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40 years on: When Fidel Castro came to town

Update: September, 29/2013 - 15:58
Meeting of minds: Led by First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party and Government Fidel Castro, a delegation of Cuban politicians made their way to the liberated land of Quang Tri in southern Viet Nam in 1971. The visit symbolises the faithful and enduring friendship between the two countries. — VNA/VNS File Photo

by Phuoc Buu and Dien Quang

It was a special moment in Quang Tri's history, a time of turmoil for the central province as it played host to a visit from Cuban President Fidel Castro on September 15 and 16, 1973.

The visit sparked delight among locals who came to regard the Cuban leader as a 'great friend of Viet Nam'. His visit revived the country's hopes to stand up and rebuild itself after being ravaged by bombs and bullets during the Anti-American War.

"I dreamt of President Fidel [Castro] and he looks very strong," said Nguyen Thi Huong who stepped on a fragmentation explosive during the President's visit to the newly liberated Quang Tri Province, where she had been volunteering to fill craters in the ground caused by American bombs.

"If President Fidel hadn't saved me, I would not be alive today," Huong said.

The President who had witnessed the incident, ordered to take the injured 17-year-old to his car to nearby Vinh Linh hospital for emergency care in time.

Huong lost a significant amount of blood in the incident and sustained severe injuries to her stomach. At the time, the hospital's blood bank was empty. President Castro had demanded a car to transport Huong to the neighbouring province of Quang Binh to save her.

Old friends: Fidel Castro Ruz, the first foreign Head of State to visit the liberated zone in sourthern Viet Nam's Quang Tri Province in September 1973. Viet Nam's Prime Minister Pham Van Dong extended a frienship hug to the Cuban leader prior to the mass meeting of local people. — VNA/VNS File Photo

One month later, Huong recovered and was sent home where she was surprised with a package sent from Cuba, by the President.

The package contained medicine, nutrition, and a name card printed CMDTE. FIDEL CASTRO RUZ - First Secretary of Cuban Communist Party.

Huong continued to receive packages from the President each time Viet Nam welcomed a delegation from Cuba.

Huong's story inspired President Fidel Castro to build a hospital equipped with modern facilities to treat Vietnamese citizens after the war. Construction began in 1974 in Quang Binh, and by 1981, the Viet Nam-Cuba Hospital was receiving patients.

The 1973 visit by President Castro to Quang Tri was a significant event in national healing, as the province hardest hit by American bombandments grappled with recovery. For Viet Nam, the visit was not only the first diplomatic visit by a foreign leader, it was a solidarity visit from the country's steadfast ally to a newly liberated area in northern South Viet Nam.

Addressing the meeting held in Quang Tri on September 19 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Cuban President's inaugural visit to the battlefield, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said the visit gave courage to the Vietnamese people and soldiers fighting against US -aided and abetted Sai Gon troops until their final victory in April 1975.

Looking back: To mark the 40th anniversary of the historical visit, Thuan Hoa Publishing House issued a new pictorial book titled, Fidel Castro in Quang Tri, a Day in History with photos taken by Sy So, a war photographer who spent years covering conflicts along the Ben Hai River and the DMZ zone. — VNA/VNS Ho Cau

Phuc said the visit was politically significant in Viet Nam's history, as President Fidel Castro had been the first foreign leader to visit Quang Tri soon after it was free from the Sai Gon regime's control.

The gesture conveyed the affection President Castro had for Viet Nam, who insisted on visiting the war-torn locality, he said.

He also described the post-war era, saying Cuba had continued to be Viet Nam's strongest supporter as it began the process of rebuilding, adding that bilateral relations between the two countries had persisted throughout their respective histories.

"The Party, State, and people of Viet Nam will always highly appreciate support from Cuba," he said.

Poles apart: Fidel Castro raises the Khe Sanh Batallion's flag as an act of comradeship. — VNA/VNS File Photo

Speaking at the meeting, Cuban Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment Rodrigo Malmierca Diaz, said Cuba had expressed unconditional solidarity with Viet Nam for almost 50 years, inspired by President Castro's famous words "For Viet Nam, Cuba could give her blood".

Diaz affirmed that the relationship between Cuba and Viet Nam had been strengthened by their common hardships. He expressed hope bilateral relations would progress with determination from both countries.

In 1973, President Fidel Castro led a delegation to Ha Noi and a liberated zone in South Viet Nam, a gesture that demonstrated international recognition of the South Viet Nam National Liberation Front and Vietnamese revolution.

At Quang Tri, President Castro visited Cam Lo District, where the headquarters of the South Viet Nam Provisional Revolutionary Government was based. The image of President Castro holding high the flag of the South Viet Nam Front was immortalised in the town's history and the memories of local residents.

Catch up: General Secretary of Viet Nam's Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong visits Fidel Castro in April 2012, during his official state visit to Cuba.

President Fidel also attended a meeting where he delivered a speech in front of thousands of locals. The speech is fondly remembered among the audience, having moved many to tears with his words of solidarity and support for the Vietnamese people.

In locals' mind, President Castro's visit is an extraordinary event that they will never forget.

Past pictures: The book features captions in Vietnamese and English reflecting the entirety of the historic trip. — VNA/VNS Ho Cau
Ever grateful: The latest photo of Nguyen Thi Huong, who was saved by President Fidel in 1973. — VNS Photo courtesy of Tien Phong Online.

"A visit from a foreign leader to the liberated zone in Quang Tri gave locals great support and it inspired people in South Viet Nam stand up for independence," said Le Van Hoan, former president of Viet Nam Motherland Front Committee in the province.

Photojournalist Sy So, who photographed the Cuban President during his visit had his images displayed at a photo exhibition of the visit last week.

"President Fidel Castro is a great orator and you can see the affection in his eyes. It was great to capture him in photos. It was an incredible moment in our nation's history that will never be forgotten," he said. — VNS

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