PARIS: A Vietnamese former colonel and revolutionary war hero who became disillusioned with the communist regime and defected, becoming one of its most vocal and influential critics, died in France at age 90.
Bui Tin passed away of kidney failure in hospital in a Paris suburb early Saturday, his friend and a relative confirmed, after several weeks of declining health.
"The hospital told me that Tin passed away after falling into a coma," close acquaintance Tuong An told AFP on Sunday. A relative in Hanoi also confirmed his death.
Tin, a former army journalist, had lived in exile in France since 1990 when he defected during a trip for a meeting organised by l'Humanite communist newspaper in Paris.
It was an unlikely twist of fate for a man who spent much of his life fighting for Vietnam's independence - first from French colonial rulers and later from US-backed anti-communist fighters in the south.
He was just a teenager when, full of fervour, he joined the army aligned with Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary movement that would eventually expel the French in the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Several other milestones would follow during his storied military career.
On Apr 30, 1975, he was among the first soldiers that entered the Presidential Palace in the former southern capital Saigon - later renamed Ho Chi Minh City - capping a long and bloody war that left some three million Vietnamese dead.
Tin worked as an army reporter during much of the war, and later said he met US navy pilot John McCain in the prison nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" where the American POW spent five and half years after his jet was shot down in the city.
The two men would meet again in 1991, when Tin testified to a US senate committee on POW and MIA affairs, at the end of which he famously hugged the man he once considered a foe.
"When I reached for his hand he responded by embracing me, which I didn't mind, as cameras recorded the moment for the next day's papers, which ran the picture with variations on the caption FORMER ENEMIES EMBRACE," McCain wrote in his 2002 book "Worth the Fighting For".
As an army reporter, who later held top jobs at state newspapers, Tin spent much of his career brushing up with war heroes like General Vo Nguyen Giap but - like Giap - later became disillusioned with the cause he dedicated so much of his life to.
He believed the Communist Party had drifted from the ideals of the revolution's founding father - calling its leaders arrogant and corrupt - and once said the party "hides its misdeeds in the shadow of Ho Chi Minh".
He spent much of his time in France writing about politics and current affairs in his birth country and friends say he was a journalist, and activist, up to the day he died.
Days before he fell ill last month, his internet went down so he wrote an article by hand calling for multi-party democracy in Vietnam that he asked a friend to post.
"When I visited him in the hospital, he was very weak, but the first question he asked me was whether his article had been published or not," An told AFP.
"He was a real journalist until the end of his life."
He came under fire from fellow activists for his former ties to the communists, but An said he remained kind and tolerant even of his harshest critics, having dedicated his life to his political ideals.
"He lived for democracy in Vietnam," she said.
One of his relatives said the family did not pay much attention to his controversial political leanings - which leaders in the one-party state are notoriously intolerant of - and instead respected him as an elder and a leader.
"The family didn't take (his activism) too seriously, everyone has their own ideology," the relative said, requesting anonymity.
Born in 1927 near Hanoi, Tin was one of 10 siblings and leaves behind two children - a daughter in Hanoi and a son in Canada.
Friends said a funeral service will be organised in France.