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.