The other day I went to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader of North Vietnamese independence movement who fought off the French after World War II, established a communist republic, and led the war against the Americans for the South until his death in 1969. Ho Chi Minh or “Uncle Ho”, as he is affectionately known, is still a hero to his countrymen.
Uncle Ho wanted to be cremated after his death but the Politburo that became his successor in government were unable to bring themselves to carry out his wish. Instead, in his honour they built a giant granite mausoleum where his body lies in state in the style of Lenin and Mao Tse Tung. Still one of the holiest of holy sites in Vietnam, his body attracts a constant stream of visitors. To visit, we had to queue up for about 20 minutes before passing through a metal detector and a bag scanner. Cameras are strictly prohibited and a sign helpfully advises us that firearms and explosive devices must be left outside the mausoleum. Once you get through the security checks it’s all over pretty quickly. You file up the stairs, passing a number of silent, white-suited ceremonial guards, then enter the darkened chamber. A guard stands at each corner of the glass cabinet where Ho Chi Minh’s body lies bathed in an ethereal light; his white goatee perhaps the most recognisable aspect of his embalmed body.
Until recently, Uncle Ho’s body used to take an annual holiday to Russia for a few months of maintenance. This is no longer necessary, however some have speculated that the contract for the upkeep may have passed to Madame Tussauds.
While he’s still highly revered, it’s interesting to speculate on how Ho Chi Minh’s legacy is perceived by today’s Vietnamese, most of whom were born after the end of the war in 1975. On the one hand, Vietnam is a united country, no longer subservient to a colonial power, waging war against itself or fighting off a military superpower. It’s people are also becoming more prosperous as their living standards gradually catch up with those of the West. On the other hand, like the other parts of Asia that are growing their way out of mere subsistence, they are doing so in a way that is far removed from communist ideals that were supposed to be the country’s saviour.
In some ways, Vietnam seems to be embracing a free-for-all, Wild West style of capitalism, at least at the grassroots level. I’ve been wandering around the Old Quarter of Hanoi and it’s amazing how many little businesses there are, most of them extremely small and highly specialised. Some of them occupy pokey shop spaces, some make do with a patch of footpath and a few tiny plastic tables and chairs, and some are completely mobile, operating out of a couple of baskets in dogged pursuit of the odd customer who can’t get away quickly enough. The equipment that many of the stalls operate with is extremely rudimentary and the hygiene standards appear decidedly questionable. At a rough guess I’d say that around 9 out of 10 of the food sellers would be immediately shut down if the Australian health authorities were let loose here. A lot of the shops selling consumer goods would also quickly go out of business under the standards of the developed world, with stringent intellectual property laws putting an end to the cheap knock-offs of designer label goods.
Still, everything is really cheap, which is a good thing for the locals who get by on a national average income of $3.20 a day. A large segment of Hanoi’s population is made up of young people who move away from their rural home to the big city for a few years. Here, they can no doubt get higher paying jobs which allow them to finance their big city lifestyle, complete with motor scooter and western-style fashion accessories.
I got to thinking about all of this when I visited the night market last night. It runs down a length of street for maybe half a kilometre. The street is full of mostly young pedestrians (almost everyone seems to be in their early 20s around here), with roadblocks managing to keep out most of the scooter traffic. One or two of them manage to sneak in to menace the crowd as they weave their way through. Hundreds of stalls are lined up under brightly glowing fluorescent bulbs, selling all of the things that you expect to see at a market and possibly a few more. Nothing is particularly remarkable; most of the things on sale are a mass-produced and a bit tacky. It’s hard to imagine that anyone is making a great living out of selling this stuff, with so many of the stalls competing to sell the same trinkets and the incessant bargaining to keep margins pared back to a minimum.
The people visiting these markets don’t really conform to the idealised images in the propaganda posters of their parents’ era. They’re not spending their days toiling away in the fields and they appear to have a much greater enthusiasm for consumer goods than bumper harvets and the exceeding of production quotas. The things that that grandchildren of the revolution spend their disposable income on are of questionable relevance to their development as patriotic citizens and fulfilled human beings. What would the frugal Uncle Ho have made of all this variety and the waste of resources involved in bringing it about? How exactly would a worker benefit from having access to several hundreds of designs of a basic necessity such as underwear?
The stretch of road near the end of the stalls widens a little, creating some welcome open space. A woman is selling things that look like flying glowstics and hurls one into the air, giving the place a carnival-like atmosphere. A generation or so from now, it’s likely that this part of town will have lost some of its chaotic character. The local authority will probably be cracking down on all sorts of uncivilised behaviour, improving hygiene standards, reducing pollution, enforcing building codes and maybe even building a decent public transport system. Some enterprising developers, perhaps from a part of Asia that is further down the path of modernisation, might see an opportunity to build some giant shopping malls, drawing traffic away from the Old Quarter. The area will become more gentrified, and maybe it will become a fashionable location for a new class of urban professionals to build their designer pieds a tèrre. The people of the area will have a higher standard of living and enjoy safer, more predictible lives.
On the down-side, for Hanoi to become another boring, sterile city of shopping malls and high-rise buildings will do little to sustain the vibrancy of the region. While Hanoi’s rapid embrace of modernisation will improve the lives of its residents dramatically, hopefully it will still retain a at least a little of the dangerous, chaotic element that makes it such an interesting place to be right now.