Our Vietnam Trip—Part IV: The Most Respectful Visitor to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Andy: You’re not scared, are you?
Me: [Pause] Of course.
It was Wednesday morning, the power was out at Andy and Joanie’s place, and we were talking about a xe em ride into town. Xe ems are motorcycle taxis and the idea of riding on the back of one as it weaved in and out of Hanoi traffic was a little off-putting. But Patricia was getting a ride on Andy’s bike, and three on a bike didn’t make much sense (to westerners), so it was my next-best option.
It was actually a breeze. The roads we drove on weren’t superbusy. More importantly, traffic seems a lot less dangerous when you’re part of it rather than trying to cross it. The lesson, if one example can make a lesson, is a kind of modern Buddhist koan: Be one with the traffic.
We were let off, by Andy and the xe em driver, at Ba Dinh Square, which we had visited on Sunday, not knowing it was a Sunday, and which is an oasis from the traffic. On Hung Vuong, the road that runs between the three Ho Chi Minh sites and a wide expanse of manicured grass and footpaths, traffic is blocked off for two city blocks, so the pace of life is back to a walking pace. One is less assaulted by noise and pollution. This was particularly true when we visited last Sunday, not knowing it was a Sunday, since the place was virtually deserted, but it was less true Wednesday morning at 10:00, when an anaconda-sized line, filled mostly with schoolkids, snaked from the mausoleum’s entrance down to the southern end of Hung Vuong. The mausoleum, where Ho Chi Minh’s body was interred, was what we came for, since it was only open in the mornings, but I took one look at that line and my shoulders drooped.
“Maybe we should just bag this.”
“What do you mean?” Patricia said.
“We’re never going to get in.”
“Sure we will. Look, the line’s moving quickly.”
It was. I began to walk toward the back of the line; but an armed guard, seeing me approach, directed me to the other side of the street. The only foot traffic allowed directly in front of the mausoleum was the line of visitors who had already been through security. We needed to go through security. That was also at the southern end of Hung Vuong.
While waiting in line for that, Patricia suddenly spoke up.
“This.” She fingered her sleeveless top.
“Did you spill on it?”
“Right.” The guidebook warned that men in shorts and women in sleeveless tops were not allowed in the mausoleum. It was why I was wearing long pants in 80-degree weather with 90% humidity. “Should we bag it?”
“Noo!” Patricia. sounded like a child who might be denied a roller-coaster ride. She left and returned a minute later with a black shawl covering her shoulders.
“How much?” I asked.
“Thirty thousand. Is that a lot?”
“A buck fifty.”
She fingered it. “It’s not bad for a buck fifty.”
At the security checkpoint, her purse and my book bag went through the x-ray machine. Then I was told I had to check my book bag.
“What’s the point of putting it through the x-ray machine if I have to check it?” I asked the world.
“Just do it,” Patricia said.
A half hour after we arrived, an hour and a half before the mausoleum closed, we finally got in line. Ten people ahead of us I noticed the two Dutch girls from our Ha Long Bay trip and we had a small reunion. Just ahead of us stood a westerner who appeared to be obeying the letter of the dress code if not its spirit. He looked like a pirate. He wore a kerchief on his head, and longish, scraggly hair in back. His beard was scraggly. He was scraggly. It was as if he’d just emerged from 40 years in the jungle.
Then he began speaking to the women in front of him in fluent Vietnamese.
I hadn’t met a westerner yet who knew more than a few phrases in Vietnamese so this was an impressive display. When they were done talking and joking and laughing, I asked him how long he’d been speaking Vietnamese.
“Japanese,” he said.
“Right,” I said. Idiot! I thought. How could I not recognize Japanese?
We talked a bit. He was born in Romania, grew up in Britain, had been living in Japan for the last 40 years. When he found out we were from Seattle he talked up seeing a Stones concert there a few years earlier. “Three thousand dollars but it was totally worth it,” he said. He got animated. Our conversation was flowing. Then a white-gloved guard motioned for us to be silent. Suddenly we were at the front entrance. Another guard motioned for us to take our hands out of our pockets and put them at our sides. We did. Everyone was quiet and docile and stiff as we marched from the light and heat of the day and into the cool darkness of the stone mausoleum. We walked up a flight of stairs where it got even cooler. No one spoke. The only sound was the shuffling of our feet as we walked single file into a small room, where, on the other side of a u-shaped walkway, Ho Chi Minh lay in state, famously, or infamously, against his express wishes to be cremated. His body was small and his face was smooth. He had the familiar white goatee and white tunic. Was it impolite to stare? Was that allowed? Moot point. A second later we were outside again, blinking in the sun.
“Wow,” I said, breathing out.
“Do you think his body was real?” Patricia asked.
“That was worth doing just for the experience of doing it.”
“I don’t know if he was real.”
“Could you do that in the U.S.? Have people shut up in front of the Lincoln Memorial? Would that increase the experience or lessen it?”
Our Wednesday turned out to be a replay of our Sunday. After the mausoleum we walked across town to meet Andy (and, this time, Joanie) for lunch, then walked back across town for more sites. We were getting pretty good at walking Hanoi. At least I was getting pretty good at walking Hanoi. Patricia, in the middle of a road, with an army of vehicles barreling down on her, still had the urge to flee. She held onto my hand for comfort and direction. She wasn’t one with the traffic yet.
The advantage of walking Hanoi, and consulting, every other block, your map of Hanoi, is that, without knowing it, you’re learning something about the long, sad history of Vietnam. Our route to lunch, for example, took us down Dien Bien Phu (the site of the French defeat in 1954) to Hai Ba Trung (the three Trung sisters, who led the first revolt against the imperialist Chinese in the first century A.D.), then a right onto Quan Su. After a quick jog onto Tran Hung Dao (a grand commander who repelled two Mongol invasions in the 13th century), we walked down Tran Binh Trong (a 13th-century general who preferred death to collaboration), then took a left onto Tran Quoc Toan (yet another 13th-century marytr to the Mongols), before finally walking up the small side street of Ha Hoi and the restaurant.
The Hoa Sua School for Disadvantaged Youth is a non-profit restaurant, housed in an old French colonial-style building, complete with winding, outer stone staircase, where young Vietnamese are trained in the arts of restauranting, and which Andy was reviewing for an online publication. Patricia and I arrived first and took a table in the courtyard in the shade of several leafy trees. The place is on a quiet back street, and, after our long march, it felt cool and comfortable. I could feel myself decompress as I sipped my beer. I also felt a disconnect. Most of the customers were affluent westerners, most of the wait staff Vietnamese in crisp white shirts. Against the French colonial backdrop, it didn’t take much to imagine yourself in the 1950s or 1920s; to imagine yourself on the set of “The Quiet American.” One wondered, not for the last time, what the war had been about.
After Andy and Joanie arrived, we talked about our walk to the restaurant.
“We kept seeing these mannequins wearing, you know, hip clothes, but with the zipper of the jeans undone,” Patricia said.
Joanie nodded. “The mannequins are western. But Vietnamese jeans don’t fit western mannequins.”
“You’re kidding,” Patricia said.
“I thought it was supposed to be, like, a sexy thing,” I said.
“They just don’t fit,” Joanie said.
“So why don’t they get Vietnamese mannequins?” Patricia asked.
“Probably for the ‘cool’ factor,” Andy said. “The west is cool.” He talked about seeing a national ad campaign that used a male model who looked more American than Asian.
“Like Taipei 20 years ago,” I said, sounding like a broken record.
“So even our mannequins are fat,” Patricia said.
Our walk back, in the greater heat and humidity of the day, was a slog, weighted down, as we were, with food, beer, and a greater sense of our own massive westernness. It didn’t help that we were backtracking. We were visiting Van Mieu, The Temple of Literature, just a few blocks south of where we’d been that morning, but it was a site Patricia had read about and was determined to see. It had been dedicated 900 years ago as a place of higher learning, and like most places of higher learning it was tough to get into. The Temple encompasses several city blocks, all walled in, and we hit it in the middle of the eastern wall and headed north. Bad move. The entrance is along the southern wall. We had to walk three-quarters of the way around to get in.
After wading through a sea of chattering schoolkids, all dressed in dark pants, white shirts and red kerchiefs, who occasionally broke out their English when they saw us coming (“Hello hello hello”), we walked through the main gate. Van Mieu is long and symmetrical and divided into five courtyards. In the first two courtyards there are paths to the left and right, gateways you step through on the left and right, and ponds on the far left and right. Patricia loved it, I was nonplussed. “What was the point?” I wondered. In the center of the third courtyard there’s a man-made pond, filled with man-made crap, and a few fish seemingly gasping for breath. “What was the point?” I wondered. Then I found the point. On either side of the pond is the Temple’s main attraction: ancient stone tablets, or stelae, weathered by time, that include the results of centuries-old national exams being carried on the backs of ancient stone tortoises. The oldest date from 1442 and 1448. Fifty years before Columbus.
The fifth courtyard includes the National Academy, regarded, the Rough Guide writes, “as Vietnam’s first university, which was founded in 1076 to educate princes and high officials in Confucian doctrine.” Plus there’s a gift shop. I bought a set of postcards and (finally) Bao Ninh’s novel “The Sorrow of War,” but it was while browsing the rest of the books that I felt that disconnect again. In one hand I was holding propaganda postcards celebrating April 30, 1975, the date communist North Vietnam finally chased capitalistic American forces out of the South, and with the other I was sorting through business-oriented books with smartly dressed westerners on the covers. In Vietnamese. The less-smartly dressed Bill Gates was on another cover, “11 lo’i khuyen—danh cho the he tre cua,” while other examples of western culture were available for purchase: “Cuon Theo Chieu Gio” (“Gone with the Wind”), “Trang Non” (“New Moon”), and, thanks to Robert Downey, Jr., Sherlock Holmes. So how did we get from April 30, 1975 to “11 lo’i khuyen”? It’s as if hearts and minds are more easily won with promises of wealth and romance than with guns and bombs. Imagine.
Afterwards, Patricia and I walked across Nguyen Thai Hoc (the 20th century Vietnamese revolutionary who was executed by French authorities, at the age of 28, after the Yen Bai mutiny of 1930) to the Fine Arts Museum. The Temple of Literature had been outdoors, crowded, and hot. The Fine Arts Museum was indoors, empty, and hot. A few air conditioners sputtered here and there, but the building was old, the doors open, the rooms muggy. One wondered what such conditions were doing to the artwork on the walls, some of which was quite good, and obviously influenced by whatever artistic trends were big in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. After 1954 and Dien Bien Phu, though, the themes changed from the personal and universal to, basically, Uncle Ho: in the counryside, smoking a cigarette, with kids. Sometimes all three. It was awful stuff. It didn’t even have the vibrancy of official propaganda artwork—like in the postcards I had just bought. It felt like every artistic sensibility of every painter was smothered.
The power was still out when we returned to the Engelson’s place, and so, rather than dinner at home with Andy’s friend, Matt Steinglass, we took a cab back to the main part of the city, near Hua Lo prison, to a favorite restaurant of Andy and Joanie’s, Quan An Ngon on Quan Su. It was a noisy and vibrant joint, with tons of wait staff, and reminded me of the type of two-tiered restaurant Jackie Chan, in one of his mid-‘80s films, might get into a spectacular, acrobatic fight. I would forever after refer to it as “The Jackie Chan restaurant.” Andy, poor bastard, kept trying to refer to it by its real name, but no matter how he elongated and warped his mouth, he could never get the “Ngon” right. He’d give it a go, look over at Fiona, age 7, who would quietly shake her head and correct him before going back to her drawings.
The girls had crayons and paper out, the adults were drinking ba ba ba (“333” beer), the wait staff, as many as 7-10 people, crowded around the table. Quan An Ngon has great customer service but we got extra attention less because we were westerners than because we were westerners with children. It’s difficult in Vietnam, or in Asia, for westerners to blend into the background (“Hello hello hello”), but you do cease to exist if you enter a joint behind kids. All attention is on them. Is it too much attention? At one point, two of the waitresses crouched behind Fiona’s chair and began stroking her long blonde hair. Some part of me flinched, but Fiona kept drawing while Andy and Joanie didn’t bat an eye. They trusted Fiona to object. Matilda objects. She doesn’t like the attention. Once again I admired the calm of parents. I'm havng enough trouble just getting me through life.
During dinner—a dizzying, delicious array of spicy vegetables, seafood, and meats—Joanie told us her story, or Matilda’s story, of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Andy hadn’t been yet but Joanie went with her daughters and visiting relatives, and they were told, yes, the same things we were told by the guards: be quiet, arms at sides, be respectful. Matilda, age 4, listened, nodded, walked in with the others in silence. Then they all walked out in silence. Then Matilda asked a seemingly relevant question: “Where’s Ho?” She’d been so quiet and respectful she hadn’t even turned her head to see his body lying in state. You could argue that Matilda Engelson, American, age 4, was the most respectful visitor ever to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. She was so respectful she hadn't even seen him. He wasn't even there. Which is what he'd wanted all along.