Ho Chi Minh Museum

The last building one would see in a tour of the Ho Chi Minh Complex in Hanoi, Vietnam, is the Ho Chi Minh Museum. This big, imposing building was built in the late 1980s and it was inaugurated in 1990 to mark the birth centennary of Ho Chi Minh. The building was built in a shape of white lotus flower. At the center of the building there is a large auditorium that is used for meetings and conferences. The main exhibition floor shows documents and show pieces that highlight Ho Chi Minh’s life and his revolutionary cause.

By the time we reached the museum, I think we’ve gone through enough displays on Ho Chi Minh that we were not that interested in spending more time there. We decided to rest a little bit, and took photos outside the museum, and then looked for the entrance where we came from to find the place where we could claim our backpacks that we left there before coming in.

I’m not sure what the Vietnamese government officially promoted this museum to be, or what the Vietnamese people think of the content of the display. But considering the stereotype of a communist government, and given everything else that we could see that promoted Ho Chi Minh as a national hero (or even higher status than that), I couldn’t help to think that this place might be part of a propaganda campaign to promote the communism values. It’s still interesting to think that even with such government control in place, life in Vietnam (especially in Hanoi as we saw it) seemed to be nothing different than what we see elsewhere — the signs of economic progress and capitalism could be seen everywhere and it didn’t seem that the local Vietnamese felt oppressed by the government.

The photo below was taken outside the museum. I thought it was interesting to note the sculpture at the front of the building prominently showed the hammer and the sickle, the symbol of communism, and there was also the Vietnamese flag in the front (red flag with yellow star). Not that often you would get a picture taken with such symbols in the background.

With hammer and sickle

The Palace and the Residence

After the unforgettable experience visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Kristi and I found ourselves with other visitors on walkway behind the mausoleum building that led to another part of the Ho Chi Minh Complex. We had the option of exiting, or purchasing tickets to tour the rest of the complex.

There were many people there, and it was somewhat chaotic. The majority of the visitors looked like local Vietnamese. It was very different compared to our visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia that was dominated by foreigners. We saw quite a diverse groups of people too; we could see some people came as a family with kids and elderly grandparents, some others came with their friends. We even saw a couple that was dressed up quite nicely accompanied by a photographer. It looked like they were doing engagement or wedding photo shoots there — a peculiar place for doing such photo shoots.

The first building that we passed was the Presidential Palace. This building was built by the colonial French government as the palace for the Governor of Indochina. After the Vietnamese took over, they wanted to turn it into the palace for the President. However, Ho Chi Minh refused such luxury and chose to stay at a more modest house nearby. That house was also part of the display at the complex. You could see the garage where Ho Chi Minh cars were housed (they were quite ordinary French Peugeot sedans), and you could see through glass windows the settings of the living room and dining room of Ho Chi Minh’s home that also looked quite ordinary. I think the point that they wanted to make was that Ho Chi Minh decided to live a humble and simple lifestyle rather than taking advantage of his power as the leader of the country.

There was also another house on stilts that was Ho Chi Minh’s residence at a different point during his rule. You could walk also and see the interior of the house. It actually looked like a nice, cozy place to retreat, again, quite a simple lifestyle. There was a sizeable koi pond in between the buildings, adding more peaceful ambience to the whole place (despite of the multitude of visitors roaming around the complex).

The photo below was taken just before we started our tour around the residence. You could see the couple getting their picture taken with the Presidential Palace as the background.

Couple at the Palace

Ho Chi Minh

When we visited the Ho Chi Minh complex, our main reason for the visit was to check out the mausoleum and learn a bit about communism and culture in Vietnam. We knew Ho Chi Minh was an important figure in Vietnamese history, but honestly we didn’t think much about learning about the person. But as I recalled our experience visiting the Ho Chi Minh complex, and read about the life of this historical figure, I learned some interesting facts about Ho Chi Minh that I thought is worth writing about.

Ho Chi Minh was born Ngunyen Sinh Cung. He grew up going to a French school in Vietnam, then he got a job as a cook’s helper on a ship that took him to the United States. He lived for a few years in New York City and Boston area, working various jobs including as a baker at a hotel. Then he made his way to England, where supposedly he trained as a pastry chef to the famous chef Auguste Escoffier. After that, he lived in France where he started learning about communism, and then he moved on to Moscow, Russia, and Canton (present day Guangzhou), China. In China he was involved in the political movement, but he also met a Chinese woman and got married there. Then when the anti-communism coup happened in China, he went into an exile in Moscow, then made it back again to Asia by the way of Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Switzerland, and Italy. He stayed in Thailand for some time, then moved to India and back to China. The British government arrested him in Hong Kong, then quietly released him, and he ended up in Milan, Italy, working at a restaurant there before returning back to China. Then as an adviser to the Chinese communist forces, he also led a Vietnamese independence movement that led to the proclamation of independence and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. Later on he also led the North Vietnam to fight against the South Vietnam and eventually resulting in the Vietnam War. While the war was still going on, in 1969 Ho Chi Minh died from heart failure, but his followers continued on the fight, and he was still revered as their leader, and his body was embalmed and until today can be found on display at the Mausoleum in Hanoi. After the war, the city of Saigon in South Vietnam was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honor.

It’s pretty interesting to observe that the majority of visitors to the Ho Chi Minh complex when we went there were Vietnamese. I didn’t ask what these folks thought of Uncle Ho, as he affectionately was known and respected in the Vietnamese culture, but it’s clear that the government really put him on pedestal as their national hero (though interestingly Ho Chi Minh himself when he was alive supposedly was quite a humble man and did not seek the honor himself).

On the way out of the complex, however, we saw a souvenir stall selling t-shirts for tourists. You could see from the photo below that they had the communist flag and even a caricature figure of Ho Chi Minh on the t-shirts. I’m guessing only western tourists would get these (I couldn’t see a Vietnamese wearing one of these and not feeling irreverent or uncomfortable among their countrymen), but I thought it’s interesting that in the end it seems that even in this communist country at such an important landmark you could see the idea of capitalism was present.

Ho Chi Minh T-Shirt

Visiting Uncle Ho

The first place we visited in Hanoi, Vietnam, was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Out of all places we planned to visit, this was one that I was a little worried about. From reading guidebooks, I knew they had strict protocol that we would have to follow, and since we’re visiting on our own, I wasn’t quite sure how we would go about even arranging the visit. It seemed that we could just show up, and then go from there, so that’s what we did…

After an unpleasant experience with the taxi ride from our hotel to start the day, we found ourselves outside the Ho Chi Minh complex. It’s clearly the right place, but we were not sure exactly where to go for entrance to the complex. So we decided to just walk around the perimeter of the complex hoping to find any entrance that looked like for visitors. This was the first time I visited a communist country (not really sure what that meant or if there’s anything to worry about for visitors from western country), and knowing that they revered ‘Uncle Ho’ I wanted to make sure we didn’t do anything that could be misunderstood as being disrespectful.

We found an entrance that looked like the place we needed to go through. There were quite many visitors already there, considering it was a Sunday morning. We finally saw some signs in English explaining that we would have to leave our backpacks or any large carry-ons at the gate before entering. It was okay to carry small point and shoot cameras for the photos after the mausoleum, but everything else had to stay. That caused a little bit of concern since I had some expensive photographic equipments in my backpack, and Kristi had an envelope with our cash allowance for the day in hers. The backpacks would need to go through x-ray machine for security check. I don’t think they would do anything with my equipments, but we were worried that if they saw the cash in there, someone dishonest may take the cash and there was nothing much we could do about it. So I told Kristi to split the cash and just pocket them in our wallet rather than leaving them in the backpack. We were given a stub for picking up the backpacks later on (not sure where, but okay, at least there was something we could use to claim them). Then we just followed everyone else in front of us to walk in a line.

Most of the visitors seemed to be local Vietnamese (we didn’t see any westerners until sometime after). We had to walk double file, and everyone seemed to be following the instruction and continued walking in silence. After walking in the complex for some distance, we reached another checkpoint where we were asked if we had point and shoot cameras, and we had to leave them there before continuing towards the mausoleum. Then we continued our walk towards the front of the mausoleum, where we saw armed guards at every corner.

When we reached the entrance, before entering, one of the guards motioned his hands at me. Apparently I had my hands inside my jacket pockets, and our hands were supposed to be on our side as a sign of respect. Thankfully that was it, and we then continued on walking inside the mausoleum. The main room was dark, with the center of the room lighted where the body of Ho Chi Minh laid in state. We had to continue walking slowly while observing and paying respect to ‘Uncle Ho’ as the Vietnamese called Ho Chi Minh affectionally. It was a surreal experience walking past the embalmed body of someone who had been dead for more than forty years. It actually wasn’t as creepy as I had thought; it looked like he was sleeping peacefully there. In few seconds, the whole experience was over and we exited the mausoleum. At that point we saw a counter where we could pick up our point and shoot cameras and continued our visit of the complex.

The photo below was taken from a distance afterwards. You can see the big mausoleum at the center of the Ba Dinh Square, the place where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in September 2, 1945. Notice the guard watching the large lawn area in front of the mausoleum to prevent trespassers to go across. In front of the mausoleum you can see the line of visitors walking towards the entrance, and in front of the entrance there were guards in white uniforms.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Using Cash in Hanoi

One of the considerations you must make when traveling to a foreign country is how much cash you’re going to carry with you, and in what currency. On one hand, having cash in the right currency handy with you allows you the convenience of being able to make purchases especially at the places where banks or foreign exchange places are not easily found. On the other hand, carrying cash with you is somewhat risky because if somehow you lose them, there is pretty much no way you could trace and get them back.

In the United States, I usually have a small amount of cash with me wherever I go, though in most cases I use credit card to pay for purchases. Credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere, including in store in small towns. For me, not only it’s convenient and provide some protection in the event I lose the credit card, but also it helps me to keep track of my spending as those purchases will show up on the following month’s credit card statement.

When traveling to Vietnam, however, we knew that even though we have our credit cards with us for places that may accept them, we also carried a reasonable amount of cash with us because we knew that very likely we would like to make small purchases at street vendors and we would also go to a couple of places outside Hanoi where the likelihood of finding banks or foreign exchange places would be very small. We figured it would be easier to get Vietnamese Dong in Indonesia than in the United States, so Kristi was in charge of getting that taken care of prior to our trip.

After breakfast at the hotel, we started our first full day in Hanoi with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Complex. From looking at the city map, the location seemed a little too far to reach on foot from our hotel, so we decided to take a taxi to go there. We asked the lady at the hotel front desk about getting a taxi and also about the estimate pricing to go to the Ho Chi Minh complex. She told us the rough amount she thought it would cost us to get there. We had enough cash in hand for that, so we thought it wouldn’t be a problem. I also obtained a city map from the hotel that I thought would be useful especially later on in the day when we expected to walk around in the Old Quarter area of Hanoi.

The taxi cab we ordered arrived, and the driver understood some English and got it right away when we said we wanted to go to the Ho Chi Minh Complex. As we drove there, I tried to follow our route on the map. And this was when it started to go somewhat wrong — at least I thought it was.. The route that the cab driver took to go there seemed to be a ‘scenic route’ — i.e., not the most straightforward route to get to the destination. I like to think may be there were road closings or detours that he had to take, or may be he wanted us to see parts of Hanoi that are nice for tourists to see (we did drive past the Hotel Metropole, one of the nicest places one could stay in Hanoi, along the way), but I think he took us through that route so he could run up the meter.

When we finally arrived at the Ho Chi Minh Complex, the taxi driver stopped near an entrance (we were not even sure that it was the right one where we should be going to enter the complex). He seemed to be illegally stopping, so he kind of rushed us to pay and get off the taxi. Kristi pulled out the cash for paying the cab driver, but since this was our first spending in Hanoi, all she had was a large bill. The cab driver shook his head and said he didn’t have any change. Since we’re in a rush, and we didn’t want to have to spend yet more time dealing with this situation, we decided to just let him keep the change (I think that was like more than 30% tip for the already more expensive than expected trip). In the grand scheme of things, fortunately it was not a very large amount when we converted to the US dollars, but it still left a bad taste from our first visit to Hanoi.

The lesson learned from this experience was that you should be prepared not only with some cash in local currency, but also with various denominations on the cash at hand including some small notes.

The photo below was taken at the Ho Chi Minh complex on our way out of the complex. Similar to many tourist attractions elsewhere, they had a refreshment area where visitors could get foods and drinks. This would be one of those places where having cash, especially the small notes, could become handy. This particular stand sold the Vietnamese version of hot dogs — looks like they also had grilled meat on a bun, though from the picture on the card it looked like it’s pork instead of beef.

Hot dog stand