Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Trip to See Uncle

by Pa Rock
Cultural Explorer

The Vietnamese refer to their famous political hero, Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), the man who brought the nation together and encouraged her citizens to drive out the French and later the Americans, as "Uncle."  The communist hero never married or had children, so many viewed him as an "uncle" to the struggling nation.

We began our tour of Hanoi this morning with a visit to the mausoleum of Uncle Ho where we viewed his body, a marvel of twentieth century taxidermy, lying in state in a large glass case with four very solemn Vietnamese military guards standing at each corner of the display.  Uncle Ho looked pale and colorless, certainly no match for the much healthier stuffed body of V.I. Lenin which I saw a dozen years ago in Red Square.

(I'm thinking about having my body stuffed when I die and put on display someplace appropriate...perhaps at the Macy's Store in Kansas City.)

After leaving the mausoleum, we walked the adjacent grounds past the palace built by the French for their dignitaries. along the lake where Uncle Ho used to clap his hands so the fish would know it was time to come and eat, and up close to two small houses in which he lived after he became politically powerful and famous.  Both houses were very compact and ordinary, the epitome of socialist utility.  But it was the second house that captured my imagination.  That little house was built on stilts, with a large conference table sitting on the cement slab beneath the house..  It was at that table where Ho held many important meetings.  Next to that house was an underground bunker where Ho and his friends could flee in the event of an air strike.

Further on down the lake on the same property was the famous "One Pillar Pagoda," a Buddhist shrine that sits in the air atop one pillar.  It is reportedly where couples go if they want to get pregnant, but we didn't see anyone attempting to get pregnant during our visit.

Our next stop was the infamous Hanoi Hilton, an old French prison built in the 1890's where Vietnamese patriots and prisoners were tortured and killed for decades.  After the French were finally driven out of the country, the Vietnamese turned it into a prison for captured American pilots.  Young John McCain was a resident there for several years.  One of the displays inside is a photograph of Senator McCain visiting the prison in 2000.  They also have the flight suit that he was wearing when he was captured on display, along with a large photo of the Vietnamese pulling him out of the lake that he parachuted into when his plane was shot down.

Most of the Hanoi Hilton has been torn down and the land given over to the city for commercial purposes,  but several rooms have been maintained.  It is a very grim  place.  One of the exhibits, in fact, is an actual guillotine used by the French to deal with Vietnamese patriots.  So much for the Rights of Man and the Citizen!

Murphy used to be a prison psychologist and had no interest in touring a prison, particularly not one with that much negative American history, so he walked the neighborhood while I did the tour.

Our tour ended after lunch, and we decided to take in the Vietnamese Military Museum on our own.  There were several very interesting exhibits at that museum, including a thirty-foot high sculpted pile of scrap metal made up of shot-down United States warplanes.  Inside we saw one of the actual tanks that broke through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon in April of 1975 - thus symbolically ending the war.

All of that was followed by a crazy taxi ride back to the hotel.  Tonight we will be on the streets seeing what a Hanoi New Year's looks like.

(Last night as I was walking around town by myself, a working girl on a motorbike pulled up to me and asked if I would like a massage.  I quickly told her "no," knowing full well that it was just a ploy to get her hands on my belly!)

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