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 sophisticated weapons and B-52 bombers, Giap's guerrillas prevailed again. But more than 1 million of his troops died 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 during lunar new year celebrations. Newer research, however, suggests that Giap had opposed the attacks, and his family has confirmed he was out of the country when they began.
The Tet Offensive shook U.S. confidence, fueled anti-war sentiment and prompted 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, 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 Chi Minh'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 powerful Politburo three years later. He stepped down from his last post, as deputy prime minister, in 1991.
Despite losing favor with the government, the thin, white-haired man became even more beloved in Vietnam as he continued to speak out. He retired in Hanoi as a national treasure, writing his memoirs and attending functions — always wearing green or eggshell-colored military uniforms with gold stars across the shoulders.
He held news 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 advice in 2004 for U.S. troops fighting in Iraq.
"Any forces that wish to impose their will on other nations will certainly face failure," he told reporters.
Among the foreign dignitaries he received was friend and fellow communist revolutionary Fidel Castro of Cuba. In 2003, they sat in Giap's home chatting and laughing beneath a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union.
The general's former nemesis, 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. He replied: "Absolutely nothing."