Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Uncle Ho

Ho Chi Minh, for those who don't know (and I knew almost nothing before coming here to be honest) led the Vietnamese through turbulent periods of French and Japanese rule and continually worked towards independence for his country. After World War II, Vietnam was divided into the communist north, with Ho Chi Minh in charge, and the not-communist south run by a relatively weak regime with the United States pulling the strings behind the scenes. "Uncle Ho" (they really did call him that) was determined to re-unite his country into a single independent communist state. I'm sure that I'll waffle on lots more about the subsequent civil and then international wars which broke out - our trip to Saigon will focus heavily on The Vietnam War. For now though, think of Ho Chi Minh as president, king, deity, and revolutionary hero, all rolled into one package.

I've been told by an ex-pat that a characteristic of some Vietnamese people is that whatever you ask for, they know better. He told the story of a friend who ordered a dining table with some intricate design carved on the surface, but eventually took delivery of a low level coffee table (because it looks better that way), and with a smooth polished surface (because what you asked for would be very difficult to keep clean). Nowhere is this characteristic more visibly demonstrated than at the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. Before his death in 1969, Ho left express instructions that he should be cremated, as any burial space was a waste of productive land that could be used by the people. However, the remaining leaders of the country did the exact opposite - they decided that what he really would have wanted was a huge, imposing mausoleum in which his embalmed body could be put on display so that the good folk of Vietnam could come and pay their respects, forever.

The mausoleum is set high up on a plinth of marble steps and overlooks Ba Dinh Square, a huge open space of checkerboard lawns and a strip of tarmac wide and empty enough to land a 747 on. The building is a replica of the one that contains Lenin's embalmed body and the Vietnamese employed (and still employ) the services of the same Russian embalmers that worked on the Lenin job. It seems if you want some top notch embalming work, these guys are the ones to use - the Chinese might do it a little cheaper, but by all accounts, Chairman Mao is not looking as good as he should these days - as with many things, you get what you pay for.

Before we can get anywhere near Uncle Ho's mausoleum our bag is subjected to airport-style security measures. We then proceed onto the huge wide road and are directed by a white-uniformed soldier to a spot around 50 yards further up where another white-uniformed soldier indicates that we should wait. It's drizzling steadily and there are very few tourists around, but still... we have to wait. After a short while the guard beckons us to walk further up the runway where another guard indicates we need to wait once more... in the drizzle. To some extent we're lucky - we've read accounts of huge queues standing in the baking sun for hours waiting to be allowed into the mausoleum (and having to remove sun hats to show respect) so a bit of drizzle for a few minutes shouldn't harm us.

Soon a few eager Vietnamese tourists join our queue and it is time to be taken to see Uncle Ho. We are beckoned onto the red rubber carpeted steps and walk solemnly up through the huge doors into the mausoleum, watched closely by armed guards. Because we are standing side by side at the head of our procession we feel as if we are a pair of visiting dignitaries here to pay our respects. They really clamp down on people being disrespectful, (talking, smiling etc) but there's no question of that on our account - I feel as if I'm representing Great Britain at some state occasion, and apart from my scruffy appearance (I look like I've been dragged through Indochina, backwards), I reckon I'm doing a better job than Dave Cameron would ever do.

We walk up some stairs inside the building, turn right, up some more stairs, constantly under the scrutiny of soldiers and then we're in a large, dimly-lit room and as I look to the left there's a glass case, inside of which lies an old man with a bald head and long whispy beard. He's illuminated in a way that gives him a strange glow. It's very odd - I'm looking at Ho Chi Minh, one of the major Communist icons and a man who looms large in 20th Century world history, who died a year after I was born, and yet I  half expect to see him open his eyes, yawn, sit up, and ask what the hell we're doing in his bedroom!

Our walking pace is dictated by the guards around 3 sides of the room and after what seems like only a few seconds, we exit down another flight of "red carpeted" steps and emerge back outside the building. The whole thing probably lasted 60 seconds (a Ho Chi Minh-ute?), but it was one of the most fascinating, surreal and strangely moving experiences I've ever had.

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