Fidel’s frontline visit cemented hero status in Vietnam

Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro eating “com vat,” compressed rice that Vietcong soldiers used to eat during the war, when he visited the Cu Chi tunnels in 1995. — File Photo: AFp  

Vietnamese volunteer Nguyen Thi Huong was just 17 when she was severely injured by an American cluster bomb. She would have died that day if it weren’t for a fateful encounter with an unexpected saviour: Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.

The cigar chomping Cuban’s surprise appearance on the battlefield in 1973 during the height of the Vietnam War cemented an enduring romance between the Cold War-era allies.

After his death on Friday at the age of 90, Castro has been lionised in Vietnam, with teenagers and seniors alike displaying an outpouring of grief.

Ms. Huong belonged to a legion of die-hard volunteers on the side of the communists during the brutal conflict. She was behind the frontlines in newly liberated central Quang Tri province, filling craters, when an American cluster bomb exploded near her, sending searing shrapnel into her body.

She lost so much blood that she fainted on the side of the road and said she would have died had Castro not come by in a convoy. “I was trying to cover the bleeding wound with my hands. Before I fainted on the highway, I vaguely saw a tall westerner with a beard, taking me to his car,” 60-year-old Ms. Huong told AFP from Quang Tri province.

War-era folklore

It was the trip to a nearby hospital in his car that saved her life, she said.

Ms. Huong’s battlefield tale is among many that have entered the annals of communist Vietnam War-era folklore.

Nguyen Dinh Bin, a Spanish-speaking former Deputy Foreign Minister who sometimes translated during Castro’s visits to the nation, often recounted the story.

But it also illustrates the remarkable relationship between two communist nations, separated by 15,000 km but bonded by ideology. The War ended with a stunning victory for the North two years after Castro’s visit, with the Americans defeated and the country unified.

His appearance on the frontlines of Quang Tri province, where he famously raised a battle-flag, was a classic piece of theatre, helping to rally north Vietnamese morale.

Rockstar welcome

He received a rockstar welcome on the trip. Cheering Quang Tri residents lined the streets for several kilometres to greet the bearded Cuban leader, dressed in bush attire to meet communist soldiers.

“Castro’s visit to Quang Tri brought a lot of fame for Vietnam, and confirmed our legitimate right to the land there,” historian Pham Xuan Nam said. It was a relationship that remained steadfast long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Castro visited Vietnam twice more in 1995 and 2003 — even as Hanoi's relationship with long-time Cuban foe, the United States, warmed.—AFP

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 8:22:50 AM |

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