Enemy to friend: Vietnam vet's tribute to France's Bigeard
A Vietnamese veteran of the Dien Bien Phu campaign on Friday paid tribute to his former enemy, French general Marcel Bigeard, who later became his friend.
"I am very sorry that I will not be able to see him anymore," retired colonel Pham Xuan Phuong, 81, told AFP on learning of Bigeard's death.
Bigeard, best known for his role in France's colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, died in Toul, France on Friday, his wife said. He was 94.
"I would like to convey my condolences to his family, especially his wife and daughter," said Phuong.
He said that the two soldiers had "established friendship which overcame challenges of time and the past."
Bigeard headed a parachute battalion and was dropped into the French base of Dien Bien Phu ahead of the historic 1954 battle.
On a return visit to Vietnam 16 years ago, he met Phuong, who discovered that his company and Bigeard's paratroops had confronted each other during the siege.
"We were direct opponents at that time and they also fought with us on Hill E1," Phuong recalled in an earlier interview with AFP.
"He was very patient in fighting. He was very tough."
But when they met decades later, "We were joking all the time," Phuong said.
"His death doesn't mean that the friendship ends, especially the friendship between Vietnam and France."
Phuong said he hopes to visit France next year and visit Bigeard's grave.
The 56-day Dien Bien Phu battle in a northwestern Vietnamese valley ended on May 7, 1954 with France's defeat. It was the critical event in Vietnam's emergence as an independent nation.
After several months in Vietnamese captivity, Bigeard was released and returned to active service, just in time to get involved in the spiralling Algerian war.
Phuong said he recently finished reading the latest of 15 books Bigeard wrote.
At their reunion, Bigeard inscribed another of his works for his one-time foe: "We have lived the same life in Dantesque conditions. Know how proud I am of you."
© 2010 AFP