We arrive in Hanoi by train at 5am. Cab to the hotel, hotel lobby dark, hotel door locked. We bang on the door and wake up the staff sleeping on the lobby couch.
Our room won’t be ready until noon, so we drop our bags and head to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, as the sun rises.
Ho Chi Minh is revered by the Vietnamese for unifying the country and fighting for the people against all invaders. He fought the Japanese, the French, the Americans and died just before his country was finally unified. Affectionately known as Bac (uncle) Ho, the Vietnamese make pilgrimages to pay their respects to his embalmed body laying in state.
We arrive as the flag ceremony is underway. Soldiers march around and the flag is raised as the national anthem is played over loud speakers. We are the only westerners I see. A large group of Vietnamese have gathered for the ceremony, many dressed in their finest clothing. Some wear the colorful knit hats of the villages in the northern hills. Many of the men wear military uniforms from The American War (what Americans call The Vietnam War), with metals hanging from their breasts.
After the ceremony was over, people mill about waiting for the mausoleum to open. The villagers stare at us and I stare back at them, intrigued with the men in uniform.
The woman were fixated on Helen and her blonde hair. One of the woman finally got up the courage to approach us and gestures to see if she could have a picture with us. We nod yes, and it was on. All the women rush over to have their photos taken with us, beaming and laughing. They have Helen by the arm dragging her from group to group. To say Helen was not feeling well is an understatement; it had been a long train trip the night before, but she was a good sport about it, although a little overwhelmed.
It wasn’t long before a man in uniform and helmet approaches me, smiling, with hand outstretched. We shake hands as his buddies snap photos. Soon a group of his fellow veterans come over and I put my arms around their shoulders as their families snap away, laughing the whole time. How interesting to have my photo taken with these veterans, 40 years after our countries’ brutal war, in front of Ho Chi Minh’s final resting spot.
In Ho Chi Minh’s will, he requested to be cremated and his ashes placed on mountains in south, central, and northern Vietnam as a symbol of his life-long dream to unify Vietnam. But his will was not honored after his death. The new government instead went with the Lenin/Mao approach; they embalmed him and put him on display for the masses in a massive Greek-styled mausoleum.
We line up for a hour, go through numerous security checkpoints before we finally enter the mausoleum. No one speaks a word as we shuffle round the glass enclosure in which Ho Chi Minh lays. A shroud covers his body with only his face visible; His skin and his wispy beard are an unnatural color.
Ho Chi Minh is a controversial figure in history. He was reviled by Americans but is adored by the Vietnamese. One man’s revolutionary is another man’s freedom fighter. One thing is for sure, this country has come a long way since those dark days.
The Vietnamese look forward, not backwards, and old foes are now friends.