Besides being the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is famous for two things: The Hanoi Hilton and the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh.
Former Prime Minister and President Ho Chi Minh died in 1969. He requested that he be cremated, and that his ashes be scattered across three Vietnamese hilltops.
So the Vietnamese built this:
Then they embalmed his body a la Madame Tussaud’s, and stuck him inside for locals and tourists to gape at for all eternity.
Although you can see the mausoleum from a long way off, the entrance is on the other side of the complex, around an endless wall and past numerous security guards. Once you get there, you must surrender all of your possessions. In our case, that meant a bottle of water and my camera.
I was given a small tag with the number 55 on it and instructed to fall into line with the rest of the tourists. We were all marched up to the mausoleum, led by a solemn guide.
“Do not put your hands in your pockets. Do not speak to the guards. Do not touch anything. Do not stop walking.”
I walked awkwardly into the tomb, my hands stiff at my sides, barely bending my knees. I studiously avoided making eye contact with the white-uniformed guards who were posted every 10 meters along the route.
We walked up a shallow set of stairs that led directly into the heart of the crypt, where Uncle Ho lay in his glass-walled casket. His goatee was white and coarse. He was nestled in a bed of red satin, with his hands crossed over his heart.
It reminded me a lot of the time I went on the Great Movie Ride at MGM Studios and saw a pair of the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz. Except the slippers didn’t make me feel like a creepy voyeur.
We picked up our meagre belongings and hightailed it out of there, but were fortunate to see this golden nugget of advice on the way:
Rather than do something to celebrate life, we stopped in at the Hanoi Hilton on the way back to the hostel for another dose of morbidity.
For those of you not in the know (like me – Jared the history buff had to explain it all), the Hanoi Hilton was a French-built prison for the Vietnamese. During the Vietnam War it was also used to house American POWs, including John McCain. Originally known as the Hoa Lo Prison or Maison Centrale, it is now a museum, complete with crowd-pleasers like McCain’s old uniform, a guillotine and tiny, panic-inducing cells, populated by life-sized figurines of starving Vietnamese people.
You can look at the room where the prisoners were kept, lined along the wall on raised platforms, one foot always shackled to the floor. There are claustrophobic rooms that were home to women and children, as well as a row of cells for prisoners condemned to death (crime: desire for independence). In another section of the prison, you can see photos of the American POWs years later, enjoying Thanksgiving dinner and making Christmas decorations.
That was about when I maxed out on melancholy, plus I had to pee something fierce. We race-walked through the cold to the Little Hanoi Hostel for some more hot lime juice before packing our bags for Korea.