Back in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, my brother and I decided to check out the Ho Chi Minh Complex, a “holiest of the holies” place, according to my guidebook. It’s a collection of a museum, mausoleum, palace, stilt house, and pagoda, all dedicated to the one and only Uncle Ho.
From the moment we arrived in Vietnam, we were bombarded with images of Ho Chi Minh—every bank note, many statues, several propaganda posters... We kept asking ourselves, Who is this man? And why is he idolized by an entire nation?
Carefully following the crowds of Vietnamese and foreign tourists at the HCM Complex, walking only on the roads (as instructed by the intimidating officials, who are waiting to pounce on anyone, like myself, who attempts to use the sidewalk), we arrived at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This grand cube-shaped building is made of dark grey granite blocks with six square columns on each side, like of a modern, gloomy Parthenon. We left our cameras with security and followed in line. I wasn’t sure to expect when I stepped inside. We were slowly led single-file on a red carpet up some stairs, around some corners, and through some corridors. Finally, there he was.
A peaceful looking Uncle Ho silently sleeps within a glass box, surrounded by a few serious, statue-like body guards. I felt uncomfortable and kept looking away. I felt like we were disturbing him when all he wanted to do was be left alone. We didn’t stay long; the line was forced to keep moving.
Afterwards, I admitted to my brother that I didn't think I could respect a guy who decides to be immortalized, put on display, and idolized in such a way. He agreed. It wasn’t until later in our journey that we learned that, in fact, he has been embalmed against his wishes. He actually requested to be cremated and scattered in the four corners of his country because he says “not only is cremation good from the point of view of hygiene, but it also saves farmland.” That sounds much more respectable to me.
My respect for him continued to rise after we exited the mausoleum and walked the grounds to his stilt house. It’s juxtaposed by a huge yellow Presidential Palace, the home of the Governor of Indochina. Ho Chi Minh’s residence is small and simple, but still elegant and stunningly beautiful. Stairs lead you up to the main rooms, each with minimal furniture and open spaces. It represents how he lived a simple life for the people of Vietnam and not a life of luxury for himself.
His residence my have been simple, but there’s nothing simple about his life or the war. I’m still reading books and searching online about the complex and confusing life of Ho Chi Minh, attempting to learn more about what he did in and for Vietnam. I learned that Ho Chi Minh is not even his real name; he was born Nguyen Sinh Cung and then changed his name later in life. “Ho Chi Minh” translates to something like “Bringer of Light.” He certainly felt as favourably about himself as the Vietnamese did, and still do.
As Time magazine wrote in their 100 Most Influential People of the Century list, the rebellious and (maybe) humble Ho Chi Minh “married nationalism to communism, and perfected the art of deadly guerrilla warfare”. He wanted nothing more than independence for his country—a desire many could applaud him for—but sacrificed literally millions of citizens to fulfill his ultimate desire. On his attitude about the war, he is memorably quoted as saying, “You [French and American soldiers] can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.”
While I have a variable opinion about Uncle Ho, there’s no denying that he brought a divided country together. The people of Vietnam today are happy and peaceful, and they have Uncle Ho to thank for that.
Watch the Ho Chi Minh Biography from the History Channel