“Uncle Ho”, as he is sometimes affectionately known, is the figurehead of independent Vietnam. The former leader of the Viet Minh during the struggle for independence, victor over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and first president of communist North Vietnam, he remains a hugely influential and respected national figure following his death in 1969, aged 79.
His looming, grey-granite and pillared, generally communist-looking mausoleum (modelled on Lenin’s) now houses his embalmed body. It’s closed for around two months each autumn while he gets sent to Russia for maintenance. Ironically, Ho Chi Minh himself wanted to be cremated.
Visiting Uncle Ho’s corpse
It’s as interesting to visit the spectacle surrounding Ho Chi Minh’s corpse as it is to see the man himself. The strict rules about clothing and conduct around the mausoleum, the snaking queue of solemn visitors, and the marching guards in white military uniforms – it all feels majestic, dignified, and very authoritarian.
As the queue nears the mausoleum’s entrance, visitors pass a large propaganda poster reading “The Socialist Republic of Vietnam Forever”. Guards march a batch of tourists at a time up to the mausoleum’s entrance, slowly, ceremoniously.
Inside the mausoleum, it’s a strict shuffle-pace walk through the room containing the body, no stopping, and you’ll get told off by the white military-uniformed guards if you walk too slowly. It’s all very formal. Seeing Ho Chi Minh’s frail body and white wispy hairs cased in glass, in the centre of a dimmed, air-conditioned room, is the icing on the cake: but it’s the experience as a whole that is so telling about Vietnam’s love for Uncle Ho.
Clothing and bags: visitors are supposed to wear long trousers/long skirts and t-shirts or long tops (no tank tops, shorts or miniskirts, or generally too much skin showing). Although we saw plenty of tourists in shorts let in, it’s important to remain respectful around this hugely important national monument. You aren’t allowed to take bags or cameras into the mausoleum itself (though you can keep some valuables on you) – you leave these at a baggage desk, and collect them after you see the body. You’ll have them back before you see the rest of the compound, museum and grounds.
The queue isn’t as bad as it looks. Although it feels endless, it actually moves pretty quickly – it took us around 20 minutes, and that was a Saturday.
Getting there & cost: it’s best to take a taxi if you’re staying in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The mausoleum is free but only open in the mornings before 11am – get there early for minimal queuing (but check opening days and times as these are subject to change, this is based on my visit in 2014). There are separate entrance fees for the Stilt House and complex grounds, and for the Ho Chi Minh Museum (see below). Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is well combined with a visit to the nearby site of a crashed B-52 bomber.
Next Door: Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House, the Presidential Palace, and Museum
Behind the Mausoleum, set aside a serene carp-filled lake in beautiful grounds, is Ho Chi Minh’s “Stilt House”, a petite wooden structure based on rural dwellings of north-west Vietnam. Ho is said to have lived here from 1958 until his death in 1969, and it contains various possessions (including some of his cars, standing nearby). It’s a peaceful place, starkly differing from the ominous atmosphere surrounding the mausoleum.
Unlike the Presidential Palace (see below), you can actually go inside Ho’s Stilt House, accessible from the Palace through a winding path beautifully named “Mango Alley” due to its surrounding fruit trees. (For more information on the Stilt House, there’s a great article here.)
The Stilt House also stands – very intentionally – in stark contrast with the grand colonial Presidential Palace, standing a few hundred metres away, a symbol of French imperial might. Ho Chi Minh refused to live there after Vietnam won independence in 1954.
The palace was built 1900-1906 for the Governor-General of Indochina, but sadly isn’t open to the public as it’s only used for official functions nowadays. Visitors can access the grounds outside (near enough to take the photo below!) along with the Stilt House for a small entrance fee.
Once you’ve done your loop of the complex grounds, head back towards where you entered to see Ho Chi Minh’s body, and you’ll reach the Ho Chi Minh Museum. There’s a huge statue of the man himself inside and some interesting collections, including the pens used to sign the Paris Agreement on 27 January 1973, which formally ended US military involvement in Vietnam (although not the war itself). There’s a separate entrance fee to see the museum.
There are also plenty of souvenir stalls around, water, and a few small cafés; I’d recommend stopping off here before a short walk to the site of a crashed B-52 bomber.