It’s all about Hồ Chí Minh
Hồ Chí Minh was Vietnam’s beloved Communist revolutionary leader and was the country’s Prime Minster (1945-1955) and President (1945-1969). For every Vietnamese, whether young or old, Hồ Chí Minh is a revered name. He led, loved and ‘saved’ Vietnam from various external and internal forces. In September 1945, when Viet Minh leaders, (inspired by Chinese and Soviet communism) proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Hồ Chí Minh was made its president and Hanoi became its capital. On September 2, that year, Hồ Chí Minh read the Proclamation during a public meeting in front of thousands of people, at what is now the Ba Dinh Square, announcing the country’s independence from France. No other country, however, recognised this regime including France, who wanted to re-establish its control over Vietnam.
He fought tirelessly for Vietnam’s independence and in May of 1954, the French surrendered to the Viet Minh only to be caught up in the American War that lasted from 1955 to 1975.
With such a revered past, it is unforgivable to visit Hanoi and not set foot at the Hồ Chí Minh complex. So, we do the right thing and head down there. Within this complex are Hồ Chí Minh’s Mausoleum, his humble Stilt House, the Presidential Palace, the Hồ Chí Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda.
We start off the morning by patiently standing in a well-orchestrated line to visit Hồ Chí Minh’s Mausoleum at the Ba Dinh Square. We are told to walk in twos, in silence, and in slow motion as we file past his mortal remains.
Although this simple and humble man had requested his body to be cremated and his ashes to be buried in the hills of the North, Centre and South of Vietnam, his body lies in state at this ornate and massive mausoleum made of marble and granite. The mausoleum is built at the same site where he read the Independence Declaration on September 2nd, 1945.
On the outside top face of the mausoleum is his popular quote “Khong co gi quy hon doc lap tu do” (translated as “nothing is more precious than independence and freedom”). We file past 79 cycad trees, symbolising Hồ Chí Minh’s 79 ‘springs of life’. Apparently, the two bamboo ranges on the two sides are meant to whistle in the wind to commemorate the President.
Across from these well-manicured gardens is the impressive Presidential Palace, built by the French. Hồ Chí Minh abhorred pomp and pageantry and preferred to live a simple lifestyle, and therefore the Palace was only used for formal receptions for foreign head’s of state. The stunning Palace is painted in vivid yellow symbolising power and is typical French colonialist architecture. We are not allowed past the barricades and have to admire the Palace from a distance.
We walk around the garden to Hồ Chí Minh’s residence, which was originally an electrician’s house. Refusing to live in the Presidential Palace, he lived in this humble wooden house on stilts surrounded by gardens full of fruit trees and a large fishpond.
The wooden house has two floors. The ground floor was used as a meeting place, consisting of 12 chairs around a large table. The upstairs has two rooms: his study and bedroom. There is a bookshelf used as a wattle between his study room and bedroom. The bottom shelf has the small typewriter he used. His bedroom has a single wooden bed, a small blanket, a rush mat, a fan made of palm leaves and a bottle of water. Visitors can see a cotton bonnet he used to wear when alive. The books he was reading are left on the table. Vietnam’s beloved president lived here from 1958 until he passed away in 1969 aged 79.
A short walk away is the One Pillar Pagoda built in 1049 under the Ly Dynasty. According to legend, King Ly Thanh Tong, who yearned for a son, dreamt that he must build a pagoda in the shape of a lotus to earn himself a son. He built this pagoda and, yes, he was blessed with a son!
From here we drive over to visit the Temple of Literature, known as one of Hanoi’s most picturesque attractions. We stroll through five courtyards: two with beautiful landscaped gardens, the third has a large pond known as the Well of Heavenly Clarity, the fourth courtyard is called the Sage Courtyard with a statue of Confucius and a House of Ceremonies, and the last courtyard is Thai Hoc with its large drum and bell tower.
Originally built in 1070 as a university dedicated to Confucius, scholars and sages, the building is extremely well preserved. The university only accepted aristocrats, the elite and royal family members as students before eventually opening its doors to brighter ‘commoners’. We walk past stone steles engraved with the names of successful graduates which are placed upon stone turtles to symbolize longevity. Viet (our guide) tells us that touching the head of the turtle will also guarantee wisdom. My friend desperately wanted some ‘turtle intervention’ for his son’s upcoming OL exams! He rubbed a turtle’s head, a couple of times, just in case!
Inside the main pavilion are bigger than life-size statues of Confucius, Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. Confucianism was introduced to Vietnam during the Chinese occupation which lasted a thousand years and the Temple of Learning marks the emergence of Confucianism as a cult. Like China, it reached a peak during the 15th century – the ‘golden age’ of King Le Thanh Tong, then steadily decayed into decadence and corruption opening the door for the French invasion.
Even today, many Vietnamese pay obeisance by offering ‘fake’ money in exchange for wisdom and intelligence. It truly is a magnificent place to visit.
We finish our day strolling through the Old Quarter, savouring delicious Vietnamese cuisine and drinking good French wine. Vietnam is certainly leaving a great impression.