people built with rice stalk and mud, not concrete and timber,” Korn says with a toss of his head. I’m finished talking.”
Korn strikes me as a likeable curmudgeon, his manner straightforward, and, like most villagers, guileless. Suddenly, it makes sensethe hefty, modern construction, the convenient brick walkway, the potted bougainvillea, and all the tidiness. A budget exists. Funds have been raised and allocated. Beyond the desire of the local Vietnamese Association, however sincere, to honor the venerable Uncle Ho, there is money to be spent. And made. The museum compound, as simple as it appears to Western eyes, begins to look even less like a jungle lair and more like a Disneyworld creation: Ho’s RevolutionaryLand.
Both his mother and father were Vietnamese from Ha Tinh in the north of that country, Korn tells me, but he was born in Thailand in 1921, after his parents fled the violence there. The people had mounted street demonstrations against oppressive taxes, and the protests turned bloody when French soldiers opened fire. Korn shook his head. Korn has a habit of looking away as he talks, but it’s clearly not avoidance. He squints, and it’s as if he’s visiting the past, that which doesn’t exist anymore. “So many died.”
Korn says his parents crossed Laos, paid a single satang to cross the Mekong River from the Laotian border town of Tha Khek, and entered Thailand’s Northeast at Nakhon�Phanom, a frequent entry point for Vietnamese migrating overland through Laos. Korn’s father had been a lumberman in Vietnam. At first, he worked as a laborer in Udon. But, eventually, the trees drew him to Ban Nong On. “It took three or four people holding hands to encircle those trees,” Korn says. The big trees are only a memory now, but in those days there were three layers of forest that comprised a formidable wilderness here: bamboo stands; large hardwoods like mahogany and teak; and dense jungle.
In 1930, Ho Chi Minh stayed with the Tonchai family for two months, resting and talking politics. According to Korn, he followed two other leaders to Ban Nong OnGoldy and Gold Khoon, and the youthful forty-year-old wasn’t yet known as Ho Chi Minh (Ho Who Enlightens) but by the alias Gao Gong (young man Gong). To the French Sûreté, he was the notorious Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot, in Vietnamese).
I can’t escape the realization that seated before me is a man who’d known Ho Chi Minh. I am touching history. How did Uncle Ho come to stay with Uncle Korn’s family? I ask. “There is a path,” he answers in obvious reference to the Vietnamese underground.
But this wasn’t Ho’s first journey to Udon. Siam, as it was then known, had been used as a sanctuary by Vietnamese nationalists for years. The Revolutionary Youth League, founded by Ho in 1925, embraced Marxist and nationalist themes. Its branch in Udon served as headquarters for all League operations in Siam. According to Ho biographer, William Duiker, a Vietnamese who called himself “Father Chin” reached Udon in September 1928 after an arduous trip that included a 10-day trek along jungle paths. “Father Chin” stayed in Udon for several months, visiting Viet Kieu (as overseas Vietnamese were known by the Siamese) and teaching by example in an effort to change the habits of his compatriots. He attempted to acquire the Thai language, and, in an effort to elevate the status of manual labor among Vietnamese who looked down on it, even helped construct a local school by carrying bricks. Operating under the guise of the Than Ai (friendship) association established by League members, Ho traveled the Northeast and established new cells, according to Duiker. This, at a time when both French police and the imperial government in Hué were hunting for him.
In 1930, Korn was only a boy of nine, but as the oldest son in the Tonchai family, it was his job to cook and wash clothes for the family’s youthful visitor. Korn said his parents’ house was located very near the museum site so at least the location of the camp is historically accurate. “We had no electricity,” he remembers. Instead, villagers relied on kabong, torches of decayed tree bark mixed with sap. “There were all kinds of wild animalselephants, wild pigs, deer,” Korn says. “The [Thai government] officials were afraid to come out here because of the tigers.”
Ho had come to Ban Nong On in search of anti-French Vietnamese, recruits willing to journey to Vietnam and fight the French. “They had no guns,” Korn says. “They practiced boxing [likely martial arts]. They were good. Very athletic.” Korn says 24 fighters eventually traveled to Vietnam but they were forced to retreat when villagers recognized them as strangers and alerted authorities.
As Korn talked, I began to picture this landscape as it had been nearly eighty years before, the 12-kilometer journey to Udon on horseback long and arduous, the jungle sweltering because the dense forest allowed no breeze, the environment an ideal recipe for a dedicated revolutionary in search of recruitsa dark, daunting terra incognita, an absence of officialdom, and an identifiable ethnic minority.
Korn describes the architect of the revolutionary movement in Indochina as if he’d seen him last weekHo dressed in simple clothes like the poor, so as not to attract attention. He wore a large brimmed straw hat made from cane leaves, and his sandals were fashioned from buffalo skin (”You could step on a nail, and it wouldn’t even penetrate.”). And as he talks, I can almost picture the wayfarer Ho tramping a dusty, jungle trail among the towering bamboo stands of Ban Nong On. No one would suspect this nondescript wanderer was a world traveler, a man on the run from agents of the Sûreté, a revolutionary who’d already been sentenced to forced labor in perpetuity on the charge of fomenting rebellion in Annam.
And what of this man? What was he like as a person, I want to know.
According to Korn, Ho manifested Vietnamese values like affection for children. “How so?” I ask.
“He liked to tease me,” Korn said, “but he wanted to teach me.”
Teach. The word is telling. As he’d done before in Thailand and many other places, Ho, the son of a Confucian academic and teacher, was always tutoring, always enlightening.
“When I was a boy, I was naughty. I was always fighting with the other kidsbecause they called me ‘Kaew‘ [an ethnic slur].
” ‘Come here,’ [Ho] said one day.’ ” Korn jabs a finger into the air as if spearing a memory. ” ‘Do you know how many Thai people are around here? Do you think you can fight all of them? You can ride a horse under a royal umbrella like a king, but you must still be humble.’
“His words were certainties’Don’t lie. Don’t look down on others, male or female. Have respect for elders. Don’t take revenge. When people are wrong, give them slack, and they will realize their error and come to apologize.’ ”
Ho’s words to Korn reflected traditional Confucian morality: eschew arrogance; be generous. Korn’s recollection of a youthful Ho Chi Minh was of a kind man who strictly lives by the Buddha’s teaching, what the Buddhist Thai call thamma thammo, a nature that would endear him to his countrymen: Uncle Ho.
“He ate simply,” says the long ago boy whose job it was to cook for him. “Peanuts and sesame seeds with salt. He wasn’t particular.
“He carried a cloth bag with a few bits of clothes,” Korn remembers. “That’s all.”
Did he carry anything else inside the knapsack? I wonder aloud.
“Only a book.” Korn says. “He carried a journal.”
At this, I close my own journal and tuck it into my Thai shoulder bag. Author David�Halberstam has noted, “Ho Chi Minh was one of the extraordinary figures of this erapart Gandhi, part Lenin, all Vietnamese.” Korn’s longterm memory of the man he served paints a portrait of a village ascetic that rings true. Korn’s generosity has helped me grasp history.
We part in the warmth of the sun and dust. Before turning to the pickup, I wai Uncle�Korn, but the Thai gesture, as graceful as it is, doesn’t seem adequate to the gift he’s given me. I extend my right hand and he grasps mine awkwardly. The gesture is American and alien to him, I know, but I feel the need for it. Just before I get into the truck, I turn and wish him “good health,” and he smiles warmly, wispy white chin whiskers blowing in the breeze.