17 April 2009

Uncle Ho's Historiorium.

The first thing I noticed about the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh was how HUGE he was. Like, superhero huge. Uncle Ho is displayed in this enormous glass case that warps your perspective – his head alone, always a bit Colonel Sanders-sh, is like a giant white watermelon, each sparse beard hair carefully preserved during his annual 3 month respite to Moscow, where he is fussed over and kept fresh. Russians do, after all, have a lot of experience keeping a stiff dictator public-appearance ready for decades...and come to think of it, Lenin also kind of looked like Colonel Sanders. But back to the hugeness of Ho. The glass case is kept raised off of the floor, and around it is a trench in which 4 guards stand at attention. The walkway around the tomb is slightly below its platform, and so the entire effect of the body being Dr. Manhattan-sized is heightened even further. Red lights, probably important in some way for preservation of the body, beam down on Ho from all angles, accenting the red star and hammer and sickle symbols displayed behind him. Like a humongous KFC ad in an alien space pod the colour of sweet and sour sauce, this is to what Uncle Ho has been reduced. Or, I guess more appropriately, enlarged. Never one for the “cult of personality” that surrounded other Communist leaders Mao and Stalin, Ho actually wanted to be cremated and spread around the countryside with little fuss. But the Vietnamese morale demanded a focal point of glory, and that glory was Ho. (Ha! Glory Ho!) Hence the monolithic Soviet style crypt built in centre of Hanoi. In a weird way, walking inside of the air conditioned-to-the-point-of-freezing crypt, I felt like I was in a shopping mall from my childhood, in that concrete-mega-structure sort of way, that 1970's everything-is-super-modern and grey way. This is a pilgrimage for many Vietnamese, especially those from the North - they LOVE Ho Chi Minh.

In a way, like Gandhi in India, it was the Non-Vietnamese aspects of Ho that made him respected and admired, his Frenchiness, his Western education, his political savvy. It is ironic that the very things the average peasant abhorred were the things that made them love Ho, perhaps because he took the education and ideas offered by the French to promising young Indochinese men, and rather than use his position in the intelligentsia to serve the French interests, he used his elite education (combined with Russian-learned ideologies) to try to FREE HIS PEOPLE. He saw the changes taking place after World War 1, the Wilsonian concepts of National Self Determination, the French “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” and he thought - “Yeah! That's us! That's Viet Nam! I wanna get me some of this independence!”

Excitedly, Ho rushed to Paris for the talks at Versailles, naively expecting to return home triumphant. Woodrow Wilson wouldn't even let him in the bargaining room to be laughed at in person. National Self Determination it turns out, was for white people in Europe. If you were a brownish person from a European colony, well, you were hardly a person at all, you were more like a trained monkey who could harvest rice or rubber. They saw educated Asian people like Ho as fancy monkeys, like chimps in clothing and eyeglasses – humanish, but still a monkey. And let's face it, when that chimp takes off that men's suit he just goes back to flinging poop.

He was deterred, but didn't give up. He balked at the French, and formed the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1925. We, the West, don't like it when those we colonize don't do what we want them to do. We still kind of see this today, whenever a puppet regime actually tries to start making choices that benefit their own country, the West gets mad. And they got really fucking mad at Uncle Ho.

The madder the West got, the more fierce the love and adoration the Vietnamese heaped on Ho. As we were forcibly prodded through the crypt area (I wanted to stay in step with Sean. The guard wanted me to fill a gap up ahead. He kept poking me with a stick. He won.) people's reactions were solemn and emotional. Here, on a big platter, was the symbol of Vietnamese resilience and spirit. The man who fought the French, Chinese, Japanese and US – and won.

The Museum was next, and I was expecting a Soviet style construction filled with dusty relics (This Ho's book. He read book for pleasures while relax during war with imperialist American scums.”) and a diorama-rama, but I was dead wrong. The humongous (are you noticing a theme here? Ginormous imposing buildings?) white structure is etched with a huge hammer and sickle, and holds one of the most modern, interesting and interactive museums I have ever been to, and I have been to a lot of museums (The Guiness Brewery is still my favourite, but this one almost edged it out). Rather than a plodding obligatory march through a room of letters and photos, the museum brought the history – the art, film, culture and ideology – of the twentieth century alive with a Vietnamese style Communist spin.

As we entered the main exhibit room, the package bus tour Japanese tourists in their matching hats who had besieged us throughout the main floor and hogged the best vantage point of the largest Ho statue for clich├ęd photo opportunities of themselves thinned out (No one will believe we were here unless we stand in front of the statue! Quick, put Grandma in the middle! Her honour! Her honourrrr!” Japanese tourists even posed in front of the piles of hair and prosthetic limbs when I was at Auschwitz. NOT CLASSY). This was not their thing – this museum was not an endless series of banalities and obvious focal points in front of which to stand and snap away – it was an amazing, strange and modern showcase of symbolism and metaphor.

Surrealist art, portraits of Marx and Lenin, Le Corbusier's architecture, art nouveau and Soviet film stills were etched on glass panels and created a strange hall of mirrors effect as we wound through their maze, and video screens mounted to the wall played newsreels from all periods of the twentieth century. A huge three dimensional representation of Picasso's Guernica jutted out of the wall around the corner – the state of fascist warfare and the ever rising threat of the Nazis in the thirties. Images of the horrors in Europe during World War II followed - a plaintiff question raised – didn't we learn? A huge whited out Ford car crashed through the wall around the corner, an example of the American influence, power and goods flooding the world in the '50s. In one corner, a brick volcano literally exploded with red streamers, the violence and anger felt by the Vietnamese as the French kept them enslaved and prisoners in their own divided country.

As we we followed the path, images of the “American War” (what the Vietnamese call the Vietnam War, go figure) were over almost before they began – this was clearly not a place where people want to dwell on the battles they faced to get here. They won. That is enough – there needed to be no endless wall etched with the names of villagers massacred, no obvious Napalm photos or chemically deformed fetuses pickled in brine (there is a museum in Saigon called the “War Atrocities Museum that takes care of all of those images, as well as an impressive artillery and bomb collection.)
The next bend in the path took us to life sized pears and bananas – a slightly hokey representation of the abundance of life and food in this fertile country, but apt. Rather than focusing too heavily on the horrors of war, the ideology battle with the West or the transition to capitalism, the museum's main themes were art, beauty and light – the friendly, child loving, chuckling Ho a contrast to his austere, heavily guarded and humongous corpse.

The final image in the huge room was of Ho, dressed all in white, waving to us. Beside him, etched in glass and resembling a backlit ice sculpture was his most famous quote, translated into dozens of languages:

“All the Peoples on Earth are Equal. Each People has the Right to Life, Happiness and Liberty.”

Amen, Uncle Ho.

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