27 November 1948: Phan Kế An’s Secret Rendezvous with Hồ Chí Minh in the Việt Bắc

By November 1948, Hồ Chí Minh had been hiding in the Việt Bắc for exactly two years after French warships had begun bombarding the port of Hải Phòng in November 1946. The Việt Minh had shown staunch resistance against French colonial rule after the Japanese occupation during World War II, staging attacks in the south around Saigon as well as in the north surrounding Hanoi. The Việt Bắc was, therefore, being used the headquarters of the Việt Minh resistance government. Hồ Chí Minh’s life, along with the majority of people who supported his cause for an independent Vietnam run by the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government, came at an increasingly high price.

Phan Kế An was an early member of the Việt Minh[1] as part of the Central Cultural Association. He was tasked with drawing anti-colonial caricatures on the walls of French-occupied territory like in Bắc Ninh Province. In 1947, at just 22-years-old, An had been asked by General Secretary Trường Chinh to join The Truth (Sự Thật) newspaper and given the title of commission editor. With the unparalleled freedom to cover any topic he wished, An was in a relatively high position for someone his age. An concentrated his efforts on drawing political cartoons aiming mostly at French imperialism and bolstering revolutionary sentiment. However, he also went on to satirise Ngô Đình Diệm before his rise to power, showing surprising political forethought for someone so young.

Figure 1: Phan Kế An, 1947, Việt Bắc. Charcoal on machine-made paper; inscription by the artist in graphite pencil.

An, no stranger to drawing and publishing subversive material against French colonial rule, made sketches (fig.1) to provide patriotic support for the Việt Minh’s revolutionary activities. The artist noted that the Việt Minh soldier was a true patriot; although he was poor and had no boots or shoes, he was willing to fight the French for the independence of his country. An also noted that producing this type of work was extremely dangerous. If the French found these works, artists risked severe punishment, even execution.

As such, at the end of 1948, An was selected by the government to travel into the Việt Bắc to sketch and document the personal life of Hồ Chí Minh. He spent three weeks in secrecy with Hồ Chí Minh and his closest advisors, producing twenty portraits of the iconic Vietnamese leader, some made from the burned ends of cigarette butts. He was the first person to portray President Hồ Chí Minh in the resistance against French colonialism.[3]

Figure 2: Phan Kế An, 27 November 1948, Việt Bắc. Charcoal on machine-made paper.

In this intimate sketch (fig. 2), Hồ Chí Minh is portrayed as a humble leader working hard for the revolution. Writing at a makeshift table and bench (probably made from bamboo) with a woven rattan basket by his side, there is no mistaking his threadbare surroundings. Whether deliberate or not, the telltale sign of a barefoot, raised in the typically informal seating position of the working class, would have immediately identified him with Việt Minh soldiers fighting without footwear and farmers and peasants being unfairly taxed or mistreated in the countryside.

Despite being nervous around his idol, An remembers the time fondly, filled with small interactions that solidified their relationship. He tells of how, to keep Hồ Chí Minh from moving too much while smoking cigarettes, An took them away one by one and began distributing them to the thirty soldiers in the camp. When Hồ Chí Minh found out – wondering why he had so little cigarettes in his packet – An admitted to his ruse. After listening to how An had up to that point taken thirteen cigarettes and distributed them to the soldiers, Hồ Chí Minh gave him another seventeen for the remaining brothers in the camp.[4]

An eventually created over 200 portraits of Hồ Chí Minh during his lifetime until the leader’s death in September 1969.


[1] An joined after the August Revolution in 1945 while he was still a student studying under the French at the Fine Art College of Indochina. He joined along with other senior artists such as Mai Văn Nam, Tạ Thúc Bình, Vinh Sơn, Mai Văn Hiến, Lê Phổ, Kim Đồng, Phan Nhat, Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, Tôn Dức Lượng and Nguyễn Văn Thiện.

[2] Named Prime Minister of the State of South Vietnam by Head of State Bảo Đại in 1954.

[3] Revealed in an independent interview with Phan Kế An.

[4] Thu Hà, Uncle Ho, the subject I pursue throughout my life, Culture & Entertainment, Saigon Liberation Newspaper Online, 2n September 2008.

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