One of the most prominent leaders of the former South Vietnam has returned home for the first time, nearly three decades after the end of the Vietnam War. Former vice president Nguyen Cao Ky arrived Wednesday in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to visit family during Vietnam's new year (Tet) celebrations.

The former vice president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Cao Ky, returned to Vietnam with his wife and a daughter.

He arrived at Ho Chi Minh City's airport, saying he was bringing a message of reconciliation, 29 years after the end of the war in which an estimated three million Vietnamese and more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers were killed.

Mr. Ky was a fighter plane pilot and air force general who participated in the 1963 overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem. He became prime minister of South Vietnam after another coup d'etat in 1965, and vice president in elections two years later. He fled Vietnam one day before the fall of Saigon in April 1975, by flying a helicopter to a U.S. naval carrier off the Vietnamese coast.

He has been living in southern California since then, as a businessman, author and lecturer. Until recently, he was a vocal critic of the communist government in Hanoi.

But Mr. Ky announced last year that he was planning to visit Vietnam, saying it was time to set aside hatred left over from the war. However, some exiled Vietnamese, who still oppose the Hanoi government, have criticized his trip.

The Vietnamese government for years refused visa requests from Mr. Ky, but late last year, in a shift aimed at attracting more foreign investment, it said it welcomed the visit and issued him a tourist visa.

The 73-year-old former leader is also to visit his hometown of Son Tay, 40 kilometers northwest of Hanoi, before returning to the United States.

Mr. Ky is one of nearly three million Vietnamese, known as "Viet Kieu," who live abroad. One half of those live in the United States. Together they are responsible for $2 billion a year in remittances to family members in Vietnam.

Still, some exiles continue to oppose the Hanoi government, accusing it of authoritarianism and human rights abuses.