We had no choice. We were going to have to spend a night in Hanoi even though we had hoped to avoid it. Our Ha Long Bay tour got back in the late afternoon, and we needed to deal with money exchange and the post office before setting out on an overnight train to Sapa. Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is your typical large city with not much to do in the way of interesting attractions. However, our interest was peaked when we read about the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. I never knew that viewing a dead body could be such a popular activity, and I had to go check it out for myself.
Who is Uncle Ho?
Ho Chi Minh has led quite an interesting life. He actually lived in the United States and England for a while before becoming a Communist leader and president of Vietnam. He died before the Vietnam War was over, but is still highly-regarded in the country. Ho’s picture is on posters everywhere, his face is on the front of every monetary bill, and he has a cool nickname. A tour guide to the Mekong Delta first informed us of the endearing nickname commonly used for Ho Chi Minh: Uncle Ho. It’s catchy, and I liked it immediately.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is only open from 8am-11am, and I believe you must enter the grounds by 10am. I saw many an irritated tourist when they were refused entry since the guidebooks say that it’s open until 11, so check the times before you go. Uncle Ho is also sent to Russia for three months every year, from September to December, for yearly maintenance. We got to see him just before his vacation was to begin. Oddly enough, Ho Chi Minh’s dying wish was to be cremated- so much for that. Visitors must be dressed modestly: no tank tops or shorts. Upon entering the grounds, you must check all handbags and cameras, then hop into what looks like a ridiculously long Disney Land line. The line is full of mostly Vietnamese who have come to pay their respects to a man they deeply revere. Once in the Mausoleum, you must walk continuously without stopping, so the line moves quickly. There are guards at the entrance and six guards inside around Ho Chi Minh’s body.
So, what’s it like?
Upon entering the Mausoleum, you are hit with a blast of cold air. The air conditioning was a welcomed relief from the humid and hot outdoors. The hallway winds around and you go up some stairs. Everyone must remain quiet and continue to move- no stopping or laughing. When we entered the room with Ho Chi Minh’s body, I’m not gonna lie- I found it a bit creepy. I realized that I was staring at a body of a man who had been dead for over forty years. His skin was grey; his ears looked like stuff was collecting in them. For a man who wished to be cremated, I’m not so sure he’d be happy to see the sight of himself now. The Vietnamese in the room with us were clearly deeply moved by the viewing, and I respect that. However, I think this will be my last visit to a mausoleum.
Hanoi was just a quick trip for us. The millions of motorbikes zipping around everywhere just about killed me, literally. The anxiety was a little too much for me, with flashbacks of my motorbike incident in Malawi. We spent the remainder of the time dealing with a mean lady at the post office (ahem, avoid her at all costs) and exchanging money on the black market. No bank or exchange place will change Vietnamese Dong into US Dollars. We needed US money for the first few days in Laos, as we would have no access to ATMs. If you need USD in Hanoi, head over to Hang Bac and exchange at one of the jewelry stores along that street for a reasonable rate. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex may have not been a must-see on my travel list, but it did make for an interesting stop on our transit through Hanoi.