President Ho Chi Minh,an idol,swimmer Vu Thi Sen,gold medals

DEVOTION: At this time of year in the past, long lines of Vietnamese and international visitors normally stand under the hot summer sun to pay tribute to the founding father of today's Vietnam. 

In this era of materialistic endeavours and egoistic self-centred consumerism, his simple lifestyle seems both elusive and yet very practical guidance. 

Mainstream media constantly reminds us that Government employees and cadres need to follow his example in life and work to better serve the people. 

For swimmer Vu Thi Sen, now 73, President Ho was not only an idol, but her short meetings with him in her youth shaped her future. 

Sen was discovered and trained to become a national swimming talent.

Starting in 1960 in a very simple swimming pool, a pond rather, Sen quickly demonstrated rare talent. Naturally very thin and slender, she shone in the pool with medals in competitions at home and abroad.

Swim talent

President Ho Chi Minh,an idol,swimmer Vu Thi Sen,gold medals
MEMORIES: Vu Thi Sen (in black) stands between President Ho Chi Minh and PM Pham Van Dong along with four male gold medallists from the GANEFO.VNA Archive Photo

In 1965, when she was 17 years old, Sen was second to none in all the swimming races in what was then the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) 

She was chosen to accompany a visiting table-tennis team from China to meet President Ho.

"We stood close to the back of the meeting room, but Uncle Ho approached us to ask and gave us each two candies," Sen remembers. 

"His voice was warm and he was very amicable, like your grandfather at home, not like a State leader as we imagined," she says. "Uncle Ho told us, 'You learn from Chinese friends, then try to catch up with them, and surpass them'.

"His appearance was so impressive and brief, we had to leave when I realised I left the precious two candies on the meeting table."

Born in Nghia Hung District of coastal Nam Dinh Province, Sen, whose name means 'lotus' in Vietnamese, went to school in the morning and tended to her family's buffalo in the afternoon. 

The area is surrounded by the Dao, Ninh Co and Day rivers on one side and on the other is the 12km of seashore in the district.

"My home village was very famous during the early 1960s when many delegations from other provinces came to us to learn from our successful public sanitary campaign to urge people to build standard toilets and keep clean countryside," Sen says in her small living-room. 

Sen says she learned to swim from her big brother, who had learned the skill from a visiting national team that came to the district to train and perform for the locals. 

President Ho Chi Minh,an idol,swimmer Vu Thi Sen,gold medals
ON TOP: Vu Thi Sen looks through her photo album. The picture shows her on the gold podium for the 200m breaststroke. VNS Photo My Ha

 "I was very thin," she says, "weighing only 35 kilogrammes, but I won all the swimming competitions in my district and then my province."

Sen was a young talent and detected from Vietnam's top talent pool in swimming of Nghia Phu Commune, Nghia Hung District.

Having won all the swimming competitions in her district and then her province, she was chosen to train for the national team in Hanoi. 

"The training was long and tiring," Sen says, "but I loved to be able to travel to different pools to swim. 

Today, with technology and chemicals, swimming pools are open all summer and the water only needs to be changed rarely. But back in the 1960s in Hanoi, the city's only big pool in Ba Dinh needed two days a week to let the water out, get cleaned, then let the water fill the pool.

"We had to clean the pool every week, each must clean ten tiles," Sen recalls, "and for two days, we went to another pool which had the starting podium to train."

"My coach was from China," Sen says. "He was a swimmimg champion and was very careful, hardworking and kind. He and his son were both swimming heroes in China and there was a movie, Two Lives on the Water Surface about them. 

"We had an interpreter, a Vietnamese of Chinese origin, and I always asked her what he said all the time, which irritated him to the point he asked why I asked so many questions!

"He taught me techniques and fixed my moves for one year. But when we went to Phnom Penh to compete, he could not go with us. I guessed our means then were limited and after one year he went back to China."

Sports and politics

At 17, Sen won silver and gold medals in the 100m and 200m breaststroke at the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 1966. 

She represented Vietnam in the Asian Games organised by the Asian countries friendly with the East Bloc during the Cold War.

Indonesia established GANEFO after it was banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) because it denied Israel and Taiwan entry to the fourth edition of Asian Games in 1962 in Jakarta.

Ten countries (Cambodia, China, Guinea, Indonesia, Iraq, Mali, Pakistan, the DRVN, and the Soviet Union) announced plans to form GANEFO in April 1963, and 36 countries signed up as members in November 1963. GANEFO made it clear in its constitution that politics and sport were intertwined, which ran against the thinking of the IOC.

Launched as an alternative to the Olympics, only the 1962 edition and a 1966 Asian games in Phnom Penh were ever held.

Sen represented Vietnam in Asia's first and last GANEFO in 1966.

"It was still wartime, so to avoid being shot down we had to fly to Guangzhou, China, then from Guangzhou to Phnom Penh," Sen says. "We left two days earlier to warm up, and trained before the competition because it was November in Hanoi, the water got cold and we didn't have heated pools to practise then." 

Sen says that they had to swim in cotton one-piece, made from a known tailoring house in Hanoi. "There were no swimming googles, either."

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, a group of overseas Vietnamese living there went to greet the team.

"The women hugged us, crying and said, 'How beautiful you girls are! We heard here that in the North, seven Việt Cộng hung on to a papaya tube and won't break it,'" Sen recalls.

"I was skinny but tall, and the girls in the volleyball teams were all tall, over 1.7m, and they were beautiful.

"When I competed on the second day, I told myself to try my best.


"After the first 12m, I rose up and glanced around, I didn't see anyone: on my left was Chinese girl Ling Ling, on my right was a girl from North Korea. 50m, then 100m and closer to finish, I didn't see anyone surpass me.

"I was very happy to come first in the 200m breaststroke."

Her score was 3'03.1''.

Sen was the first woman from Vietnam to ever win a gold medal in an international sporting event. 

The medal ceremony should have held then and there, but the organising committee only had the Vietnam flag and not the Vietnamese anthem, expecting that as Vietnam was going through war the athletes wouldn't win a gold.

So Sen had to wait and the next day, a local newspaper ran a headline saying she was Cambodian. 

The day after, when Tran Huu Chi from Vietnam won gold in the 400m hurdles, then the award ceremony took place and the Vietnamese anthem blared out for the first time. Sen had her ceremony later.

After the games, the team returned to Vietnam with no official reception or fanfare similar to what the football team enjoys today.

It was still war then, and the whole team moved to Ha Tay Province to swim in the Red River. 

"We had to dye our clothes all black and dark navy blue," Sen says, explaining that the dark clothes were dyed so aerial bombing planes couldn't pick them out.

On December 19, 1966, Sen had just finished her training when her coaches called the athletes for a special meeting with the leaders. They didn't know who they were going to meet and were only told to present themselves, their training and achievements.

Along with others who won golds in the GANEFO team, including shooters Tran Oanh, Nguyen Manh Hung and athlete Tran Huu Chi, who won men's 400m hurdles, they were taken to meet President Ho and led to the centre of the meeting room. 

"Someone says, Uncle Ho, there he was, coming from the back of the room, asking those who were sitting further back. We were so happy and excited."

Sen says she was very lucky to have met President Ho for a second time, though this time there were no drinks, feast nor candies.

"My dear young people," Sen remembers he said, "our country is still going through war, you will need to try to work hard in your capacity to serve our common cause, to bring the South under one roof with us."

Reminiscing over that meeting, Sen cannot hold back her tears. As the only young girl, the men in the team saved her the privilege of sitting next to the President.

"I never forget that meeting," she says. "He saw me and Mr Chi with two medals on our chests. He asked, 'You won two medals? Remember not to be overly proud, okay!'

"Do not be overly proud when you win and do not give up when you lose,' those words Uncle Ho told us that day, I remember for the rest of my life."

President Ho Chi Minh,an idol,swimmer Vu Thi Sen,gold medals
LONG-AWAITED: The mausoleum was opened to the public on May 12 after a long closure due to the pandemic. VNS Photo Ho Hoang

They all then had a group photo with the President, and the four gold medalists got to take another photo with President Ho, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and their coach. 

"I was very moved when we were presented with Uncle Ho's badge. Almost all of us moved to tears, but we tried to hold them back, Sen says.

"As we were too excited to leave, Uncle Ho exclaimed, like an army officer, 'Everyone, stand straight, turn back, march!' We did as told, and when we moved close to the gate, I turned around to see the President already turned away, heading back to his office."

Lasting legacy

Hard work, paired with a competitive spirit and national pride have helped Sen and so many young men and women of her generation to pursue great achievements.

After the games, in 1970, Vu Thi Sen took part in the first long-distance swimming competition that was 22km from Hoang Chau Island to Binh Wharf in Hai Phong. 

"We left at 8am and I arrived at some times after 1pm in Binh Wharf. My eyes became red even a few days after because of the oil from all the ships that come in and out Hai Phong Port."

The long-distance competition to cross the Bach Dang River since then became an annual event. 

President Ho Chi Minh,an idol,swimmer Vu Thi Sen,gold medals
RESPECTS: Vu Thi Sen visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum around the 130th anniversary of the birth of Uncle Ho — whom she had the opportunity to meet in 1966.VNS Photo Ho Hoang

Now looking back her life as a swimmer, Sen does not count her gold medals as accomplishments.

"In my life, I got to meet Uncle Ho two times," Sen says when she goes to the mausoleum to pay tribute to her life idol on a sunny May morning. 

"The first time he told me to learn from Chinese friends, catch up and surpass them. The second time, he said not to be overly proud when winning, not to give up when you lose.  

"When I met Uncle Ho the second time, I did what he told us one year earlier: I won gold and my Chinese competitor won silver."

Many years later, Sen said she lost contact with her Chinese coach. One day her son called to tell her to turn on the TV as he saw someone like her coach. 

"It was running toward the end, and my coach was saying that after he became world champion, he was invited to many countries to train young swimmers. He did go abroad to train, and he was quite upset that his student won over a Chinese national in an international event. Since then, he would never go abroad to train anymore!" Sen says.

Pointing to what is today a modern complex that housed Vietnam's National Assembly, she says: "We used to train every day at Ba Dinh pool in the left corner over there. When Uncle Ho died in 1969, people stood in line from here down to the Hang Dau Park. Many waited, even for two to three days to pay last tribute to him."

"He did so much for our country, his heart was immense!" VNS

Nguyen My Ha

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