Ly Tong is a hero, symbol, renegade

March 16, 2006

Ly Tong’s stunts in fight for democratic government split Vietnamese.By MARTIN WISCKOL
The Orange County Register

Ly Tong again finds himself in a Southeast Asian prison. And if things don’t break his way, there’ll be at least one more cell ahead.

The first stint for the folk hero, self-styled freedom fighter and international lover came when his South Vietnamese A-37 fighter jet was shot down at the end of the Vietnam War. He was captured by the North Vietnamese and hustled into in a “reeducation camp.”

Five years later, after several attempts, he finally succeeded in escaping. In a 1985 account, he described 1-1/2 years spent tramping out of Vietnam, through Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. Walking, bicycling, riding buses and, finally, swimming across the Johore Strait to Singapore, where he hailed a cab and arrived, still wet, at the U.S. Embassy to request asylum.

The legend and theatrical stunts were just beginning for the cocky, ponytailed man who now sits in a Bangkok prison. Next would come renegade flights over Vietnam and Cuba to dump anti-communist leaflets, a single-handed attempt to launch a revolution in his homeland that led to another extended stay in a Vietnamese prison and two convictions for hijackings.

He is a household name in Little Saigon, a reminder of the dream for a democratic government in Vietnam.

“Everybody knows that he’s a hero,” said Anaheim’s Nguyen Phuong Hung, a friend and supporter of Ly Tong. “It’s important to have him as a symbol, to send a message to the Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese government.”

But even Nguyen readily concedes that Ly Tong’s quixotic methods are more symbolic than practical, and acknowledges the view of some Vietnamese-Americans that the renegade doesn’t have all 52 cards in his deck.

“Fifty percent think he’s crazy,” said the 60-year-old Nguyen, an activist who also fought alongside U.S. troops in Vietnam. “Fifty percent like him, and 50 percent don’t. He’s very aggressive. Sometimes I’ve called him and said, ‘That’s a stupid action. You have to obey the laws.’

“We’re both freedom fighters. I (go about) it in a different way, but I support him.”

After winning asylum and settling in New Orleans in 1980, Ly Tong worked as a security guard, received two degrees in political science and became a U.S. citizen.

Then, in September 1992, he went to Thailand and boarded a flight from Bangkok to Vietnam. As the plane approached Ho Chi Minh City, Ly Tong threw a noose around a flight attendant’s neck, falsely declared he had a bomb and ordered the pilot to fly low over the city.

He forced several passes over the city, flinging 50,000 homemade leaflets onto the streets and rooftops.

“People of Saigon-fill the streets!” they commanded, according to a translation in the Philadelphia City Paper. “Occupy the radio and television stations! Ask the police to join the revolution or return to their barracks. An overseas invasion force is on the way! I will soon be there to lead the fight. Await instructions!”

By the fourth pass, Vietnamese soldiers and air force crews were launching fighter jets and ratcheting anti-aircraft guns to pull the plane tight into their cross hairs, according to the City Paper account. Then Ly Tong climbed through the cockpit window and parachuted to his homeland to lead the coup.

But he landed in a swamp and was quickly captured. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison but was granted amnesty and released in 1998 as part of the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam.

He returned to a hero’s welcome in numerous Vietnamese-American meetings across the country, including an Orange County event that attracted 600 people.

But already, mention of his name was causing some people to roll their eyes – something that has become increasingly common.

“To many, he’s an eccentric with a penchant for spectacular deeds,” said Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo, a UCLA Asian- American studies professor.

Ly Tong was back in the U.S. in 1998, but his spectacular deeds were far from over. He continued to live up to his reputation as the Vietnamese James Bond – a moniker that reflects not only his adventures but also his love life, which he hasn’t been shy about. He’s never married, but describes himself as an international father for siring three children in different countries.

Ly Tong’s next big stunt came in January 2000, when he rented a Cessna in Miami, flew it over Havana and dropped leaflets calling for the overthrow of Fidel Castro. U.S. officials took Ly Tong’s pilot’s license upon his return.

That November, he left Bangkok in a single-engine plane with a flight instructor. They flew over Ho Chi Minh City, and Ly Tong again scattered thousands of anti-communist leaflets. Thai authorities arrested Ly Tong promptly after the plane landed in Thailand.

“He offered the pilot $10,000 to make the trip,” said Assemblyman Van Tran, R-Westminster, who visited Ly Tong in December and is lobbying for his release to the United States. “He claimed the Thai pilot cooperated, but the Thai pilot changed his story once they landed and politics took over.”

Ly Tong, whose accounts put his age at anywhere from 55 to 60, was convicted of hijacking and is to be released from Thai prison May 17. But officials in Vietnam – who have called him a terrorist – have requested his extradition to face charges there.

“We don’t want to see him extradited to a country that has no real rule of law,” said Paul Berkowitz, a special assistant to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, who made the December trip with Tran. “He’s done his time – he should not be handed over to some thugs.”

Rohrabacher has called Ly Tong “a great American.” Berkowitz said that while Ly Tong should be punished for crimes committed, he remains a hero to the congressman.

“Dana likes people who stand up to government, to communist countries,” Berkowitz said. “(Ly Tong) is a freedom fighter, absolutely. The risks he takes – the guy has guts. It’s amazing to watch.”

Thailand is caught in the dilemma of wanting to keep good relations with both its neighboring country and with Uncle Sam. And while Rohrabacher and Berkowitz praise Ly Tong with little reservation, Tran seems in a position something like Thailand’s – hoping to avoid offense. Tran supports Ly Tong’s release and a democratic Vietnam, but stops short of praising the renegade’s actions.

“I don’t place a moral judgment on him, whether he’s eccentric or not,” said Tran, who is in a tight race for the state Senate. “I did this (trip) for humanitarian reasons. He’s served his time.”

Does Tran support Ly Tong’s freedom-fighting ways?

“I don’t want to go there,” Tran said.

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2 Responses to “Ly Tong is a hero, symbol, renegade”


  1. U really r a jets lover


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