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Review: Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

3/5 stars

Translated from the Vietnamese by Aileen Palmer

My mom is going through all of the books in her house, and donating a great deal of them... but before she donates, I always have to look through and pick out ones I want! I found this slim volume last weekend and thought I'd give it a go.

It isn't a traditional diary in the Western sense of the word. Rather, each page has one poem in quatrain form, written originally in Chinese.

Ho Chi Minh is lauded as "one of the 20th century's most prominent revolutionaries, and the founding father of modern Vietnam." He led the Communist, nationalist liberation movement, seeking independence for Vietnam from France, and later served as Prime Minister and President of the newly liberated Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).

In 1942, Ho Chi Minh was arrested in China, accused of being a spy. Imprisoned for over a year, he kept a diary written in minimalist poems in classic Chinese. Why Chinese instead of his native Vietnamese? Well, for one, he was fluent in both (and at least passable in English as well), but also he knew that if he wrote in a language his captors could not read, they wouldn't allow him to continue to write.

The poems document some of his daily life - being bound in leg irons and marched from jail to jail, often in bad weather and with inadequate clothing, the food (or lack thereof), the bedbugs and mosquitos. But more so they focus on the little things that keep him going - a brief glimpse of the moon, someone playing the flute somewhere far off, a cool breeze on the face, the Great Bear constellation in the night sky.

Throughout his year+ in various prisons, Ho Chi Minh maintained - at least in writing - an enviable optimism, and a deep appreciation of nature. He also continued to hold his revolutionary beliefs sacred, planning for a free and independent Vietnam. I was pleasantly surprised by the ease and beauty of his language, and his positive outlook on life.

A couple of poems:

For prisoners, there is no alcohol nor flowers,

But the night is so lovely, how can we celebrate it?

I go to the air-hole and stare up at the moon,

And through the air-hole the moon smiles at the poet.


Although they have tightly bound my arms and legs,

All over the mountain I hear the songs of birds,

And the forest is filled with the perfume of spring-flowers.

Who can prevent me from freely enjoying these

Which take from the long journey a little of its loneliness?


The ancients used to like to sing about natural beauty:

Snow and flowers, moon and wind, mists, mountains and rivers.

Today we should make poems including iron and steel,

And the poet also should know to lead an attack.



UP NEXT: The Body: A Guide for Occupants, by Bill Bryson

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