Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Vietnamese children play in front of Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum
There’s a light rain as I arrive at the entrance to this revered site. What I’m about to see is the pride of Vietnam. There’s no admission fee to get in either; it’s open for all to see. Hundreds of people have arrived here before me, and I find my way to the back of a long line, as everyone queues for entry.

Entering a security tent, a security guard asks me, “Camera or mobile phone?” I shake my head, and pass through a metal detector. A nearby sign lists the rules for entry. As usual, the English translation is less than perfect. One rule states, “Don’t bring in gold, weapon, germstone, poison”.

Leaving the tent, the queue moves surprisingly fast. I look around at the rest of the crowd, and except for a western couple everyone else is Vietnamese. None are wearing traditional Vietnamese clothing however, all are wearing western style clothes.

Near to our queue, three lines of preschoolers shuffle along on their way to the entrance. Their teachers herd them forward, with each child holding the back of the shirt of the child in front of them. As they stop and start, they resemble a cute, long accordian of children. As the cute kids pass a guard, his somber face cracks into a rare smile. Like the other guards, he wears an all white military uniform, an elite soldier of the People’s Army of Vietnam. 

Ho in 1946 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
As we round a corner, I see our destination, a dark imposing edifice. The architecture resembles the style of the ancient Greeks or Romans, except that the columns are square. Constructed in the 1970’s, this hallowed building was built with the aid of the Soviet Union. Passing flowered wreaths and more armed sentries, we enter the stone building. The interior is all marble, and the line continues up a stairwell, covered with red rubber mats to protect the visitors from floors made slick by the rain. I follow the crowd to an upper level, walk through thick wooden doors, and suddenly everyone is silent.

There he is, lying in a glass case.

Ho Chi Minh.

My first thought on seeing the dead body of this man, is that his skin looks so white. He has a yellowish light shining down on him, but still, he looks so unnaturally white. He’s dressed in a dark blue outfit, like the kind he used to wear to official communist party functions. His trademark goatee beard, is combed neatly down under his chin.

When this man was alive, he was so many things, to so many people. He was famous, and infamous. Loved, and despised.

To most Vietnamese, he was a patriot. Nationalist. Communist. Leader. He was the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party, and President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He led the fight against the French, then the Japanese, then the Americans. He was Vietnam’s 20th century godfather.

To the French and Americans, he was more than an ardent communist. He was a rebel, a revolutionary. This one man was able to cause so much trouble to the USA, the world’s greatest superpower, and to the French colonials who dominated Vietnam long before them. He was America’s greatest enemy of the 1960’s, and even with all of their military might from land, sea and air, he was the man that they just couldn’t defeat.

And yet, he looks so short. Like most Asians he’s small in stature, but he made up for it with boundless determination, and total dedication to his cause. Ho never married; he dedicated his life to kicking the foreigners out of Vietnam and reuniting his country. Ho and his glass case are protected by four motionless honor guards. The glass surrounding him is so clean and spotless, that it appears as though there's no glass surrounding him at all. Behind him on the wall, are two long red banners, bearing the gold star from Vietnam’s flag, and the communist hammer and sickle. That’s fitting, since Vietnam and communism were Ho’s two greatest loves.

This tank in a Hanoi museum, crashed the Saigon palace gate to end the war. Ho didn't live to see it.
Frozen in time since his 1969 death, he looks older, than does in all of those old photos and propaganda films. But then again, when Ho finally died he was 79 years old. I look on this old motionless face, that still adorns this country’s paper currency. To most Vietnamese, he is their version of George Washington. 

Ho Chi Minh means ‘bringer of light’, and this was only one of countless pseudonyms he adopted over the years, to keep him from being arrested by the French. As an educated man he spoke French fluently, along with some Chinese, Russian, and even English that he picked up during his brief stint working in the USA. Back when he was an unknown, nobody could have imagined that this short Asian man that worked as a baker in New York, would later lead his country against America in what would become one of America's longest wars. While Ho lived in the USA, he learned more than just baking. In America, he found a country that had forced out an occupying colonial power, a feat that he later hoped to duplicate.

Years later when Vietnam declared its independence in 1945, Ho included these memorable words in his speech to Hanoi’s masses, “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As part of his announcement of an independent Vietnam, Ho plagiarized part of the text of the American Declaration of Independence. Ho was also happy to receive weapons from America used to fight the Japanese during WW II, but that was before the cold war. Ho didn’t turn against Americans until later, when the US began supporting the French colonials. 

Ho with sailors from East Germany (Source: German archives)
With the hero of Vietnam’s body on display, I wonder what the preschool children think of seeing Ho like this. When I was their age I'd never even been to a funeral yet. I wonder if it's proper to have children view a dead body at such a young age.

Ho didn’t intend for his body to end up like this. It’s said that he wanted to be cremated, but the communists who replaced him had different ideas. Just like the Russians did with Lenin’s body, and the Chinese did with Mao’s body, the Vietnamese built a grand mausoleum, and put his preserved corpse here on display. It’s like a state funeral that never ends.

Rumors abound that Ho’s actual body isn't even displayed anymore. The word is what I’m seeing now is only a wax dummy. Looking at his lifeless face, it’s hard to tell. Photos aren't allowed inside, and visitors are left to guess for themselves. Is it really him? Only Vietnam’s top brass and the morticians know for sure.

With the crowd gently pushing me from behind, the queue continues forward quietly. Before I know it, I’m out of the room, and soon I’m out of the building. Looking around, I see Vietnam’s adoration of Ho isn’t limited to his mausoleum. As part of their enduring cult of personality for Ho, next door they built a Ho Chi Minh Museum. It’s a big imposing structure, much larger than the Ho Chi Minh Museum I already saw in Saigon, (or should I say, Ho Chi Minh City.) Making for a bit of overkill, there’s another Ho Chi Minh Museum in Danang, still another in Pleiku, and so on. Perhaps due to hero worship or misplaced patriotism, the government decided to have multiple museums across the country dedicated to old Uncle Ho. Attendance at those museums is sparse, unlike the long lines of people who came to see Ho’s body today. 

 Later after leaving the complex, I catch a taxi and return to Hanoi's Old Town. Upon telling a Vietnamese friend that I went to see the mausoleum, she asks me, “Did you say hello to my Uncle Ho?"

“Yeah,” I answer, “but he didn’t say anything back to me.”

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