updated 4/29/2005 8:24:09 AM ET 2005-04-29T12:24:09

He is thin and frail, his steps shaky and his hair tufts of white. But the legendary Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap remains sharp and poised, and his eyes still flicker when he talks of old battles.

Giap led Vietnam to victory over the French and then the Americans. But today he is fighting a different foe: poverty. At 93, he says he wants to elevate his country from one that’s still developing to one that can compete internationally.

“Vietnam is heroic, but remains a poor country,” Giap said in an interview Friday at his French colonial-style home in Hanoi. He spoke on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

“Now we have to launch another April 30 fighting poverty and backwardness to make Vietnam stronger and more prosperous,” he said.

Giap was the military brains behind the guerrilla war. He was known for taking risks few would have tried, often sacrificing large numbers of troops for strategic gain.

End of era of wars
On April 30, 1975, northern forces rolled into the former U.S.-backed capital of South Vietnam, crashing tanks through the gates of the Presidential Palace and broadcasting the surrender of President Duong Van Minh Minh over national radio.

That day marked the end of a long, brutal era of war that included France’s surrender in 1954, which ended 100 years of colonial rule.

“No other wars for national liberation were as fierce or caused as many losses as this war,” Giap said. “Some international friends advised us just to keep the north, and that we should not fight the Americans. But we still fought because for Vietnam, nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”

Known as the “Red Napoleon,” Giap surrounded the French at Dien Bien Phu by ordering his soldiers to drag heavy artillery across rugged mountains. He caught the Americans by surprise in 1968 by directing attacks in southern-controlled cities, including former Saigon, in what is known as the Tet Offensive.

Today, he still wears his military uniform and continues to welcome world leaders who visit Vietnam. Thousands of Vietnamese and others who request to meet with him are turned away because his health will no longer permit it, but he remains a national treasure — the most revered figure in Vietnam after late President Ho Chi Minh.

“We have a responsibility with my father to keep him well and to preserve everything belonging to him,” said Giap’s son Vo Dien Bien, one of five children. “We’re under pressure to do everything well.”

Slideshow: Fall of Saigon Giap’s wife of 59 years — whom he married after his first wife died in a French prison — also remains at his side and says that life has finally become easier for the family.

“My husband has shouldered most of the difficulties,” said Dang Bich Ha, 78. “As his wife, I tried my best. But all the difficulties have gone.”

And Giap says he has faith Vietnam will once again prove itself to the world by waging a peaceful campaign to bring prosperity to the communist country.

“People did not believe that Vietnam could defeat the French and the Americans, but we managed to do it,” he said. “Now we could definitely win over poverty and backwardness. Vietnam will be a strong and prosperous country — that is my desire.”

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