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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There is also a Ho Chi Minh museum in Da Nang. I took a guided tour there in 1995, on a morning when I was the only visitor. But I didn’t learn much about Ho Chi Minh because the guide — a lovely young Vietnamese woman who spoke several languages including German — was more interested in asking me about the progress of German reunification.
Ha ha, how amusing. Not what you expected I’d imagine. I didn’t know Danang had a Ho Chi Minh Museum and indeed I don’t recall hearing anything about it during my stay there. Thanks for the link, will take a look.
History to be sure. I have never been to Viet Nam, but think the people are finally at peace, controlling their own destiny. Given what is happening in Afghanistan right now, I wonder if they will ever be that lucky. Thanks for sharing. Allan
Yes indeed, somehow I can’t see a similarly positive outlook for the Afghans. Certainly not in the short term future. Hope I’m wrong.
So glad you included the school children. It was a nice human touch. I think I would have passed up the mausoleum for more time in the museum. Ho certainly traveled the world a lot as a young man. He could have been a travel blogger. It always amuses me how Americans tend to think of anyone who was/is a communist as being a carbon copy of each other when there is such a spectrum of beliefs under that word. Principal has to be anti-colonial. I need to read more about Ho to see how confucianism informed his communism.
Some interesting thoughts there Memo. Diving deeper into Ho’s background is quite a project. It was difficult trying to provide a rough overview for the purposes of this article. Must be a few good books out there.
Fascinating! I learned a lot from this, thank you.
Thanks Diana, he had an incredible life, that’s for sure.
Really interesting! I’ve never been to Vietnam so it’s really fun to visit through the eyes of others! Thank you!
Thanks for reading! Glad you liked this piece and hope there are a few more to pique your interest in my Hanoi series.
What a fascinating history of such a great leader. I really enjoyed learning about this key figure in Vietnamese history. But the absolute favorite part of your post was the picture with all the school kids holding on to each other’s shirts! Not only are they too cute, but what a great visual of everything that was created for those young children because of the work of one man. Great post Leighton 🙂
I’m so glad this article held your attention Meg. What ever one thinks of Uncle Ho’s politics, and his more controversial moments as leader of Vietnam, there is no doubting his exceptional achievements.
Excellent stuff, I know exactly what you mean when you say that visiting places like this make you feel you’ve had a brush with greatness. More reasons for us to return to Hanoi…both of these places were closed due to COVID when we were there. We visited the mausoleum but could only view from outside…but handily like you we happened to coincide our arrival with the changing of the guard.
I’m sure you will savour the complete HCM Complex experience when you eventually return to Hanoi. Thanks for reading!
The Ho Chi Minh Complex is a lovely and peaceful spot in the middle of the busy and crowded city. Ho’s experience in the West is somewhat reminiscent of Pol Pot. It is interesting how communist dictators get pickled and put on display, and their seems to be competition in terms of the size of the mausoleums. You are brave to take a motorcycle taxi. I did so once in Bangkok.
You’re right about Pot and Ho having similar backgrounds in their early years abroad. Boy did they go in different directions thereafter! In all my years spent travelling Asia I’ve only jumped on the back of a moto taxi on a handful of occasions. Usually because there’s nobody else around. Thanks for reading!
That was such an informative read Leighton and I would definitely like to follow in your footsteps to the Ho Chi Minh complex one day myself. The schoolgirls looked very attractive in their tartan uniforms and nice to see. Marion
The school kids definitely lightened the mood, that’s for sure. Thanks Marion, hope all is well in Blighty.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn much about Vietnamese history in the US, despite taking a year or two of so-called “World History.” I had been introduced to Ho Chi Minh and learned about the rebellion towards the country’s independence, but the textbooks always told it in a sterile, factual way. To see the site first-hand definitely brings in a different experience, as one learns the details of a great leader’s life, and how he came to be the way he was at the height of his career. I appreciate you sharing your visit of the Ho Chi Minh Complex!
I can’t say the British school system did any better on the subject of Vietnam. Initially my education came through Hollywood movies (thanks Oliver Stone) and through reading. And finally, in Vietnam itself. Thanks for following the journey with me!
Wow – thank you for educating me. I knew a little about Ho Chi Minh, but I had NO idea you could still go and visit his body all kept like a shrine. That is insane! What a piece of history.
It’s pretty crazy right? Way back, in 2010, I got to see Chairman Mao in a similar mausoleum in Beijing. Didn’t get any photos of the complex whatsoever as security was insane. Thanks for reading!
It’s absolutely crazy! I can’t think of anything weirder than visiting Churchill’s lifeless body at Blenheim Palace. We just don’t have that same mindset.
If you really “have a thing” for historical travelling, then there is no reason not to visit one of the most resourceful complexes in Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum & Museum. I didn’t know his body is preserved in a glass case; sounds a bit like Lenin’s mausoleum in Russia! Thanks for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva
Hey Aiva, thanks for taking the time to read this one and share your thoughts. Yup, the mausoleum was inspired by the Lenin site in Moscow.
Excellent recap and history!!
Very interesting site to see when we visited. Alot of historical sites to see. Thanks for describing your visit there.
Thanks for reading!
Well, I can honestly say that my (only) knowledge of Ho Chi Minh is what I’ve seen from Jeremy Clarkson and his gang from the Top Gear show … 😄. But thanks to you, I’ve now learned so much more about the history of this amazing place!
Ah good old Clarkson! 😉 Thanks for reading this somewhat potted history. Hope you are both doll doing well!
Thanks, we are both doing well … had a good dose of nature for a week (and though our bodies feel the one day trail of 23km in the mountains, we had a great time 😁). Take care.
23km is impressive! I need more of that kind of exercise in my life.
I’d be so pissed if I asked to be cremated and I was embalmed instead. So rude. 😆
Ha ha it is a bit isn’t it? Perhaps he knew in some way, he didn’t look too pleased as I passed through the hall…
He apparently worked as a kitchen porter in a hotel (now more a pub) very near where I live in Ealing, the Drayton Court: http://www.ealingtoday.co.uk/shared/conhist07.htm?site=2
He certainly got around in his younger years!