Triumphal Hanoi

Hanoi is an exciting city to explore with lots of shops, markets and great food. It’s also the capital of Vietnam and the country’s military prowess is on full display. Vietnam has a long and strong martial history; they defeated Chinese Han invaders in 938, Mongols in 1288, French in 1954 and Americans in 1975. In fact, Wikipedia lists 73 wars or insurrections involving Vietnam and the country takes great pride in its history of sacrifice and resistance.

We started our day at the Vietnam Military History Museum, located on Dien Bien Phu road and sandwiched between the Flag Tower and the country’s military headquarters. As you may recall, Dien Bien Phu was the site of the catastrophic French defeat in 1954 and symbolizes the end of French rule in Indochina. It loomed large in American minds: during the 1968 Tet Offensive, LBJ drawled, “I don’t want any damn Dien Bien Phu.”

The Flag Tower dates from 1812 and was originally part of the Imperial Citadel. It survives undamaged and is the central point of Hanoi. Army headquarters is a large, modern complex and in a curious ‘tell,’ crowd control barriers and signage on its wall suggest that mass protests (‘crowded crowds’?) happen in Vietnam. We were told the army runs Vietnam, that its leaders are notoriously corrupt and that they deal very harshly with critics.

One man asked if it was true that people in the West could openly criticize their leaders. He found it to be a wild and almost unbelievable concept and explained that Vietnamese police don’t much care if citizens assault or rob each other but will quickly put you in jail or shoot you if you say anything against the state. He observed that this was just the opposite of western countries.

I learned that photos of army HQ are not appreciated. Who knew? Just after taking the picture of the flags in the next batch, a white SUV approached on the sidewalk and, with a lot of stern finger-wagging, its driver aggressively ordered me to stop taking photos. I managed to squeeze in one more. I was living dangerously!

Our hotel roof gave a view of the triangular peaks of army headquarters a few blocks away. Officers had paid the hotel a visit and ordered them to cease work on their rooftop spa. No discussion, the hotel complied. From its roof:

Sitting in the shadow of the Flag Tower, the Military History Museum (admission US$2) is packed with artifacts, largely from the American war but also from other conflicts of the last millennium. The outdoor display is dominated by a large sculpture made from pieces of destroyed American planes. An intact American cluster bomb gave me pause and it was remarkable to see sharpened wooden pilings retrieved from the river mud where Vietnam’s defenders trapped China’s fleet at The Battle of Bạch Đằng in 938.

Reflecting on the Vietnam War, anti-communism was understandable — communists everywhere were extraordinarily cruel, vicious and repressive — but a better understanding of Vietnam’s history would have made clear that they were unlikely to tolerate foreign invaders and would stop at nothing to expel them. And that’s what happened. From the museum:

Next stop was Hao Lo (‘hell’s hole’) prison or Maison Centrale, a French colonial jail more recently known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ where many American POWs were detained. It’s a grim structure and makes evident that the French set a very low bar for the humane treatment of political prisoners. Their displayed guillotine was used until 1954 and was kept busy in the prison’s forecourt.

Our last stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (free admission), museum and gift shop. It’s hard to overestimate Ho’s exalted position in Vietnam’s national identity. He was involved in Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle for most of his life and it’s said (albeit not accurately) that he turned to communism only because he was rebuffed by other world leaders. In the mid-60s, Ho lost power after a bitter internecine struggle but was kept on as a popular figurehead; promoted as a kind, wise and good-hearted man who loved children as much as he loved his country. He is universally and un-ironically referred to as “Uncle Ho,” presumably a riff on Stalin’s “Uncle Joe” persona.

Ho’s mausoleum is a somber and serious place. Very long lines, extremely unsmiling guards, no shorts, no tank tops, no hands in pockets, no talking, no laughing, no slouching and absolutely no photographs. To ensure the latter, they take away all cameras and cell phones and return them after your visit. I wouldn’t want to test the rule. I’m proud to have viewed two of the world’s three mummified communist leaders and, if I can add Lenin, will have the trifecta. Note that Ho is shipped back to Moscow each year for refurbishment so check the dates if paying respects is on your bucket list. Ho asked to be cremated but his wishes were ignored.

If you’re there, be sure to check out the Ho Chi Minh Museum. It’s more of a shrine than a museum but is right there so worth a quick visit.

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