Image: Former South Vietnamese premier Nguyen Cao Ky
Doan Bao Chau  /  AP
Former South Vietnamese premier Nguyen Cao Ky, facing the camera, hugs his former bodyguard on Wednesday in Ho Chi Minh City. 
updated 1/14/2004 12:22:15 PM ET 2004-01-14T17:22:15

Former exiled South Vietnamese premier Nguyen Cao Ky returned Wednesday to the communist country he fled nearly three decades ago, marking his first homecoming trip since the Vietnam War ended.

Ky, 73, of Hacienda Heights, Calif., arrived in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport with his wife, daughter and three friends, becoming one of the best-known political figures from the former U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government to return.

“A lot of people said ’Don’t go, don’t go,’ but I said this is my home, my country,” Ky said. “We Asians, we believe in destiny, so it’s the right time, the right moment to come.”

At his hotel, Ky hugged a former bodyguard who came to greet him, along with a small crowd of friends.

Vietnam, which issued a tourist visa to Ky, has said it welcomed his decision to return.

Message of reconciliation
Prior to his return, which coincides with Tet Lunar New Year festivities, Ky, a long-standing critic of the communist leadership in Hanoi, said he wanted to bring a message of reconciliation on his trip.

“The war ended 30 years ago, but it still divides us into two camps. So I want to put aside the past hatred, and just sit together and talk to one another, face to face,” he told Radio Free Asia.

He is expected to visit friends and family in Ho Chi Minh City before flying to Hanoi on Jan. 28 and visiting his hometown of Son Tay, about 25 miles northwest of the capital.

Ky, one of the most colorful leaders during the Vietnam War, was a flamboyant fighter pilot who became premier following a military coup in 1965. U.S. officials were wary of his reputation as a playboy with a fondness for drinking, gambling and womanizing.

The one-time air force general went on to serve as vice president under Nguyen Van Thieu in 1967-1971.

In 1975, when Communist North Vietnamese forces took over Saigon, the capital of U.S.-backed South Vietnam, Ky escaped by flying a helicopter out to sea, landing on a U.S. naval carrier. He became a businessman in Southern California, writing several books and lecturing at universities.

Activists condemn visit
His decision to return has been angrily condemned by some activists in Southern California, home to the largest Vietnamese-American community outside of Vietnam, who say the visit bestows legitimacy on a corrupt government.

But Ky’s return visit underscores a significant shift in attitudes among many overseas Vietnamese. Increasingly, through travel and business deals, they are renewing ties with their homeland.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of overseas Vietnamese have returned for visits, with an estimated 200,000 flooding home annually for Tet celebrations, which begin Jan. 22.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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