Legendary Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap built his career on never backing down, even against seemingly impossible odds. Now, decades after ousting the French and later the Americans, he's celebrating another major victory: his 100th birthday.
Giap is revered by Vietnamese second only to former President Ho Chi Minh. Together, they plotted gutsy campaigns from jungles and caves using ill-equipped guerrilla fighters to gain Vietnam's independence, eventually leading to the end of French colonial rule throughout Indochina.
Two decades later, Giap's northern Communist forces also wore down the U.S. military, forcing them out of the former South Vietnam.
"It can be said that some of the country's most glorious and most important events are associated with his name and his cause," Do Quy Doan, vice minister of Information and Communications, said at a reception in Hanoi this week ahead of Giap's birthday on Thursday.
The four-star general has been hospitalized for about two years. But Giap continues to sign cards _ including a thank-you note to his "comrades" for their outpouring of birthday wishes _ and is still briefed every few days about international and national events, said Col. Nguyen Huyen, Giap's personal secretary for 35 years.
"He has helped to defeat two major powers," Huyen said. "Gen. Giap is the big brother of the heroic Vietnamese People's Army."
Though he was shoved out of the inner circle of political power decades ago, the slight white-haired military strategist remains a national treasure and still welcomed foreign leaders to his French-style villa in Hanoi until three years ago.
In 2009, he spoke forcefully against a bauxite mining plan in Vietnam's Central Highlands, calling on the government to reconsider the Chinese-led project because it posed environmental and security risks. He also protested the demolition of Hanoi's historic parliament house, Ba Dinh Hall. Both projects, however, went ahead.
The country's top leaders, including Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, President Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Giap on Wednesday to congratulate him on reaching the milestone, the party newspaper Nhan Dan reported Thursday. There were no photos or any mention in state-run media about Giap's ill health or that he has long been hospitalized.
At an exhibition in Hanoi marking his birthday, black-and-white photographs show Giap visiting troops during the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, a surprise attack that forced the French to surrender and cemented his reputation as a brilliant military strategist willing to endure huge losses to clinch victory.
Vietnamese students like Tran Hong Thong, 20, lingered over photographs of Giap's early revolutionary days.
A 1946 image "shows a young, skinny man, but he's already a high-ranking officer in the Vietnamese army," said Thong, who began learning about Giap in junior high school.
Other images show the aging general meeting prominent politicians, including fellow Communist revolutionary and former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
One shot shows Giap smiling as he shakes hands with his old Vietnam War enemy, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. In 2004, during the 50th anniversary of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Giap recalled that 1997 visit.
"I told McNamara ... the U.S. lost in Vietnam because the U.S. did not understand Vietnam," Giap told foreign journalists at the time.
The war ended on April 30, 1975, when northern Communist forces seized control of Saigon, the capital of the former U.S.-backed South Vietnam. Some 58,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese and civilians died in the fighting.
Giap later became a strong supporter of friendly ties between the U.S. and Vietnam. Since the two sides normalized relations in 1995, trade and investment has flourished. Military ties have also strengthened.
And Giap has lived to see his once war-torn country rise from poverty and embrace capitalism and peace.
"He keeps going," said John Ernst, a Vietnam War scholar at Morehead State University in Kentucky. "I think it adds to his mystique and popularity."
(This version CORRECTS title of vice minister.)