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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 13:43 GMT
Vietnam welcomes former enemy
Nguyen Cao Ky greets his former bodyguard
Nguyen Cao Ky has not been to Vietnam since he escaped in 1975
A former prime minister of the US-backed South Vietnamese government has returned to Vietnam for the first time since the war ended in 1975.

Nguyen Cao Ky, 73, has been allowed to visit Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, for the lunar new year holiday.

He is one of the most high-profile political figures from the former government to be permitted to return.

"My home country is Vietnam," Mr Ky said after arriving with his wife and daughter, and two US war veterans.

"The city has changed considerably. I used to be a pilot and when I saw the city from above I saw a lot of changes," he said before being greeted by his wartime bodyguard and friends he had not seen for 30 years.

I want to put aside the past hatred, and just sit together and talk to one another
Nguyen Cao Ky
Former South Vietnam PM

They will stay in Ho Chi Minh City until 28 January, when they are due to fly to Hanoi to visit Mr Ky's home town of Son Tay, about 40 kilometres from the Vietnamese capital.

Dramatic escape

He is remembered as a colourful, even flamboyant figure, once described by an American official as an "unguided missile."

A former fighter pilot, Mr Ky became prime minister in 1965, and went on to serve as vice-president from 1967 to 1971.

US officials were reportedly wary of his fondness for the high life and gambling.

After the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, Mr Ky made a dramatic escape by flying a helicopter out to sea and landing on a US naval carrier.

He settled in California, becoming a businessman and writing a number of books.

Reconciliation

Despite making frequent criticisms of the communist government, and making several applications to return to Vietnam, Hanoi finally relented and granted him a tourist visa.

Mr Ky has said he now wants to bring a message of reconciliation.

"In another 100 years, the Vietnamese will look back at the war and feel shameful. We should not dwell on it as it will not do any good for Vietnam's future.," he told the BBC.

But by re-entering the country, he has angered some among his community of fellow Vietnamese in the United States.

Community leaders in California have described his visit as a betrayal, arguing that it lends legitimacy to what they describe as a corrupt government.

But such views are at odds with the flood of overseas Vietnamese who now return annually to their country.

Many of the 2.5 million people who left Vietnam are increasingly renewing ties through travel and business.

In turn, the government has changed its approach, opening its doors to those who return to invest in the future.


SEE ALSO:
US frigate in historic Vietnam visit
19 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Vietnam's top soldier visits US
10 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Hanoi muted on US 'war crimes'
21 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Agent Orange use 'understated'
16 Apr 03  |  Americas
Country profile: Vietnam
24 May 03  |  Country profiles


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