Castro's Vietnam battlefield visit cemented his hero status

Hanoi (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 Friday at the age of 90, Castro has been lionised in Vietnam, with teenagers and seniors alike displaying an outpouring of grief.

Huong belonged to a legion of diehard volunteers on the side of the communists during the brutal conflict.

She was behind the front lines 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 Huong told AFP from Quang Tri province.

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

"I considered him a second father. Without him, I would have died 43 years ago," Huong, now a farmer, said through tears.

"I am so sad at the news of his death."

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 kilometres (9,300 miles) but bonded by ideology and a once fervent animosity towards Washington.

- 'Milestone' visit -

The Vietnam 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 battleflag, was a classic piece of theatre, helping to rally north Vietnamese morale and poke the "Yanqui" enemy they both loathed.

He received a rock star 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 told AFP.

"It was a milestone, affirming that Vietnam and Cuba were great brothers and comrades," he 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.

Cuba also funded infrastructure projects in Vietnam and paid for post-war recovery efforts even as coffers drained back home under Castro's hardline communist economic policies.

Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang was the last head of state to visit Castro on November 16, just 10 days before his death.

And on Castro's final trip to Vietnam in 2003, he reportedly sat with legendary war general Vo Nguyen Giap, chatting and laughing beneath a portrait of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. Giap died in late 2013.

And while Castro is reviled by many at home and abroad who accuse him of being a despot with little tolerance for dissent, in Vietnam he is widely revered, especially among war veterans who saw him.

"I'll never forget his words, saying that the revolutionary flag he was holding in his hand would surely be in Saigon one day," said Le Van Hoan, an 85-year-old retired communist party member who was in the crowd that day with many who cried as the Cuban spoke.

"Castro's visit was an honour and a great encouragement to thousands of people and soldiers in the area."