Monday, January 11, 2010

Christmas, in Vietnam, with a dead guy

       It seemed like a good idea at the time.  There we are, standing in line to see Ho Chi Minh’s body, when Will says, “It’s Christmas.”

Ellen and I look at each other.  He’s right.  Today is Thursday, the 24th of December.  With all the scrambling to finish up the semester, put together a workshop, get the kids through school, and pack for Vietnam, we pretty much forgot about Christmas.

Well, not forgot, really:  just put it on the back burner.  Friends had loaned us a small Christmas tree and a bunch of ornaments; when we plugged in the lights, we were surprised to discover that they were attached a music box that played cheery excerpts of “Here Come Santa Claus,” “Jingle Bells,” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  Normally this sort of thing would have offended us, but this year we just shrugged and went with it.  At least we wouldn’t have to track down the holiday tunes on the iPod. 

Being in Vietnam, I have to say, didn’t really help our Christmas spirit—it’s hot and dirty and filled with Buddhists (and we all know how cranky they get around the holidays).  Besides, we’re in Hanoi, busy seeing the sites.  On Wednesday it’d been the Temple of Literature and the Water Puppets; now, on Thursday, it’s time to buddy up with the bane of Nixon’s existence, that bringer of light himself, uncle Ho. 

“You mean he’s dead?” Lucy says when we told her the plans for the day. 

“Well, yeah,” we say, suddenly realizing that taking an impressionable six-year-old who sometimes has nightmares about baby rabbits to see a dead guy might not be the best idea. 

“But he’s been dead for a long time,” I say, like that helps.  Lucy and Will stare at me.  I blunder on.  “It’s not even really his body.  I mean, he’s embalmed, and when they do that, they basically suck everything out of the body and replace it with chemicals.”

Their eyes widen. 

“Besides,” I say, remembering something Ellen read in the Lonely Planet Guide, “the Vietnamese aren’t really that good at embalming, so every year they ship his body up to Russia for two months, you know, to repair it and everything.”

“Repair it?” Lucy says.

I glance at Ellen, desperate.  It’s hard to tell if she’s grimacing or grinning. 

“Sure,” I say, “because, you know:  stuff falls off.”


So now we’re standing in line waiting to see what’s left of Ho Chi Minh’s body, and I’m suddenly thinking, “What the hell was I thinking?  Who goes to see a dead guy on Christmas?”

If anything, all this talk about embalming and rotting parts has only peaked Lucy’s interest in going to see “The Dead Guy,” as she now refers to the founding father of modern Vietnam. 

“How did he die?” she wants to know.

“I’m not sure.”

“Did somebody shoot him?”

“I don’t think so.”

“In a car accident?”

Ellen considers a moment, then shakes her head. “Maybe he just died of old age,” she says.

“Like grandpa?”

“Yes,” I say, wondering if there are any dead pets or babies with cancer we can mention to make this an even cheerier Christmas.  “Like Grandpa.”

Seeing the body is actually a much more convoluted process than you might think.  When you first enter the compound, you’re told to leave your bags at the check-in desk.  Sliding them across the counter, you gesture, asking if you should include your camera.  Oh no, the woman behind the window says, barely able to tear her eyes from your blonde-haired children.  Cameras are okay.

Which they are, until you enter a covered walkway and walk one hundred yards forward, at which point you’re handed a bright orange velcroed bag and told to place you camera inside.  You do, thinking this is the last you’ll see of your crappy $100 digital Cannon for a while. 

But no.  After sealing your camera inside the bag, the guard hands it back to you and gestures for you to follow the rest of the crowd.  Which you do. For another hundred yards. At which point another guard flags everyone holding a bright orange velcroed bag and points to a separate hut in a grove of trees.  Wondering quietly if orange Velcro is Vietnamese for “Undersirable who needs to be terminated,” you shuffle toward the hut, blowing goodbye kisses to your wife and children. 

Inside the hut, you offer your bag to a pair of guards who are busy watching the Vietnamese version of “America’s Got Talent,” only there are no Americans and the talent part of the equation seems to involve trying to beat Elvis in a tacky costume contest.  Once a commercial comes, one of the guards rises from his chair, scratches himself in a place that qualifies as “Bad Touch” when done to children, and takes your bag grudgingly, as though perhaps he thinks that one of the other 62 guards you’ve passed up to this point might have bothered to take care of your camera—possibly the only view that you and he share in common.  Handing you a nondescript octagonal blue tag, the guard flings your orange bag over his shoulder into a corner full of identical velcroed sacks, and gestures for you to leave.  Which you do, thinking that maybe, after all, it was a swell camera, and you would’ve liked to keep it just a big longer. 


It turns out, too, that there are rules for seeing a dead guy.  For one: no hands in pockets.  For two:  no chewing gum.  For three:  no giggling incessantly, pointing, and whispering, “Jesus Christ, he looks just like that really bad replica of Colonel Sanders we saw at Madame Tussads.”  None of these rules are actually written down, of course, but all of them are very very real. 

Trust me.

Actually seeing Ho Chi Minh’s body isn’t nearly as bad as you’d think.  The room is tall and well lit and nine guards in dress whites stand at attention, one at each door, three at each side, and one at the foot of the cask—um, podiu—um, glass case they stuck him in.  You come in at the top of the room and follow a sloping red carpet that leads you past Ho’s right side.  He’s dressed all in white, with his long hands resting on his lower abdomen.  He looks seriously peaceful.  It’s hard to tell, but one can assume that by the time he died in 1969 (of heart failure, as it turns out), it was relatively clear to everyone except Nixon that the north was going to win this war and Vietnam would finally achieve modern self-rule. 

Looking at Ho Chi Minh, it suddenly occurs to you what a nightmare he must have been for the American Presidents with whom he did battle.  For one thing, say what you want, he was Vietnam’s version of George Washington.   How else can you describe a man who pretty much single-handedly led his country to independence after 120+ years of colonial rule?  Rule by the French, no less, who, as much as they are known for their fine wines and brilliant cuisines, really aren’t paragons of administrative excellence.  Take, for instance, their rationale for taking over Vietnam in the first place: 

“We’ve come to educate the savages!” they told the Vietnamese emperor when they first arrived. 

To which the emperor and his various lackeys responded by informing the French that the first university in Vietnam was founded in 1074.

Hearing this, the French looked at each other and said, “Really?  Wow.  Even the Sorbonne’s not that old.”   Then they thought for a bit, before one of them said, “Well, okay then:  we’ve come to bring religion to the savages.”

To which the Vietnamese responded that they already had religion, thank you very much.  Three, infact:  Confucionism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

“Okay,” said the French, “but do any of those religions have a guy nailed to a cross?  Because ours does.  Nailed to a cross, then left to rot for three days.”

The Vietnamese glanced at each other and shook their heads.  Then one of them suggested that, perhaps, this sort of mutilation and torture didn’t necessarily recommend a religion as “civilizing.”

So after a bit of thought, one of French said, “What about food?  You guys have decent grub over here?”

The emperor’s chef gave them all fresh spring roles and bowl of pho chain, complete with its traditional warm, beefy broth, cilantro, and sliced chilies.  The French ate, looked at each other, and just shook their heads.  Finally, one of them, a greedy merchant named Jean Dupruis who was looking for a route to supply weapons and salt to a general in the Yunnan province, threw down his bowl, grabbed his gun, and said, “Screw it.  Just give us all your money and women.”

Which the Vietnamese did, leading to over a century of some of the most inept, ineffectual colonial rule the world has ever witnessed.  I mean, let’s face it:  at least when the British took over a country, they built roads and railways and impressed upon their subjects the necessity of hyphenated names and gin and tonics before dinner.  All the French gave the Vietnamese, on the other hand, was a sloppy way of kissing and a taste for crusty bread. 

All of which seems rather funny, of course, if you can ignore the fact that millions of Vietnamese people starved to death under France’s inhumane, bestial, and just flat-out stupid policies. 

Who then, can argue with Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to free his people—or, for that matter, with his firm belief in communism? 

Having thus killed any hopes I might have of ever holding political office, even in the state of Minnesota (sorry Al:  you’re on your own), allow me to go a step further and point out that, relative to Johnson and Nixon at least, Ho Chi Minh was a formidable foe, if for no other reason than that he was kind of cuddly. 

Okay, well maybe not cuddly exactly, but definitely affable.  In every picture you see of him, he’s got this tiny little grin at the corner of his lips, as though he’s really really pleased to be hanging out with you. 

Compare that to Lyndon Johnson who, let’s admit it, looks like someone stuck a nose on a prune and painted it pink.  Or Nixon, who looks like the uncle you try not to be left alone with for too long at Christmas. 

Strolling past Ho Chi Minh’s slippered feet (one more sign of his dedication to his people), up his left side, and out into the balmy Hanoi morning, you consider all of this.  All in all, it’s a sombering experience, albeit in a relatively pleasant way. 

What strikes you most though, are the guards standing attention around Ho’s body. 

Let me explain:  back in the ‘80s, when I viewed Lenin’s similarly embalmed and enshrined body—the opening act of my three-decade long, “Dead Communist Rulers” Tour (sponsored by Wrangler Jeans)—I was less struck by the guards than intimidated by them.  They looked like cold-war guards, the kind of guys who would toss you in a Gulag or break your jaw just for breathing out of the wrong nostril in the presence of Uncle Vladimir (talk about cuddly).  They stood ramrod straight, their bayonets gleamed in the cold light, their jaws were set like something out of Dudley Do-Right.  They meant business. 

The guards around Ho Chi Minh also stand iron-bar straight; their bayonets also gleam and their spats are also spotless.  There’s a qualitative difference, though, that’s hard to explain, all the more so since his mausoleum is essentially modeled after Lenin’s.  In the end though, the whole atmosphere around Ho seems just a touch less austere, a tad less distant.

What it comes down to, finally, is the fact that, for all their weaponry and distant stares and spitty shoes, the soldiers are there seem to be there not out of a sense of duty, but because they want to be.  It’s as if they are less guards than friends, come to stand by the body of an old warrior and keep him company on his last night on earth.  And something along these lines may very well be the case:  in contrast to the French and the emperors who ruled before (and sometimes alongside) them, Ho Chi Minh made a point of living in a simple house and riding in a simple car.  Sure, some of this might have been pure political theatre (Bush clearing brush on his “ranch,” Reagan wearing blue jeans), but the significance of these gesture in a country long ruled by the greedy French and spoiled emperors were not missed by the Vietnamese people.  To them—particularly those in the North—Ho Chi Minh wasn’t—and isn’t—some distant figure who advocated obscure political doctrine.  He was a guy who cared deeply about them, who understood them, who fought for them. 

And that must have driven Nixon nuts. 


Back outside, I get in line at yet another hut to retrieve my camera.  When it’s my turn, I hand the guy behind the counter a blue disk indistinguishable from every other blue disk he’s just been handed.  He takes it from me, turns to a pile of bright orange, velcroed bags, picks one out at random, and hands it to me. 

Inside, I find my camera. 

The five of us leave the mausoleum and stroll into the garden nearby.  There, we’re allowed to admire Ho’s various cars, the big old French-style house he inherited from the, um, French, the small green house on stilts he chose to live in instead, and a couple nice orchards.  There’s a peacock in a cage, looking tired and pissed off, but it spreads its rather dusty plumage nevertheless, and we snap pictures dutifully. 

Strolling around a large pond toward the exit, I ask Lucy what she thought about the dead guy. 

“Alright,” she says. 

“Just alright?”  I was hoping, of course, for some witty observation or child-like insight into communism, or embalming, or whatever.  I’m blogger after all—I can’t just made stuff up.

But Lucy nods.  She’s holding my hand, and squinting against the sun.  It’s turning into a nice day despite the attempt of Hanoi’s pollution to shunt it down. We’ve only been there for two days at this point, but already we’re starting to feel slightly overwhelmed—it must be a city of ten million motorcyles, all of them going the wrong way down a one-way street.  In these gardens, though, it’s quiet.  Peaceful.  Almost, I think to myself, befitting the final resting place of a beloved leader. 

Or Christmas. 

1 comment:

Najmania said...

Really enjoyed reading this entry and Part II. Thanks.