Bui Tin had lived in exile in France since 1990 when he defected during a trip organised by l’Humanite communist newspaper in Paris.
His death in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil was ignored by Vietnam’s state-run news media.
He had fought for independence from French colonial rulers and then US-backed anti-communists in the south.
As a teenager he joined Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary movement that would expel the French in 1954, defeat the Americans and the Chinese in 1979, humiliating three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in 30 years.
Tin was present at the pivotal battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when Vietnamese revolutionaries defeated French imperial troops to secure their country’s independence.
During the American war, Tin was not a commander but the deputy editor of a military newspaper, Quan Doi Nhan Dan.
On April 30, 1975, he was among the first soldiers that entered the presidential palace (pictured) in Saigon, ending the American war in which 3 million Vietnamese died.
There he found General Duong Van Minh, the last president of South Vietnam, sitting in a conference room.
“I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you,” Minh told Tin, according to the 2002 book Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975, by AJ Langguth.
“There is no question of your transferring power,” Tin reportedly replied. “Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.”
Tin told Minh he had nothing to fear as it was only the Americans who had been beaten.
The former colonel interrogated US Navy pilot John McCain in Hanoi where the two-time presidential hopeful spent 5½ years after his plane was shot down in the city.
The two men embraced in 1991, when Tin testified to a US Senate committee on missing in action personnel.
“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’,” the Republican senator wrote in his 2002 book Worth the Fighting For.
Many South Vietnamese leaders would be imprisoned for years after the war in what the Communists called “re-education camps”.
Tin believed the Communist Party had abandoned its ideals and become arrogant and corrupt, hiding “its misdeeds in the shadow of Ho Chi Minh”.
Communist Party dragged a unified Vietnam through disastrous postwar experiments like collectivised agriculture.
Tin spent much of his time in France writing about Vietnamese politics and demanded multiparty democracy.
Vietnam’s leadership had “failed to bring liberty and prosperity to Vietnam,” he wrote in the Washington Post in October 1991.
“Rather than improve the abysmal condition of the population, they have blindly pursued sectarian policies designed to maintain their power,” Tin added.
Born in 1927 near Hanoi, Tin was one of 10 siblings and leaves two children: a daughter in Hanoi and a son in Canada.
The presidential palace, Saigon in 1975. Picture credit: Flickr