In the late ‘Eighties – before tourism to that country had taken off – Sylvia and I were granted visas to visit Vietnam, spending just over two weeks visiting Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An and Saigon (re-named Ho Chi Minh).
Sadly, few of the images that I took during that trip survived the ‘oven zapping’ that, in those days, was a hallmark of Vietnam’s airport security, and those that did were, thanks to my lack of talent with a camera, usually out of focus.
Nevertheless, and despite the restrictions placed on where we could go, (In Hanoi, Da Nang, and Saigon, we were assigned a guide and a driver/bodyguard who shepherded us through the country) it was a memorable trip. Possibly because – having been commissioned to write an account of our travels for a major tourist publication – the authorities went to great pains to show us highlight aspects of the country … including a private audience with Ho Chi Minh.
From my Hanoi notebook:
“We were picked up from the hotel at 8.15 on a damp, grey morning and driven to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, set in a huge and completely empty square. With a light drizzle of rain falling, we were ushered out of the car by our guide who, holding an umbrella above our heads, walked us to the edge of the square where we were commanded to wait.
“An army officer appeared and indicated that we should join him in marching across the square where, when level with the mausoleum building, he performed a very smart left turn and marched us toward the building’s entrance. Greeted by a saluting officer of the guard, he escorted us down a red carpet past armed guards standing at salute on each side and into the mausoleum. Ascending a flight of stairs, we entered a chamber, in the centre of which lay the body of Ho Chi Minh enclosed in a glass case.
“Four armed guards stood at each corner of the glass coffin while, around the walkway other armed guards stood in complete silence. It was a remarkably eerie scene. One that the escorting officer indicated was not to be photographed.
After a respectful – and silent – few minutes while we stood contemplating the body, the officer escorted us to the rear door of the building where our guide and driver were waiting.”
Apparently, as we learned from our guide, the mausoleum is closed for two months each year while ‘embalming repairs’ are carried out on the corpse. And I still don’t know what the correct response should be when viewing a corpse laid out for display.
Somehow, just saying, “Oh! Very nice. Doesn’t he look peaceful.”, didn’t seem appropriate.