“Did you see my Uncle today?” asked Tony, the friendly hostel receptionist in Hanoi after I returned from a long day of sight-seeing.
Not detecting the twinkle in his eye, I tried to infuse my voice with a sense of depth and wonder I felt was necessary after seeing the pickled corpse of Vietnam’s founding father and replied with a grave, “Yes. Yes I did. I did see your Uncle. This morning.”
“He was very quiet, no?” responded Tony, completely deadpan. As I nodded solemnly, the smile spread from his eyes to his lips and he erupted with laughter. After the scene at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, I was shocked that the preserved figure lying within could be a source of humor. The naked devotion displayed by my fellow pilgrims was so saturated with breath-caught respect that Uncle Ho seemed untouchable to mockery, much like the King of Thailand.
Tony continued on, “Yes, my Uncle is very quiet. He doesn’t look very well these days.”
He had a point. Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body has been resisting the forces of natural decay for 43 years since his death in 1969, when scientists went to work filling his veins with chemicals and dipping his corpse in baths of preservatives—all against his wishes for cremation. Despite this embalming on overdrive, Uncle Ho doesn’t look exactly fresh. His skin is pink and taut with a strange waxy quality that generates many conspiracies and contrasts with his surroundings; he’s clothed in crisp, clean whites and housed in a tomb of stark granite surfaces.
Yet the cells that used to house his personality have been sufficiently harnessed by the Vietnamese government to feed the cult of personality and inspire new generations to call him their very own Uncle. By essentially deifying the man, the Party has created in Ho Chi Minh a story of a benevolent man-cum-god who granted the current government the power to rule in the favor of the people. It was a genius move; many Vietnamese feel a deep sense of connection with their forefather, which sometimes gets translated to an affection for the Party itself. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese trek to Hanoi to pay respect to the man whose image covers their currency. And half of them were there one fine spring day when I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.
I got to the mausoleum early enough, but the line was long enough to warrant suspicion. Is there an Apple store releasing some new gadget next to the tomb? Did I drink a few too many glasses of bia hoi last night and accidentally arrive at an amusement park? I pondered all the possibilities in the hours I stood in line and went through security screenings that rival the Transportation Security Agency of America in their theatrics.
As I approached the tomb, the density of white-gloved soldiers with impressive rifles increased, as did the rigor of queue etiquette. Would-be viewers of Ho must forfeit all cameras, line up two-by-two, and march quietly and without hesitation through the grounds and into the tomb’s interior. When entering the chilled sanctum featuring Uncle Ho himself, guards will poke the slowpokes with the butt of a gun. Circling the coffin takes about 5 minutes, and then you’re shuffled out into the museum grounds with a flourishing gift shop scene. The whole experience combines the discipline of the military with the feverish worship of religion and the human organization of an amusement park roller coaster with the highlight being a short time spent in a room with a dead body.
In other words, it was awesome in that once-in-a-lifetime absurd travel experience way. Yet I didn’t realize the spectacle of the whole thing until I heard Tony’s jokes; he gave me the freedom to see the humor in the situation.
Many months later, the memory of Tony and his Uncle Ho lifted me from the planning doldrums that proceed any long and complicated trip, but especially the Trans-Siberian where the weight of to-do dampens the spirit of what-if. In that sea of visa requirements and train logistics, I realized that my selected route from Beijing to Moscow connects the last two easily accessible pickled communists; Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin each have tombs in the square-shaped hearts of their capital cities. And just like that, I made it a goal—nay, a mission!—to see them. I decided I would collect these tomb experiences like trading cards. I would compare security rituals, critique each nation’s preservation acuity, and rank the reverence of the fellow pilgrims on a scale of 1 to 10. Seeing controversial dead communist bodies would be A Thing That I Do alongside reading feminist blogs and being snobby about beverages.
With eight whole days in Beijing, I assumed I’d squeeze in a quick visit with Mao. He’s installed in a massive complex right in Tiananmen Square’s hub of activity, just south of the Forbidden City. Yet Mao was elusive. My first try was foiled when the Chairman decided to take a random day off. When I returned a few days later, the square was swamped with flag-bearing children and families crowding through the security-blocked entrances of the square for National Day. Though Beijingers are quite used to foreigners, many of the out-of-town Chinese celebrating the holiday were not, and I had to wade through the crowds as a celebrity, posing for pictures with new friends and being the candid subject of photos taken by strangers. And then, after all that, Mao was closed for business yet again. Foiled.
I was less sure about Lenin. With only two full days in Moscow, a trip to Lenin’s mausoleum would have to be prioritized above all else, especially with the internet’s conflicting reports about opening hours. I arrived on a Sunday, when the mausoleum was rumored to be closed in some circles, though most museums and monuments of that caliber and importance remain open. Yet a quick check in Red Square revealed no tell-tale snaking line, and indeed, Lenin’s granite tomb was fenced off from the public. The next day was the same. I was poised to try the third day, but luckily I checked my tickets and saw I was departing Moscow too early to allow yet another sojourn to the square.
Just like that my plan to ceremoniously begin and end the Trans-Siberian railroad experience with pilgrimages to creepy dead bodies ended. Now my only hope is for North Korea to share its own stock with the rest of us or for Madam Tussard’s to implement a spin-off chain featuring only entombed leaders. I can see it now: Madame Tussard’s Mausoleum—I Can’t Believe They’re Not Dead. Call me if you need a copy writer for your brochures, Madame.