Giap was known for having a fiery temper and being a merciless strategist as well as for being a bit of a dandy: Old photos show him reviewing his troops in a white suit and snappy tie, in sharp contrast to Ho, clad in shorts and sandals.
Giap received no formal military training, joking that he attended the military academy "of the bush."
At Dien Bien Phu, his Viet Minh army surprised elite French forces by surrounding them. Digging miles of trenches, the Vietnamese dragged heavy artillery over steep mountains and slowly closed in during the bloody, 56-day battle, which ended with French surrender on May 7, 1954.
"If a nation is determined to stand up, it is very strong," Giap told foreign journalists in 2004 before the battle's 50th anniversary. "We are very proud that Vietnam was the first colony that could stand up and gain independence on its own."
It was the final act that led to French withdrawal and the Geneva Accords, which partitioned Vietnam into North and South in 1956. It paved the way for war against Saigon and its U.S. sponsors less than a decade later.
The general drew on his Dien Bien Phu experience to create the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a clandestine jungle network that snaked through neighboring — and ostensibly neutral — Laos and Cambodia to supply his troops fighting on southern battlefields.
Against U.S. forces with their sophisticated weapons and B-52 bombers, Giap's forces again prevailed. But more than a million of his troops perished in what is known in Vietnam as the American War.
"We had to use the small against the big — backward weapons to defeat modern weapons," Giap said. "At the end, it was the human factor that determined the victory."
Historian Stanley Karnow, who interviewed Giap in Hanoi in 1990, quoted him as saying, "We were not strong enough to drive out a half million American troops, but that wasn't our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American government to continue the war."
Giap had been largely credited with devising the 1968 Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks on U.S. strongholds in the South by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces that came during Lunar New Year celebrations. Newer research, however, suggests that Giap had been against the attacks, and his family has confirmed that he was out of the country when they began.
The Tet Offensive shook the United States' confidence, fueled anti-war sentiment and prompted U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson to announce that he would not seek re-election. But it took another seven years for the war to be won.
On April 30, 1975, communist forces marched through Saigon with tanks, bulldozing the gates of what was then known as Independence Palace.
"With the victory of April 30, slaves became free men," Giap said. "It was an unbelievable story."
It came at a price for all sides: the deaths of as many as 3 million communists and civilians, an estimated 250,000 South Vietnamese troops and 58,000 Americans.
Throughout most of the war years, Giap served as defense minister, armed-forces commander and a senior member of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, but he was slowly elbowed from the center of power after Ho's death in 1969. The glory for victory in 1975 went not to Giap but to Gen. Van Tien Dung, chief of the general staff.
Giap lost the defense portfolio in 1979 and was dropped from the all-powerful Politburo three years later. He stepped down from his last post, as deputy prime minister, in 1991.
But despite losing favor with the government, the thin, white-haired man became even more beloved by the Vietnamese people as he continued to speak out in his old age. He retired in Hanoi as a national treasure, writing his memoirs and attending national events — always wearing green or eggshell-colored military uniforms with gold stars across the shoulders.
He held press conferences, reading from handwritten notes and sometimes answering questions in French, to commemorate war anniversaries. He invited foreign journalists to his home for meetings with high-profile visitors and often greeted a longtime American female AP correspondent in Hanoi with kisses on both cheeks.
He kept up with world news and offered a piece of advice in 2004 for Americans fighting in Iraq.
"Any forces that wish to impose their will on other nations will certainly face failure," he told reporters.
Giap received a parade of foreign dignitaries, including friend and fellow communist revolutionary Fidel Castro of Cuba. In 2003 the pair sat in Giap's home, chatting and laughing beneath a portrait of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.
One of the general's former nemeses, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, visited in 1995. He asked about a disputed chapter of the Vietnam War, the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which two U.S. Navy destroyers were purportedly fired upon by North Vietnamese boats. It's the event that gave the U.S. Congress justification for escalating the war; later, many questioned whether the attack actually occurred. During his visit, McNamara asked Giap what happened that night.
"Absolutely nothing," Giap said.
At age 97, Giap took a high-profile role in a debate over the proposed expansion of a bauxite mine that he said posed environmental and security risks, in part because it was to be operated by a Chinese company in Vietnam's restive Central Highlands. He also protested the demolition of Hanoi's historic parliament house, Ba Dinh Hall. Both projects, however, went ahead as planned.
Giap celebrated his 100th birthday in 2011. He was too weak and ill to speak, but he signed a card thanking his "comrades" for their outpouring of well wishes. And even then, he continued to be briefed every few days about international and national events, said Col. Nguyen Huyen, Giap's personal secretary for 35 years.
Late in life, Giap encouraged warmer relations between Vietnam and the United States, which re-established ties in 1995 and have become close trading partners. Vietnam has recently looked to the U.S. military as a way to balance China's growing power in the disputed South China Sea.
"We can put the past behind," Giap said in 2000. "But we cannot completely forget it."
The Associated Press