A Vietnamese Robin Hood

Friday, July 30th, 2010

After Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II, France tried to reassert its dominance over Vietnam, while Ho Chi Minh‘s Communist forces fought for independence from the imperialist colonialists, but — as Hilaire du Berrier explains in Background to Betrayal — it wasn’t really that simple. There were many other factions. One of the more interesting factions was the Binh Xuyen:

“Binh Xuyen” means “toward the peace.” It was the name applied to a village in the heart of the swamps that no outside enemy could attack without signaling his presence so long in advance an ambush would be waiting for him on the way. So the village of Binh Xuyen, hidden in the impenetrable marshes to the south of Cholon, was the home base of Bai Vien, and the band which took the village’s name.

In the beginning they lived by piracy and ransom. In all fairness one must add that the region offered little opportunity to live otherwise, and their incursions were supported by the colonial economy as a form of risk natural to Asia. The Binh Xuyen were in no sense a sect, and at first they had no interest in politics. For years some hundred small bands had operated independently out of the swamps. They would make sporadic raids and disappear, without higher organization. Ex-convicts, escapees from justice, men who for one infraction or a hundred had been banned from Saigon, made up most of these gangs. The best known was led by Dong ba Duong and his brother.

During the Japanese occupation the swamp pirates became a sort of Robin Hood band. Their daring and the genius with which they exploited their geographical position, and the troubles they caused the Japanese, inspired admiration for the Binh Xuyen among the masses. Gradually they emerged as nationalists. When the Japanese withdrew, the Communists came, and in the eyes of the people, if not legally, the rehabilitation of the pirates was complete. During the brief period of Communist “legality” Bai Vien edged his men into the police as auxiliaries and acquired an amnesty for everyone as well as a complete education in Communist methods.

Ho Chi Minh and the Communists didn’t want any independent nationalists in the swamps, so they sent in one of their top men, Nguyen Binh, to clear out such pests:

On May 19, 1948, using Ho chi Minh’s birthday as a pretext, Nguyen Binh set his trap for Bai Vien. He invited Bai Vien to come to his headquarters in the Plain of Junks for a party. For days Binh’s troops had been on the move, quietly closing in, on the excuse that the French were planning an offensive. But there was nothing that Bai Vien did not know. He accepted the invitation and took 200 of his fiercest bodyguards with him, with orders to surge to his rescue and kill Binh if Bai Vien gave the signal.

The Plain of Junks is a vast area. As far as the eye can see, no distinguishing point marks the place where low islands of reed-covered land end and reed-covered marsh begins. Junks appear to be floating on a field of reeds and from this appearance the plain derives its name. On one of the islands of this treacherous no-man’s-land Nguyen Binh had his headquarters. Bai Vien walked into his tent. Binh said, “You have been betraying us, but I pardon you,” and proceeded to put his arms around Bai Vien and give him an accolade. At that moment the killers burst into the tent. Bai Vien cried, “To me!” and the fight was on.

Vien and his guards fought their way out, and all the way back to the village in the heart of the swamp from which they had come. Back to Binh Xuyen, the lair that gave them their name. Over a thousand of their band had had their throats cut by Bhin’s raiders while Bai Vien was at the “party.” Many were disarmed in the first onslaught and offered a chance to rally to the Reds and were then cut down in cold blood when they refused to desert their chief, Vien.

Bai Vien’s reaction was swift and decisive. He sent the lieutenant who wrote letters for him — a young man named Lai huu Tai, dignified with the rank of private secretary — to present his compliments to the French commander and to offer, if given arms and ammunition, to clear the Vietminh out of his zone and maintain order. Furthermore, he agreed to support the French central government and accept the French Union.

On his own, and without waiting for the French reply, the reprisals started. Not only did the attack on himself demand an accounting, but there was that matter of a thousand loyal friends with their throats cut. The reprisals were terrible, for the bang conh tac, the intelligence cells which were the eyes and ears and the executioners of Bai Vien, spread like a net throughout the area occupied by the Vietminh. Bai Vien’s intelligence cells were intact, and in one night they liquidated the entire network Ngueyn Binh had so patiently erected. Each morning for weeks afterward the canals and arroyos around Saigon were cluttered with drifting bodies. No questions were asked by the French authorities. From that day, May 19, 1948, Bai Vien was to remain an implacable foe of the Communists.

Picture him: For years he had been a thorn in the side of the French. Any Vietnamese arrested for nationalist activity who had no money for defense, sent a letter to Ba Vien from hand to hand through the underground as soon as he entered prison. If money and a lawyer could not obtain his release, Bai Vien, the pirate, the firsthand authority on prison deliveries, got him out. With every outwitting of the French his reputation had increased as a native Robin Hood. Now this same candid ex-pirate became the central pillar of the anti-Communist fight in the Saigon area.

On June 13, 1948, his adherence to the government was formally announced, and within two months over eight hundred guerrillas deserted the Vietminh to join him. It was the beginning of the nationalist armed forces of the Binh Xuyen, with a discipline and an esprit de corps such as has never been equaled since by any anti-Communist force in Vietnam. The possibilities of this “underground,” forged and linked by the memories of so many years of danger together, surpassed the strictly military. A world of faceless agents, hideouts, arms caches, friends and associates that no one knew or suspected; infiltrators with their own lines running through every level and business — in sum, spies, collectors, and executioners with their secret signs and passwords came with the Binh Xuyen.

It was the age-old secret society of Asia, with all the attributes of a modern army and political party under a born leader. The leader of such a secret society can do anything. Lost in the immense ocean of Asian humanity, he enriches whom he pleases and kills those with whom he is at war. Bai Vien was at war with the Vietminh, and he conducted it more efficiently than they did, as his survival attests.
Saigon, for all its French veneer, was a sprawling, dirty, oriental agglomeration of humans. When this anthill was turned over to Bai Vien and his auxiliary politic it followed that he would tax it inhabitants in his fashion. He would naturally know what the dishonest citizens were up to and whether or not the honest ones were threatened. All this was accepted with oriental fatalism. Those living in steaming rabbit-warren alleyways or passing their lives on junks had never known anything else, and under the Vietnminh it had been infinitely worse. Since the money Bai Vien collected was used to support the army that out-fought, out-schemed and out-massacred the Communists, that army was really self-supporting — the only one the American taxpayer was not required to keep in luxury.

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