Published August 30th, 2011
“Vietnam is full of wonderful, remote places: terraced hills, pristine islands and wide green valleys. But if you want to understand something of how Vietnam works you don’t have to go further than the center of Hanoi.
Ba Dinh Square, the epicenter of political life in Vietnam, was designed for parades. The great boulevard along its western side can accommodate hundreds of military vehicles, the tiered reviewing stands and the lawns opposite have space for thousands of cheering spectators and Ho Chi Minh’s grey marble mausoleum has a terrace from which Communist Party leadership can wave at the masses. Except the masses don’t come anymore. The party of the masses no longer trusts crowds and the crowds have got better things to do than act out the role of the masses.
The history of Vietnam is written in and around the square. Along its eastern side stand the remains of the citadel of Thang Long, founded a thousand years ago when the capital was moved to the site for the first time. Much of the remains was almost buried under the new National Assembly building a few years ago but were saved by the concerted efforts of the country’s historians and archaeologists. The modern Assembly building hosts surprisingly lively debates – surprising given that all but one of its 500 delegates are members of the Communist Party.
At the northern end of the square are two sets of buildings, divided by Hung Vuong Road, the broad triumphal boulevard named after the mythical first king of ancient Vietnam. On the eastern side is the old French school, the Lycee Albert Sarraut. It’s now the offices of the Central Committee, the main decision-making body of the Party. On the western side, in a space carved out of the former-colonists’ Botanic Gardens, is the former French Governor-General’s residence, now the Presidential Palace, and behind it, hidden in the trees, the Prime Minister’s Office.
Uncle Ho’s mausoleum, modeled on Lenin’s equivalent in Moscow, has become a national pilgrimage site. Around the back, long lines of schoolchildren from all over the country are still brought to pay homage. Foreigners have a separate, and shorter, line. Ho never wanted to become a visitor attraction but his Party colleagues recognized the power of his image and still deploy it to this day. Official visitors from socialist countries still pay their respects here.
Opposite is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where official visitors who aren’t so comfortable with Ho’s political legacy can pay their respects without controversy. Making up the southern side of the Square are the Foreign Ministry and old colonial villas which once housed the embassies of eastern bloc allies, now mostly members of the European Union.
When the Communist Party holds official business in the Square it’s closed to outsiders but the rest of the time it’s public property. It comes to life after dusk when hundreds come to exercise, play with their children, sit and chat. In a city as crowded as Hanoi it’s one of the few open spaces where locals and visitors can relax without fear of being mown down by a motorbike. As the sprinklers water the lawns in the fading light it’s also a great place to contemplate the future of one party rule in Vietnam.”