Evidently having felt the side effects of our early start the day before, we woke to find the morning was slipping away from us. We had planned to meet Bruce and Ash at the Ho Chi Minh museum, but owing to a mutual lack of organisation, we did not succeed in meeting them there. The museum was quite a peculiar place. Given the title, I had been hoping to discover more about Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s legendary leader from 1945 to 1965. However, instead I found the entire set up somewhat frustrating. Perhaps we were missing a trick, or perhaps we should have had the foresight to organise a tour and then our visit may have shed some light on this fascinating man. The information in the first room was very poorly presented, with tiny writing on framed A4 sheets. For someone wishing to browse, it was not particularly attractive – you would do better to sit at home and read a book. The main part of the museum at first glance appeared rather impressive, being situated in a huge room, with a path which swept around the exhibits. However, the numerous promising flip charts scattered about merely displayed copies of letters (in French or Vietnamese) and photographs with no context, translation or explanation, other than to say who the letter was from and to and who was in the photograph. The exhibits consisted of a series of venerated artefacts once in the possession of the great man – his spectacles, his writing desk, his pencil case and even a stone which he had used to remove leeches. In the midst of this, we were confronted by baffling works of modern art imbued with a deep symbolism which I was unable to appreciate. One exhibit, an enormous, towering white table bedecked with a bowl of larger than life fake fruit and a pile of coal lurking in the corner, was representative of Vietnamese youth. The most enjoyable part of the trip was having a four year old Vietnamese boy foisted on me so his father could take a photograph. So, I concluded, Ho Chi Minh was a man who wrote a lot of letters (at a writing desk), appeared in countless photographs, wore glasses and occasionally had a problem with leeches. In essence, the museum (and I suspect this may also apply to the many other Ho Chi Minh museums in Vietnam) was really an edifice constructed to honour his memory; more a place of worship than a place to learn about his life and his struggles. Like a god, he moved in mysterious ways.
So who was Ho Chi Minh and why all the adulation? A promising young scholar, Ho Chi Minh (or Nguyen Tat Thanh as he was then known), decided to leave his home country in 1911 to travel the world working on ships. At this time Vietnam formed part of the French colony of ‘Indochine’, which was under French governance from 1887 until around 1945. During his travels, he visited and stayed in the UK, the USA, France, the Soviet Union and China, and as he travelled his political consciousness was awakened. In France, he became a member of the Socialist Party, and petitioned for an end to colonialism and Vietnamese independence. In Moscow, he studied at a Communist university before moving to the Canton region of China, where he gave socialist lectures to young revolutionary Vietnamese who were living there. By this time, he had another name, Nguyen Ai Quoc, which later on was to change once more to Ho Chi Minh. From 1923-1941, Ho Chi Minh oscillated between the Soviet Union and China, with sojourns in Europe, Thailand and India. Sometimes he moved due to exile; at other times of his own volition. However, in 1941, he finally returned to the country of his birth, in order to lead the Viet Minh campaign for independence. During World War II, following the crumbling of the French colonies under pressures of war, Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese, whilst still ostensibly under (Vichy) French rule. After the eventual defeat of the Japanese in WWII, the Japanese withdrew from Vietnam as the Viet Minh influence grew stronger. The Vietnamese Emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated in 1945, relinquishing control of the country to the Viet Minh. However, the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam was not recognised by the international community.
The French refused to acknowledge the declaration of independence, and Vietnam was plunged into several more years of fighting, both with the French themselves and between Communist and non-Communist Vietnamese. Echoing the situation in Korea, the result of the 1954 Geneva Accords was that Vietnam was split in two, with Communist rule (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) taking hold in the north and anti-communist factions controlling the south. During the assertion of Communist power in the north, many civilians were killed, sent to labour camps or imprisoned because their political beliefs did not harmonise with the Viet Minh vision for the future of the country. In his later years, Ho Chi Minh no longer ruled North Vietnam, but his role as a figurehead for the revolution was reinforced. The split was not set to last for long, and eventually the Vietnam War, that infamous bloody conflict, resulted in a unified Communist Vietnam. Communist sympathisers from the south (the Viet Cong) and the Northern Vietnam army (The People’s Army of Vietnam) defeated the anti- Communist southern Vietnam and the US army. Ho Chi Minh did not live to see this reunification, but the southern stronghold of the South Vietnamese army, Saigon, was renamed to honour his memory. This was no doubt a bitter pill to swallow for many Southern Vietnamese.
‘Uncle Ho’s’ image is one of an irreproachable saint-like ambassador of the people. Kind to children, understanding of the poor; a wise and humble leader who liberated the people from years of foreign rule. Undoubtedly, he was a remarkable man, like many zealous politicians driven by an unshakeable belief in his doctrines. He was imprisoned, exiled and went through numerous hardships to pursue his goal. Vietnam today is a unified, independent country and that is a wonderful thing. The same cannot be said for the Korean peninsula. I cannot pass comment on what the merits of one political system over another might have been; any attempt on my part to envisage a Vietnam where the south had won the war would be mere conjecture and comparisons cannot be drawn. However, no political leader I know of, no human being, is flawless. Political upheaval on this scale inevitably leads to bloodshed on both sides. The pursuit of ‘utopia’ entails sacrifices; it engenders suspicion and paranoia. It follows that a revolution never comes about at the will of one man. Skirmishes and petty rivalries of civilians provide the background against which battles are fought, and the great cause provides the justification for atrocities. This is true for both sides in a conflict; no one side is innocent, and each seeks to validate their actions or else resign themselves to defeat. Our own so called humanity is sacrificed at the altar of some higher goal. The legacy of Ho Chi Minh is apparently one of unity, harmony and peace, but dig a little deeper and you see the trail that led to this point. There can be no saints in politics.
We had a delicious lunch in KOTO, a charity restaurant which provides training opportunities for disadvantaged youths, then headed into the Temple of Literature that lay opposite. It was serenely calm inside the temple walls, with its beautiful courtyards and gorgeous, time-worn architecture. This Confucian temple housed the Imperial Academy. From 1076 until 1779 students were educated here and it is widely heralded as Vietnam’s first university. As a testament to this, one courtyard was lined with stele (stone plaques) commemorating high achievers of the past. There were some incredible and ancient trees in the gardens whose twisting roots seemed to creep down to the earth from the branches, quite unlike anything I had seen before. Upon research, I believe they are banyan trees; whatever they are, I found them extraordinary.
Our visit coincided with high school graduation and the courtyards were full of students celebrating their academic achievements. Looking around at the happy, smiling faces, you could imagine rewinding the clock a few centuries to envisage graduates of the Imperial Academy feeling the same elation on this very same site. However, many of the students here today were girls. They were dressed traditionally in white silken trousers and elegant, high-necked, long-sleeved fitted tunics that were slit at the sides up to the waist level. The cut is extremely flattering and it has to be said that the Vietnamese are graced with beautiful figures. I talked with some of the girls, who were, needless to say, very excited!
In one corner, I spotted a young man painting. I pointed out Luke to him as a fellow artist, and later found them chatting away. He was a trainee in architecture. The temple itself was framed by chunky, bright red wooden pillars with gold accents. I was struck by the contrast of a man in a blue coat sitting on the steps, and sensing it would be weird of me to take a photo of him but feeling seized by some kind of altruistic artistic urge, I told him that he should let me photograph him with his camera. However, I am no Guillermo Ibañez, and I rather feel that my picture fell short of my lofty aspirations. Feeling a little embarrassed, I scuttled off to inspect a pair of identical statues that flanked an altar. A tall crane with a round object in its beak was perched upon the back of a large tortoise. We have encountered this type of statue several times since, and I believe it symbolises good luck and longevity.
Close to our hotel I came across a shop that sold second-hand village handicrafts. The owner was lovely and her little daughter took great pleasure toddling about and pulling out all the skirts in a big heap for me to peruse. I had wanted an embroidered skirt since visiting Sapa, but had not found one in my size at the street side stalls there, so now with the help of the toddler I picked out a colourful Flower H’mong skirt that fitted me. The lady confirmed our suspicions that we had visited Hanoi at the busiest time of year; just before Tet (Vietnamese New Year), everyone is rushing around buying goods and gifts and having repairs done. When Tet finally arrives, the city empties as people return to their village homes to spend the holiday with family.
That evening, we finally managed to make contact with Bruce and Ash and arranged to meet them at a barbecue café at the end of the night market. Unfortunately, events and senses of direction conspired against us and we spent a good hour waiting in the wrong place. Once we realised our error, feeling hungry and frustrated with each other, we battled our way back through the throngs of people who now seemed like they were intent on getting in our way. Perhaps this is how salmon feel when they are trying to reach their breeding site! However, as is wont to happen, all our mutual exasperation evaporated once we found ourselves in company and with a hearty meal before us.
When travelling for a long time, it is always especially lovely to meet people with whom you are acquainted. I had never met Bruce or Ash before, but Luke’s familiarity with them imparted a sense of home to me as well, which made our meeting all the more enjoyable. We were to head our separate ways the following day and whilst Hanoi had been hectic, the encounter with friends had left us refreshed and eager for the next stage of our journey.