Ho Chi Minh in Ba Dinh Square
At first, the imposing sight of Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum seems to be only a dark and foreboding vision, the deep-grey granite of its colonnades too stern a reality for a leader affectionately known as "Uncle Ho" during his lifetime. But as the morning sun rises over Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square, its tropical rays touch the inner walls of the massive, three-story structure, bringing a hint of life to this austere monument. Over one hundred years since his birth and almost thirty years since his death, the figure of Ho Chi Minh still confronts the visitor to Vietnam with his enigmatic presence.
In Hanoi, portraits and statues of Ho benignly fix their collective gaze upon you from roadside billboards and public squares, from each denomination of the country's handsome, pastel-hued currency, and from very many walls in buildings both official and civilian. Down in Ho Chi Minh City, I saw a bridal party posing for photographs on the mall in front of the Hotel de Ville's rococo façade. Dressed in white gown and dark suit, bride, groom and their attendants were lined up in front of the oversize sculpture that portrays Uncle Ho reading to a child. Ho was a worldwide wanderer, scholar, revolutionary, founding member of both the French and Indochina Communist parties, ardent nationalist, implacable foe of imperialism--there was even a time, during the second World War, when his troops rescued downed American flyers in the mountains of northern Vietnam.
When visiting Hanoi, the mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square, the surrounding parklands containing the former Palais du Gouvernement, the utterly beautiful One Pillar Pagoda, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and his exquisite stilted house, hold attractions that the discerning visitor should not miss.
Midmorning. Summer. Busses from the provinces are already parked in the reception area. It is very warm, the heat intensified by the sun's reflection rising from the cement concourse fronting the divided plots of green that make up the spacious common. When I join the line of pilgrims stretching to the doors of the mausoleum, my arrival draws none of the usual notice and questions as to my home country and business.
There is movement at the head of the line with the ever-present honor guard in crisp, funereal white uniforms. A soldier in green walks slowly down the line.
On September 2, 1945, on a wooden platform whose location is now marked by the mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam to a crowd of over half a million, and to the world at large. As the line begins to move I strain my hearing, trying to conjure the high, strong voice that spoke through the loudspeakers set up around the square. To open his Declaration of Independence, he began "All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness . . ."
Ba Dinh Square occupies the site of what was once the Western Gate of Hanoi Citadel. After the conquest, the French truncated the western portion of the fortress, establishing the district as a pleasant, park-dotted area of graceful villas that today house many of the foreign consulates. Chi Lang Park, sitting in the shadow of the Citadel Flag Tower along Dien Bein Phu Road, was once a lake where imperial solders soldiers bathed the royal war elephants. Just to the north of the Square, still used for official government functions, the Edwardian-styled Palais of the former French Governors General of Indochina was constructed in 1906. Across the common stands the modern National Assembly Building, to the west, the famed Lycée d'Albert Sarraut is still an institute of learning.
Several oval-shaped funeral wreaths flank the open doorway of the mausoleum, a brief flash of green and yellow and red against dark stone. A gust of air conditioning pleasantly hits my face as we pass under the inscribed words: Chu Tich Ho Chi Minh, meaning simply, President Ho Chi Minh. Inside, the quotation inscribed in gold on the foyer's red marble reads: "There is Nothing More Precious than Independence and Freedom."
We move steadily through the dim coolness, up marbled staircases, along polished corridors to the middle tier of the three-stories. The burial chamber is dark except for a soft light that seems to emanate from a shining catafalque of black marble. Dressed in a plain tunic and sandals, Uncle Ho rests within a glass-framed sarcophagus.
The sun dazzles my eyes when I return to the daylight. A small wind brushes feathery leaves of the bamboo groves that corner the mausoleum. Just behind the building, walking along the driveway around the north wing of the four-storied, ochre-walled Presidential Palace, the soft scent of jasmine, frangipani and dog-rose mingle in the moist air of the gardens. Now named Bach Thao Park, this beautiful parkland surrounding the former Palais was the Jardin Botanique of the French colons, carved out of Khan Xuan District in 1890. Mango trees line the path leading to Uncle Ho's residence.
They say Ho Chi Minh eschewed the splendor of the Presidential Palace for the more modest comfort of the gardener's house when he came to power in Hanoi. His subsequent residence, standing next to the carp pond, is an elegantly crafted representation of a traditional stilted communal house. Small, built of fine lacquered and polished wood in 1958, it contains but two rooms: a study and a bedroom. A large meeting table fills most of the ground-floor level. Few personal possessions: a simple bed and desk, several books, pith helmet, radio, thermos bottle, paper fan and small electric fan seem to evoke a temperate life.
Surrounded by rose-mallow and areca trees, the carp pond draws visitors to the low flight of steps leading to the water. Invariably, they clap their hands above the mirrored surface, summoning large, soft-finned fish to a meal. I am told that Uncle Ho taught this trick to his carp when he lived here. A number of kiosks selling refreshments, souvenirs, maps and books greet me as I exit Bach Thao Park, a good place to rest a bit before walking over to the museum.
A blaze of white walls, modern-styled in the symbolic shape of a lotus, the Ho Chi Minh Museum is nearby on One Pillar Pagoda Street. The two main floors are filled with historical documents, photographs, memorabilia, and today, it seems, with half the school children of Hanoi; their excited chatter rises in the air, filling the cavernous exhibition halls. Not thinking, I snap a picture of a wattle and thatch replica of Ho Chi Minh's birthplace, drawing the immediate attention of a uniformed guard.
Like the interior of the mausoleum, photography is forbidden here, but I was distracted when I arrived by the attention paid by the cloakroom attendant to my compass and did not check my camera. A plastic bubble dangling on a key-chain attached to my bag, I find the compass an invaluable piece of equipment when traveling in countries where road signs are difficult to interpret, or in some cases, nonexistent. My chagrin is somewhat dampened when I see the exhibit containing Ho Chi Minh's compass. A World War II US Army issue, I think. By leaning close and squinting, I can make out the fine print on its dial: Wm. Gurley Co. Troy NY. Many of the exhibits have stands in front of them holding ringed flip charts that contain photographic, newspaper, and written accounts of the period portrayed.
The One Pillar Pagoda is a quieter place. The Chua Mot Cot (One Pillar Pagoda), which stands in the park behind the museum, could be considered as the heart of the Hanoian people. It is a wonderful place, and I love the story it tells. It is dedicated to Quan Am.
The Quan Am Bodhidsattva is revered throughout Asia as the Lady of Mercy, sometimes depicted as a robed matron with hand raised in blessing, sometimes holding a willow branch that drips mercy for the world's suffering people, and, at times, seated on a lotus blossom. Long ago, she is said to have lived as a single pious woman, even going so far as to disguise herself as a man in order to enter a Buddhist monastery. Accused by a disreputable woman of fathering her child, Quan Am voluntarily left the monastery, and raised the child as her own. She returned to the monastery when the child reached adulthood.
Many pagodas have representations of the Lady of Mercy, but the One Pillar Pagoda is in itself a representation of Quan Am. The legend of its building says that more than a thousand years ago, in a dream, King Ly Thai Tong was led to a lotus tower upon which sat Quan Am. At her instruction, he was led to a woman in fields who became his wife, and bore his heir. In the year 1049 he built the Dien Huu (Lasting Life) Pagoda to honor Quan Am. Once a large complex, the Pagoda now is a small cluster of buildings centered by the exquisite Lotus Tower, or, as it is popularly known, the One Pillar Pagoda.
Rebuilt many times over the years -- the last repairs were made in 1955 after the structure was dynamited as the French prepared to evacuate Hanoi -- the Pagoda rises on a stone pillar from the middle of a squared lotus pond. Wooden, curve-roofed and tiny, the Lotus Tower is reached by climbing a flight of stairs. A scent of burning sandalwood hovers in the air, within the darkened interior a gilded figure of Quan Am sits serenely upon her bed of golden lotus blossom. There is a single young bonze in attendance, a box for donations sits near the burning joss sticks. Unused to a Lady of Mercy, I make only a simple wish when I climb the stairs.
The bustle of the city, the horns and whining engines of the motorbikes, they all seem very far away from this complex of history and green land between the West Lake and the daily tumult that is modern-day Hanoi.
Originally published on 9/1/98.