There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Hanoi (3), the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Temple of Literature: Part 8 of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 7:
Trekking from Sa Pa (3), Around Ban Dem and back to Hanoi
On to Part 9:

Our Train from Lao Cai arrived in Hanoi at 4 am on Saturday morning. Truong (call me Joe) was on the platform to meet us, looking more awake than most people can manage at that hour. We drove back to our hotel and checked in to complete our night’s sleep.

Joe turned up again after breakfast and we set off to see Ho Chi Minh.

Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890 and educated by the French. He travelled in Europe, joined the communist party, and rose through its ranks in the Soviet Union and China. He returned to Vietnam in 1941 to lead the struggle for independence.

Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Vietnam was partitioned and Ho became president of North Vietnam. His next task was to unify his country. In keeping with their world view at the time, the Americans misinterpreted this local struggle for unification as part of a global war between ‘communism’ and ‘the free world’. They compounded this error by throwing their full might behind the discredited and hopelessly corrupt government of South Vietnam. This monumental blunder prolonged the war by ten years, killed over a million Vietnamese (and almost 60 000 Americans) and made no change to the final result.

Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 with his dream of an independent and united Vietnam unrealised. He wanted to be cremated, but instead his body was embalmed and placed in a mausoleum in Ba Dinh square where he had earlier declared Vietnamese independence. The lower part of the mausoleum echoes Lenin’s tomb, the upper part has a more local inspiration. As a piece of architecture it is somewhat brutalist, but at least it would not blow away in a high wind.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
(and Harry Enfield photographing the Enfield family)

There is always a queue to see Uncle Ho, but it is especially long on a Saturday – the French occupation having given the Vietnamese a proper understanding of le weekend. A few places ahead of us was a tall westerner with his family. He looked vaguely familiar. ‘Isn’t that Harry Enfield?’ Lynne asked. It is not easy to recognise someone you usually see dressed up and in character, but his voice is very distinctive, and yes, it was Harry Enfield (non-British readers may be unfamiliar with the name, if so click here).

Queuing to see Ho Chi Minh
(We travelled half way round the world to see green wheelie bins identical to the one outside our backdoor)

The queue moved steadily and we soon reached security. Ho Chi Minh would complete our set as we had visited Mao in 2004 and Lenin in 2007  [No. There is also Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il - we saw them in Pyongyang in 2013] and, by comparison, security was relaxed. Lynne was allowed to keep her handbag containing her phone, though had we made a call or, even worse, used it as a camera I would be writing this from a Vietnamese prison.

Once through security we saw the queue stretched on, and was being merged with another from a different entrance. We were patient and it moved quickly enough, so we soon reached the mausoleum and filed past the body. The lighting was sombre and, as with Mao and Lenin, the smart and rather scary guards ensured, all hands were removed from pockets, no one loitered and there was a dignified silence. Ho Chi Minh looked peaceful and real, which is more than can be said for the other two.

Beyond the mausoleum we came to the palace of the French governor of Indochina. Ho Chi Minh inherited the palace when he became president, but instead chose to live in the more modest surroundings of the cook’s house. We joined the crowds gawping through the glass at the very plain rooms in which he lived and worked, and then at a display of his old cars. Next to a huge armour plated beast donated by the Russians was his beaten up green Peugeot.

Palace of the French governor of Indochina, Hanoi

Musing on the profound coincidence that I also drive a Peugeot, I turned round and bumped into Harry Enfield. I suddenly felt the need to shake his hand and tell him who he was. He already knew that, so I burbled on a little and made even more of a fool of myself, but at least I did not try to do any of his characters. Harry was very gracious and polite, we wished each other a pleasant holiday and I gave him my space so he too could stare at Ho Chi Minh’s Peugeot while we moved on to the house on stilts.

Ho Chi Minh's stilt house, Hanoi

Having hidden out with ethnic Thais during his struggle he had a traditional Thai stilt house built and moved into it from the cook’s residence. The tide of Vietnamese pilgrims swept us up the steps, past his rooms and then down again. There is a debate about how much time he spent in the stilt house as it is said to be connected to an underground bunker, which would be a far more sensible place to stay during American bombing raids.

Ho's living quarters
Stilt House, Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh’s various homes, used and unused, are set in a beautifully landscaped botanical garden. The tiny One Pillar Pagoda nearby, considered one of the symbols of Hanoi, is rather overshadowed by the Ho Chi Minh museum. Built in the 11th century by King Le Thai Tong, it has suffered some heavy-handed restoration and the concrete single pillar looks anything but 11th century.

The One Pillar Pagoda

The Temple of Literature is a short journey away. Confucianism maybe a philosophy not a religion, but the temple (like the Confucian temple in Beijing) looks remarkably like a religious building. Founded in 1076 to educate princes and high officials, the Vietnamese consider it their first university. The names and biographical details of those successful in the examinations between 1448 and 1779 are carved on stelae mounted on tortoises.

Stela on a tortoise
Temple of Literature, Hanoi

The French bombed the temple in 1947, destroying some of the stelae and several buildings. There has since been much careful reconstruction.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi

We visited L’Indochine restaurant for lunch, courtesy of Haivenu Travel. The set menu was largely served to tourists but the multiple small courses, chicken soup, banana flower salad, pork with sesame, beef with honey, chicken with lemon grass, prawns with onions and peppers in a sweet sauce was all very local and top quality.

Hanoi Beer
The pleasing, malty brew washed down every meal in Hanoi

We spent the the afternoon shopping for presents and souvenirs - after all we could not go all that way without buying our grandson a tee-shirt.
In the evening we dined in a small restaurant near our hotel. The street was almost deserted and the restaurant was strangely quiet for a Saturday night. After we had eaten we strolled down to Hoan Kiem Lake and discovered where everybody was. Motorcyclists circled the lake in their thousands, the pavement was crowded and the bars and restaurants were heaving. Once we had found the right place it seemed Saturday night in Hanoi was noticeably lively.
Saturday night round Hoan Kiem Lake,
Back to Part 7:
On to Part 9:

1 comment:

  1. When I went to Ho’s Mausoleum I got into mild trouble for filing past the body with my hands behind my back (Prince Philip beware!) – the last time I was treated like that was when as a schoolboy I entered a restaurant wearing a school cap – the waiter only had to give me a look!