Red Scare in Little Saigon

Le Vu's Viet Weekly newspaper endures OC's latest anti-communist witch-hunt

Do later angered right-wing readers by being quoted in a New York Times article about companies doing business in Vietnam. On Sept. 28, 1994, following threats of a boycott and a 300-person protest, he stepped down as editor. Do died of natural causes last August, but in a 1999 interview with the Weekly, amidst massive protests against Truong Van Tran, a Little Saigon store owner who refused to take down a poster of Ho Chi Minh that hung above his counter, Do said he'd long ago given up on trying to challenge the grip of Little Saigon's right-wing minority.

"There is freedom to publish here, but not freedom of expression," Do had said. "There is no room to disagree in this community."

How Viet Weekly's Le Vu came to be denounced as a communist agent is a story that begins 43 years ago, when he was born to middle-class parents in the coastal town of Qui Nhon in central Vietnam. His father, a teacher, had been drafted into the South Vietnamese army and discharged after a bloody and unsuccessful 1971 campaign against North Vietnamese troops in Laos. Some of Vu's earliest memories include swimming on the beach each morning, then, in the evening, standing on the roof as explosions lit up the sky and tracer bullets flashed back and forth in the nearby mountains. His parents owned a 10-room house near the beach and rented rooms out to American soldiers and their Vietnamese mistresses.

Le Vu (center) and staff take over Main Street. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Le Vu (center) and staff take over Main Street. Photo by John Gilhooley.

"It was like a hotel," Vu recalls. "Sometimes at night, the girls would run back to our house with blood on them. My mom was a nurse and would tend [to] them. The communists—you can call them terrorists—threw grenades in their cars. Sometimes, they shelled the city, and it would hit close to our home. We ran into the basement and saw on the TV that our neighbors got hit."

In February 1975, as North Vietnamese troops pushed south from the Central Highlands for Saigon, Vu's family fled to Nha Trang. They were met by a stream of refugees and South Vietnamese soldiers who had retreated from Ban Me Thout, the first major battle in North Vietnam's final, successful offensive.

"They were sitting ducks," Vu says. "Because they had so many civilians with them, they couldn't defend themselves. We saw the first people coming into Nha Trang, and a few days later, we started walking south with them."

Amid the chaotic evacuation, gangs of criminals broke free from jail and began preying on refugees. "Common criminals ruled the city for a few days," Vu says. "My uncle drove me through the city on his motorcycle, and people were shooting back and forth. I saw the raw side of humanity."

Along with thousands of civilians, Vu's family traveled down the coast to Cam Ranh Bay and from there to Phan Thiet. Along the country's 13th parallel, the South Vietnamese military had blown up all the bridges to Saigon. "They stopped people from crossing, and refugees just lived in the streets," he recalls. "We heard there was a ship picking up refugees at Phan Thiet, so we tried to get a boat." An American warship arrived and brought them to Vung Tau, where they briefly stayed before fleeing to Saigon, just weeks before North Vietnamese troops took over the capital.

Vu remembers the end of war with a mixture of childlike wonder and sorrow, saying that while fears of a massacre at the hands of invading North Vietnamese troops didn't materialize, it was obvious South Vietnamese people would receive little sympathy from their new communist rulers. "They were leading people around naked, with signs hanging over them," he says. "They bully you, and you have nowhere to run for help. Nobody will help you. This explains why people still hate the communists."

Although Vu's family was able to return to Qui Nhon, his father was sent to a communist re-education camp. "Life was difficult for my family, as it was for anyone in South Vietnam or who had served in the government," he says. "There was no future for us."

Vu realized that no matter how well he studied in school, he would not have any opportunity to advance in the communist-ruled educational system. In 1979, when he was 15 years old, war broke out with China, which invaded Vietnam to punish it for its invasion of Cambodia, where the Vietnamese had toppled the brutal Khmer Rouge. Along with that of his 16-year-old brother, Vu's name turned up on Qui Nhon's military draft list.

That year, Vu's family became part of the first wave of "boat people" to flee the regime, secretly working with several other Qui Nhon families to hire a boat to take them to Hong Kong. A photograph of someone who had made the trip—a faded, heavily thumbed snapshot of a smiling exile in stylish jeans and a T-shirt—had found its way to Vu's school. "It looked like a different world," he says. "We heard that if you could get to the international marine pathway where all the ships travel, you can get picked up and taken to a refugee camp."

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