Hanoi: General Vo Nguyen Giap, who died on Friday aged 102, was considered one of history's greatest military strategists and was the architect of Vietnam's stunning battlefield victories against France and the United States.
Second only to late revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh as modern Vietnam's most revered figure, the former history teacher's first military lesson came from an old encyclopedia entry about the mechanism of a hand grenade.
The son of a poor scholar, he went on to defeat Vietnam's colonial masters in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, the battle that ended French rule in Indochina and started direct US involvement leading to the Vietnam war.
Over the next two decades the founding father of the Vietnam People's Army, whose guerrilla tactics inspired anti-colonial fighters worldwide, again led his forces to victory with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
"When I was young, I had a dream that one day I would see my country free and united," Giap later recounted in a PBS interview. "That day, my dream came true."
Giap's brilliance as a strategist places him "in the pantheon of great military leaders" with the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S Grant and General Douglas MacArthur, wrote American journalist and author Stanley Karnow.
"Unlike them, however, he owed his achievements to innate genius rather than to formal training."
Others have pointed to the tremendous human toll Giap was willing to incur in the struggle for liberation, which left millions of Vietnamese dead on the battlefield.
Born on August 25, 1911 in a village in central Quang Binh province, Giap was an admirer of Napoleon and Sun Tzu but did not always appear destined to become a soldier.
Fluent in French, he studied political economy in Hanoi before teaching history and literature at a college and working as an underground journalist.
A member of the Indochina Communist Party, he fled to China in 1939, where he joined Ho, the enigmatic leader who had planned the revolution during decades in exile.
Giap's wife, who stayed behind with their newborn child, died in a French prison, a personal tragedy that would fuel Giap's anti-colonial fervour.
He returned with Ho to Vietnam's northern jungles in 1941 to train an army of revolutionary peasant soldiers and co-founded the Viet Minh.
Giap's Maoist-inspired guerrilla tactics -- which stressed the need for popular support, the value of hit-and-run attacks and the will to fight a drawn-out war -- would defeat both the French and the American armies.
"Guerrilla war is the war of the broad masses of an economically backward country standing up against a powerfully equipped and well-trained army of aggression," he wrote in one of several memoirs.
"Every inhabitant is a soldier, every village a fortress."
Ho proclaimed his first government on September 2, 1945 and named Giap as his interior minister, army chief and later defence minister.
The revolutionaries were forced back into the jungle when French troops reimposed colonial rule after World War II, triggering a nine-year conflict that ended at Dien Bien Phu.
"It was the first great defeat for the West," Giap later said. "It shook the foundations of colonialism and called on people to fight for their freedom -- it was the beginning of international civilisation."
Giap remained the army's commander in chief throughout the ensuing conflict with the Americans and the US-backed South Vietnam regime, which turned into full-scale war from 1965 and claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans and at least three million Vietnamese.
The fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 fuelled his near-mythical status overseas as a master strategist and inspired liberation movements everywhere.
"As we grew up in our own struggle, General Giap was one of our national heroes," South African President Thabo Mbeki said in 2007.
Giap's closeness to "Uncle Ho" and his sometimes arrogant manner would earn the diminutive general powerful enemies, including party chief Le Duan.
Giap's influence faded with Ho's death in 1969 and he was relegated to the political sidelines after the Communist Party took control of reunified Vietnam in 1975.
Five years after the end of the war Giap lost his post as defence minister. He was eased out of the politburo in 1982 and officially left politics in 1991.
Still, his status as Vietnam's greatest living military hero meant he could not be completely silenced as he spent the sunset of his life in a former French villa, a short walk from the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh.
Throughout his 90s, a physically frail but still outspoken Giap would periodically cause a stir, writing open letters or using anniversary events to rail against everything from corruption to bauxite mining.
Giap, who had been living in Hanoi's 108 military hospital for the last three years, is survived by Dang Bich Ha, his wife since 1949, and four children.