HANOI – Vietnam’s top leaders gathered early Saturday to pay their last respects to independence hero Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap as his state funeral began in Hanoi.
The commemorations came as the one-party state tries to capture Giap’s legacy as a symbol of its own legitimacy, hailing him as a communist hero while downplaying the general’s later reputation as a persistent government critic.
Soldiers in white uniforms stood to attention as officials, including Premier Nguyen Tan Dung and President Truong Tan Sang, bade farewell to Giap, who was second only to late President Ho Chi Minh in the affections of Vietnamese.
“He had an outstanding talent in military leadership,” wrote Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong in a book of condolences, according to state media.
“He made huge a contribution and rendered special, great services to the Vietnamese revolution,” Trong wrote in the book, which was also signed by the president and prime minister.
Lauded as a military genius for the guerrilla tactics that defeated both the French and U.S. armies, the general is being honored with two days of national mourning.
A photograph of Giap and a gilt frame containing military medals was placed above his coffin, which was draped in the national flag.
His family, wearing black, stood close by while thick clouds of incense filled the room where his body lay in state.
“The serious, respectful mood at the funeral today reflects the level of respect and sorrow we feel for the loss for the general,” Lt. Gen. Nguyen Quoc Thuoc said at the funeral.
“His death has left an enormous sadness but it has also restarted the fire of patriotism for the Vietnamese,” he added.
Giap, a former history teacher-turned-military commander, led his troops to victory over France in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu — the battle that ended French involvement in Indochina — and played a key role in Vietnam’s defeat of the United States in 1975.
Despite being politically sidelined after the country’s reunification in 1975, Giap remained enormously popular — even with people born after the war.
“I am deeply honored to attend the funeral,” said Col. Bui Xuan Tuyen.
“Gen. Giap is a symbol of the pride and triumph of the Vietnamese People’s Army,” the 46-year-old added.
Roads around the funeral site have been closed amid tight security, but huge crowds were expected later Saturday when the funeral home opened to the public.
More than 100,000 people lined up for hours to visit Giap’s home last week to pay their final respects after news of his death broke.
Outside of the capital, authorities have set up altars where people could go to pay tribute to the general.
Concerts have been canceled, national parks closed, and normal state television broadcasts suspended in favor of patriotic music and documentaries for the mourning period.
At the request of his family, Giap’s body will be interred in his native Quang Binh province.
The move is highly unusual in Vietnam, where all top leaders from the north of the country are buried in Hanoi’s Mai Dich Cemetery — the equivalent of France’s Pantheon.
The nation’s flags will fly at half-staff until Sunday, to mark the official period of mourning.