HANOI — Tens of thousands of people gathered in Hanoi Saturday to pay their respects to Vietnam's independence hero General Vo Nguyen Giap, lying in state in the capital after he died last week at the age of 102.
Top leaders bade farewell to Giap early Saturday, kicking off two days of elaborate official commemorations that come as the one-party state seeks to co-opt the popular general's legacy as a symbol of its own legitimacy.
As soldiers in white uniforms stood to attention, officials wrote messages of condolence hailing Giap as a communist hero — brushing over his post-war relegation to the political sidelines and his later outspoken criticism of the government.
"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 a huge contribution and rendered special, great services to the Vietnamese revolution," Trong wrote in a book also signed by Premier Nguyen Tan Dung and President Truong Tan Sang.
Lauded as a military genius for the guerrilla tactics that defeated both the French and American 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.
Outside the funeral home, tens of thousands of people gathered — including war veterans with medals pinned to their chests, and teenagers with pictures of Giap emblazoned on their clothes — hoping to catch a final glimpse of the general.
"I couldn't sleep unless I came to see him for one last time," 68-year-old Nguyen Thi Bay told AFP.
"He was a great man, talented but pure of spirit. I cried for the death of (Vietnam's founding) president Ho Chi Minh, now I cry for General Giap."
The general, 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.
He later played a key role in Vietnam's defeat of the United States in 1975.
Despite being politically marginalized after the country's reunification in 1975, Giap remained a national icon — even among those born after the war.
"Now, some of our top leaders are just bureaucrats, or they're corrupt, or they say one thing and do another," said Bui Minh Duc, 51, a former soldier.
"People want to show they honor and respect Giap's life, his spirit. The people know who is good and who is not," he added.
More than 100,000 people queued for hours to visit Giap's house this week to pay their respects after news of his death broke.
Outside the capital, authorities have set up altars where people can 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.
The general's body will be interred in his native Quang Binh province, at the request of his family.
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.
Flags are flying at half-mast until Sunday, to mark the official period of mourning.
General Giap is survived by Dang Bich Ha, his wife since 1949, and four children.