Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Ho Chi Minh

About a month ago I was in Newhaven, that small Sussex ferry port, for an evening stroll. It looks like this. First a 2010 shot:

Next a 2014 shot, with the evening Transmanche ferry coming in, dwarfing everything else in the scene:

There have been ferries shuttling between Newhaven and Dieppe since the mid nineteenth century. It was (and still is) the only proper ferry port for France between Portsmouth and Dover. But it has in recent decades had only Cinderella status, and the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 almost did for it. Reinvestment in the port facilities, and the ships, ceased before the Tunnel was opened. Here for instance was the ferry as I photographed it in 1991, then run by Sealink, and looking distinctly rusty:

Other operators stepped in and have kept the ferry service alive. But Newhaven continues to feel a bit shabby and hole-in-the-wall. The twice-daily sailings are still an event, though, and give a sense of purpose to a town that really has no other good reason to exist. (Hot tip: if you want an inexpensive house on the coast, reasonably close to Brighton or Eastbourne, look in Newhaven!)

Well, having witnessed the Transmanche ferry's arrival, I went down to get a close-up view of the boat while it was still disgorging its cars and lorries:

And noticed this fairly new addition to the quay on which I was standing: a block of stone, with an inscription on it:

Ho Chi Minh? The Ho Chi Minh?

Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) was a famous (or infamous) figure from the mid twentieth century, associated mainly with the struggle of the people of Viet Nam to throw off their colonial status - Viet Nam was once part of the French colony of Indo-China. America's later involvement in the Viet Nam War made his name familiar to everyone in the non-Communist world. You can read all about his life at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ho_Chi_Minh.

Tucked away in the Wikipedia article (with a warning that there is no verification) is the mention that Ho Chi Minh worked as a pastry chef on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry. The favourite date for this is 1913, but some report that it was after the end of the First World War. (Perhaps they don't really know the dates of that War) Anyway, these online articles from 2013 will give you more details of Ho Chi Minh's surprising connection with Newhaven:



The 'pasty cook on the ferry' story has clearly emerged only in recent years. It isn't mentioned in my 1990 copy of Hidden Sussex - The Towns, a BBC Radio Sussex publication (ISBN 0 9509510 5 6). But it is referred to in this 1998 article from The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/travel-channel-ferry-gets-that-sinking-feeling-1192377.html.

So, despite fifteen years (at least) in which to check not merely the likelihood but the actual truth of the tale - from crew lists and other documents that might yet be extant - it still had the status of an attractive but unverified theory in 2013. It certainly is an intriguing notion, that a personage of world reputation was humbly kneading dough aboard a ferry boat, and perhaps had modest lodgings ashore. But surely you do need proof that he actually stepped ashore, and did things in Newhaven, to justify 'The Ho Chi Minh Connection', a big ceremony, and a memorial stone?

I mean, you have to imagine this as well. The young, easily-led (and not yet wise) Ho Chi Minh hitting the town on Saturday nights with the rest of the crew. Getting drunk; swearing, blowing his pay on gambling, mixing with the local whores, throwing fists at policemen, and generally getting into trouble. No, I can't conjure up this image of him either! All I see is the older man, the revered Communist Leader with sober eyes. A man unburdened with embarrassing memories of debauched nights out in Newhaven.

So (although I may be wrong of course) I think that stone on the quay is a bit of a leg-pull. A spurious assumption turned into a local myth, to draw the tourists in. All on the strength of his working on a boat that came in and out of the port.

Was he ever the mayor of Newhaven? No.

Did he in later life mention Newhaven to his Communist colleagues as a fond or inspiring memory? No.

Was his alternative name Viet Nam Joe of Newhaven? No.

It's as surprising (and unlikely) as 'discovering' that Russian President Vladimir Putin once took (or could well have taken) a summer job at Sainsbury's in Newhaven. Before he was famous, you understand.

Ooops! Please, please ignore that last suggestion. It's a figment of my imagination. I swear it.

It's a well-known fact that anything that appears in print, especially on the Internet, gets lifted out of context and misquoted again and again until it is an accepted fact. Even if there is an immediate explanation from the originator. Look, I didn't mean it. I am as certain as can be that President Putin never, ever, worked on the fresh meat counter in Sainsbury's down in Newhaven on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The afternoon shift before he attended night school. Nor was he known to the other staff as 'Vlad the Impaler'. Nor did he have a local girlfriend called Annie, and gave her lifts on his Vespa scooter. You've got to believe me.

No, it's too late. Damn. I now expect to see a stone block outside Sainsbury's in Newhaven any day now, commemorating 'The Putin Connection'.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Fancy dear old Vladie working at Sainsbury's in Newhaven. Who would have believed it? I shall tell all my friends!

    Seriously, imagined or distorted history, usually served up for the tourists, is a problem. I recall us talking, during your last visit, about the liberties some heritage railway lines take in (for instance) the things they pass off as 'Great Western'.


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