A potent symbol of the past, Ho still revered in Hanoi

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Richard Lipez
Globe Correspondent / April 6, 2008

HANOI - There's no ignoring that stuffing and waxing a dead man and putting the corpse on permanent display is rather odd. Ho Chi Minh certainly never wanted this. A person of simple tastes, he had requested a cremation. But the man who led his country out of colonialism and wore down the mighty US military machine is far too potent a symbol in Vietnam not to have his image - or actual self - controlled by the regime.

Even among the majority of Vietnamese who, according to observers, now regard his socioeconomic ideas as crackpot, Ho (1890-1969) is still revered as the man who devoted his life to freeing the country from French and then US domination. He is their Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt rolled into one. Imagine, though, visiting the Lincoln Memorial and rather than a majestic marble Lincoln, gazing instead at the Great Emancipator's corpse, propped up, smiling benignly, and lighted like Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. For some of us, the impulse was to snicker.

While snickering is not explicitly forbidden at the Ho mausoleum - as are wearing shorts, taking pictures, and putting your hands in your pockets - with uniformed armed guards all around, I would not recommend it.

Ho's glass sarcophagus rests deep inside a stone mausoleum built between 1973 and 1975. It and the Ho Chi Minh Museum next door were designed to inspire reverence and awe and they probably do in the thousands of Vietnamese who queue up each day to file quickly past the bier.

It takes about an hour to get in (I was reminded of art critic Robert Hughes's term "the architecture of coercion"; he was referring to Benito Mussolini's Rome and Nelson Rockefeller's Albany). You get the feeling that the old Soviet Union, one of Ho's benefactors, might have had a hand in this memorial. In fact, the corpse is shipped off to Moscow each year from October through December for refreshing.

At the museum, there is an enormous bronze heroic statue, lots of official documents, and photos of Ho laughing with children. There are no Lyndon Johnson caricatures or displays of Jane Fonda chortling next to North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns. Such things are more likely to turn up in Ho Chi Minh City, maybe because more US tourists visit the former Saigon.

Completing the Ho complex are the Presidential Palace, once the chateau of the French governor general, and two small houses where Ho lived until his death in 1969. On display are his easy chair, small bed, and the entrance to his bomb shelter.

If this group of monuments and buildings represents a convincing picture of what I would call the good Ho - the nationalist liberator - another Hanoi museum last year featured an exhibit, remarkable for its candor, that looked at the bad Ho, the Marxist-Leninist theoretician. This remarkable show was at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. It's a fascinating place, well worth a visit for its permanent displays about the lives of Vietnam's 84 highly variegated tribes and ethnic groups, and into which its bold directors insinuated a 10-month show called "Hanoi Life Under the Subsidy Economy 1975-1986."

That's the period when private property was largely abolished in Vietnam, production of foods and goods mostly collectivized, and everything important that anybody needed was rationed. According to the exhibit, with its pictures of rice-depot queues and city people trying to keep pigs in their bathrooms, the system was nuts. Everything came to a halt. People suffered terribly. Many starved - though not party cadres, who had access to special food and shops.

The museum's displays and a documentary film made vivid this hard life. It also bravely showed the willingness of writers and artists to criticize this "inefficient" system with their plays and articles. It was this protest movement, led by writers, artists, professionals, and Buddhist monks, that resulted in the economic changes of the late 1980s that got the country more or less functioning again.

It's noteworthy, too, that the "subsidy" show was a joint project of the Ethnology Museum and the Revolutionary Museum, both of them state-run. And in this stunning exhibit, there was no mention of Uncle Ho.

Richard Lipez, a freelance writer in Becket, can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay

Hoa Lin Hotel
35 Hang Bo St., Hoan Kiem


A quirky but comfortable mid-range hotel in the Old French Quarter. Doubles $18-$32.


15 Ngo Quyen St.


Upscale, with French colonial architecture. Doubles $219-$425.

Where to eat

38 Hang Hom St., Hoan Kiem


Excellent traditional food in an elegant setting in the Old Quarter. Dinner for two $25.

What to do

Ho Chi Minh complex
Corner of Pho Ngoc Ha and Pho Doi Can

Mausoleum: Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday-Sunday 8- 11 a.m. (last entry about 10:15); free. Museum: Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday-Sunday 8-11 and 1:30-4:30 p.m.; admission 40 cents. Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh houses: Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday-Sunday 8-11 and 1:30-4; admission 40 cents.

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Nguyen Van Huyen Street

Tuesday-Sunday 8:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m.; admission 80 cents.

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