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Travel and World Culture   
 Photo: Simon Gurney

Vietnam: A Wake
By Jennifer Anthony

It is Sunday morning in Hanoi, and hot. Although it is only nine a.m., the air is already wobbly and thick, casting a mirage of a crowded cityscape. Skinny buildings huddle together. A bicyclist rolls past with thick-blossomed pink, red, and white flowers heaped upon a basket strapped to the rack. A family of four straddles a moto, sputtering and swerving down the road, dodging other mopeds, two taxis, a bus, and a slick black Mercedes. Merchants sit before their exposed storefronts on small blue plastic stools, chatting amiably with their neighbors, relaxing in a temperature that by local standards is mild for July. A peddler jaunts down the sidewalk, wearing a conical hat and balancing a long pole with two baskets dangling on either end across her shoulders. The baskets sag under the weight of two dozen or more papayas, but her shoulders are taut.

I am waiting for a man whom I met the day before – a moto driver who operates a cyclo business on the side. It was the end of the day; I was retiring to my hotel and didn’t need a ride. But he produced a business card from his pocket; and before I knew it, we had arranged for a cyclo ride to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum at nine a.m. the following day.

Waves of pho lap in my stomach. I gulped it down at breakfast, eager to make good on my appointment. Men call out: Moto, madame? Taxi, madame?  The person named on my business card is nowhere in sight, but soon a man in a green pith helmet and button-down, sherbet-orange shirt pedals his cyclo to the curb and motions toward the seat.

I have already declined several other cyclo drivers’ offers, explaining that I am promised to one man in particular. But while the other men drift away, willing to wait across the street until my intended doesn’t show; this thin man with the broad smile is insistent. I speak no Vietnamese and he speaks only a little English. But after a couple of minutes of exaggerated gesturing toward the card, sign language, and a few shared vocabulary words, I realize that he has been sent by the man I met yesterday to give me a ride. He keeps apologizing for being late although it’s only 9:02. Ho Chi Minh? he asks, and I nod.

We set off. Slowly at first, pushing our way through the narrow and congested streets of the Old Quarter. And then onto the wider, tree-lined boulevards that lead to the mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh has lied embalmed in a glass casket since 1975 when the mausoleum was presented as a gift to the Vietnamese from the Soviet Union.

Before he died in 1969 Ho Chi Minh’s last wish was to be cremated and have his remains buried on hilltops in the north, south, and central regions of Vietnam. The embalming was a curious gift.

As we make our way under the canopy of leaves, a breeze lessens the heat but only slightly; perspiration drips down my temples and dampens the back of my shirt. The driver, easygoing and friendly, points out various landmarks as he pedals. While I sweat, he glows.

Before I embarked on my trip to Vietnam, many people I talked with were curious to see how Americans are now treated. Last week, my tour guide at Ha Long Bay summed up the collective sentiment towards Americans: “The war is over.” He, like the cyclo driver and everyone else I’ve met, don’t harbor ill will or malice towards Americans, or the French, or the Chinese, all who have a history here. They have moved on.

And we are moving on, toward the mausoleum. We turn a bend in the street, and the cyclo driver calls out: Ho Chi Minh. We are at the side of the mausoleum, where hundreds of people form a thick braid that curves from the entrance at the front, clear around the building. It is the weekend, and most of the people in line are Vietnamese.

The people are dressed in respectable clothes, which are required for entrance: long pants and shirts with sleeves. Many of them are young and born well after Ho Chi Minh’s death; and although the crowd is large and young enough to rival that of a rock concert, the people are subdued and reverent.

The cyclo driver assures me the line is moving quickly, but it looks as if it is hardly moving at all. I ask him if he wouldn’t mind cruising around to the front, so I can see the building’s façade. The façade boasts imposing pillars of cement, gray cousins of the ones in the Lincoln Memorial. Above the entrance, ‘Ho Chi Minh’ is etched into the stone in formidable capital letters. Funeral wreaths and guards stand on either side of the doors.

I was raised in a country that outwardly mocks other countries’ propaganda, as it hones its own powers of proselytism. The words communism and socialism were practically whispered, like fatal diseases, in every history class I ever took. Granted, it has been a few years since I’ve been in school; but in those rare years we made it past World War Two in our textbooks, Ho Chi Minh was never presented favorably or even objectively. And although I must confess that the unfathomable heat is the main reason I don’t race to the back of the line, visiting his body feels a little irreverent, like that distant relative who dips into the open-casket funeral just for a gawking look-see before the will is read.  

And so I decide to provide my respects in a way that he, who never wanted to be embalmed in the first place, might appreciate from a visiting American. We continue on to a Buddhist temple where I bow my head without ceremony and pay respect, not to him as an individual, but to the country that has received me openly and courteously. And we – the cyclist and me – move on, awake and, perhaps, a little more enlightened.


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