On 2 September 1945, a man by the name of Ho Chi Minh did a very courageous thing. He declared his country the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. That move would trigger violence in the city of Saigon. The pro-Colonial and pro-Independence factions started fighting each other. Martial law was declared, but Vietnam’s violent struggle for independence had started. On 19 December 1946, Ho, representing his government, declared war against the French Union, marking the beginning of the Indochina War. The Vietnam National Army (Vietminh) had no formal military training and was armed with crude weapons like machetes and archaic muskets. Most forms of explosives they used were homemade. The best weapons they had were contributed by Japanese soldiers they had been harbouring after Japan’s surrender a month earlier.
That turned out to be a long-drawn, taxing war against the French. Then, Ho Chi Minh surprised the French by offering peace. They held talks and being fluent in several languages including French, Ho needed no translators. According to some accounts, Ho was agreeable to most of the terms put forward by the French. He had even prepared a bottle of Champagne at the negotiating table. However, the ceasefire talks broke down when French officials insisted that Ho handed over their Japanese allies so they could be put on trial. True to form, Ho Chi Minh flatly refused, preferring to die fighting than to betray his friends.
It seemed like a hopeless battle for Ho Chi Minh until a glimmer of hope emerged in February 1950. The northern border blocked by the French was finally punctured. Ho Chi Minh travelled to China and the USSR. He met up with the recently victorious Mao Zedong and Stalin in Moscow. The two Communist leaders assured Ho that they recognised his government. Furthermore, China pledged support for the Vietminh. 70,000 Vietminh soldiers received training from China’s civil war veterans. Supplies and weapons also flowed uninterrupted over the Sino-Vietnam border. In return, China expected complete deference – which didn’t happen after Vietnam found its feet, but that would be another story.
In 1954, after the crushing defeat of French Union forces at Battle of Dien Bien Phu, France was forced to give up its fight, ending the First Indochina War. Even with the French withdrawal, peace eluded the Vietnamese people. A 1954 Geneva meeting would partition Vietnam into North and South. Ho Chi Minh pulled out from Saigon, established a new base in Hanoi and built a stronghold in North Vietnam. Under Ho’s leadership, North Vietnam recovered from the wounds of war, rebuilt nationally and accrued to prepare for the anticipated civil war. In South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm consolidated power and encouraged anti-communism. Also predicting trouble was the USA who eagerly helped South Vietnam rebuild and prepare for war. That would be the last straw signalling the start of the Second Indochina War.
Unfortunately for the South, Communism started seeping across the border, probably because Ho Chi Minh was Vietnam’s national hero; far more charismatic than Ngô Đình Diệm. 1954-1959 was an uneasy time for the two Vietnams. Then, in March 1959, Ho Chi Minh decided to break the impasse. He officially declared war against the South to unify Vietnam, calling it a colonial hangover. This is probably a more reasonable “starter” to the Vietnam War. It would last till 1975, killing more than 1.3 million people in the process. By the late 1960s, however, Ho Chi Minh had effectively retired, leaving the day to day management of the war to Communist leaders who would succeed him.
Ho Chi Minh died on 2 September 1969 at the age of 79. He did not live to see his comrades’ victory. In his will, Ho stated in no uncertain terms that his body was to be cremated. That did not happen. Communist leaders brought in Soviet experts, embalmed his body, entombed it in a glass coffin and displayed it in a mausoleum modelled after Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow! How far removed from cremation can you get? Why did they do it? Why were Ho’s last wishes not respected?
To understand that, we must answer a few questions. First of all, how big was Ho Chi Minh? Well, TIME magazine put him in the list of 100 Most Important People of the Twentieth Century (Time 100) in 1998. Various places, boulevards and squares around the world was named after him, especially in socialist states and former Communist states. In Russia, there is a Ho Chi Minh square and monument in Moscow, Ho Chi Minh boulevard in Saint Peterburg and Ho Chi Minh square in Ulyanovsk. Now, wouldn’t it be a waste to just cremate his body and dump the ashes?
As mentioned, one of the main reasons Ho’s side won the war on ideology was his charisma. While Ho Chi Minh was just a tireless administrator, planner and negotiator, the Communist regime had continually maintained a personality cult around him. Portrayed as larger than life, Ho’s image was a crucial part in the Communists’ propaganda campaign that laud their ideology. Ho is frequently glorified in schools to schoolchildren to promote idolatry among the young. That’s why even today, opinions, publications and broadcasts that are critical of Ho or that identify his flaws can be banned in Vietnam without too much explanation. According to a BBC report, Ho Chi Minh is even revered to a religious status as an “immortal saint” by the Vietnamese Communist Party. Fewer and fewer people worship him, but some still do. I’ve even come across a couple of young Vietnamese who believe that all the troubles Vietnam faces today would go away if Ho Chi Minh could rise and rule again.
Let take a closer look at Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place. There are many exit paths from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum in Hanoi. Each one is guarded by a policeman with a whistle. If you try to enter via any of these exit paths, the whistle will be blown at you. There is only one entrance where you must check in your bag (and camera) as if you were boarding a plane. Of course you are also checked for inappropriate attire. Visitors must form two lines and walk quietly towards the chamber which houses the body. Once inside the carpeted interior, you would walk in an anti-clockwise direction around the glass coffin illuminated by spotlights. Ho Chi Minh lies in there, his body perfectly preserved to show signs of still being alive. Once you’re out, you identify your checked in bag and are allowed to take a few photos before you leave the compound. You are however, not allowed to look at or communicate with the people coming in.
The whole setup ensures that you can’t visit the Mausoleum without paying respects to Ho Chi Minh. That’s what all his worshippers come for and the restricted paths made sure that even those who are just curious like me have to observe protocol and not just wander around. Once inside the chamber, you must behave like a devotee in a temple. It’s as if Ho Chi Minh were sleeping and you’d better not disturb him. It was an interesting experience for me and I just can’t help being stabbed by the irony of how such a great man as revered as Ho Chi Minh couldn’t even have his last wishes respected. Instead of reducing him to ashes, they had turned him into a talisman. One can only wonder if all this is being done for Ho Chi Minh or for those who are currently in power. The crowds continue to stream into this sacred place in Hanoi every day, walking under emblems of Communism fluttering in the wind high above their heads and seemingly oblivious to the irony of a dead man being used to rescue a dying ideology.
© Chan Joon Yee