By Betty Gordon
© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.
My friend Susan and I recently returned from a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I did months of online and guidebook research, compiling and sharing with her the most pertinent information. Every flight, hotel and service provided was booked online. They all came off without a hitch. Susan took the lead in gathering information about restaurants and organizing a textile tour in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
If we didn’t make a beeline on our first morning in Hanoi to see Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, we’d miss the opportunity completely. The mausoleum is open only limited days and hours, and this first morning was the lone window where our itinerary synced with that schedule.
What jet lag? Several cups of very strong Vietnamese coffee later, we were in a time-saving taxi heading west from the Old Quarter to the site, one of the most visited in all of Vietnam. Many Vietnamese deeply revere Bac Ho (Vietnamese for “Uncle Ho”), the first president of North Vietnam and a founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
The taxi turned out to be a good idea, because as we approached, we could see that the line went on and on and on … for blocks. We would have wasted valuable minutes just trying to find the end of the queue. We joined the line by 9:30 a.m. It moved in fits and starts, and Susan and I had moments where we were wondering if we had arrived too late for the morning viewing.
We weren’t the only Westerners; we heard Hebrew, German and possibly Swedish or Dutch being spoken. Trying to pick up the different languages helped pass the time.
Also among the visitors were several groups of well-behaved Vietnamese schoolchildren, wearing matching jackets. Some were also sporting white garrison-style caps.
The morning was overcast and comfortably cool, and the shaded walkway closer to the entrance had overhead fans, though they were not running on this day.
As the line progressed, we passed two colorful tile mosaics on buildings’ exterior walls. One features a line of smiling schoolchildren approaching a woman clad in a blue and white ao dai, the traditional dress of Vietnam. Two fish in a red-blue-green pool of spiraling tiles are frolicking at the bottom. Behind the woman is a fruit tree, possibly orange, heavy with light yellow orbs.
The other mosaic looked to be promoting the unity of Vietnam. Two women, one in a white ao dai and the other in a red blouse and black trousers with a checkered black-and-white scarf around her neck, meet in the center, extending single touching hands. Beneath them is a little boy holding an open book above his head.
At left, a woman in a skirt and a headpiece may be representing the hill tribes of northern Vietnam and at right, a woman wears a more modern, sleeveless green dress with three red stripes. In the center background is the Vietnamese flag and several white doves.
Finally, a little past 11 a.m., we climbed a long flight of stairs and entered the imposing, marble-columned building. Its location at Ba Dinh Square, with its lengthy parade ground, is also significant to Vietnam’s history. It was here that Ho Chi Minh read the country’s declaration of independence in 1945.
Four military guards in crisp white uniforms stand a short distance from each corner of the coffin. In single file, visitors enter the cool, darkened room and walk slowly past one side of the glass sarcophagus. You can just make out a frail figure with a long, wispy white beard in a white (or possibly khaki) suit. The line then passes the top end of the coffin, and continues down the other side, having made a U-shape, before exiting through a different door.
Also at the complex: the Ho Chi Minh Museum (above), Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House, Presidential Palace (not open to the public) and botanical gardens. Again, these buildings are open limited days and hours, so plan accordingly.
Was a 90-minute wait worth a five-minute viewing? Let’s put it this way: My odds of getting back to Hanoi are slim, so it’s one of those things I would have regretted if I hadn’t done it.
Quick reference: Open 8 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays-Sundays. Closed September 4-November 4, when it’s believed Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body goes to Russia for “maintenance.” Free. Visitors are required to leave backpacks and cameras at different checkpoints. No pictures are allowed inside the mausoleum. Visitors are advised to be silent and keep their hands out of their pockets. Dress respectfully; no shorts, tank tops or hats. Guards enforce the dress code. A taxi from the western side of the Old Quarter costs about 42,000 Vietnam dong, about $2.