If you follow the flow of the Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex, the first stop is to see the preserved remains of Ho Chi Minh himself.
After dedicating his life to the liberation of his country from foreign rule, and seeing it freed from French domination, Ho Chi Minh died before the next war -- the one with the United States -- was decided. Afterwards, with Soviet assistance, his body was preserved for posterity and has been on display now for about four decades.
Ho Chi Minh's body is kept in state in an impressively austere, Russian-style mausoleum. Lines can be quite long, especially when gaggles of school children on field trips are being led through. Even then, at the end of the line, there's a good distance to go and viewers are only allowed to proceed one group at a time. You'll have to check any photographic equipment before entering as pictures of the body are not permitted. Once inside, you'll only get a minute or so with Bac Ho. Considering how long he's been lying here, Vietnam's founding father is looking pretty good -- a bit like he's just taking a nap. Teams of experts from Russia still visit regularly to consult and help out with his preservation.
None of this is actually what Ho Chi Minh wanted. He requested that he be cremated and his ashes spread in three areas in northern, central and southern Vietnam. A grave plot was, to his mind, a waste of land that might be otherwise productively used. But it was exactly this kind of earnest devotion to his country that made it impossible for his successors to honour his wishes. The cult of personality surrounding Ho Chi Minh was their best bet for keeping the country united after the war, and to preserve that, his body had to be preserved as well. The Romanesque structure is modelled after the one in Moscow where Lenin is on display; Lenin, too, had requested only a modest burial.
It's worth mentioning that this sight is Vietnam's holiest of holies. A reverential and respectful attitude is obligatory, and this is the one place where foreign visitors might be vigorously chastised, or even removed, by uniformed guards. There's an elaborate list of rules as you enter, which you should try to adhere to, including prohibitions against the wearing of an 'unserious costume' or being in a 'status of sickness'. If you get a case of the giggles, bite the inside of your cheek.
By Sarah Turner.
Last updated on 25th February, 2017.
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