It seemed surreal to be in Hanoi, the distant, yet reviled city that in the late 1960s figured so often in Walter Cronkite's news reports from the Vietnam War. We remembered those days and their faded impressions as we visited the tomb of the Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh.
Remembered affectionately as "Uncle Ho" by the Vietnamese people, Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, six years before the army under his command took Saigon and the Americans were forced to withdrawal from Vietnam.
In an excellent summary in TIME mamgazine, Stanley Karnow writes, "An emaciated, goateed figure in a threadbare bush jacket and frayed rubber sandals, Ho Chi Minh cultivated the image of a humble, benign "Uncle Ho." But he was a seasoned revolutionary and passionate nationalist obsessed by a single goal: independence for his country. Sharing his fervor, his tattered guerrillas vaulted daunting obstacles to crush France's desperate attempt to retrieve its empire in Indochina; later, built into a largely conventional army, they frustrated the massive U.S. effort to prevent Ho's communist followers from controlling Vietnam. For Americans, it was the longest war--and the first defeat--in their history, and it drastically changed the way they perceived their role in the world."
I wonder what Uncle Ho would think of this great mausoleum where his body lies in state (although it was away in Moscow for an embalming "touch up" when we visited). Ho had asked to be cremated because ashes took up less valuable farmland.
Everywhere we have been in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh looms large as a national hero -- even a cult figure -- on signs and t-shirts. I suspect Ho would approve, as he understood well the power of personality in capturing a nation's imagination.