(Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette)
(Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette)

On a visit to Vietnam, it’s a must to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. For a man who wished to be cremated upon his death, he is still of a piece, lying under glass 49 years after he left the earth.

The visionary, legendary and largely beloved leader of a fractured country through French rule and U.S. intervention, he was a nationalist first and a Communist second, but it was that Communist part that the U.S. balked at.

He likely would have been elected to lead Vietnam as one country had the South and its U.S. allies allowed a free election, called for by the Geneva Accords in 1954 after the Vietnamese expelled the French.

The election was aborted and you know the rest is history if you’ve studied or remembered it.

The trip I took with a group of American veterans of the war in Vietnam led us, inevitably, to a tourist excursion through the mausoleum and grounds of the presidential palace.

As we waited to join a line, some members of our group spotted a man in a North Vietnamese Army uniform. He was stately, old enough to have worn it when they wore their Marine fatigues. Someone with a kernel of English helped arrange a group photograph, which included former Marine George Haught of Monaca.

It was a serendipitous meeting, the kind that sometimes happens in Vietnam, I’m told. Once there’s peace, old soldiers can bond.

His family ushered him off to get in line, and we fell in, too.

The line to see Uncle Ho was about a quarter-mile long but it moved pretty quickly. It was chilly that day, so I had my hands in my pockets, but when I started into the building, guards motioned for all of us pocketing our hands to expose them.

The time investment standing in line demanded that you give the body your full attention as you made the oval around it. No photos were allowed, of course, and no dawdling. He looked gray and bloated, not representative of the spindly, long-bearded fellow I remember from photographs.

Our guide told us that Ho wanted a small house on the grounds, rejecting the grand, French-built house painted gold, now used for official state events and foreign dignitary visits.

Ho’s “House Made of Stilts” as it is called officially is more fitting a man of Asia — elegant in its simplicity, airy, uncluttered and made of wood.

The palace grounds is a huge garden of tree-lined esplanades set about with French architecture, Ho’s stilt house, his office and artifacts. There are shops where you can buy magnets with images of Vietnam, Ho T-shirts, wood figurines, postcards and coffee.

As we made the rounds, finishing up with some small purchases, we saw that stately old soldier in the formal green uniform again.

As his family ushered him toward the exit, he gave our guys a little salute.

–Diana Nelson Jones