In 2015 I visited Hanoi and the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Because I had visited Beijing and the mausoleum of Mao, I had an idea of what to expect. The procedure in Ho Chi Minh mausoleum was indeed set in a very similar setting. This review, however, will not focus on the mausoleum, but instead on the enormous building located next to it. Namely, a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh in its entirety. The building in its grandiosity did not remind me of any museum I had visited before, and deviated from all conceptions I had of what a museum should look like. The spatial experience inside made me challenge my conception of “normal” and enter a socially controlled normalization of an “other” space I wasn’t accustomed to. Reflecting on Edward Soja’s and Michel Foucault’s take on museums as heterotopias (spaces that contain several different layers of spaces and slices of time), I also found that I had arrived at a “crossroads of space and time”.
To begin with, the building was enormous compared to all other buildings in the neighborhood, including the mausoleum. Mimicking Soviet style architecture, it sent a clear message of power and importance. I had trouble finding the entrance and felt like standing next to an imposing wall. Well inside, there was a stairwell that led into the center of the enormous structure. There, a large statue of Ho Chi Minh stood and greeted all visitors with an arm stretched out. The Communist Party in Vietnam has been known to portray Ho Chi Minh as a person with religious status or as an “immortal saint”, and I noticed that this hall area evoked the character of a religious place. Vietnamese visitors clearly treated it as sacred and I thought back on experiences I’d had in catholic cathedrals around Europe. Even the acoustics in this hall resembled the acoustics in churches.
Walking up the stairs to the museum floor that completely encircled the open hall with the statue, I initially thought that I had been taken to an art gallery. I could see several sections, all with different themes. These were clearly meant to be experienced one by one. The section closest to the entrance was a labyrinth made out of glass walls with pictures from the late 19th century and early 20th century. I was familiar with most pictures, and it clearly showed the world in which Ho Chi Minh was brought up. The visitors were taken back in time through this labyrinth. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” was written on one pillar. The faces of Lenin, Charlie Chaplin and Einstein greeted me amidst pictures of technological advancements in medicine, the evolution of transportation from bikes to motor vehicles. Although the scenery in this section portrayed the quickly industrializing and modernizing world in the early 20th century, it also portrayed something dystopian about that world.
Moving on to other sections, they looked like small art galleries or historical exhibitions separate from each other. Modern abstract art sculptures were on display next to showcases with historical weapons and tools. All were very well planned out and intriguing. A narrow paved path zigzagged from section to section. In one spot there was an ominous scene of an American car crashing through the wall, as if it had spiraled out of control. One half of the exhibition played on the contrasts of old and modern and the emergence of capitalism, which I regarded as a conscious way of contextualizing the dramatic changes in Vietnam in the 20th century.
From about midway to the end of the tour, the focus shifted from general exhibitions to more specific showcases about Ho Chi Minh. The most spatially interesting one was the reconstruction of the Coc Bo cave as the inside of a human brain. The cave was Ho Chi Minh’s headquarters and the place where he formed and led the Viet Minh between 1941 and 1945. Several objects lay scattered around this place signifying the cave’s importance. Many of these were supposedly Ho Chi Minh’s personal belongings, however, in the center of the brain they had placed the stones Ho Chi Minh used as his chair and writing desk while residing in the cave. He was the brain behind the Viet Minh and to this day his writings are a crucial legacy for the Vietnamese society. This symbolism did not go unnoticed while inside the “brain”.
Fast forwarding to the end of the tour, I was impressed by a large map of the world hanging on the wall with all the routes and destinations of Ho Chi Minh’s travels superimposed on it. By using a control panel, different routes or cities could be lit up on the map. Spatially, I thought this was a very neat way of showcasing the process and progress of Ho Chi Minh’s global travels (30 years abroad) and in extension his global awareness and networks. Furthermore, as part of studying the different journeys he did, it would be interesting to juxtapose them to his writings and the development of his ideology and politics.
All in all the tour was very captivating, although the museum is obviously part of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Ho Chi Minh propaganda and personality cult, directed primarily at Vietnamese visitors. In that sense it lacked the amusementparkesque vibes that many tourist attractions in Vietnam foster in order to attract Western war tourists. Instead the museum focuses on themes favoring the reunification of Vietnam after the lengthy wars. The personality of Ho Chi Minh, a.k.a. “Uncle Ho,” is also used as a unifying symbol by the communist regime in Vietnam. As the Party’s stronghold is in the north, it is quite natural that Ho Chi Minh is worshipped there. For comparison, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) seems to instead cultivate its tourism on its history with the French colonists and the “liberation of Saigon” (NB! “fall of Saigon”), as noticeable in the War Remnants Museum. However, the city also holds a large museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh’s person, located in an old French colonial building at the wharf. It doesn’t experiment nearly as boldly with surrealism and abstract spaces as the museum in Hanoi does.