As we kept heading north the weather degenerated. We were picked up at te airport by our final driver/guide combo and were informed that we had arrived too late to get access to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Apparently, they close at noon daily. I’m not sure why; it’s not like they have to pay Ho time and a half for the extra hours they’d be open. We were told that the magnificent structure houses the physical remains of the shriveled up leader of the great revelutio9n. I am told he looks so natural, having been embalmed using the same process that was used to preserve Lenin. It appears that he is not dead, just resting; I suggested a small mechanical pump be installed in his chest to increase the realism. Rejected. Ho grew up in a poor family; his father was an unsuccessful revolutionary who fought against the French Colonialists early in their occupation. His two siblings also joined the revolution and interestingly none were married and the lineage ended at Ho’s generation. I find it ironic that a culture that attaches so much value to ancestral worship has a leader that left no one to say Vietnamese Kaddish for him. When I brought this up to our guide, he indicated that all Vietnamese consider Ho Chi Minh to be their father and therefore he has tens of millions paying their respects.
Ho’s history is studied in great detail and forms the intellectual and educational cornerstone of all Viets. He was educated in Europe and took on all kinds of odd and low end jobs to sustain himself. To be able to leave Vietnam, he signed up for a job of cabin boy on a French Luxury liner that had made Vietnam its port of call. Were I to return to university to obtain my masters in Political Science, my thesis would be based on examining the youth of leaders who have changed the world in order to uncover the determinants to their motivation and behaviour. The idea crossed my mind many years ago watching certain members of an elite golf course at which I am a member, heap a ton of abuse on the wait staff, the caddies and the like. It made me cringe to see a total lack of respect for an individual of lower socio-economic status heaped upon him or her by somebody who should know a lot better. It made me wonder if Hitler ever worked as a waiter in a Jewish golf club as a teenager in Germany. Him having done so would help to explain (but obviously not justify) the Holocaust. Same deal for Ho. I can only imagine the snooty, obnoxious, dismissive French clientele aboard the liner, addressing the future leader as ‘boy’ or ‘garcon’ or ‘you little yellow slanty-eyed worm’, or something equally endearing. Perhaps the Asian movement toward communism owes its origin to abuse of a cabin boy.
The mausoleum apparently has references to Marx and Lenin inscribed inside it. I never realized until that minute how similar Ho Chi Minh’s influences were to mine. Groucho and John should be proud. The Canadian government should be very proud. Our embassy is situated in close proximity to Uncle Ho’s Ice House. Our guide found it essential to show us the place and we obliged him by agreeing to be photographed in the shadow of our flag.
As another Canadian aside, one morning at the resort, one of the servers, upon hearing that we were Canadian began to gush about the delicious honey that is apparently unique to Canada. I tried to explain that there was nothing special about our bees until she explained that what makes our honey unique was that it did not come from bees, rather – trees. So if you’re ever in a remote part of the world and would like to explain to the locals what Maple Syrup is all about – there’s your metaphor.
Our new guide, Duoc, or Donald as I was tempted to call him, brought us out to the Museum of Ethnology, a huge modern structure courtesy of the French Government , built in the mid-90’s which celebrates the ethnic diversity of the 54 tribes which make up the cultural mélange that is Vietnam. The Viet people, one ethnicity, make up 90% of the population, so as a mosaic, the picture would have a lot of yellow in it. Nonetheless, the display of artifacts (looms, ritual costumes, utensils, instruments, etc.
) provided a well organized and nicely displayed insight into 2,000 years of diversity
Outdoors, the government had gathered about 16 homes from various parts of the country and had them reconstructed on the grounds. The architectural divergences which reflect the geographical variances provided an anthropological sampling that would have made Margaret Mead happy. One of the tribes constructed a community hall that was at least 20 meters high. The reasoning behind the jungle skyscraper was to allow the local hunters who strayed too far from home and got lost to climb a tree, locate the superstructure and find their way home.
Another tribe had a very interesting ritual when it came to being dead. Upon expiring, the body was schlepped out to the death house where it sat around and rotted. When enough corpses piled up, the family invited the villagers to a feast which ended with the igniting of the tomb. The wealthier the family, the more frequent the burnings. Surrounding the tomb were a serious of statues engaged in various forms of sexual activity. A number of the statuettes were pregnant. The theme apparently was the great circle of life. You die, you come back, you die, you come back. Seems like a lot of work for nothing.
Next stop was the single pillar pagoda, built by an ancient king who was sonless. In a dream Confucius came to him and presented him with a son. Nine months later, Ruler Jr. was born. Kingo built the pagoda to reflect the building as it appeared in the dream.
There’s that cross- cultural thing happening again – The Annunciation, featuring Gabriel, Sarah’s miracle birthing to Isaac. Many stories based upon unexpected of unusual births seem to be at the basis of history and legend. Draw your own conclusions.
Second to last stop was at a large outdoor university that served as a source of education to a thousand years of students. The gardens were magnificent and 87 sculpted turtles carried large stone tablets on their backs engraved with the top student from each graduating class dating back millennia.
There wass also a large shrine to Confucius, whose teachings, along with Buddhism for the basis of religion, philosophy and the moral code of the region. Somehow, I can’t helpbut draw a link between Confucian and Confusion. They seem too close to be purely co-incidental. Nonetheless, his viewpoints were adopted by royalty in the region for hundreds of years. Not surprising, really. The fundamentals of the concept place the king above all, then the educators, and finally the parents, with the wife bearing a pronounced subservient role in the overall scheme of things. I see why this structure would appeal to any aspiring despot. I know that it does to me.
Heading to our hotel for an evening check in, we passed a road sign for the Hanoi Hilton. I enquired if a tour of the famous prison camp built by the French to hold the Vietminh insurgents and ultimately commandeered by the Viet Cong and converted into a hell hole for downed US fighter pilots would be on the tour. It turns out that the Hanoi Hilton is exactly that – a 4 star hotel catering to western visitors. My, how far we’ve come.