Monday, January 29, 2007

Ho Chi Minh

As I was travelling about, starting in Laos, I became increasingly impressed by the story of Ho Chi Minh and his impact upon Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam - where, of course, an entire city has been named after him. There is a Vietnamese saying to the effect that "when drinking water, remember its source" which has provoked me into devoting a post to him.

In Hanoi, there is a museum in his honour. There is quite a complex devoted to him, a garden and park, a stilt house he lived in at one stage (I couldn't get
to it because it was closed), some other residence he once occupied and a rather large mausoleum, also closed but at least it was visible from the road. An Australian couple I met on the boat trip from Cat Ba to Ha Long did go inside: they tell me his body is there, on display, for anyone to see. Apparently it has to go to Russia every so often in order to be re-embalmed or something. I didn't see it, but saw the bronze cast of his body which greets people as they enter his museum:One fascinating section of the museum was a collection of archived materials, showing North Vietnam's call to arms, directed at the Southern Revolutionaries, and the various documents and other artefacts of actual soldiers who answered the call. Seeing this also helped to provide a little more context for the movie I saw, Living in Fear.

Of course, he wasn't always Ho Chi Minh - his birth name was Nguyen Al Quoc, which he seems to have abandoned towards the end of the 1950's. The upstairs of the museum told the story of his life, again through extensive use of archived materials - this story is almost inseperable from the story of a united, independent, communist Vietnam.

As far as I could make out, he had his political awakening (ironically enough) in France, where he had numerous labouring jobs, as well as a stint working
(perhaps training) in London (on the site now occupied by New Zealand house) under Escoffier - these experiences led to his belief in the need for communism and in revolution as a legitimate activity.

This made me think back to something I read in Conrad's Under Western Eyes - revolution throws up the occasional good man who leads things forward. Ho Chi Minh seems to exemplify this idea, in that Vietnam simply could not be what it is today without him, or someone like him, to catalyse the nation and mobilise its people into some sort of coherence. This line of thinking led me to wonder if, say, Iraq, might produce such a figure or, indeed, whether Saddam Hussein might even have been that figure - after all, the West regarded him in much the same way as it regarded Ho Chi Minh.

Anyway, Vietnam has done him proud, even if I did wonder what he would have made of it all. Looking at the photos of him in the museum and the various articles he is said to have used, it does not seem that Ho Chi Minh was a man who had much time for fancy displays, but was very much a man of the people, popularly known as Uncle Ho.

He died in 1969, a few years before the end of the war in 1975 and reunification. Things have changed a lot in Vietnam since then: the day before I left, it formally became a member of the World Trade Organisation, with its communist government pledging a commitment to economic development and internationalising of its economy.



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