One of the surprising things about Hanoi is how much it reminds me of Buenos Aires. There’s a similar palette – the buildings are painted in pale blues, yellows, pinks and greens. Life on the street is similarly crowded; in the Old Quarter especially, the narrow pavements are packed with motorcycles and pedlars. Religion is very much a part of daily life, and the veneration of political figures – whether kings who fought the Chinese a millennium ago or a modern figure like Ho Chi Minh – has a religious dimension.

We paid a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum – part of a whole complex dedicated to the leader that includes a museum and the buildings that Ho lived in after his victory over the French. This elaborate set up seems inappropriate for such an ascetic man: Ho refused the French governor’s palace when he came to power, preferring to live in its outbuildings. (Later he had a simple – but gorgeous – house built on the palace’s grounds: its two rooms stand on stilts, surrounded on all sides by a wide screened verandah.) It’s hard to reconcile this man with what it’s like to line up to see him: it’s an exercise in crowd control in a space designed to make you feel small. In two lines we walked along the edge of an enormous boulevard, the square mass of the Mausoleum looming on the left. We passed into the building itself under the watchful eye of soldiers in ceremonial uniform (white decorated with red epaulettes and yellow braid). And there, lying like Snow White in a glass coffin, was Ho himself, flanked by four soldiers with bayonets. He’s bathed in orange light, his fine old man’s hair neatly combed, a blanket pulled up to his waist as if to keep him from getting cold. The preservation of his corpse almost 50 years after his death (Ho died in 1969) requires constant work: he’s sent to Russia for two months every year for upkeep. Ho’s stated wish was to be cremated; he wanted his ashes scattered at sites throughout Vietnam to symbolise the country’s unification. His successors made a different meaning of him: he is the state made flesh, entombed in a square building that asserts the state’s control over his memory even as it purports to celebrate him.

It’s a successful site of pilgrimage though: curious foreigners like Ben and I were a small minority of the people lining up to see Ho. As we visited shrines to old Viet kings and witnessed the ceremonies marking the end of the first lunar month – and with the help of our guide at the excellent Museum of Ethnology – I began to see how the Ho cult fits into a wider pattern of ancestor worship here.

Dragon-head-Le-Thai-To-shrine-Hanoi-Vietnam

There’s a lake at the centre of Hanoi called Hoan Kiem, or the Lake of the Returned Sword. The name refers to a story told about Le Loi, a general who successfully drove the occupying Chinese out of Vietnam in the 15th century and established himself as emperor. (There’d been a long history of invasions by Vietnam’s northern neighbour.) According to the story, Le Loi won independence for his country with the aid of a magical sword. The new emperor went boating on the lake one day after the Chinese had accepted their defeat. A turtle rose from the water, took the emperor’s sword, and disappeared again into the lake’s depths. In a country with a history so marked by foreign occupation – a country that has fought repeatedly to expel those external forces – it’s remarkable that the story most often told about this national hero does not concern his exploits in battle but rather how he relinquished his weapon once he had won peace.

There are a number of monuments to Le Loi (also known as Le Thai To) along Hoan Kiem: an enormous bronze statue representing him as a scholar, a scroll clasped in one hand, and a shrine. We visited the shrine as we walked around the lake, curious to see how he was worshipped. There’s a courtyard as you enter from the street, and then the shrine itself, up a flight of stairs. A group of schoolchildren was there at the same time. A few had been chosen to take their offerings to the king while the others prayed in the courtyard; they quickly slipped off their shoes and stepped into the shrine’s interior. The offerings at shrines here are very practical: plastic bottles of water, packets of biscuits, fruit, cans of beer. It’s the same at the many neighbourhood shrines (you can’t walk far in the Old Quarter without seeing one of the square banners that marks one): in front of the statues of the figures to be venerated there are tidy stacks of these same staple goods. The children at the shrine carried bottles of water; they quickly set these in place, bowed their heads in prayer, and then joined their classmates outside. There’s a touching solicitude to the practice: it’s like bringing groceries to an elderly parent. It also implies that the ancestors are not so different to their worshippers: the great king’s daily needs are much like our own.

The ancestors worshipped here are not solely great leaders: each family’s parents and grandparents enter the pantheon as they die. Everywhere you go in Hanoi, there are small personal shrines. (There’s one in the lobby of our hotel.) As she explained Viet culture to us, our guide at the Museum of Ethnology had a welcome feminist perspective: she explained how rarely female ancestors are so honoured, how a woman is expected to give up the worship of her family’s ancestors when she marries and worship her husband’s ancestors instead. (There are a number of matriarchal tribes in Vietnam, but the Viet mainstream is definitely patriarchal.) Still, there is something beautiful in honouring your parents and grandparents in this way, in insisting on their continued presence. (There’s a ritual performed when people move house to invite their ancestors to come along.) Last week was the end of the first lunar month; to mark the occasion people built fires all over the city and squatted by the kerb, burning sheets of paper with representations of things their ancestors might need. Sitting on our balcony, the embers twisted in the air like snow. It made a different kind of sense of the fuss around Ho Chi Minh: the past and its inhabitants are everywhere here, and millions of daily observances keep them in the present.