After I had already been traveling in Vietnam for two months, I arrived in the capital, Hanoi. Throughout my travels, I was fascinated by how the Vietnamese, on the one hand, embrace capitalism and what the free market has to offer but at the same time worship Ho Chi Minh, the father of Communist Vietnam. So I went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and his Presidential home to learn more.
I leave the V Hostel in a quieter street of Hanoi’s Old Quarter at 7:30 am to be at the mausoleum by 8.
My route leads me below the railway tracks into the Ministry of Defence complex and on along the embassies in Dien Bien Phu avenue until I finally see Uncle Ho’s final resting place on Ba Dinh Square.
It’s a massive grey granite building and with its columns more reminiscent of an ancient Greek temple than Vietnam’s typical architecture. Apparently, it was modeled after the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow, Russia. The mausoleum looks upon a large square, where the Vietnamese army would presumably hold parades in honor of their founding father.
I have a bit of trouble finding the entrance into the fenced compound. But a friendly soldier finally points me to Chua Mot Cot street.
Despite heavy security with roadblocks and armed soldiers, the guards continue to be lovely. There are two lines: one for groups with a reservation and one for people like me who just wing it, hoping the place they want to visit is, in fact, open. The guard in charge of keeping the flow of visitors in check points me to the line for visitors with a reservation. I try to protest, but he smiles at me and nods.
The line is moving fast, and within ten minutes it’s my turn at the metal detectors. The lady here looks at me with a scolding face: “No camera!” But smiles when she hands me a bag to put my camera into. “You can get it back at the exit.” She also takes my water bottle and my biscuits and places them in a bin full of water bottles and snack. When I protest, she shrugs, gives them back to me and points me to a counter.
The lady at the counter gives me another bag and tells me to come back to pick up my water and biscuits. “Before two pm!”
The mood is solemn as I join the Vietnamese people dressed in their finest garb entering the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The walls and floors are clad in polished red, grey, and black stone; large flower arrangements add a bit of life.
It’s quiet. Signs remind visitors not to take any photos or videos, not even with their phones. A guard lets groups of ten at a time into the inner sanctum. The path is clearly marked with a second path closer to the glass coffin being reserved for children.
Ho Chi Minh, much like his mentor Lenin in Russia, didn’t want this kind of cult around him as a person. When he died in 1969, he asked specifically to be burned and for his ashes to be spread in South, Central, and North Vietnam once the country was reunited. But like in Lenin’s case, the men and women who followed him had a different idea. They embalmed their President, dressed him in his favorite khaki suit, and built the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which was inaugurated in 1975.
It is remarkably cold in the mausoleum. Used to this always being a crowded affair, the Vietnamese visitors walk in, around the coffin, and out on the other side without stopping. So that for a few moments I am alone with Uncle Ho.
The room is dimly lit by an orange light. He looks ashen. His face is peaceful and his khaki suit in order but I wonder what anyone would get out of seeing this corpse that looks nothing like a sleeping, beloved person and more like the decades-old piece of taxidermy it is. Remembering that I still have my GoPro camera in my bag, I am tempted to defy the No photography! rule. But I resist – I am a guest here, after all.
Back outside, signs guide me to the camera counter, I hand over my token and get my gear back. After a quick visit back to the entrance to pick up my water and biscuits, I head over to the grounds of the Presidential Palace.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square was built in the compound where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in 1945, thereby establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam during the Vietnam War), and where he lived from 1951 until his death. What is today known as the Presidential Palace used to be the mansion of the French Indochine Governor-General.
While Ho received guests in the grand building and used it for official purposes, he lived in a small bungalow on the lushly landscaped grounds. I join the neat line of visitors to visit Ho’s last home. There is an airy office space on the ground floor with large table, a phone and a lounger, and a simple bedroom with a desk by the window upstairs.
On the other side of the small lake the bungalow looks on to is the garage displaying 1940s French cars that the new Communist Vietnamese government captured from the colonial power and Ho Chi Minh – the simple men he strove to be – continued to use until the late 1960s.
The visit to the Presidential Palace Historical Site takes just half an hour. At the end of the self-guided tour awaits an a line of restaurants/cafés and souvenir shops. It’s 9, and the mainly Vietnamese visitors are busily ordering noodle soups and Phin coffees. I walk a bit further and find a café selling Latte Macchiato with an air-conditioned seating area that doubles as a gallery.
It’s only 9:30 am when I leave the Ba Dinh compound. It’s promising to be a sweltering July day, and I have gotten up too early to bring up the brain power for any more sightseeing.
What have I learned this morning? While I do not believe in Communism any more than I did before, I have gained some respect for Ho Chi Minh, who as a person seems to have embodied the best of what this ideology promises – being judged by his deeds not his origins and humbly serving the greater good.