The queue at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum was so long it took us ten minutes just to walk to the end of the queue. It was rather like the wait for the Sistine Chapel, except that most of the would-be visitors were Vietnamese on holidays, not international tourists en masse, and there were officials bossing us around as we worked our way along the exterior of the vast complex. Respectful dress (no bare shoulders or knees) is required; all bags and mobile phones have to be surrendered; and so do water bottles, which is a bit of a hardship in the heat but not worth the risk of trying to smuggle them in as the officials are somewhat overbearing: separating foreigners and Vietnamese, barking incomprehensible commands, and prodding people into line ‘one-by-one’ as they see fit.
The Mausoleum holds the embalmed body of the man who declared Vietnam’s independence from the French and sparked the War which defined the baby boomer generation in America and Australia. According to our guide, the amiable Long, the Vietnamese hold ‘Uncle Ho’ in very high regard, and making a pilgrimage to pay homage is a popular thing for holiday-makers to do. It was curious to see this small man – familiar to us from newsreels in the 70s as a fearsome Communist – now lying at peace and in dignity in this enormous hushed building. For me, this visit was the catalyst for a reassessment of many of my ideas about the Vietnam War, a war which I had interpreted mainly through its impact on me and family.
In the late 60s and early 70s, my sister was an activist while my then husband was an unenthusiastic conscript, who fortunately managed to complete his national service without having to go overseas. There were differences of opinion about the morality of the war, but no enduring conflict. However, for my second husband, Secretary of the Draft Resisters’ Union and active in the Moratorium movement, it meant estrangement from his father and grandfather for many years, and this trip to Vietnam led to considerable reflection about his youthful activism and whether he had been right to oppose the war, since reunification had resulted in a Communist state.
Ho Chi Minh, however, was no Stalin, and although there was considerable hardship and repression during the early years, Vietnam now is a dynamic almost-capitalist state. Since ‘Đổi mới’, the economic reforms of the 1980s, collectivisation has been all but abandoned, farmers can grow what they like and sell the surplus, and the cities are alive with free-market enterprises, ranging from tiny shops to massive joint venture factories. The state still owns the land, but people can buy the leasehold and build houses as big as they can afford, and some can certainly afford homes that are impressive by any standard. These economic changes have not been accompanied by political reform, and criticism of the Communist Party is still obviously not permitted, but there is no apparent limitation on personal freedom, other than the blandness of the official media. Judging by the number of other Vietnamese stations on cable TV – and CNN, the BBC, the Australia Network and other Asian TV networks – together with the availability of foreign newspapers and magazines, censorship is not too onerous. People are free to worship in the countless temples and churches and we even saw a mosque!
One of the reasons for Ho’s popularity was his humility. After 1975, he declined to live in the French Governor’s residence which is now a Communist Party guesthouse (and home to John & Janette Howard on a recent visit.) It is a very fine colonial mansion, built between 1900 and 1908, and now painted in lustrous golden yellow, as most official buildings are. (It brings good luck, they say). According to Long, Ho was much distressed by the poverty of his people, and could not countenance living in such luxury while the people were so poor. (Which they certainly were, until economic reform began in 1986 and Clifton lifted the US trade embargo in 1994. Per capita GDP doubled from $US 200 to $400 over the ensuing ten years, but rural poverty is still a problem, and natural disasters (such as flooding from the recent typhoon) hamper development because they occur so often.
So until his death in 1969, Ho chose to live in a modest wooden house on stilts, with the Peugeot 404 in a nearby shed. This house now forms part of the pilgrimage, and you can still see his books, slippers and phone on display, though how they preserve it all from the ravages of the tropical heat and humidity I do not know. The house is adjacent to a lovely man-made lake, en route to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. The quaint One Pillar Pagoda is also nearby, though it isn’t the original wooden version which was built in 1049. In 1954 the French, in a fit of pique, destroyed the original when they departed, so – with a somewhat bizarre sense of priorities – the Communists rebuilt it in concrete in 1955. Perhaps it was a job creation project…
Alas, the Museum does indeed feature Ho and his deeds, and while it is possibly rivetting for scholars of Vietnamese history, most of it is incomprehensible for a tourist and somewhat dull. There are hundreds of grainy black and white photos accompanied by lengthy tracts in Vietnamese, and a large exhibit reminiscent of Salvador Dali. Were they chums? Who knows? We were more intrigued by the 1973 Paris Peace Accord – such a small piece of paper, signifying the end to such a dreadful, destructive war. We saw the pens they used too, three different ones, presumably because no one was feeling friendly enough to share. Who can blame them? It was a vicious war, with the scars still evident, as we were to see, time and time again.
There is a large and impressive statue of Ho at the top of the stairs in the entrance hall, its placement recalling the placement of the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre. Everybody gets their photo taken beside Uncle Ho, and of course we did too, before escaping downstairs for a cool drink and reunion with the rest of our group for lunch at Koto’s Restaurant