My enriching journey to view the embalmed Vietnamese leader
01.09.2002 - 01.09.2002
I feel I need to preface this article with an explanation why I went to view the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh.
- I’m not Vietnamese - I’m Australian - I’m of an age I could have fought against his army, but didn’t - I know of others that did
- I know of others that did and died - Back then, depending on your view, he was the enemy.
I visited him not as a tourist. I visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi to specifically view his embalmed body for story research and to close a chapter.
Setting the scene
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the Ba Dinh District of Hanoi looms large and out of place in this land of French and lotus-inspired architecture. Based on Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, one could be forgiven for thinking they were standing in front of any Soviet authoritarian style building in a number of countries. The hardly noticeable curved roofline adds very little Vietnamese style or character and seems at odds with its purpose. Built over two years (1973-1975) to house the embalmed body of the revered leader Ho Chi Minh, the mausoleum is an anomaly. It was Ho Chi Minh's wish not to be embalmed, but for a simple cremation and his ashes spread over a rice field.
The mausoleum faces Ba Dinh Square where, on 2 September 1945, Ho declared independence for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Behind the granite mausoleum and the neighbouring and much contrasting French designed Presidential Palace, is the sprawling and leafy Botanic Gardens. Considered the green lungs of Hanoi, the gardens were established over thirty-three hectares by the French in 1890. They have since been reduced to ten hectares.
It is here were my tale begins.
It wasn’t my initial intention to explore the Botanic Gardens of Hanoi. But for anyone considering viewing the body of Ho Chi Minh lying deep within the mausoleum, the gardens will come first…well, almost. Let me explain.
I left my hotel in the Old Quarter at 8.00 am with the knowledge public entry into the mausoleum started at 8.30. The cyclo trip cost 20,000 dong ($1), and took less than half an hour.
As I approached the distant grey bunker-like mausoleum, the heat and humidity was rapidly increasing, as were the number of people joining an even greater number of people with the same intent.
After some confusion as to the entry procedure, I was directed to a small kiosk where I was ordered to leave my camera and camera case. All bags, cameras and mobile phones are prohibited inside the viewing chamber. I was given a numbered key ring in exchange for my camera and told, with a unclarifying wave of the hand, I could claim my camera on the other side of the mausoleum after the viewing.
Getting to and from the kiosk meant breaking through a long queue that faded well off into the distance. Having already discovered how extremely generous and friendly the Vietnamese are if you show politeness, I was graciously allowed through on both occasions.
Feeling naked without my camera and slightly worried if I'll ever see it again, I had a problem…where was the end of the queue? This is where the Botanic Gardens became unintentional itinerary number one. I backtracked along the line of people deep into the gardens, twisting around every tree, garden plot, pond and patch. In my haste, the heat and humidity was transforming my shirt into sweat induced irregular patterns and I was becoming an item of interest. Here was a tall sweat-stained foreigner walking rapidly in the wrong direction and quite possibly the only foreigner at this early hour.
With still no end of queue in sight, things suddenly became even more baffling. The queue forked off in two directions. Which fork do I take? Ask one of the brown-shirted policemen keeping the crowd in order, I thought. I got a silent, uninterested nod and an arm pointing in one direction. Hoping he wasn’t showing me the way out, I faithfully followed his direction till coming to a park gate and a main road beyond. Had my fear of being ejected come true? No, the queue continued down the street and still no end in sight. I approached another policeman who seemed as confused as I was, or was it the language barrier? I contemplated blending into the line there and then, but with suspicious brown-uniformed eyes on me, I set off further down the road.
It was now over half and hour since starting my journey to find the end of the line and I was beginning to doubt if, indeed, I ever would. Then I came across another gate that led back into the gardens. The queue I was following suddenly stopped to allow a shorter line to enter a gate back into the gardens. I tagged onto the end only to have the marshals hold us up to allow my previous line to enter before me. Had I missed something? Had I made the wrong choice? After an anxious wait, my newly adopted queue started off. I was now implanted into a line, that I hoped, was heading towards my intended destination. Aware of the distance I had travelled to get to this point, I had to accept a long, slow journey ahead.
Settling into the rhythm of slow shuffling feet, I did a rough calculation. It was now after nine o’clock and the mausoleum closes at eleven.* I had just walked at a brisk pace for well over thirty minutes to get where I was and the snail pace we were now progressing made me wonder…would I finally get to Ho Chi Minh's solid and foreboding Pearly Gates only to have them close in my face?
I was soon to realised that whatever the outcome, for the next couple of hours, the experience of being in the company of a group of Vietnamese of varying ages would be something to cherish.
The meandering, endless line of people was controlled by a small army of police and marshals and apart from the odd young male attempting to queue-jump, whom the marshals berated and sent to the end of queue, there was self-imposed respectful order. It was difficult to imagine such a thing happening in Melbourne and the crush to get into the MCG to see a football game.
But, the police and marshals can be harshly unforgiving at times. A teenage boy left the queue to retrieve a hat blown from a toddler’s head, on returning the hat and to his place in the queue, the marshals ordered him to the end of the line. To the marshals, he was a queue-jumper despite protests from his family and those around. I learnt there and then that while totally unfair to this well-meaning youngster, in this country, you do not argue with those in authority.
Because if this discipline, those in front, behind and beside me would be my constant companions for some time. Most were families of two or three generations, from babies to perhaps eighty or ninety years old. It’s difficult to determine the age of the older Asians, as their skin tends to retain youthful resilience.
The younger ones in my immediate company smiled and tittered behind raised hands at this bedraggled, sweaty westerner. I smiled back, said, “Hello” and watched as they went into a giggling huddle. Immediately in front of me a mother had a baby in her arms with its head resting on the mother’s shoulder and facing directly at me. Even at this early stage of life, the sight of a greying, bearded, fair-skinned Westerner is a sight to behold, and behold she/he did. Not once did it blink or its bewildered stare deviate from me.
The giggling, chatter and the odd quick glance in my direction, had me feel something of an oddity, of which I surely was. My sweating, dishevelled appearance was not a good advertisement for Western values among the neatly dressed paying their respect to Uncle Ho. Was this an affront to Uncle Ho? Was I being disrespectful? Probably, but here I was and all I could do was hope the scorching heat would overcome the high humidity and dry out my shirt before too long.
When travelling you inevitably meet many locals, even creating long-lasting friendships, but, apart from waiting at train and bus stations, becoming integrated into a group going about their cultural routine is something different. My immediate neighbours consisted of the six or eight people directly in front and maybe six behind. After their initial curiosity, giggling and teetering at my inclusion, I was soon accepted.
Feeling more relaxed, I turned my attention to the baby in front who continued to focus on me as if mesmerised by some alien being. I shook its little hand hanging limply over the mother’s shoulder which provoked another round of laughter. The mother turned sharply to see her baby had latched onto my finger and wouldn’t let go. It took only an instant for the her to evaluate the dangers of such contact, and, with a broad smile, she accepted we were now firmly attached…possibly for the remaining metre-a-minute journey. I had become a focal point, or maybe just a source of amusement to quell the boredom of a slow journey ahead. Young males began practicing their English by asking me 'where I from' and responded to my 'Australia' reply with, surprisingly, “Aussie, Aussie”. This evoked more giggles from the young girls, as they too, relaxed in my presence.
In contrast, the elderly were more constrained toward me. It was the men in their sixties who eyed me with a degree of suspicion. Being of similar age, I felt they saw in me as past enemy. Remember, this is Hanoi, the seat of the North Vietnamese push for Reunification and the stronghold of the Vietnam Peoples Army in the 60s. Though I took no part in the conflict, in their eyes I could have once been in their gun sights as they could have been in mine.
Whether I was of no further interest or the motion of the mother's slow stride lulled the baby to sleep, I finally had my hand back. Freed up, I took out my notepad to jot down some observations and again attracted the attention of the young. They closed in around me to see what I was writing and in what language. It was obvious they were interested in learning another language, as people in most countries are, except, unfortunately, for my own. It saddened me that I could not converse with these young people to learn more of their lives and ambitions. All I could do was share a smile with them and feel accepted.
An hour into the journey and the heat had soared to around forty-degrees celsius and my shirt was drying nicely. Those around me were now fanning themselves as fan and bottled water sellers patrolled the line. I exchanged some Dong for a bottle of cold water but the fans were sold out. One gentleman of about fifty something must have felt sorry for me. He moved a little closer, and while continuing to fan himself, directed some of his breeze in my direction. This was done without looking at me or showing any sign that it was intentional. The mother in front was also fanning herself and sleeping baby and very discreetly directed some of her generated breeze toward me. I was touched by such generosity to a complete and foreign stranger.
As we slowly progressed, the orderly patience of these people amazed me. The young children, who would have been bored out of their brains within a few minutes back home, entertained themselves and rarely ventured from the line. I felt that the few teenage boys who did attempt to jump the queue, were seen as Western influence breaking down centuries of cultural tolerance and patience.
After endless paths and seemingly retraced steps, we finally came into view of the mausoleum. Turning into Ba Dinh Square, young girls in traditional white pants under long, white, side-split tunics replaced the brown-uniformed police. Each girl wore a badge showing their name and a photo in school uniform. These smiling, immaculately dressed young girls presented a cultural sensitivity to the occasion.
Further up the avenue we entered a canopied walkway. Beside keeping the line tightly organised, it also offered welcome relief from the heat. The mausoleum was now within reach. White uniformed guards replaced the girls to watch over the now sombre crowd. Children stopped playing and dancing and a silent respect of the occasion had taken over.
Reaching the towering granite building, I noticed a group of three guards in brilliant white ceremonial uniforms at a side entrance. Two were armed with rifles while the third kept an eye on his watch. Was my timing fortunate? Could I be about to witness the changing of the guard?
Photo from external source.
We’re stopped to allow the three guards to march in regular step formation onto the paved surround leading up to the entrance. Approaching the entrance they changed to a goose-step, a slow, straight-legged stride with arms swinging across the body. They turned, and, without breaking stride or rhythm, climbed the steps to the large double-doored entrance. Without hesitation, the guards being replaced descend the steps in the same slow, ceremonial march back to their quarters. The two fresh armed honour guards took up their positions each side of the entrance and the change-over completed.
We're now allowed to climb the steps, and, in orderly single file, enter into a contrasting world. From the glare of sunlight and oppressive heat we are suddenly enclosed in sombre semi-darkness and chilled air. Despite the dull light, the presence of red is both political and a relief within the cold, grey structure.
This is one of the holiest sites in Vietnam and the following buddhist protocol must be adhered to and is strictly enforced by ever alert honour guards:
- wear clothes that cover you up, and that means no shorts, singlets or sleeveless shirts
- hats must be removed
- hands must be out of pockets
- don't even think about smuggling in a camera/phone
- don't talk or smile and continue to walk slowly and without hesitation
- you are required to bow
- always maintain a respectful attitude.
Any deviation from the above and the guards will not hesitate to single you out.
The appropriate deadly silence is disturbed only by the gentle movement of cool air that controls the internal atmosphere. Not even breathing of the continuous line of viewers can be noticed. It's as if the solemnity of the occasion has everyone holding their breathe.
Then, suddenly, you're in his presence.
Very few photos of the embalmed Ho Ch Minh can be found. This is from a news source and shows members of the communist party surround the body of North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh at the opening of the mausoleum.
There is no lingering to take in the detail. The movement of the queue must not pause or falter. The sudden impact of casting your eyes over this man, Ho Chi Minh, is all-consuming. Even now I struggle to remember all I witnessed. There are four sentries. One stationed on each corner of the bier that supports the glass sarcophagus wherein his embalmed body lies. The make-up and pin-point lighting on face and exposed hands crossed on his stomach, has the initial impact of a wax model. The familiar grey goatee beard is there as is the familiar khaki suit he's dressed in. The cosmetics applied have given life to the flesh, yet the missing soul cannot be replaced.
The long anticipated view of the man is only but a fleeting glimpse. But for those I'd spent the last two hours in the company of, it was a decades long deep and meaningful offering of respect.
- It's estimated around 10,000 people visit Ho every day. If you intend to visit the mausoleum, check for current opening and closing days and times as they could vary. For two months of the year (October and November) the mausoleum is closed when the embalmed body is sent to Russia for preservation maintenance.
After reclaiming my camera, a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum was next on my agenda. The building is next to the Mausoleum and in contrasting style to the Soviet edifice…white, as opposed to grey, a little more inviting and people enter and leave without police control. Once inside I'm greeted by a large wood carving of the revered man hovering over you in the clouds. But it's the interior that attacks the visual senses. It's more a walk through a dream world than casting an eye over the man's interesting artefacts and mementos. This museum brings the cultural imagination of the Vietnamese to a futuristic level. After all, a future was all Ho Chi Minh wanted for his people.
Before leaving this district, I passed by the iconic One Pillar Temple (Chùa Một Cột). Constructed by Lý Thái Tông, who ruled between 1028 and 1054, and based on a dream. Lý Thái Tông was childless and dreamt of being handed a baby son by Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion) who was seated on a lotus flower. Not long after, his Queen gave birth to a baby boy. In honour of the Bodhisattva, the Emperor ordered the temple be built to represent a lotus flower rising from the water.
The pagoda was destroyed in 1954 by retreating French Union Forces after the first Indochina War. It was rebuilt a year later.
As I travelled back to my hotel reflecting on my visit with Uncle Ho, I saw what I my research wanted me to see. But unexpectedly, and to my mind, more importantly, was the time spent in the company of his admirers. My presence was in stark contrast to their culture, as was the growing contrast in the younger generation. Western fashion and values are seen infiltrating their way of life. But, the greatest surprise came from these same young Vietnamese. They were unaware Australia took part in what they call the American War. This was a good thing?