Travel Report: Ho Chi Minh Complex, Hanoi.
Ho Chi Minh Complex. Hanoi, Vietnam.
“Ho Chi Minh!” I told the grizzled old moto taxi driver. He replied with a serious nod, then handed me the passenger helmet he kept on his right handlebar. I fitted it over my head, clambered on and we were quickly away, weaving between the traffic down various Hanoi streets.
For a moment I half wondered whether he’d misunderstood me. Were we actually driving to Ho Chi Minh, the southern Vietnamese city 1483 kilometres from the Vietnamese capital? Luckily, we were not. In fact, he had understood me perfectly.
After a few days of gentle exploring in Hanoi, I felt ready for one of the city’s heavyweight sights. A place where I could find out more about Vietnam’s most cherished national hero, Ho Chi Minh. And in the process delve deep into an essential slab of Vietnam’s modern history.
Thus I put aside the better part of a day for a visit to The Ho Chi Minh Complex, Hanoi’s grand tribute to the man who delivered independence to Vietnam. The revolutionary who established The Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 and ended the First Indochina War in 1954 with victory over the French Union at The Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Ho Chi Min Complex.
I began my journey at The Ho Chi Minh Museum, a giant exhibit that provides a thorough overview of the man’s fascinating life and times. Opened in 1990, they say it took 21 years to put the museum together following his death on the 2nd of September 1969.
In order to reach the first exhibit, you have to negotiate several huge marble staircases with a security checkpoint in between. Eventually, somewhat out of breath, I emerged into a large, echoey hall with a massive bronze sculpture of the man Vietnam affectionately calls Uncle Ho.
From there visitors lead themselves through eight sections of Ho Chi Minh’s life, told in chronological order. First, I learned how he was born into humble beginnings in the village of Kim Lien. And how he became a keen and dedicated student from a young age, mastering spoken and written Chinese.
Moreover, he began studying Confucianism with the help of his father, a Confucian scholar and teacher. It was also his dad who exposed the young boy to notions of rebellion when he refused to take an administrative post in the imperial bureaucracy. Because it would have meant working for The French.
Ho Chi Min Museum.
Nevertheless, Vietnam’s future prime minister and president received a French education at Quoc Hoc High School for the Gifted in the city of Hue. According to official documents found within the school, he was expelled in 1908 for engaging in “revolutionary activities”.
In the museum’s second section there’s an overview of his wayward life traveling the world on various ships. He journeyed around France working as a kitchen hand and lived in New York City with a job as a line manager for General Motors. Furthermore, he lived in Boston for a while working as a pastry chef at the legendary Parker House Hotel. There are even records that he cooked and waited at various hotels in London between 1913 and 1919.
All the while he studied, read and made contact with revolutionaries and nationalists. Over time, “Ho” began thinking about how he could free his beloved country from the shackles of colonialism.
Next came an exhibit on his political activist years in France. In Paris he became a founding member of The French Communist Party, in addition to carving out a blossoming reputation as an essayist.
There’s also an overview of his activism in The Soviet Union, where he met and married a Chinese midwife, Zeng Xueming, in 1926. They subsequently went to live in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. However, he had to suddenly flee China in April 1927 after being targeted in an anti-Communist coup. Despite efforts from them both to reunite over the years, they never saw each other again.
Ho Chi Min Complex.
After a chaotic fourteen years continuing his activism in The Soviet Union, India, Thailand, France and even back in China, he finally returned to his homeland in 1941.
And so unfolded a relentless four year campaign in which he led The Viet Minh movement to Vietnam’s independence. In addition to archive photographs and newsreels, the museum showcases numerous personal items. Such as his uniforms, weapons, family heirlooms and handwritten letters.
The final exhibits take stock of his achievements as The Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s first Prime Minister (1945-1955) and president (1945 to 1969). To take in the whole story, with all its complicated subplots and supporting characters, one could easily spend most of the day in the museum. Just remember that the exhibit offers a rose-tinted view of his life, with not a hint of the man’s controversies and unsavoury actions.
Back outside, I took a long leisurely stroll through the complex, constructed within the grounds of The Presidential Palace. Built between 1900 and 1906 for the French Governor General of Indochina, it’s a handsome, regal building with classical Italian renaissance columns.
When Vietnam got its independence in 1954 the building fell into Ho Chi Minh’s hands. But he refused to live in it for symbolic reasons, instead choosing to reside in a more modest, custom built home within the grounds. Unfortunately, visitors can’t enter the palace as the government still uses it for meetings and special events.
From the palace I made my way to the home Ho Chi Minh lived in within the grounds between 1954 and 1958. Known as House 54, it had belonged to an electrician who worked as a caretaker in the compound.
Ho Chi Min Complex.
The house was small, while the bits of furniture he amassed were mostly gifts from world leaders. A round wooden table for example, glimpsed through a dusty bedroom window, was a present from none other than Fidel Castro.
One extravagance he allowed himself as Vietnam’s president was the construction of a carp pond next to his home. This, he said, would help keep his mind peaceful while working. And allow him to go and feed the fish in his downtime.
He also converted one of the rooms into a small garage displaying the cars he received as state gifts. One of these, the green Pobeda pictured below, arrived at the complex on behalf of Nikita Khrushchev and the people of The Soviet Union.
Finally, he had a series of offices and meeting rooms built next door for convenience. This is where his secretary worked, where he kept his private office and where he’d hold strategic meetings with his closest aides.
In 1958, after four years at House 54, he moved into his final home. Built in a leafy clearing on the other side of his beloved pond, this is Ho Chi Minh’s iconic Stilt House.
His inspiration came from a visit to Vietnam’s rural northwest, where he’d seen the wooden stilt houses of the region’s ethnic mountain minorities. This, he declared, was the kind of house in which he’d like to see out his final days.
The Presidential Stilt House.
Once again his lodgings were simple, just two rooms, bamboo chairs and not even an onsite toilet. For that he had to walk back over to his offices. Or, you know….
They say Ho Chi Minh loved his little stilt house. And indeed it was here that he passed away on the morning of September the 2nd, 1969. He was 79 years old. Prior to the pandemic, nearly a thousand people climbed the staircase every day to file quietly along the balcony and peek in through the windows.
After The Stilt House, I left the presidential compound and took the six minute walk to Ba Dinh Square. On arrival I passed through another security station and joined the long, steady line of people shuffling silently towards Ho Cho Minh Mausoleum.
In his will Ho Chi Minh expressed a clear desire to be cremated. But the Vietnamese government ignored that! Rather, they embalmed his body and constructed a grand mausoleum from which the people could come and see their beloved former leader.
There was a great variation of folk who’d come to pay their respects that day. Among them, I spied Chinese tour groups, an elderly German couple and a pair of American backpackers. Furthermore, I spent some time enjoying the antics of a Vietnamese school group and their two young teachers.
Ho Chi Minh Complex.
The kids were exceptionally cute. Especially when, under the direction of their teachers, they began singing a patriotic song and saluting towards the mausoleum.
It took a while to reach the entrance steps. As luck would have it, my arrival coincided with the changing of the guard. Hence my entry was put on hold as we watched the flurry of uniformed soldiers marching back and forth. Then everything stopped and there was total silence. Suddenly, one of the guards let out a loud and passionate cry, before firing a single gunshot into the air.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
Inspired by the structure built for Lenin in Moscow, work on the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum began in 1973. Made from grey granite and featuring a distinctive Vietnamese sloping roof, it opened on August the 29th 1975.
Inside, following the guards instructions, I silently made my way around the glass case containing Ho Chi Minh’s body. I couldn’t take my eyes off his pale face, gently illuminated under the dim lights. It was a truly surreal experience, as if I had come to see Uncle Ho take a nap in between governmental meetings.
I wasn’t in the chamber very long. Perhaps two minutes tops. You can’t stop walking, as the guards keep you moving along with fierce eye contact and inflexible gestures. And of course they strictly forbid photography, while there are signs telling you to keep your mobile phone out of sight. But what a special experience nonetheless. For me it felt like a brief brush with history itself… an encounter with greatness.
For more on Vietnam’s amazing capital, have a look at my other pieces from around Hanoi.
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