I’ve been living in Hanoi for about 10 months now and I haven’t seen many of the guidebook tourist attractions. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is usually somewhere on the top of those “to-do” lists for tourists. So early one morning, before my mother went back to America, the two of us decided to go. First, a clerical note: in Vietnam the name structure is backwards. The first name (chronologically) is the family name. So Ho Chi Minh’s actual ‘first’ name was Minh (pronounced as “Ming”). Now you know.
Ho Chi Minh, if you don’t know, was the leader of the North Vietnamese when they fought against America, and was later the leader of the unified Vietnam. When North Vietnam won the war they renamed their enemy's capital, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, or in other words "In Your FACE!" City.
Ho Chi Minh occupies a special and unusual place in Vietnamese society. It would actually be unusual in any society. In every (public school) classroom I have ever taught in there is a picture of Ho Chi Minh hanging as the class’s centerpiece. If you walk out the door of the classroom, all public schools have a 4-story picture of Ho Chi Minh hanging on the side of the school. At every tourist attraction more oriented for domestic visitors there are holographic pictures of Ho Chi Minh for sale. And people buy them. There is at least one picture of Ho Chi Minh hanging in every Vietnamese home. His picture even finds its way onto religious shines and altars. He is an honorary member of every Vietnamese family. Ho Chi Minh is more often called “Uncle” by Vietnamese people than he is by his actual name.
Yeah, Ho Chi Minh was a great leader to Vietnam, but here’s where it gets a little weird (if it wasn’t already). Ho Chi Minh is known to have married a Chinese woman named Zeng Xueming in October 1926. Xueming was a catholic girl from Guangzhou (near Hong Kong). Here's her picture...
See?? She's real. However, these facts are not acknowledged by most Vietnamese people. It has been swept under the rug hard. It could be because Vietnam has classically hated China, but it seems to me that the reason is more probably because it corrupts the government-promoted idea of this ‘pure savior’. And Ho Chi Minh was just that for Vietnam: a savior. He led Vietnam through one of the most tumultuous times in its entire history, against some pretty formidable odds, to a time of independence and peace. So of course, I can understand this country’s reverence for him, but I am starting to think maybe things have gotten a little out of hand.
I’ve been trying to think who the American equivalent of Ho Chi Minh might be, but I have been unable to think of a politician who holds a similar place in the hearts of Americans. The closest historical figure that I can compare him to is Jesus, who also earned himself a figurative role to the nuclear family: “father”. Ho Chi Minh is more than just a historical or political figure in Vietnam. He is a regarded as a deity and he certainly garners equal, if not more respect than most deities these days. Ho Chi Minh is more than human: he is a religion. Ho Chi Minh is Vietnamese Jesus. And that’s all pretty odd if you ask me.
Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is mammoth. It takes up a solid 10 square city blocks and it looks kind of like a slick, chrome, communist version of the Lincoln Memorial. It is only open in the morning. Entry is free but you had best be there at the butt-crack of dawn if you want to avoid a multi-kilometer long line. Most of the line is not tourists either. It is mostly Vietnamese families.
The line inched along for about 30 minutes before we finally got out of the hot morning sun and into the air-conditioned marble hallways of the mausoleum. This was it: we were about to see the man himself.
Once we were in the chamber with his body the rule were these:
- No talking
- No smiling
- No laughing
- No cameras
- No crossed arms
- No hands in pockets
- No stopping
We walked into the chamber in single file and sure enough, there he was – in the flesh. Ho Chi Minh lay in a sort of giant, chrome coffin surrounded by armed soldiers, with a strange red light illuminating his cold, withered features. It was surreal – he looked just like in all the pictures I see everyday of my life. I felt a bit awkward for some reason so I put my hands in my pockets as I shuffled through but a solider quickly grabbed my wrist to pull my hand back out.
We did a full arch around the front of his body in silence and then exited the chamber on the other side. And then it was over. All together I was probably in the same room as Ho Chi Minh for 30 seconds.
It was weird. Interestingly enough, Ho Chi Minh, when he was alive, specifically requested to be cremated. So this is a pretty huge gesture of disobedience. But hey, I’m a stranger to these lands. What do I know? What the Vietnamese government had in mind (I think) was to copy what Russia did with the body of Vladimir Lenin. It is also worth noting that once a year, the corpse of Ho Chi Minh is sent to Russia for maintenance.
After leaving the mausoleum, I have learned from my guys on the inside that it is not actually Ho Chi Minh's body on display.
It's a fake.
This is actually not something that is commonly known. This right here is like inside information - and now you are on the inside too. Welcome to the inside. I'm not exactly sure how scandalous this is (the people who told me this didn't seem too broken up about it) but this is information that is not in any guide book I've ever seen or read. The real body is apparently being held in a secret place somewhere near Ho Chi Minh City. Why? I don't know. Maybe the real Ho Chi Minh is not looking quite so spry as his corpse doppelganger. Maybe it's because he is in some sort of cryosleep so that he can be brought back to life later like Walt Disney's brain, technology allowing.
Idk man. The longer I'm here the more questions I have and the less motivated I am to track down the answers. I have been told though, by a friend who's father is in the Vietnamese military and apparently saw the real body at some point in his career, that the real Ho Chi Minh is looking a lot less pretty than whatever or whoever it is that is on display in the mausoleum.
Anyway, as soon as you leave the mausoleum you are ushered to the entrance of a Ho Chi Minh historical site – the grounds that were once his house. There is an entrance fee though so we opted to just do the awkward walk back past the entire line. On our way out we passed by something curious though.
There was a school’s worth of small children stood, in uniform, standing in front of the mausoleum. They stood in neat lines, organized according to age. In front of them were some fancy cameras. The director yelled at them, and then music began to play. The children all sang in unison a classic Vietnamese song. The song had the signature grave, minor key as most of the songs from the region. The children's voices though took the song from eery to creepy. As we watched them sing I thought about the children singing in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It was that kind of weird. But I guess we’re all, unavoidably, indoctrinated into our own respective societies. It’s the circle of life.
At the end of the song, a man who was clearly a Ho Chi Minh stunt double (or something) ran out into the ranks of children for a photo opp. That pushed the weirdness well into the realm of comical and we made the walk back to my motorbike laughing.
I suppose I went through the American version of all this as a child. As such, I'm sure that all the thoughts I had about what I was seeing I have been conditioned have – them damn commies! Seeing what the other side of that coin actually looks like was interesting though.
This post conveniently is happening around the same time as Ho Chi Minh’s 125th birthday. Hanoi just threw Ho Chi Minh the biggest birthday party ever. So, wherever the real you is, happy (late) birthday Ho Chi Minh! Your nieces and nephews have been treating me well <3