Hanoi has to be one of the saddest places we have ever visited; sad and drab. The contrast between Hanoi, which won the war, and Saigon, which lost, couldn’t be more clear. Ho Chi Minh City, which even the residents continue to call Saigon, is bright, lively and fun; bustling with life and booming with development. You would never know that it was a conquered town, for it has shaken off that defeat and is looking ahead to a bright future as investment dollars pour into this lovely, scenic city. Hanoi may have won the war, but you would never know it from the attitude of its people, who seem sunk in spiritual despair; faces lined with a hard life of toil and sacrifice that seems to have produce very few tangible results from three generations of war.
Perhaps that is the fuel behind the cultic devotion to the memory of Ho Chi Minh, the man that led North Vietnam to victory over the Americans in a war that both marked and scarred my generation. We went to see the tomb of old Uncle Ho yesterday and it was one of the weirdest experiences of my life. We were hustled and herded like so many cattle in robotic rows up to this enormous monolithic mausoleum that would have done the ancient pharaohs proud. We had to surrender our cameras and silence our phones and then there we were filing past the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh lit up with a ghostly light like some Halloween ghoul inside his glass coffin. The slightest deviation from the robotic shuffle – hands in pockets, hands behind the back, hats on – was met with physical correction from the two dozen uniformed and armed guards. Pam’s phone, which she had forgotten to put on silent mode, rang shrilly just as we exited and I confess that we both burst into hysterical and nervous laughter. What if that had gone off in the tomb?
Ironically, just half a kilometer away was the little wooden two room house on stilts where Ho studied, met with advisers, and fed his carp. Following the defeat of the French, Ho refused to live in the French-built presidential palace, and left explicit instructions that after his death his body be cremated and the ashes be buried in hills in the north, south and middle of the country. Those who came after Ho clearly had other ideas for his legacy, and without any other religion, since all were banned under Communism, it is not surprising that the legacy of Ho be remembered with godlike reverence.
But it is not just the shadow of their dead god that hovers over this city. It seems to be haunted with other dead ghosts as well: the dreams of a glorious communist future lie in ruins everywhere. The city is choking with its own chemical smog; millions of motorbikes cram narrow streets filled with evidence of a crumbling infrastructure: broken sidewalks, crumbling buildings, electrical posts sagging under the weight of a rat’s nest of wires topped with loudspeakers blasting what we assume to be Communist propaganda. Men urinate openly against trees and walls, families struggle to eat on narrow and overcrowded sidewalks, and everywhere is the presence of uniformed and armed men; security personnel, police and predominately the green tunics of the sullen, unsmiling People’s Revolutionary Army. There is no victory and no dividend of peace in this grey, unhappy town.