Sojourn in Siam 

New book looks at the influential years that Ho Chi Minh spent in the Kingdom

The Siamese Trail Of Ho Chi Minh -- the third book by Bangkok-based writer Teddy Spha Palasthira -- has come out in an interesting time. Not only did Vietnam celebrate the 40th year of the country's reunification earlier this year, but the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is set to become active next month, with a promise to bring the relationships and history of the region into public attention.

Once war-torn and struggling, Vietnam has taken off as a destination for foreign investors fleeing higher production costs and instability in Thailand; the country is also rivalling Thailand as the world champion rice exporter.

The history of Vietnam-Thailand bilateral relations is also underscored by the bitterness of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, during which Thai soil was used for US army bases. The history of modern Vietnam also intertwines with Thailand in another way. The Siamese Trail Of Ho Chi Minh is about Ho Chi Minh's adventurous journey across the mountains and jungles of northeast Siam and his clandestine political exile in Thailand during 1928-1930. 

Full of academic facts from a review of 84 historical publications and his own field investigation in Thailand and Vietnam, Teddy wants the book to be informative, as well as a pleasure to read.

"The book narrates how brilliantly Ho managed to evade his enemies through clever subterfuge, meticulous planning, and imaginative resourcefulness," said Teddy during the book launch earlier this month. One of the guests at the event was Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Tat Thanh.

Born in a family of government teachers in 1890, Ho Chi Minh became a prominent leader in the post-World War II anti-colonial movement in Asia and was one of the most influential communist leaders in the 20th century.

"Five American presidents were no match for Ho Chi Minh. He was wily, intelligent, charismatic, cosmopolitan, charming yet decisively ruthless, a master of realpolitik, with the unique ability to wield power, though he never lost the common touch with his people," said Teddy, a former diplomat, lawyer and professor on business marketing.

The life of Ho Chi Minh, amicably called "Uncle Ho" by many, could make spy characters in books and movies such as Mission Impossible's Ethan Hunt and Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne look insipid. Hunted by the French, Ho was forced to develop a chameleon-like nature and give himself faux identities -- a Catholic priest, Buddhist monk, Chinese businessman, traditional medicine practitioner -- as he traversed enemy-infested regions and rough forests, hiding in cities around the world such as Boston, Moscow, Beijing and various European countries. He once worked as a pastry chef. Ho was also a definition of a polyglot -- a master in Mandarin and fluent in French, English, Russian, Cantonese, not to mention communicable Thai, since he lived in the country for two years.

Ho used Siam soil to build militant cadres to fight against French colonisers. Those militant forces were culled and groomed from Vietnamese immigrants. 

"The book will illustrate how Thailand played an important role in Vietnam's fight for independence. During the early years of the French War, up until 1932, Siam was sympathetic to Ho's cause, and both King Rama VI and King Rama VII willingly allowed the Viet Kieu revolutionaries free passage through Siam."

In the 50s and 60s, the tables turned when Thailand became an ally with the US in the fight against communism. 

"Indeed, Uncle Ho was deeply hurt when Vietnam needed to fight against Thailand. It is because Uncle Ho did not see the US as the real enemy. For him, the real enemy was France."

Teddy Spha Palasthira.

Teddy, 77, started writing the book in 2012, and it took him two years to complete. At first, the story of Uncle Ho was to be just a chapter in his book Friends Of Siam, which aimed to tell stories of foreigners who have contributed to the country, or have a unique relationship with Thailand, such as Gen Aung San of Burma, who lived in Bangkok's Sathon area during his political exile, or the first Malaysian prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, whose mother was Thai.

Yet the project transformed after Teddy became engrossed with the life of Uncle Ho.

"I simply could not stop wanting to know more about him. The more I dug, the more I became interested." Documents, news clips and drafts for "Uncle Ho's project" piled up and became so bulky and extensive that the author decided to write the whole book about Uncle Ho's sojourn in Siam.

The book is also a new challenge, a test for his full-time career as a writer. Teddy's first book, Addresses, is a personal memoir of wartime in England and post-war Europe and Siam. His second book, The Last Siamese, depicts 12 distinguished Thai personalities of the 20th century. 

The Siamese Trail Of Ho Chi Minh is, however, not a straight historical book. Teddy chose a format that mixes history and fiction. The first half of the book is packed with fact, while the latter part is fiction narrating the story of Wong, a young Thai-Vietnamese idealist who falls under the magnetic spell of Uncle Ho. On his way to battlefields in Vietnam, Wong meets several historic figures from the Free Thai Movement. Teddy insists that Wong is entirely fictitious, although historic events that shaped his life are real.

Like the fictional character he invented, Teddy cannot hide his glowing admiration towards Uncle Ho. Yet the writer recounts the life story of the great man by making him a human being, not a cult personality that sometimes "worshippers" believe him to be. As a human being in times of great conflict, Uncle Ho, whose image graces Vietnam bank notes, had both angelic and demonic sides. Uncle Ho could be Machiavellian, ruthless and decisive, a man who had his enemies killed. He was also charming and highly accessible, a man who never lost his common touch. According to history, Ho was remembered as gifted storyteller who infused ancient Vietnamese folk tales with Shakespeare and Tolstoy. 

"What I like the most about Uncle Ho is that Vietnam always comes first. Many dictators killed for protecting themselves. But for Uncle, everything he did was for the benefit of his beloved Vietnam."

So, was Ho Chin Minh a hero, or was he a cruel, calculating dictator? 

Teddy refused to put such a label on human nature. "It is not my place to judge. Isn't it better to let readers enjoy the book and reach their own verdict?"

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