Red Scare in Little Saigon

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

Two boats set out for a larger vessel, one with Vu, his parents, two brothers and three sisters, and the other, a smaller boat with his older brother and several other priority passengers selected by the families. "That little boat actually carried all the important people," Vu says, including his older brother, who faced the most imminent risk of being drafted. "If they made it to the big boat, they were supposed to go without us. But only our boat made it."

Vu spent the next five days on a 15-foot motorboat crowded with 31 people. "We ran into a lot of ships," he says. "We could see people on the deck waving at us, but to our shock, they didn't pick us up. We were running out of gas, water, and food, and finally, we said we'd wait one more day, and if we get no luck, we head back."

Fortunately, the crew of a Pakistani cargo ship felt sorry for the stranded passengers and rescued them, fixing their boat and transporting them to a refugee camp on a small island in Indonesia. Local villagers fed them for a month, until a United Nations ship brought them to another camp, whose population soon swelled to 100,000.

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.

"For us, it was a luxury," he recalls. "We didn't have to work. We got fed better than we would have been in Vietnam. We would swim in the ocean and sit around, waiting to hear news of relatives from refugees coming into the camp."

After several months, Vu's family relocated to Memphis with the help of a Tennessee church. Two years later, Vu graduated from high school after skipping his junior year, then attended the Christian Brothers College, a private school in Memphis, graduating with a degree in electrical engineering and minors in computer science and art in just three years. By the time most American students his age were graduating from college, Vu already had completed a graduate engineering program at Purdue University. He found work in El Segundo writing software for an aerospace firm.

In the early 1990s, Vu quit his aerospace job to work as a computer engineer at the University of California, Los Angeles, hoping to create teaching software that might help improve education in Vietnam. But in 1996, at the beginning of the Internet boom, he left the university to found his own software company and consulting business in the tiny Garden Grove office that now houses Viet Weekly.

"The Internet was the ultimate victory of the free world," he explains. "I got excited and thought, Now is the chance for us to have a direct influence on Vietnam without being there, and also to connect all the fragments of the Vietnamese community all over the world. I wanted to create a Vietnamese university on the Internet."

Vu named his website Ki Con, after the Qui Nhon street on which he grew up. At first, it served as a clearing-house for news culled from other sources. But after several years, as other Vietnamese-language newspapers and radio stations began creating their own websites, he began posting original writing and podcasts.

As a Web publisher, Vu says, he discovered not only a lack of free press within Vietnam, but also an overwhelming editorial uniformity among Vietnamese-language media outlets in the United States. "They were still held hostage by this extreme anti-communist mentality, so they were afraid to be objective," he says. "They have to speak in a slanted direction to be accepted."

In 2003, with little fanfare, Le Vu founded Viet Weeklywith the express goal of breaking through the anti-communist monopoly on news in Little Saigon. The newspaper's first issue was only 36 pages long; it has since grown to nearly 120. His first cover story profiled Orange County's 2003 Vietnamese Film Festival. Vu interviewed directors and immediately earned the wrath of right-wing readers by voicing criticism of the festival for failing to include a single film from Vietnam.

In the next few years, Viet Weekly mostly focused on entertainment, with the occasional investigative story about mistreated restaurant workers or medical insurance fraud allegations against the wife of then-Garden Grove city councilman Van Thai Tran.

"They did some good stories," says Hao-Nhien Vu, managing editor of Nguoi Viet Daily News. "But they had a reputation for twisting people's words. As long as this involved singers and concert promoters and agents, people sort of laughed. But once they started playing games with political issues, like people being thrown in jail, people got concerned. Until then, they had been tolerated as something of an amusement."

In November 2006, Le Vu and two employees traveled to Vietnam to cover President George W. Bush's November 2006 visit, during which Bush took part in an international trade conference. The newspaper printed several stories about average people in Hanoi and their thoughts about America, trade and religious freedom in Vietnam, and the trip ended without controversy.

The same cannot be said of Viet Weekly's April 2007 visit to Vietnam, when the newspaper covered Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez's visit to Hanoi for a round of Asian security talks. When a group of women whose husbands had been arrested for religious activities tried to meet with Sanchez at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine, Vietnamese police refused to allow them to enter the building. Viet Weekly covered the incident and attended an April 6 press conference, at which Marine answered reporters' questions about religious freedom in Vietnam.

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