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Travelers Deny Report That Hanoi Demands Funds for Retailer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Diplomats and travelers dismiss as false reports that Vietnamese Americans arriving at Tan Son Nhut Airport are being forced to contribute to a defense fund for the Westminster video shop owner who hung the flag of Communist Vietnam and a picture of Ho Chi Minh.

“A friend in Orange County teased me that it was going to cost $50 to get through Tan Son Nhut,” said a Vietnamese American who flew into Ho Chi Minh City on Monday. “Nothing of the sort happened. No one approached me at all.”

Other travelers, both foreigners and Viet Kieu (Vietnamese who live abroad), cite similar experiences, and diplomats who have poked around the airport looking for evidence of a defense-fund shakedown have found nothing to support the allegation.

Western diplomats do not discount the likelihood some Vietnamese are indeed supporting the video store owner, Truong Van Tran. But they said they knew of no organized effort to coerce funds from donors, nor have they found any evidence to suggest government involvement.

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Hanoi government officials have branded rumors they are involved with raising funds for Tran a fabrication.

However great the controversy has been in Little Saigon, Tran’s gesture has been noted with not much more than passing curiosity in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, where there appears to be no great groundswell of either support for or animosity toward Tran.

Press coverage has been limited, with most accounts distilled from the Los Angeles Times’ articles about the event. The Hanoi government has always viewed the Viet Kieu community in California with suspicion because of its past links to the former Saigon government of South Vietnam.

“It’s hard to survive over there if you challenge the Vietnamese community in Orange County,” said a Ho Chi Minh shopkeeper, who, like others, did not want to be quoted by name. “If Tran loves Vietnam, loves Ho Chi Minh, he should come back to Vietnam to live.”

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“I read one story about Tran in Thoi Tre [newspaper],” said a Ho Chi Minh cabdriver. “I don’t think he broke the law. Isn’t democracy being able to do anything legal? I thought the Viet Kieus in California talked all the time about the need for democracy.”

“None of my friends have talked about the incident at all, as far as I know,” said a Hanoi university student. “But personally I don’t see what all the controversy is about. The war is over. In Vietnam anyway, but maybe not in Orange County.”

Ho Chi Minh’s picture is hung in government offices and many homes and offices, in both the north and south of Vietnam but most frequently in the north. So to the Vietnamese it is something of a mystery why such a simple gesture would cause such a great stir.

“With the passage of time in Vietnam,” said a Western political analysts in Ho Chi Minh City, “Ho has come to represent not communism or politics but simply nationalism. Even people who may not like the current administration have come to accept Ho as the George Washington of Vietnam.”

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Tran, who escaped Vietnam in a boat in 1980 and says he is not a communist, hung the flag and picture after making an eight-day trip to Hanoi. He said he was impressed with the positive changes he had seen and wanted others to know Vietnam was making progress.


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