Sometime in late 1927, France came into possession of a cache of Soviet documents. Earlier that year, the Kuomintang had begun a series of coups – violent purges of Chinese communists and their Soviet sponsors from the government. The ‘Canton Coup’, in present-day Guangzhou, China, would reveal something interesting. Members of the French security services, the Sûreté, managed to obtain documents from the now abandoned Soviet consulate. They confirmed what they had already known: for some years now, there were Vietnamese revolutionaries training in Moscow.
But one detail was new. The future Hồ Chí Minh, then using the pseudonym Nguyễn Ái Quốc, had taken a Russian wife while he studied in Moscow at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East between 1923-1924. Based on these Soviet documents the Sûreté noted: “In Moscow there were 11 Vietnamese, including Nguyen Ai Quoc, who had married a Russian.”
At the time these documents were found, Hồ Chí Minh had already moved to Canton under a different name. Here, Sophie Quinn-Judge notes in Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, Hồ Chí Minh took another wife, Tuyết Minh, a Cantonese midwife.
Midst the Kuomintang’s 1927 crackdown, Hồ Chí Minh left Tuyết Minh in China and fled the country. He returned east to Hong Kong in the early 1930s where he took the famous revolutionary Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai as his common-law wife.
But before long, Hồ was imprisoned in Hong Kong. Once freed, he embarked for Moscow again. Yet Quinn-Judge notes that Hồ Chí Minh listed no wife on his paperwork when he arrived in Moscow in 1933. William Duiker, another biographer of Hồ, found evidence that Hồ took a Russian “temporary wife” during this stay in the Soviet Union between 1933-1938.
Hồ Chí Minh would only return to Vietnam in the early 1940s midst World War II. Soon he was in contact with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Rene Desfourneaux, one of the OSS officers dispatched to Hồ Chí Minh and the Việt Minh’s camp in northern Tonkin, recalled a memorable incident.
One evening a dozen young women arrived from Hanoi. Hồ introduced them as “professional entertainers” to the group of Americans. Though he had been suffering from malaria, Hồ made himself busy preparing a mixture of powdered antler and herbs that he claimed was an “aphrodisiac.” The OSS officers declined to join in the entertainment that night. Desfourneaux recalled that when the young girls arrived, Hồ’s eyes came alive. “We understood then that Ho was completely cured of his malaria.” (“A Secret Encounter with Ho Chi Minh,” Look Magazine, 9 August 1966).
At about this same time Hồ Chí Minh met Nông Thị Xuân, an adolescent girl of about 12 years old. Hồ Chí Minh took this girl as his final, perhaps fifth or sixth, wife. It is unclear when they became engaged, but she moved with him to Hanoi in 1945. They remained together until her suspicious death in 1957.
Of course, today the actions of Hồ Chí Minh are obscured by the cult of personality that the Vietnam Worker’s Party maintains around his memory. They and their historians still assert that he was never married, a celibate figure. Yet like so many other Vietnamese elite men at this time, he was promiscuous and even lecherous. Recall however that this was an era when it was not uncommon for a notable man to have more than one wife, or to maintain an official mistress.
And so we shouldn’t be surprised that what’s written here about Hồ Chí Minh can also be said about Phan Bội Châu. After this aged revolutionary was sent into house arrest after 1925, he was known for loving both the bottle and the young women of Huế. Instead his colleagues sought to shield Phan Bội Châu’s private life from public view, feeling it was not an exemplar to be modeled. Nor did Bảo Đại, the last Nguyễn dynasty emperor, confine himself to the company of just his wife (though he did abolish the imperial harem). Curiously however, among these only Bảo Đại has been remembered as a promiscuous playboy.
None of these Vietnamese icons, we can say, felt constrained by marital vows.