We visited Vietnam during October 2017. Our arrival destination was Hanoi and no visit to this quaint city is complete without a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
In the West we know about Vietnam and their civil war, because the Americans simply can’t shut up about it, through their movies (like “Good Morning Vietnam), TV programmes (like “M*A*S*H”), 60’s Hippie Revolt and the eventual paraded War Veterans. Despite America’s extensive involvement and investment in terms of human capital, military equipment/ammunition and the heinous Agent Orange, it was more an ideological war, for which they had no desire to ever win. Back home, America was Asperger Syndrome about the cold war and they became interested in Vietnam only to support the South against the North, which had communist support. So, if you shorten the equation (and over simplify it a whole lot), America felt obliged to “fight communism” on Asian soil. Interesting to note that even in 2017, most Vietnamese refers to the conflict running up to their unification, as the “American War”.
Let’s quickly look at the history of Vietnam. And with quick, I mean rapid fast forwarding:
- Big Bang to 1940: mostly ruled by local Kings, the odd Chinese invasion, a few uprisings (most notably by the Trung Sisters (40-43 AD) and 225-248 AD by Lady Triêu) and eventually the French
- 1940: as part of World War II, Japan invaded Indochina and kept the French administration as a puppet
- 1941: Ho Chi Minh arrived in northern Vietnam to form the Viet Minh
- 1945 World War II ends and Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
- 1946: First Indochina War starts between Viet Minh and France
- 1954: France relinquish its’ Indochina colonies (modern day, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam)
- 1955: Vietnam (Second Indochina) War starts.
- 1956 – 1972: Lots of he said, she said stuff happens. Two steps forward, one step back, but mainly the Americans are losing to the home ground advantage of the locals
- 1973: Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam fell to the communist North.
- 1975: South Vietnamese army surrenders
- 1976: Vietnam’s united government renames Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City.
The man, Ho Chi Minh (19 May 1890 – 2 September 1969), has an interesting past. He is affectionately referred to a “Uncle Ho”, as the communist ruling party clings to his legacy. To find concrete facts about his journey up to 1941 (and even the various names he used), seems difficult, if not outright debatable and academically tedious. Here are a few interesting bits, with little wonder as to why there is such a mystical cloud surrounding him (given all the discrepancies):
- Nguyen Sinh Cung was born in 1890
- His father gave him a new name at age 10, namely Nguyen Tat Thanh
- 1911: arrived in France, onboard a steamship, as a kitchen helper
- 1912: arrived in America, by ship, as a cook’s helper
- 1913: claimed to live in Boston, where he worked as a baker, also working at a hotel in London, as a pastry boy
- 1917-1918: he claimed to have worked for a wealthy family in Brooklyn and as a line manager for General Motors
- 1919: arrives in Paris, from London and became known as Nguyen Ai Quoc
- 1923: arrives in Moscow under the name Chen Vang
- 1924: arrives in China using the name Ly Thuy
- 1929: he moved from Thailand to India
- 1931: Arrested in Hong Kong. He was (falsely) announced dead in 1932, to reduce French pressure for extradition. The British, however, quietly released him in 1933. He left for the Soviet Union.
- 1938: served as an advisor to the Chinese Communist Armed Forces, in China
- 1940: starts using the name Ho Chi Minh, which translates roughly to “he who has been enlightened”
- Due to a near 30 years in exile, he could speak, read and write in French, English, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin and naturally his mother tongue Vietnamese.
Since the 1950’s the communist regime builds a personality cult around Ho, as part of their propaganda campaign about Ho and the Party’s past. He features on the front of modern day Vietnam’s currency (Sadly, it is really easy to be a Dong millionaire in cash), with portraits of him and busts littering public spaces. He even scored a mention in Billy Joel’s 1989 ‘We didn’t start the fire’. (at the 2:56 mark)
Here he hangs in Saigon’s Old Post Office: tourist trap in the middle, working post office against the outside.
Despite his will stating that he wanted to be cremated, his embalmed body is on display in the mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi.
Uncle Ho left behind 5 lessons, to be taught to children (which is being done, to this day). In terms of bringing a nation together, Ho Chi Minh is to Vietnam, what Mandela was to South Africa.
Formal receptions for foreign heads of state and ambassadors were held by President Ho at the Presidential Palace, but he preferred not to live there. Instead, he lived in a simple wooden house on stilts, at the back of the palace.
Can’t blame ol’ Ho to not want to live here. I mean, that yellow. Check out his pad below (the green walkway was added later for tourist reasons). Way too exotic for my taste, where is the middle option?
You are in Hanoi already – might as well read about this city then.