Erin sees all the pickled communists

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Okay, so technically they're not pickled, they're embalmed, but pickled sounds way more fun. 

Lenin is of course the oldest, and I know the most about him.  He was the first in my series of pickled communists, but at that time I didn't have a goal to see them all - just him.  Entering his mausoleum in Red Square was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life.  All of the pilgrims had stopped coming, and at that point it seemed he was on display for the tourists.  The interior of the mausoleum was dark and cold, and there were three of us walking through together.  We were all History majors and Russianists, and seeing this man was amazing for all of us.  And seriously weird, because who puts a dead body on display?  As we entered the graveyard for other famous Communists and Stalin another pair of tourists entered the mausoleum.  That was all. 

Mao of course you can read about.  Travis wrote more eloquently than I would have, as I believe he sometimes thinks more eloquently and it was his first pickled Communist.  I wondered if the queue we were in was like it was for Lenin back in the day.  Lenin's mausoleum is big and modern, but it doesn't overpower Red Square.  I think this is important.  Mao's mausoleum is just absurdly large.  And there is a gift shop at the end of it.  (Seriously?)  And I don't think I'll ever get over the fact that they have two queues entering to walk past the Great Helmsman, so the first thing you see is up his nose.  It ruins the effect just a tiny bit.  I also knew less about Mao when I went to see him.  I've since learned things that I believe would certainly have colored my reception of his body, but I didn't know them then, and so he was rather simply "Chairman Mao," Communist dictator of China. 

To be perfectly honest, I don't know much about Ho Chi Minh, either.  I've read a little bit, and the people call him "Uncle Ho," but I don't think I could make any sort of informed judgement about him.  I can make a judgement about his lying in state.  His mausoleum is so obviously modelled on Lenin's that I knew what to expect the whole way through.  He's even sent to Russia for maintenance every summer.  It felt to me like a Vietnamese version of the Soviet way, as if directions were handed straight down through the Comintern.  Of course, it was the second such mausoleum built, and by the time Mao died a decade later he hated the USSR, so I guess you can't expect too many similarities there.

What really surprised me was the length of the queue.  It was so long it ran around blocks.  There were tour groups visiting the mausoleum, and Vietnamese, but most of all there were school children.  School children on field trips.  ???  I was surprised to see parents taking their young children to see Mao, but this was just...I don't even know what.  It was not something you would see in the West, not least because we don't pickle people...yet.  I don't even think I saw a dead body until I was 13, and then I was terrified I might see him come back to life.  What was this experience like for the children?  They all seemed very joyful to be out on the field trip.  Did they know what was in front of them?  Is a sort of "Cult of Ho" being perpetuated for the Vietnamese future?  I can only say that little, boistrous children seem out of place at a mausoleum.  But Travis and I once again enjoyed being rockstars as we passed all of the kids shouting, "HELLO!"

Oh, and while the Ho mausoleum is similar to Lenin's, it is bigger and very well lit.  And Ho is quite well groomed (not that Lenin isn''s just something I noted).  I just didn't have the solemnity that I felt when walking around Lenin, but perhaps it's my lack of historical knowledge.  My more pervasive sneaking suspicion is that it just didn't feel as solemn - too many people, chatting, and lots of lights.  People were of course silent in the mausoleum itself, but outside it seemed like they were standing in line for anything else.  For my part I was silent the whole way because I got mad at Travis.  I'm over it now. 

After you leave the mausoleum itself you must go through a museum area, and you must pay for it.  We checked our bags, and our cameras with them, so while we had money we had nothing to photograph with.  There's an absurd checking system - first you check your bag, but apparently not your camera or mobile phone, this you check at a different place and in different bags.  These you pick up on the other side of the mausoleum so that you may proceed through the museum area with ease and comfort.  But apparently everyone doesn't have to check bags because the woman in front of me was carrying hers the whole way.  And it's truly astonishing what Western tourists wear, even when they're told not to.  Truly.  Astonishing. 

Travis and I were running short on time, so we didn't see Ho's collection of cars or his stilt house.  I saw a peacock that was so harassed it was displaying and shaking its tailfeathers in all directions.  I was sorry and awed at the same time, because I don't think I've ever seen a peacock's tail all the way out and it's seriously enormous.  It was as tall as I am, most definitely. 

After the mausoleum we walked out to the square and looked at it from the front (most of the line is behind it or alongside of it).  Then we went down to the Temple of Literature.  While there was a Confucian temple inside the complex it was really more of a university-mandarin training facility.  There was nothing too thrilling about it, but for less than 50 cents it's a pleasant and enlightening stroll around some ancient grounds. 

Then we had gourmet pho at Pho 24.  Very excellent.  I love pho, and I highly recommend the fillet pho, but if you're feeling brave you can go for the tripe. 

Finally we went to the Museum of Ethnology, a fine collection that succeeds in illuminating the minority cultures of Vietnam.  There are loads of artifacts and several videos, along with descriptions of each group, where it originated, and where it lives now in Vietnam.  Some ethnicities only have a few thousand, while others have hundreds of thousands.  Very interesting.  One exhibit that may be temporary but was quite amazing was a collection of writings and artifacts from a French anthropologist's sojourn in a hilltribe.  He lived in the tribe for a year and subsisted and traded as they did, garnering as he did fascinating descriptions of life in the tribe.  All of the artifacts on display had a description of what they were traded for.  Sometimes I wouldn't have thought the things of equal value - just goes to show what's important in your culture isn't necessarily the same in someone else's. 

For your inner child, the back of the museum consists of a grounds filled with traditional tribal houses.  You can climb in them and walk around them, and if you're lucky, the people who are supposed to be working there might tell you about them, although this only happened for us in the H'mong house.  There were also some "toys" in this area: a wooden teeter-totter that you stand on rather than sit, and a pole held off the ground with a rope that you must balance on are two examples. 

A slightly freaky ride on the back of a moto took us back to our haunts in the Old Quarter.  We finished off the day in a Bia Hoi Hanoi. Bia Hoi is draft beer that is made without preservatives and delivered straight to little cafes and imbibed immediately.  It's similar to a keg party except cheaper.  Under 30 cents for a glass.  A good percentage of the shop fronts in the old quarter are given over to these little places.  Most of them are called Bia Hoi Hanoi.  The name copying thing is rampart here.  The original, good travel agency was known as Sinh Cafe.  So everyone opened up copycat organizations in the surrounding area.  Today, there are probably over a hundred travels agencies called Sinh Cafe in the Old Quarter.  We passed quite a few ourselves.

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