Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and was the capital of Communist North Vietnam (aka the side we were fighting) during the War. It is very different from Saigon. The streets are narrower, there is considerably less traffic, and there are a lot more places to visit as a tourist. When visiting a new city, my first order of business is always to wander aimlessly for a few hours to get the lay of the land.
June 3, 2014: The Cult of Personality
The first place I visited was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum/House/Museum. They were three distinct sites, but due to security regulations, I had to visit all of them in a row. Ho Chi Minh is the George Washington of Vietnam. He founded the Communist party here and led the country in 2 wars: first against the French for independence and then against the Americans to take South Vietnam-although he died before the end of the war. Ho Chi Minh is on all the currency and his quotes are placed on posters and in museums all over the country. The Ho Chi Minh sites are only open from 8-10:30 am and are closed on Mondays and Fridays. Unlike most of the other places I have visited, the vast majority of the tourists here are Vietnamese. In fact, out of the tens of thousands of people at the site that day, I did not see another foreign tourist.
The mausoleum was first. As I walked into the secure area, the Vietnamese military guards, in fancy white uniforms, didn’t even bother to check me at the metal detector or seize my camera. They then walked me up about halfway through the mile-long line. Everyone stood in two perfectly straight lines. I was placed in the middle of a Vietnamese school group. The children were pointing and laughing at me because I was so tall. There was an armed military guard every 30-40 feet and they were constantly watching the line.
After waiting about 20 minutes in the line, we were marched under military escort into the mausoleum. We walked around the edge of the chamber in the two lines, military guards at each corner of the medium-sized room. The room was dead silent except for the shuffle of feet. The open casket displaying the body of Ho Chi Minh was in a large pit in the middle of the room, flanked by 4 guards staring straight ahead. The Vietnamese flag and the Communist flag hung on the wall behind the casket. The line was not allowed to stop moving throught he room.
After the mausoleum, we continued in the same two lines past the presidential palace and a beautiful lake to the Ho Chi Minh’s house, known as the House on Stilts. Just like the mausoleum, we only got a quick 20 seconds view into the house. There were no signs describing the house, probably because every Vietnamese already knew the significance of the house.
After the house, we were able to stop by a beautiful lake where children tried to feed the koi fish.
Then, they had a place to buy ice cream. Everyone stopped to buy ice cream, which must be really hard to find in Vietnam. They also had a souvienier shop where I bought a plate with the picture of Ho Chi Minh. It cost just under $4.
After the ice cream stop, people walked over to the Ho Chi Minh museum.
Although the building was large and imposing, the actual exhibit space was fairly small. The museum had very few descriptions. Rather most things were described with quotes by Ho Chi Minh although they did have brochures in each room that had pictures with short captions. The museum started with the birth of Ho Chi Minh and ended with a section describing Vietnam’s amazing achievements in the new millennium.
I have never seen such a cult of personality surrounding one person. While I didn’t necessarily enjoy the entire visit, it was certainly a uniquely Communist experience.
After that, I walked to the Temple of Literature built over 1,000 years ago. It is still an active Taoist temple and is incredibly popular with Vietnamese students who pray here before taking final exams. Generally the entire class will dress in their nicest clothes and take group pictures here. This must be the Vietnamese equivalent of prom pictures. Since these students rarely interact with foreigners, they all wanted to take pictures with me.
I then walked over to the Hoa Lo Prison also known as the Hanoi Hilton. While it was a prison for over 100 years it is most famous for being the location where American POWs were held during the War. The current US Ambassador to Vietnam and John McCain were actually prisoners here. John McCain’s plane crashed in a lake in Hanoi and the museum still displays his flight suit. In the same room, they played a propaganda video describing how wonderfully the prisoners were treated. The video obviously did not mention how most of the prisoners were tortured. I certainly felt uneasy when walking here.
That evening I ended the day by walking around a large lake in the center of Hanoi as the sun set. I certainly saw a lot of very different sites today and it was a lot. By walking in between all the sites, I was able to get a good feel for the city. Its much nicer than Saigon- more trees and less traffic- and the people seem much happier.