hanoi shopkeeper
A shopkeeper looking at figurines and busts of Vietnam's revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh for sale at a shop in the old quarters of Hanoi. Image Credit: AFP

Hanoi: The task of safeguarding the embalmed corpse of Vietnam's revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh is gruelling: carefully-selected riflemen work around the clock, watching over the communist nation's founding father who died 50 years ago on Monday.

Protecting him is the ultimate patriotic service for men in stiff white uniforms at Ho's towering tomb in Hanoi, a monolithic shrine to a man who still pervades public life despite his fading relevance among the youth.

Vietnamese military personnel stationed the outside the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum
Vietnamese military personnel stationed the outside the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi. Image Credit: AFP

The job is a "dream come true" for guard Nguyen Xuan Thang, even if it's not always easy.

"We have to have our eyes on everything to deal with any situation that may arise," the 41-year-old lieutenant colonel told AFP.

All year round, he works up to four two-hour shifts every day - often outside the tomb in the blistering summer heat, monsoon rains, or frigid winter weather.

Some days he works inside the cool, dark chambers where Ho's waxy body - his wispy goatee beard still intact - is on display for daily pilgrimages by thousands of schoolchildren, tourists and war veterans who come to pay their respects.

tourists hanoi
Tourists posing for a photograph in front of a statue of Vietnam's revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, at the Ho Chi Minh museum in Hanoi. Image Credit: AFP

Even after hours, Ho is never alone: soldiers flank his encased body 24 hours a day.

"For us who see him every day the emotion is still overwhelming," said Thang, who like the rest of his team was hired because of his physical stamina, communist party dedication, and easy-on-the-eyes appearance.

Guards like Thang aren't the only ones tasked with looking after Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately known in the country.

A team of four Russian and seven Vietnamese scientists were hired this year to evaluate his embalmed corpse ahead of the 50th anniversary on September 2.

"The body of president Ho Chi Minh has been kept in very good shape," said Major General Cao Dinh Kiem, a senior member of the team in charge of guarding the mausoleum, which opened in 1975.

Bring in the Russians

Rumours abound in Vietnam that the body might not really be Ho, or that he is sent to Russia every year for maintenance, which Kiem dismissed with a smile.

"In short, that is not correct," he said.

Leaning on Russian embalming expertise isn't new in Vietnam.

Ahead of Ho's death in 1969 - and behind his back - his aides turned to allies in the Soviet Union to ask how they preserved their own communist founding father, Vladimir Lenin, who is still entombed in Moscow's Red Square.

Vietnam struck up a deal with the USSR to receive embalming materials and guidance from their experts.

In 1950, North Vietnam's President Ho Chi Minh
In 1950, North Vietnam's President Ho Chi Minh uses a typewriter at the Viet Bac military base during a military campaign against French forces in Vietnam. Image Credit: AFP

The deal died after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Hanoi scrambled to replace it with a commercial arrangement for the exchanges, which remains in place today.

Considered state secrets, the details of that arrangement cannot be publicly shared, not even with communist allies North Korea or China, which have both preserved former leaders for posterity.

"In terms of (sharing) the pharmaceutical techniques, it's an absolute no," said Kiem.

Ho did not live long enough to see the end of the bloody war against the US-backed south in 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks rolled through the former southern capital Saigon, later renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

But Ho did deliver clear burial plans in his will: a request to be cremated and have his ashes modestly displayed in north, central and south Vietnam in a sign of symbolic unity.

"There should be no stone stele or bronze statue", but rather a small ceramic urn on three tree-lined hills for visitors, he wrote his will.

Ho Chi Minh clothes
A woman walking past clothing from Vietnam's revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh on display at the Ho Chi Minh museum in Hanoi Image Credit: AFP

'Ho for everyone'

However, eager to capitalise on the popularity of the north's communist leader, his aides chose instead to build a grand tomb, drawing inspiration from Lenin's mausoleum, the pyramids in Egypt and the Washington Monument.

The powerful symbol of Ho Chi Minh continues to be commandeered today by Vietnam's communist leaders; his teachings are invoked in school curricula, political and military training, children's books, patriotic songs and on propaganda billboards.

"The Communist party needs Ho and uses Ho whenever and wherever it can... there is a Ho for everyone - children, mothers, cadres, bureaucrats, and soldiers," said Christopher Goscha, author of "Vietnam: A New History".

But for Vietnam's booming young population - around half the country is under 30 - Ho figures as a distant historic character, far removed from the thriving capitalism, ubiquitous social media and yearning for freedom that preoccupies most of the smartphone-obsessed youth today.

"Ho has stiff competition and it's only getting more difficult to make him relevant to this younger generation," Goscha told AFP.

But for Ho's dutiful minders, the communist leader remains a central focus.

Thang and his team busily prepared for an official wreath-laying ceremony for Ho held Friday, and expects visitor numbers to surge on Monday for the death anniversary, which also happens to be National Day.

"We have prepared our soldiers spiritually and physically to best serve visitors... and pay respects to the president," Thang said.


Body politics: famous preserved corpses around the world

Vladimir Lenin

Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin was the original communist leader to be embalmed, starting a trend among hard-left regimes around the world.

Lenin died in 1924 aged 53, and had wanted to be buried with his mother in the former imperial capital of Saint Petersburg, but was instead preserved in a mausoleum on Red Square, where he remains, attracting visitors curious to see the Bolshevik founder of the Soviet Union.

Debates on whether to remove the body started after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 but Russia's Communist party has vehemently lobbied to keep Lenin in situ.

Egyptian mummies

Say "Ancient Egypt" to any schoolchild and the first thing they'll think of is the mummies - preserved remains of important figures.

The British Museum in London houses a collection of 120 human mummies from Egypt and Sudan, which counts as one of its biggest draws for many visitors.

The museum also has 300 mummified animals, including dogs, cats and even a crocodile.

None of the mummies has been unwrapped since the 1790s and museum experts have used x-rays and CT scans to carry out research on them.

Mao Zedong

The Chinese revolutionary leader, who died on September 9, 1976, has been embalmed and on show since 1977 in a glass cubicle in the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Mao's body was placed in formaldehyde and other preserving fluids, according to an account in the People's Daily newspaper, and today the parts of Mao's body that cannot be seen are bathed in liquid.

When the mausoleum is closed, the cadaver is lowered into a container maintained at a low temperature, the paper said.

Eva Peron

Eva Peron, Argentina's emblematic first lady of the 1940s and 50s, was embalmed when she died of cancer in 1952 at age 33.

"Evita" was as adored by her husband's poor and working-class base as she was reviled by the military and elite.

After Juan Peron was toppled in a 1955 coup, army officers secretly removed Evita's corpse from its resting place at a pro-Peron trade union headquarters and hid it.

Worried that Peronist militants would find it, then-dictator Pedro Aramburu had the body taken to Italy and buried in Milan under a false name.

Peron's third wife and successor, Isabel, finally struck a deal: Evita's body was returned to Argentina in 1974 and she has rested ever since in her family mausoleum in Buenos Aires, a place of pilgrimage for her admirers and fans of the musical and movie about her life.

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

The bodies of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il are on permanent display at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun mausoleum in Pyongyang.

Their embalmed corpses rest in glass coffins on biers in separate halls suffused with dim red light, soldiers stand guard in each corner as a steady stream of visitors - foreigners are allowed and everyone must adhere to a strict dress code - bows before them three times.

Attendants glide silently across marble floors at the cavernous complex on the outskirts of the capital, where exhibits display the two men's possessions, vehicles and awards.

Kim Il Sung died in 1994 but remains Eternal President of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as the isolated country is officially known, while Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, is Eternal General Secretary of the ruling Workers' Party.

Both men suffered heart attacks. Russian scientists helped embalm their bodies and are said to assist with maintenance.

Current leader Kim Jong Un, the third generation of the family to rule, and his close aides visit the mausoleum on key national holidays - such as their birthdays - to pay their respects.

Ferdinand Marcos

The divisive Filipino dictator died in exile in 1989 after he was booted out in a "People Power" revolt, but his embalmed body was returned to his ancestral home where it lay on display for over two decades.

In 2016 his mortician told AFP that Marcos's face was made of wax, but insisted the rest of the body - covered up by clothes - was original.

He was finally interred in a Heroes' Cemetary three years ago, sparking controversy in the Philippines, and removing him from the relatively exclusive global club of famous embalmed bodies on display.