Ho Chi Minh wanted his body cremated, his memory kept alive in the spirit of the soldiers still fighting the war that went on several years after his death. But the leaders left behind upon his passing on September 2, 1969 decided they needed a more visible symbol, so they embalmed his body and erected a tomb in which to display it. The tomb is modeled on Lenin’s, and as with that monument, hundreds of people file past the embalmed body every day to pay their respects.
I’d heard how strict the guards were about not allowing visitors to take photos, but we were allowed to take our cameras into the complex. The mausoleum is only open for three hours every day, and some days the line extends for ages. Luckily for me, the lines were short when I visited, so I stood under an awning for only about 20 minutes before I entered the building. Once we were in front of the building, the guards enforced the no-photos rule, so I have none of the inside.
Inside, we walked single-file past armed guards, up a ramp and into the tomb. The glass case was mounted on a pedestal in a sunken floor, and was surrounded by another four armed guards. We were ushered through quickly, just enough time to see the waxy face and uniformed body of Ho Chi Minh, an eerie Snow White in a glass coffin.
Outside, we were all encouraged to visit the palace grounds. I watched a group of schoolchildren, giggling in their little uniforms, sing a patriotic song together. I saw the outside of the palace, which had been built for French colonial rulers, was then used as the palace for Ho Chi Minh, and is now blocked off to the public.
Ho Chi Minh apparently preferred to live in a simpler building during his presidency, and that building was displayed next to his three fancy cars near the small lake down the path. A little further along was the house on stilts, an even more basic construction that he retreated to during the later part of his tenure.
How much of this humility is legend and how much is the truth of the man, I don’t know. From the little I know of Ho Chi Minh, he did seem to truly believe in the cause he was fighting for, and in the liberation he believed a unified communist state would bring to Vietnam. It’s entirely believable that a man who worked most of his life for that outcome would request cremation and be embarrassed by the mausoleum he received instead.