Saturday, May 1, 2010

The dead hand of the state

Now here’s something you don’t see very often, at least not since the Berlin Wall came down: a statue of Lenin staring proudly out across a city square.

And here’s another perennial favourite of communist governments: a big mausoleum with an embalmed body inside. In this case it's that of Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese president who died in 1969.

I filed past him the other day after leaving my bag in storage and standing in line for a good 20 minutes. Every morning that the mausoleum opens, which is most days of the week, thousands of people do likewise. As a tourist, I was in a minority of about 10 or 15 per cent, I’d say. Such is Uncle Ho’s standing that ordinary Vietnamese bring their kids to look at his corpse.

Instead of the glass coffin I’d been expecting, Ho was in an open casket with a canopy, creating the impression, at least in my mind, that he was in a four-poster bed. His benign-looking face was a powdery white, which I’m sorry to say put me in mind of an actor from a Restoration comedy. (Oh hell, I might as well tell the truth. Without meaning to be disrespectful, what I instantly thought of was that episode of Blackadder the Third where Edmund keeps saying "Macbeth" to wind up the two superstitious thespians.)

To be fair to him, though, Ho never wanted all this fuss. He insisted on being cremated because he didn’t want his compatriots spending their dosh on coming to see him. But the party thought otherwise and had a crack team of Soviet embalmers standing by while he was dying. Even now, he’s whisked off to Russia for two months of the year while they work their preserving magic on him. It doesn’t sound much like resting in peace to me.

Last night, on the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, I took a walk down by Hoan Kiem Lake to watch a fireworks display marking the Liberation Day public holiday. Before it kicked off, I caught part of an open-air concert that included an operatic lady singing about Hanoi and men and women in military uniforms performing what I gathered were patriotic songs. In spite of all this, I'm going to resist the temptation to make glib remarks about communist propaganda. With a few minor tweaks, I can just imagine how this kind of rabble-rousing wouldn’t look that out of place in the US, the UK or any other country you care to mention.

The fireworks were bog-standard to say the least. I mean, I wasn’t expecting Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Year’s Eve, but I was hoping for something more spectacular than a British municipal Guy Fawkes Night. Within a couple of minutes of it starting, I turned on my heel to head back to my hotel in disappointment. Maybe I’m just jaded. The crowd oohed and gasped and applauded throughout, so yeah, I probably am.

This afternoon I visited the Military History Museum (with its French flag tower from 1812, its captured American weaponry and its crashed US plane) and the B52 memorial (not a tribute to the band who sang Rock Lobster, sadly, but a small park with fragments of aircraft shot down during bombing raids on Hanoi in 1972).

I can‘t say I was all that thrilled with those either, and now all I‘ve got left to see is the theatre of water puppetry, if I bother seeing it at all. Time to move on, I think. Time to move on.

For some reason I've got the theme to The Littlest Hobo in my head...

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