Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Saying Hello to Uncle Ho

I said before how the further one went from Bangkok that better things became. That still holds true. I love Hanoi. Love it. The French, monstrous though they were to this country, at least left them with tree lined boulevards, and this is strangely one of the most western eastern cities I have encountered. And this occidentalism is not forced. This country is on the up. It is wealthy and with wealth comes wealthy ways. Inevitably some of these ways are western. Yet it remains staunchly Vietnamese. We came across one small shop selling propaganda posters, somw posters celebrating the thousand odd American fighter planes downed in the war. Just down the road was a Buddhist temple. Neatly combining Russian and Vietnamese, however, is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately known here, didn't want to be embalmed. He was a shrewd man and knew the danger of making saints of your heroes. Before he died he asked that he be cremated and his ashes spread across the country. He also asked that there be no retaliations on the South Vietnamese. He saw the importance of looking to the future, not dwelling on the past (unlike a lot of Irish 'patriots' I could mention). He was ignored on both counts. Granted he died while the war was still in full swing (1969) and perhaps a sainted hero seemed necessary for the war effort. It was the wrong thing to do though.

Today his embalmed body lies in a horrible soviet-designed grey block of rock. Thousands flock to pay him homage. We were only a few of the multitude. As we queued to enter a double-file procession of elderly veterans trooped to the entrance. Unlike many similar war veteran visits around the world, this group was comprised of women as much as men. Looking at their old faces you had to wonder at what they had seen. You had to respect them. I thought of my own WWII veteran grandfather. They fought like him and they fought just as great an enemy.

Entering the mausoleum is an ordeal. You must wear the right clothes (no t-shirts), surrender your bags, take no pictures, keep your hands out of your pocket, SHOW RESPECT. There is a part of all of us that when ordered to do something automatically feels the mischievous need to do the reverse. As I came to the doorway into the well guarded crypt, the need to laugh almost erupted. But there was nothing to laugh at. That was just a suicidal instinct, the kind of wild desire to throw yourself off a bridge that Freud called the Thanatos instinct. There was definitely no reason to laugh. I felt more anger that the thin old body in the glass case had been denied its final wish. It was just the body of an old man and I was reminded again of my grandparents.

I have thought about my grandparents a lot of late, both living and dead. I suppose it is seeing so many close-knit families around this country. The old are everywhere, as indeed are the very young. But there is not the same separation of children and elders that we get back home. You see infants working with gummy mouthed grannies on every path, full families clustered around the counters of makeshift grocery shops. And these people, these elders, have seen such lives. As have our own.

We paid a visit to the presidential compound where once again (AGAIN) I ranted to Phil about the fraud that was communism in the 20th Century. Certainly Vietnam is about as communist as Tony Blair. Quite apart from the oppression, the lack of free speech, the absence of democracy, the ridiculous paraphernalia, this is a market driven economy with entrepreneurs on every street corner. What is worse, and again apart from the corruption, education is not free. Not only must one pay for university, you even have to pay for some classes if you want to get anywhere.

We took a look at the One-pillar Pagoda and as we left I saw 'The Quiet American' on a bookstand. I had wanted to read this given its provenance, and also I have finished 'The Sex Lives of Cannibals' and am well through Douglas Adams's 'The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul', so I handed over the two dollars very swiftly. I then noticed the full thing is photocopied. I still struggle with this. Wow! Anyway I don't think Penguin Books will miss the extra coppers.


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