Hanoi, Vietnam Former South Vietnamese premier Nguyen Cao Ky, back in Vietnam after a 29-year exile in America, has dropped his vitriolic anti-communist rhetoric and is calling for peace and reconciliation.
"I think it's the right time for all Vietnamese to talk about reconciliation, about healing," the 73-year-old Ky said Friday in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
Ky, one of the most high-profile figures from the Vietnam War, was making his first homecoming trip since the war ended in 1975. He arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon and South Vietnamese capital) last week with his wife and daughter, saying it was "the right moment to come." He traveled north on Friday to Hanoi.
At an outdoor cafe overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of the city, Ky was nostalgic as two childhood friends joined him for coffee and reminiscing. Wearing a brown wool sport coat and sporting his trademark mustache, Ky remains a dapper figure.
"Sitting here, seeing them (the friends) really brings back memories. I feel younger. I feel a bigger responsibility to help this place become more beautiful, more prosperous," he said.
Ky was one of the most colorful leaders during the Vietnam War, a flamboyant fighter pilot who became premier after a coup in 1965. He had a reputation as a playboy and big drinker who wore purple scarves.
The one-time air force general later served as vice president under Nguyen Van Thieu until 1971. When Communist North Vietnamese forces took over Saigon, capital of U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1975, Ky escaped by helicopter.
Settling in southern California, he became a self-styled leader for the overseas Vietnamese, or Viet Kieu. In recent years, his strident anti-communism gave way to calls for reconciliation, reflecting a significant change within the Vietnamese expatriate community.
"I think we close this old chapter and open the new one. In my position as former leader of South Vietnam, I can contribute to that reconciliation," Ky said.
One of the most openly vocal critics of Hanoi's postwar leaders in the past, Ky said he had become convinced that Vietnam was now firmly on the road to change.
"In the last 10 years, all of us can see the new direction that they take in Vietnam. After 10 years, I believe that they truly want to change, like China, like Russia and the other East European countries," he said.
"They realize that a free-market economy is the right direction for the country to grow. ... I'm willing to give help. Very simple," he said.