Friday, June 22, 2007

Ground Zero

This morning we took our first excursion into other parts of Hanoi. Until now, I’d mostly seen the Hoan Kim Lake District, which is packed with shops and trendy restaurants for tourists. It’s a bit like the Vietnamese version of Nassau Street, only the prices are about a tenth what they are in Princeton.

We drove to the north of Hoan Kim and the narrow streets became wide boulevards lined with imposing French mansions. Once the home of Indochina’s colonial officials they now house government ministries and foreign embassies.

French colonial official residence, now an embassy

The avenue opened up into a huge grass-covered square that was reminiscent of the Washington mall. At the end of the square lies the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, an imposing neoclassical building made of grey marble stained from years of rain. It looks like a mix between the Lincoln Memorial and Lenin’s Tomb, which is quite fitting because Ho idolized both figures.

What is not fitting is the way Ho Chi Minh was buried. Although he became a larger-than-life figure Ho always remained humble and thrifty through the end of his life. As President of Vietnam, he spurned the palatial Colonial Governor’s Palace in favor of a modest, three room house on stilts. In his will he requested to be cremated, but his country decided to embalm him and put his preserved body on display in the mausoleum. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say hello to Uncle Ho today because the place was closed when we arrived in the square.

The French Governor-General's residence, now the presidential palace. Ho Chi Minh rejected the mansion in favor of a simple house on stilts (below)

Feeding Coi fish in the bond beside Ho Chi Minh's residence

Across the square, Desaix showed us the palatial headquarters of the Communist Party, which is housed in a French complex painted marigold-yellow. The guards eyed us testily as we snapped pictures but never actually confronted us. The Communist Party is the government of Vietnam and most of the country’s important decisions are made behind these walls. But there are signs of change. Desaix told us that when he opened the American embassy in 1995, Communist Party officials often probed him about the American political system and they were also interested in how Taiwan’s Kuomintang and Mexico’s PRI, both authoritarian revolutionary parties, stayed in power after their countries democratized. Even in the 1990s, it seems, Vietnamese Communists were considering political liberalization.

A small section of the Communist Party Headquarters

By 2007, the process has begun. Further down the square, we stopped in front of the National Assembly, Vietnam’s 437-member legislature. The building is far humbler than the neighboring Communist Party Headquarters, which makes sense because until a few years ago, the assembly was a politically powerless body which served as a rubber stamp. “10 years ago,” Desaix explained in a low Mississippi accent, “the National Assembly wasn’t any more useful than this rock. Now there are a good number of independents and the committee is beginning to challenge some party decisions.”

The National Assembly

Maybe one day the Communist Party and the National Assembly will swap buildings.


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