Vietnam is our second single party communist state of the trip, though so far it has not always been that obvious on first glance. As we noticed on arrival in Saigon, the country seems to manage a fairly decent impression of capitalism.
In fact if you speak to some of the Vietnamese, they don’t see themselves as communist, but rather a socialist state. With the government owning all land, and 50% of the businesses that operate in the country, a more accurate description might be state controlled capitalism? Western governments and media use the ‘communist’ moniker, but is that potentially propaganda, in the same way that the state broadcasts messages to the Vietnamese people from speakers around the cities?
The Vietnamese have a hero. Ho Chi Minh is the revolutionary socialist leader who freed the country from colonial rule, became their leader and dedicated his life to unifying the country. He didn’t quite live long enough to see his dream come true, but he is a man that the country looks up to.
Ho Chi Minh declared in his last testament that he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread across the country. However, strangely his wishes were not adhered to and instead he has been embalmed and placed in a mausoleum in the capital city. A visit to see Uncle Ho (as he is affectionately called) is a strange ‘must-do’ attraction in the city.
Huge queues form, predominantly of Vietnamese, early in the morning and queue for up to an hour (mostly in the rain as we did), to then quickly walk through the huge imposing structure in which he is housed. The room itself is dark, dimly lit, and he lies almost ghost-like in a glass casket with a dark red rose motif down the sides. Surrounded by guards dressed all in white, with large marble symbols of the Vietnamese flag and the hammer & sickle looking down upon him, you cannot help but feel slightly uneasy as you walk past.
Close by is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a wonderfully stark concrete structure with an amazing museum inside that, with a large dose of propaganda, tells the story of his life, his ideology,his struggles and his successes. Rather than the routine bland museum approach of glass cases, and boards of text (though there are some), the exhibits take the form of an art installation with striking structures symbolising aspects of his life and work. A really well put together attraction that is well worth a few hours of anyones time.
To keep the fairly serious subject matter going, we arrange to meet up with Morgan and Andew (friends we met earlier in the trip and appear to be stalking each other as move move up the country) for an evening of Ca Tru, or Vietnamese Opera as it is described. It started in the 14th Century as entertainment for nobles, before gaining wider popularity in the 19th Centuary, and is an unusual and simple form of entertainment.
With only 56 songs every written, it is performed solely by women with basic percussion accompaniment, but almost died out following the unification of the country. In 2009 UNESCO recognised its cultural importance but declared it was in urgent need of safeguarding. Given that there were only 21 Ca Tru singers left and the youngest was 82, UNESCO had a point. Particularly when it takes 6 to 10 years to become proficient.
The serious nature of the performances are offset by a wonderfully comedic compare and the length of the performance at around 70 minutes is perfectly timed to ensure that even the uneducated masses don’t get bored. That said I think we were all ready for the food, beers and laughter we enjoyed afterwards, all the way up to the local midnight curfew.