#15 Today I saw Ho Chi Minh and visited the Hanoi Hilton

Post # 15
from Hanoi
February 11th, 2010
On my first night in Hanoi, I went to the water puppet theatre.  There is really nothing else like this in the world.  You just simply HAVE to see it.  Explanations will not do.  This is a 1000 year old Vietnamese folk art where puppet masters behind a bamboo screen AND in the water control these puppets on the other side of the screen.  Musicians play traditional instruments while women sing the narration.  It is amazing what they can make the puppets do.  Fire-breathing dragons, human puppets swimming with moving arms, a man hooking a shark that eventually pulls him into the water, frogs jumping, fish avoiding nets, marches, dances ceremonies.  Some of it was really funny.  The engineer in me kept wondering ‘just how are they doing this?’  I found myself cheering with the rest of the audience and standing up at the end and giving an ovation to the puppet masters. 
Two days of museum going.
Yesterday I went to the National History Museum.  This was good.  World-class.  It traced back the archeological evidence of hominid habitation for over 300,000 years.  A good lesson on Vietnamese history that this time included the minorities.
Today I saw Ho Chi Minh’s body.  According to all sources, Ho Chi Minh wanted  a simple cremation.  But the Vietnam government decided to preserve him in a mausoleum, a la Lenin and Mao Tse Tung.  Cult of the personality.  The evidence is that ‘uncle Ho’ was as dedicated to Vietnamese independence as anyone it their history.  He never married or had children.  He said that the Vietnamese were all his family.  IN his 30 year exile, he learned fluent English, German, French and Mardarin.  He single-mindedly spent his whole adult life, from 1910 to his death in 1969, working for independence.  He often said that he was always a Vietnamese nationalist first, and a Communist second.  I look out on the street here today, and I do not see much ‘communism’.
So bright and early, I got  into line.  It is a long solemn wait.  The guards enforce dress codes and reserved personal conduct.  Think religious.  I passed thru two body searches.  No cameras or electrical devices of any sort.  Since I went to the Mausoleum just before Tet, there were many people from the countryside there.  Especially in rural Vietnam, Uncle Ho is held in reverence.  The George Washington liberator of their country.
The wait got painful.  Then the walking began.  Every time I thought I had finally come to the Mausoleum, there was another corner and building.  And then, finally, there was the large mausoleum.  Around it were impeccably dressed armed guards in white, maintaining order, telling people to take off hats and sun glasses.  And then you enter the large marble building and slowly begin climbing the steps.  All of the walls are dark red velvet.  The cold AC is a welcome relief.  Everything is a hush now.  You enter the darkened room to find 8 more guards standing erect.  I think this would be the worst time in the world to get an attack of Tourette’s syndrome.  And there, lying in a glass sarcophagus is Ho Chi Minh’s body, or a very realistic plastic version of it.  I don’t know.  It is pale and small, with the trademark goatee.  I have never seen a preserved body, so I do not know what to expect.  You walk a full 270 degrees around his body, so you are in the room over a minute.  Guards make sure that no one lags.  And then you are out of the room, down the stairs, and outside into the brightness.
I visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum nearby, and then walked down to the Vietnam Army Museum.  Much of the exhibition concerned the long rsistance the Vietnamese had against the French.  The French were in Vietnam for over 80 years, and they seem to recall that length of time better.  Filling over half the outdoor exhibit of the museum was captured US gear, F-111 fighers, Huey helicopters, numerous planes, and artillery pieces.  At the center of the exhibit was a sculptured collage of crashed US airplanes standing perhaps 50 feet high.
It was surrounded by many bombs and ordinance including cluster bombs.  There was a lot of military history here.
Something I noticed in its absence was that there was not ONE reference to the general Vo Nguyen Giap.  Giap was the mastermind of the strategies for the French and US resistance.  Former US general Westmoreland criticized Giap for being willing to take too many casualties in war.  He said that did not make for great generals.  But then, who won?  The murky evidence is that the 99 year old Giap has been somewhat purged from Vietnamese history.  This is apparently for vague political reasons.  But I think no historian could question his resolve in winning two wars, AND really beating the Chinese badly when they invaded Vietnam in the spring of 1979.
Then I walked over to the Fine Arts Museum.  It was decent as far as museums go.  But much of the ‘art’ was socialist revolution.  And there is just so much of that that one can take.  I think the war is maybe still too close to them.
I ended my ten hours of walking the streets of Hanoi today with a visit to the Hoa Lo prison, where the Vietnamese kept US fliers including McCain for 6 years.  The French built the Hoa Lo prison in 1896.  They used it to imprison and execute many Vietnamese nationalists.  Most of the exhibit dealt with the French period.  Within the prison are 2 guilotines that the French used to behead prisoners, along with enough photos to make you pass on looking at any more.  There is a non-stop film running of the bombing of Hanoi.  To the side is a recreated site where they demonstrated how well US prisoners were kept.  This does not match with their personal accounts.
The Vietnamese have repeated stated one thing to me after I tell them I am from the US.  They say that we must look forward.  The war is over and they want good relations with the US.  They talk of a bright prosperous future.  80% of the population was born after the war.  And as we know, people forget quickly.
The Vietnamese economy is growing faster the the Chinese economy.  They welcome investment and shared profits.  I see a lot of international corporations here.  During the last war, estimates are there were  2.2 million deaths out of a population of 35 million.  But now Vietnam has 90 people.  Almost one third that of the US.  So they are recovering in many ways.
I head out at sunrise tomorrow riding down to Hue.  I have gone as far north as I planned, and I am now gradually working my way back to Bangkok.

5 Responses to #15 Today I saw Ho Chi Minh and visited the Hanoi Hilton

  1. Terrific Terrific – what a great time I am having reading your accounts – thanks again and keep it coming please. Lon

  2. Is that installation at the top (based around a downed US military plane?) part of the war museum?

    Have you had a chance to discuss foreign policy, energy, human rights, or anything else while on the street?

    Great updates and stories!

  3. Hi Dwight back with you what a great journey
    you are on.I my mind i am riding with you.
    it is amazing.

  4. I came across your article, i think your blog is awsome, keep us posting.

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