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His Return to Vietnam Crosses a Line

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Times Staff Writers

Nguyen Cao Ky fled Vietnam nearly 29 years ago as his nation collapsed, piloting a helicopter out to sea where he landed on a U.S. aircraft carrier. The former South Vietnamese premier and vice president headed home Thursday -- on a commercial airliner as a tourist.

Ky’s trip to Vietnam, his first since the end of the war in 1975, has stirred anger among leaders of Orange County’s Little Saigon, where memories are long and tolerance for anything that could be seen as legitimizing the communist government of Vietnam is in short supply.

Still, the trip is emblematic of changing attitudes among Vietnamese expatriates in the United States, who, through travel and business deals, are increasingly bucking the staunch anticommunism of the generation that fled three decades ago.

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“I just want to come home and visit my homeland,” said Ky, 73, of Hacienda Heights, as he prepared to leave from Los Angeles International Airport. “After so many years, I want to see what has changed.... I just want to forget the past and travel down on a better road to build our homeland.”

Several Little Saigon leaders expressed dismay over Ky’s trip, particularly because of his position in the South Vietnamese government. Ky was no longer in office when South Vietnam fell, but he was one of the era’s most flamboyant and powerful figures.

“He served as vice president, which stands for freedom and human rights, and now he’s betraying all the ideas of what he stood for and represented,” said BachLien Tran, co-founder for Americans for Human Rights in Vietnam Action, based in Garden Grove. “He has made a very big mistake.... He’s betraying us. Vietnam still does not respect human rights or freedom.”

Cong Minh Tran, 62, of Mission Viejo, a Vietnamese community activist and staunch anticommunist, said he was shocked. “I don’t believe it.... It’s politically unwise and morally wrong.”

He said the Vietnamese government continues to suppress religious leaders and jail political opponents.

“When they treat our people like that, who would have the heart to go back to Vietnam?” Tran said. “Especially Ky, who should know better. He was urging people to fight the communists and telling us why we were fighting them -- to keep the country free.”

Ky was a South Vietnamese Air Force general when he was made the country’s premier in 1965 after a military coup. U.S. officials were wary of Ky, who had a reputation for drinking, gambling, womanizing and outrageous statements. Once, when asked whom he most admired, Ky offered up Hitler.

“An unguided missile,” one U.S. diplomat called him.

Ky served as premier for two years, then as South Vietnam’s vice president from 1967 to 1971. After the war, he settled in Norwalk, where he opened a liquor store. He later moved to New Orleans and worked in the shrimp and fishing industry. When the enterprise failed in the late 1980s, he moved back to Southern California, first to Huntington Beach, then to Hacienda Heights.

Ky flew to Bangkok on Thursday, where he will visit friends before heading to Ho Chi Minh City on Wednesday to celebrate Tet, the Lunar New Year. He plans to travel to Hanoi and the country’s central region. He will visit his home province.

Along the way, he will be escorted by a Vietnamese government security detail.

“They want to guarantee that he will have a very nice and safe trip when he’s there,” said Hoan Mong Le, 68, of Huntington Beach, who worked under Ky as an air force colonel during the war. “He didn’t ask for it, and he didn’t have to pay for it. They just want to protect him from some extremists. I told him to please be careful.”

Vietnamese Embassy officials in Washington said Ky had applied for visas in the past and had been denied -- until now.

Ky, however, said he has never applied for a visa and said he was recently invited to visit by the Vietnamese government.

The former premier said he has not returned to Vietnam because of the opposition of anticommunists in Southern California. Two years ago, he angered Little Saigon anticommunists by calling for reconciliation with Vietnam.

Critics say Ky is being used by a communist government hungry for increased business ties with the United States. But Ky said he decided to go to Vietnam now because he believes the government there has opened up.

“Whether people agree with me or not, I accept that,” Ky said. “I don’t represent them anymore, and we live in a democracy now.”

Ky says business and talks with government leaders aren’t on his agenda, although he’s open to both if they should arise.

“Mr. Ky does not expect anything from Vietnam, but he has a lot of international connections just in case the Vietnamese government wants help,” said his friend Le. “He’s ready to help.”

Ky’s daughter, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, of Huntington Beach said she supports his decision.

“It’s a place where he was born,” said Nguyen, a popular entertainer in the Vietnamese-American community. “In the last 30 years, he’s not been [politically] active at all. He’s going back in his private capacity, and he should have a right to do so without anyone getting upset. Everyone else is doing it.”

Indeed, last year nearly 100,000 visas were issued to Vietnamese Americans for travel to Vietnam, down from levels before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but still up significantly since 1997, according to the Vietnamese embassy. In 2002, Vietnamese Americans sent more than $1 billion to family members back home, twice as much as in 1999.

“Vietnam welcomes any compatriots who wish to contribute to the national cause,” said Chien Ngoc Bach, an embassy spokesman.

Meaning, in Ky’s case, pumping dollars into the nation through tourism.

“The visit by Mr. Ky signifies a universal trend of reconciliation, of making peace,” Bach said. “There’s no more hard feelings, or we would not have allowed him back.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Nguyen Cao Ky

Sept. 8, 1930: Born in Son Tay, North Vietnam.

1945 to early ‘60s: Joins the South Vietnamese Air Force after being trained by the French; holds several command positions.

1963: Named air force commander after the overthrow of the Ngo Dinh Diem government.

1965: Is part of a triumvirate that helps lead a military coup that unseats the government of Phan Huy Quat. Ky is named premier.

1967: Ky is elected vice president. One of his coup partners, Nguyen Van Thieu, is elected president.

1971: Ky tries to oppose Thieu for the presidency but is forced to remove himself as a candidate. Returns to the air force.

1975: Flees to the United States after South Vietnam falls.

1976: Publishes ‘Twenty Years and Twenty Days.’ Lectures at various universities.

Late 1970s: Owns and operates liquor stores in Southern California.

Late 1980s: Runs Southern Gulf Seafood Processors Inc. in Dulac, La., near New Orleans.

2002: Publishes ‘Buddha’s Child.’

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica; Times reports


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