Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ho Ho Ho (Chi Minh)

      I remember standing in line for an hour or two waiting to see Lenin’s dead body when Jeff and I were in Moscow a few years ago.  A Russian summer made that ordeal bearable.  But I knew I definitely wanted to stand in line in the broiling and brutal Vietnamese heat to see Ho Chi Minh’s dead body.  My feet are swollen from standing so much in this heat and I have a gross heat rash all over my legs…. So luckily the Fulbright organizers arranged for us to visit Uncle Ho first thing in the morning to avoid waiting. 

      Other than a 30 degree temperature difference, the Lenin and Ho dead body experience was pretty similar.  An imposing mausoleum, lots of soldiers barking orders, confiscation of all cameras, etc., etc., etc.  We climbed up the marble steps and into a marble hallway which led us around to the room where Ho Chi Minh is resting in a glass coffin wearing his faded peasant outfit.  Just as with Lenin, Ho looked like he was a wax figure or something from the Hall of Presidents at Disney.  Not fake but not really real either.  The soldiers kept the line moving and pretty soon we were back in the blazing sun headed toward the home where he lived in Hanoi which has a colonial look to it, and then to the “stilt house” which is a humble traditional style Vietnamese home where Ho supposedly preferred to live – I honestly don’t know if he really did prefer to live there or it was a propaganda prop to make him seem one of the people.  Anyway, the next stop was the imposing Ho Chi Minh museum, with lots of abstract art interpretations of Ho’s life.  
The Mausoleum

Ho's official residence.  He was a gardener and evidently planted most of these trees himself

Ho Chi Minh's humble house on stilts (close to the official residence)

Ho Chi Minh Museum

What a Ho

An ethnology museum which explored the culture of the 54 tribes which make up the Vietnamese population  was an interesting stop.  

      Even more interesting was the “Temple of Literature”  - a 1,000 year-old temple dedicated to Confucius that was home to academic study during the days of Chinese influence in Vietnam.  The temple consists of three courtyards, and evidently the students of antiquity would be assigned to a courtyard according to how well they’d performed on their civil service examinations.  The dunces would be in the first courtyard, but good grades could advance them into the second courtyard, and the super smarty-pants students gained access to the third courtyard.  Vietnam has a lot of turtle statues, and the Temple of Literature was no exception.  Dozens of giant stone turtles lined the halls of the courtyards, the students believing that to rub the turtle statues would bring good luck on the exams.  Coincidentally, Vietnamese high school students are having their big final exams this weekend (for some reason they test on Saturday) and so they were out in force at the temple, rubbing turtle heads and writing special supplications with their fingers against a marble wall (see photo).  The school teacher in me wanted to shout, “Turtles won’t work!  Writing invisible prayers with your fingers won’t work!!  Go home and study!!!” but I kept my mouth shut.  
These turtle stelae are hundreds of years old and for centuries students have been rubbing their heads for good luck on exams

This is at the "Temple of Literature" which is really a like a temple to learning and Confucian wisdom

Gifts to Confucius from hopeful exam-takers

These students are writing invisible supplications with their fingers in the Confucian temple, hoping to do well on their exams, which are the next day.  I say "Go home and study!"