Learning about Nguyen the Accomplished

One of the privileges of teaching Southeast Asian Politics is how it helps me to discover new facts, new anecdotes, and new perspectives on old subjects. Sometimes I learn these things from my students, sometimes I learn these things as a result of trying to answer a question from students.

Several years ago, for example, I learned about the Joyoboyo prophesy while trying to answering the question from a student about what do Indonesians learn about the Japanese occupation during WWII? My recent lectures on modern Vietnamese politics have provided me with another good one.

Here is a picture taken from a Vietnamese school. Thanks to one solid year of Vietnamese language in graduate school Google Translate, I can get a sense of the conversation.

It relates the story of an enterprising young man in colonial-era Annam (French Indochina) named Nguyễn Tất Thành (that name is what is obscured by the head on the left… written Ng Tất Th___). He is speaking with his friend Pear (bạn = a familiar term of address, = pear) about his desire to go overseas to see the world and use his experiences to help the Vietnamese people:

Tôi muốn đi ra nước ngoài, xem nước Pháp và các nước khác. Sau khi xem xét họ làm như thế nào, Tôi sẽ trở về giúp đồng bào chúng ta.

I want to go abroad, to see France as well as other countries. After seeing how they do it, I will return to help our compatriots.

But look at Mr. Nguyễn’s hands. Part of the story I have been told is that Mr. Nguyễn responded to the question “how will you earn money to do this?” by responding “with my hands—my hands are my money.” It is remarkable to see that those hands are stamped with dollar signs rather than the đồng symbol () to signify this point.

The story also becomes more evocative when you realize that Nguyễn Tất Thành is a sobriquet that means “Nguyen the Accomplished.” And even more so once you realize that this same Nguyen was later known to the world as Ho Chi Minh.