Friday 3 June 2011

A Meeting With Ho Chi Minh

In the centre of exotic Hanoi is a large area of parkland with tropical gardens of ponds, palm trees and pink flowered borders gently rustling in the warm breeze. A still oasis at the heart of a city always on the move, this park is well guarded by immaculately uniformed military, unsmiling unlike the rest of the Vietnamese who never cease from grinning.

In the distance, peaking out over the palm trees is a giant marble and concrete building, as severe as the fauna is delicate, emblazoned with three simple words: HO CHI MINH.

In this gigantic warehouse like building - surely cavernous enough to house a NASA space mission - lies the embalmed body of the man who's legend modern day Vietnam has been built upon.

We arrived early - the Vietnamese people believe late risers MUST be sick - and still faced a queue to enter the actual mausoleum building. (When we left an hour and a half later the queue was three times as long snaking out of the secure zone and into the dusty streets of bustling Hanoi.) Our water and camera were taken from us while my wife diligently donned a cardigan; to cover her shoulders despite the 35 degree heat.

We joined the orderly but slightly impatient throng moving slowly but with purpose and reverence toward the marble monolith which was still out of sight. The mourners - which is the best description of those we lined up with - were almost exclusively Vietnamese. We were the only westerners with a few other foreigners being chinese. All age ranges were represented: from well turned out school children to equally well dressed veteran soldiers, proudly displaying their medals, who must have been in their 80s. The queue was mostly silent apart from the occasional murmur. Every 10 yards or so we would fall under the gaze of a hawkish guard examining us all from head to toe as we crept ever nearer to 'Uncle Ho' (Bac Ho) as he is referred to by admirers.

The anticipation built further still by the white uniformed honour guard, who are responsible for the security of the building itself, stopping us on the steps right before crossing into the icily temperature controlled inner sanctum.

When the large metal doors were opened we ascended marble steps framed by oak panelled walls holding brass banisters; a set straight from a Connery Bond film. More guards man handled us into pairs while others examined every visitor once more with glares as icy as the temperature.

A final turn and my heart actually started to beat faster as Ho Chi Minh - meaning 'Bringer of Light' his real name was Nguyen Tat Thanh - came into view. The Communist Party have done so much to preserve Uncle Ho's image as a  guerrilla fighter, father of a nation and now a deity and example to millions. His image adorns all public buildings, propaganda posters are in every town as are statues and roads or squares named in his honour. There he was, in a glass sarcophagus, slightly raised on a  platform lay the tiny, frail body of Ho Chi Minh, dressed simply and with a look of calm on his face. Our time in view of his body was little more than two minutes - and this was longer than usual as an old soldier in front of us stopped, almost refusing to move or perhaps accept Ho Chi Minh was actually dead, until his son (and guards) gently led him outside.

Then it was over. Back to the sun, furnace like heat and the background soundtrack of constant beeping of mopeds that is ever present in Vietnam. We moved - by now a loose group rather than a rigid line - away from the communist austerity of the mausoleum through the park, via Ho's former spartan house which is now a semi-shrine like building until we were met by large blue and white advertising boards, above lines of chillers, writ large with the Pepsi logo.

The communist legend is of a man who loved his country so much he wanted to have his ashes scattered in four parts of Vietnam, who fought against three foreign powers to see his country united in the way he wished, is now sponsored by a giant multi-national corporate brand. If he wasn't sent off to Russia every couple of years to be re-embalmed I'm sure Ho Chi Minh would turn in his grave.

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