A day visiting Uncle Ho and my new Hanoi family
Hanoi at 7am is abuzz. The narrow streets near Hoan Kiem Lake are alive with the sound of civilian life revving at full throttle. Motor scooters zip down the street; street sweepers keep everything in order; and men and women ride their bicycles, inviting the neighborhood to get their fresh produce of eggs, fruits and vegetables. Tables at eateries are crammed with people slurping delicious soup noodle dishes. I could really see myself fitting in here quite nicely.
After spending 15 minutes sipping my ca phe sua da (Vietnamese coffee) and perusing through the French-language newspaper Le Courier De Vietnam, this seemed my definition of heaven. Then I looked at the notes I had written down on a piece of paper the night before and realized the promise I had made to devote part of the day to Vietnam's modern father, Ho Chi Minh. His cult-like status is a major drawing card for visitors, and regardless of how one feels about his leadership, a visit to Vietnam, especially Hanoi, is not complete without understanding the man's impact as a guerrilla leader, president of North Vietnam and figurehead. To locals who revere him, he is known as ‘Uncle Ho'.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum, mausoleum and residence provide an excellent insight into the man who provided inspiration for individuals whose lives were interrupted by conflict. However, attending on Saturdays, the busiest day of the week, was probably not a wise idea. The mausoleum closes before midday, so you have to get in there quick and be prepared to wait. From the moment my motorcycle driver dropped me off at the wrong end of the mausoleum's perimeter, I could tell that my patience would be tested. After rounding one corner and seeing that the queue's length stretched for nearly one kilometer, I nearly considered calling over a motorcycle to take me back to the cool surroundings of the café where I had felt so relaxed, but I decided to press on.
People of all ages were standing in line, waiting for their opportunity to enter the grounds of Uncle Ho; families, businessmen in suits, and a crew of Russian bodyguards. Citizens who were once youths or young parents themselves when Ho Chi Minh delivered speeches in person stood next to children and teenagers who may become the first generation to have their history lessons delivered online and be able to read Ho Chi Minh's books in electronic format one day.
As I glanced ahead, two kids holding their parents' hands giggled and smiled when they saw me. The older of the two children asked for my name in English, giggled in their attempts to pronounced "David" properly. They introduced themselves, smiled and asked how much I liked Vietnam. Their Mum and Dad looked at me and grinned proudly that their children could converse in English with a native speaker, which is more than what I could say about my own efforts to talk in Vietnamese. One of the girls told me that they visited ‘Uncle Ho' every year. The conversation was abruptly halted, however, when three tattooed tourists, two females and a male, walked past us, heading in the opposite direction. The lone guy, singlet thrown across his shoulder, shouted, "Don't go to see the commie bastard! It's a f--ng rip-off!", belching or swearing every fourth or fifth word. My first impression was that their clothing attire - or rather lack of it, may have contributed to being turned away.
After what seemed like the longest morning possible, I reached the ticket booth where I handed over all of my personal belongings. They would be returned to me after I left the Mausoleum. The family with whom I had recently become acquainted were already ahead of me in the queue because I was slow in getting everything together. With only one more corner to round before reaching the front door of the mausoleum, everybody ceased talking, a sign that we were all near Ho Chi Minh's body. Two guards brandishing rifles and stone cold looks on their faces stood at the entrance keeping an eye on proceedings. I would learn later in the day that they had thrown out the three foreign individuals for being disrespectful by laughing in the queue, not for their dress standards. Regardless of one's personal opinion of Ho Chi Minh, it serves as an important reminder to obey the following set of rules:
- Dress respectfully - do not wear singlets, shorts, hats, thongs or revealing clothing.
- Do not whisper, talk or laugh.
- Do not take any photographs or video footage.
- Do not place hands in your pockets.
- You may only look at Ho Chi Minh's body three times - once upon entering, once when rounding the halfway point, and one more time before exiting the room.
The process of viewing Ho Chi Minh's body is a somber affair. Behave in the same manner as if paying respects as a funeral, otherwise you will offend the local population and risk being thrown out of the premises. Great care should be taken in stepping in unison with the crowd. The room housing Ho Chi Minh's body is rectangular. From the right-hand side, it is a 60 second walk upon first view of the body and exiting the room, with eight guards keeping their eye on everyone. When I raised my eyes to look at Ho Chi Minh's body, I caught a glimpse of how other people reacted. Younger Vietnamese took slow deliberate steps while elderly civilians shed tears. Other foreigners were more anxious not to be singled out. I was fascinated to learn that for 3 months of the year, Ho Chi Minh's body is flown to Moscow where it receives a touch-up to prevent the corpse from going off.
While I cannot describe how I felt when walking around his body, only when I had left the building altogether did I feel more comfortable in looking around me and start making eye contact with other people. Thus I was relieved when the Vietnamese family who I had become briefly acquainted with earlier that morning recognized me, and smiled and waved for me to accompany them. This time, the group was larger, with aunts and uncles now joining in. The father introduced me to everybody and asked about my experience of viewing Ho Chi Minh's body.
"I cannot remember, I just did not want to break the rules," I responded. He laughed and suggested that I come back next week for a chance to redeem myself, but in the meantime, was adamant that I enjoy my time with them for the day. "Please join us to see Ho Chi Minh's house. We will pay for your ticket, you don't pay foreigner's price," he said. With this gesture, I was granted the privilege of entering with my newly adopted Hanoi family.
Ho Chi Minh's presidential house is surrounded by a lake, which along with its picturesque parks and trees, makes the extensive waiting time worth it. As expected, everything can only be viewed from the outside. The house showcases Ho Chi Minh's collection of cars, his study-room, bedroom, and dining room. Everything had been neatly preserved. I spent my time chatting with the male members of the family as we looked around and made small talk about how great it would be to hire Ho Chi Minh's car for a day and see the countryside. The older females giggled when I talked, maybe because of the strange sound of my accent.
I began to learn more about the family; the men all worked in the Department of Defense and also had their own catering business servicing western visitors for tour guests, having started out running a soup and noodles stand. It became clear that they were middle-class when the father said that he sent his two children to an international school in Hanoi because it would increase their chances to get into a Western university. "I want them to learn and speak English well," he added, an implication for me to tutor his children.
When lunchtime came around, my indoctrination into the family was completed after my efforts to buy an ice cream were refused. Instead, one of the men purchased one for me. I also had several pictures with the family. "You are like our son today - we take care of you well," one of the men announced with a grin. I agreed wholeheartedly and thanked them all very much.
"Now is 11:30 am, my family will go to a temple to pray for ancestors," the father told me. I was a bit sad, for I wanted to spend more time with them. I showed my appreciation by saying how lucky I was to have met them, and promising that if they ever came to Australia, I would cook them some Italian food. Then we said our goodbyes.
I decided to venture off to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. But I had forgotten about the lunchtime closure - government-run buildings in Vietnam shut at midday and re-open two hours later. As I walked down the stairs of the museum to head back to the main park, I considered heading back to the hostel, as I had no idea what else to do. Then I heard a child scream out "Hello!" I looked around and found myself being stared at by nearly 100 elementary school children wearing red and white school uniform, presumably having just finished an excursion of the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Without scanning the sea of faces to remember which child had called out to me, I responded by shouting, "HELLO, CHILDREN OF HANOI!" It had the effect of a snowflake setting off a snowball down a mountain. The mere mention of the words ‘hello' and ‘Hanoi' had boys and girls yelling out "HELLO!", "HOW ARE YOU?", "WHAT'S YOUR NAME?" and any other sentence I could not decipher.
For a brief time, I imagined myself lapping up hysterical screams reminiscent to Beatlemania, or at least The Wiggles. Greeting the teachers first, I went up to the first boy in line, shook his hand, and asked how he was doing. He smiled, exposing gaps where his baby teeth had once been. The boys were more eager to ask questions, although a few girls broke with protocol by exchanging greetings and shaking hands with me. When I turned behind me and looked at the teachers talking amongst themselves, I realized that it was time for me to get out before I faced the possibility of the headline, "I am bigger than Ho Chi Minh - Foreigner", accompanied by a picture of me being led away by officials in disgrace. Solitude is what I sought, and the quiet open spaces surrounding the museum became a sanctuary.
The solitude lasted for about 30 seconds when I found myself approached by a young woman saying that she was a student learning English. For the first time in my life, I wished somebody would ask me if I came here often. She struck up a conversation with me, wanting to know my birthplace, thoughts on Vietnam and where I was staying in Hanoi. When I started to answer some questions, she said, "Let's go for a walk and have some coffee and conversation", I sensed a scam, for she spoke a little too eloquently to be just a learner. My nerves were not eased when she was joined by two more girls. I reassured myself that nobody would be that cruel to commit any crimes on dedicated to Ho Chi Minh. Perhaps I could have been the first foreigner these university students had direct contact with. I did not want it to be their last.
"We would like to be your tour guide in the Ho Chi Minh Museum today," one of the students asked me.
"We need practice for our course," added another girl.
As luck would have it, they were undertaking an English for Tourism program at a local university. Their task for the weekend was to approach a native English speaker at a popular tourist destination and practice their dialogue. Suddenly a montage of my failed attempts to speak in Mandarin Chinese, Thai, and Korean started playing in my mind. Nobody had pushed me off a bus or subway train, or left me starving because of my poor pronunciation, so it was only fair that I gave something back. For the next three hours, I entrusted the three university students with telling me about Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and whatever else they wanted to discuss.
We walked around the museum, but rather than talking about everything in there, I got to know my hosts better. We spoke about their cultural norms in our respective countries, career aspirations, and what we all expected from life. The girls were a little surprised that happiness, not material goods, was more important for me. I explained that practicing Buddhism in Southeast Asia had helped me, following a year of teaching English in South Korea. Maybe they were fascinated as to where I had been, not what I had done. They asked me questions like, "Do you like this car? Who's your favorite actor? What do you think of Vietnamese women?" These girls idolized celebrities like George Clooney and Jackie Chan and loved pop music, not political philosophers. They represented the ‘new' Vietnam, one where their boundaries were not limited to life in a town or village, but rather constant interaction with international visitors in Hanoi or Saigon, and maybe even a stint abroad. "We love Hanoi but we want to see more of the world," one of the guides said to me in the afternoon.
Their knowledge of the Vietnam War was predominately based on school books and stories their parents and grandparents had told them, but they were not relayed with a great deal of passion. When I asked why they had not learned more, I got the response "not our time," a reference to not growing up surrounded by airplanes dropping bombs or being rushed into tunnels.
"What about Ho Chi Minh? What do you think of him?" I asked.
They all agreed that he was a great man who saved Vietnam from very hard times.
"Is he still as important to you today when he was leader?"
"Yes, he is. Vietnamese everywhere love him," was a response from one girl. The other two looked on and nodded in agreement. When I asked them what they would do if somebody said something bad about Vietnam, the answer was unanimous; "We smile at them, but laugh when they are gone. We will meet more good people in the world." This sentence has stayed with me ever since.
"We have a website, please visit it and leave a message for us," one of the girls said excitedly. I asked for the address, handed over a pen and piece of paper and then said I would make good on my promise. Unfortunately, I was never able to gain access to the website.
My guides asked me what sort of guides they would make based on their performance today. I said that they would be great, and encouraged them to keep practicing their English because it was something that they wanted to do.
"If all tour guides in Hanoi are as smart and are great company like you three have been today, then you will get many visitors," I said reassuringly. The girls blushed and thanked me.
"If we see you again, we can show you more places, like the Temple of Literature," one of them added.
"Yes, that would be nice. I would really like that," I added.
As all of us exited the building, we stood around, not knowing how to say goodbye. In the end, our parting was simple; shake hands, exchange emails and pleasantries, and then leave courteously to get on with the day.
It should come as little surprise that I remember more about my guides and temporary adopted family as opposed to the fixtures relating to Vietnam's modern father. Images of Ho Chi Minh will still be there in 50 years' time, as will his embalmed body, but you only get one opportunity to meet with locals that you will appreciate forever. Be honored to learn about Vietnam's past, embrace the local people you meet, and encourage them to achieve their future goals as if they were your own. That will provide the greatest present of all.