Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lined the streets Sunday for the funeral of independence hero General Vo Nguyen Giap, who orchestrated the country’s stunning wartime victories over France and the United States. Giap’s coffin, draped in Vietnam’s flag, was lowered into a grave in a remote coastal area of his native Quang Binh province, after a day which saw vast crowds — at times 10 or 20 deep — swarm to pay their respects as his body was brought from Hanoi.
Mourners in the capital had earlier fallen to their knees in prayer or shouted “Long live General Giap!”, as the funeral cortege drove to the city’s airport to make the 500-kilometre (310 miles) journey south for burial.
Giap, who died aged 102 on October 4, was the architect of Vietnam’s battlefield victories over France and the US. The one-party communist state has tried to harness the popular general’s legacy to bolster its own legitimacy.
“(Giap) is the general of the People and his name will be forever engraved in the history of the nation,” Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong said in a televised speech on Sunday.
His death was “a great loss” for Vietnam, Trong added, speaking before the procession at the Hanoi Funeral House, where the general’s body lay in state overnight.
Hordes more people, many bearing bunches of yellow flowers, greeted the coffin’s arrival in Quang Binh and lined the main highway from the airport to the private burial site in Vung Chua.
Nguyen Van Hien, 45, said he had walked many miles from a neighbouring province to say goodbye to Giap, who was lauded as a military genius for the guerrilla tactics that inspired resistance movements around the world.
“His death is a great loss for the country,” he told AFP, adding he would not leave until he could pray at the grave.
Giap, who became a prominent government critic late in life, is second only to founding president Ho Chi Minh in the communist nation’s affections.
He has been honoured with two days of national mourning — when all flags fly at half mast — and the largest state funeral in decades.
“The General gave his whole life to the country and the people,” his son, Vo Dien Bien, said in a short, emotionally-charged speech in Hanoi on Sunday.
“Now he is gone, his spirit will join with those of the Vietnamese people, giving (them) strength to build a strong and prosperous country.”
The 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.
The enormous crowds are highly unusual in authoritarian Vietnam, which heavily stage-manages anniversary events and routinely breaks up political protests with force.
Despite being politically marginalised after the country’s reunification in 1975, Giap remained a national icon — even among those born after the war.
“So many people cried — it is completely different from previous (state) funerals,” war veteran Vu Phi Hung, 62, told AFP.
“This shows that the people had a deep, strong emotional connection with Giap,” he added.
Until well into his 90s, Giap, physically frail but outspoken, wrote open letters and used anniversary events to rail against sensitive issues such as corruption and mining.
In doing so, the general provided implicit cover for party critics and the country’s dissidents, experts said — despite always remaining a loyal party member.
Speaking in Hanoi on Sunday, Party leader Trong also acknowledged Giap’s “important opinions on the country’s major issues”.
Historians have hailed Giap’s grasp of logistics and his ability to mobilise a population against a more technologically advanced enemy, but they also question the morality of the huge sacrifices he asked of the Vietnamese in order to secure independence.
Some Vietnamese commentators view the massive outpouring of grief over Giap’s death as a symbol of rising discontent with the quality of today’s leaders.
“People want more Vo Nguyen Giaps — the problems we face today are no less difficult than the war,” historian Duong Trung Quoc told state radio Sunday, referring to the country’s economic woes.
General Giap is survived by Dang Bich Ha, his wife since 1949, and four children.