Michael Batson

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Travelogue

The Bình Xuyên – River Pirates from the Swamp of the Assassins - 10 March 2021

The history of organised crime in Cho Lon-Sai Gon (Anglicised as Cholon-Saigon and these days Ho Chi Minh City) last century can be told in stages. The 1960s was the era of the “Four Great Kings” so-called after the four dominant mobsters in the city who collectively ruled Saigon, the most prominent of which was Dai Cathay, leader of the Chinese mafia. There were also gangs in Cholon, the most prominent of which was led by an ethnic Chinese Tín Mã Nàm, nicknamed Ngua Diên or “Mad Horse” and schooled in Chinese marital arts—Shaolin kung fu and Choy Li Fut—which Bruce Lee thought was the most effective form for fighting more than one person and the only style (of kung fu) that travelled to Thailand to fight the Thai boxers and not been beaten. He rivalled another gangster in the area Hoàng Long or “Yellow Dragon”. Together they made fortunes through the supply of opium and heroin along with other illicit activities and casinos. Then in the 1990s came Truong Văn Cam (Năm Cam, also known and the Godfather) who amassed wealth mainly through gambling, extortion, and prostitution. That was until his arrest and execution in 2004 for the murder of a rival gangster following the largest criminal trial of gangsters (155) ever seen in Vietnam.

 

But before them all was the Bình Xuyên (pronounced “Bin Soo-in or “Shon”). They were river pirates and guns for hire who became opium lords, but who started out like the local version of Robin Hood and ended up under the leadership of Le Van Vien (alias Bay Vien), eventually battling the CIA-backed government of South Vietnam for control of Saigon with a private army equipped with tanks. At their height, the Bình Xuyên was a military, political and economic force. They ran drug rings with government and intelligence agencies, controlled the largest brothel in Asia and owned one of the world’s largest and most profitable casinos as well as the grandest department store in town. Their leader was made a general, his subordinate became the police chief in Vietnam’s largest city, and their soldiers stuttered about Saigon like they owned the city because, well, they did.

 

The Bình Xuyên originated south of Saigon in the Rung Sat, the Swamp of the Assassins (Rung means “forest” and Sat is Sino-Vietnamese for “death”) in what was then Cochinchina, part of French Indochina. The area comprises a tidal mangrove swamp bordering the city’s main shipping channel to the sea. The gang was named for the town south of Saigon’s twin city Cholon (or Cho Lon meaning in Vietnamese “the big market”) and known as Little China because of the origin of many of the inhabitants. The roots of the Bình Xuyên went back to the 1920s when following harvest time, they raided their richer neighbours as a means of survival.

 

Under the leadership of Duong Van Duong, known by his nickname Ba Duong or “Three Oceans”, they at first operated clandestinely as a loosely organised coalition of gangs as pirates, extorting money from the sampans traveling through the canals to the Cholon docks, part of Saigon’s Chinatown. Later they moved into Saigon proper to kidnap, rob or shakedown the wealthy for money, which some gang members gave to the poor, earning them from some, a favourable reputation. The gang itself comprised locals, workers escaping brutal conditions on the many French-owned rubber plantations where abuses were legion and mortality rates from exhaustion and mistreatment reached 20 percent, and a solid core of street toughs.

Prison on Con Son

 

Ba Duong started out in the protection rackets at the bus station in Tây Ninh outside of Saigon, home of the Cao Dai, before rising to be the crime kingpin of Saigon but later became much more. His life and death closely followed the ever-changing violent and dramatic political and military dynamics of Vietnam between colonialism, imperialism, communism, nationalism, religious and criminal elements —it seemed at one time or another, nearly every faction in the Vietnamese political landscape was aligned to or battled every other faction.  Tales of Ba Duong’s exploits vary depending on the source. Today he is regarded in Vietnam as an independence hero rather than a gangster. For his anti-colonial exploits he was posthumously awarded the honorary rank of general in the People’s Army of Vietnam (created in 1950 and today’s national army, the legendary Vo Nguyen Giap was its first full general) and several places in Saigon were named after him.

 

Ba Duong and his men initially organised resistance to the Japanese Imperial Army when they invaded French Indochina in 1940. But during the Japanese occupation Bình Xuyên fortunes benefitted when the Kempeitai (Japanese military intelligence – both military and secret police, and ironically modelled on the Gendarmerie Nationale, part of the French armed forces) involved themselves in Vietnamese politics.  Gang leaders profited from their connections with the Japanese, who had troops stationed in Saigon with a French puppet administration aligned with Vichy France. Some Bình Xuyên came out of hiding and found more legitimate employment. Other leaders joined Japanese-sponsored political groups, where they became involved in politics for the first time. Ba Duong entered into a relationship with the Kempeitai’s southern Vietnamese agent, Matsushita Mitsuhiro, a pivotal clandestine operator (he spoke both French and Vietnamese) who was undercover as the director of Dainan Koosi (or Koshi), a trading company with close ties to the Kempeitai which carried out covert activities throughout Indochina, and reported to the Japanese Governor, Yoshio Minoda. While working for the Japanese, Ba Duong also carried out some of Saigon’s most spectacular wartime robberies. Matsushita arranged for the Kempeitai to free disparate Bình Xuyên personalities and component gangs from the French colonial prison on Con Son in 1941 (see below). Thereafter, under Japanese patronage, the Bình Xuyên grew rapidly, both in organisation and influence.

 

The fortunes of the Bình Xuyên improved further still when, in March 1945, Japanese forces throughout Indochina overthrew and imprisoned the French administration. With the removal of the French authorities, it was also possible for the Viet Minh (Vietnamese Independence League) forces, both military and political, to accelerate their efforts to gain power. While some Bình Xuyên gangsters were given amnesty, others were hired as agents by the Japanese-backed but short-lived Empire of Vietnam (it lasted five months) headed by the academic, Trần Trọng Kim and the titular-head, the decadent Bao Dai. Ba Duong for example, became a labour broker for the Japanese. With all the French forces behind bars, Vietnamese political groups favoured by the Japanese were able to organise freely for the first time. Almost every political faction courted the Bình Xuyên seeking their networks, money, and men but in the end, they surprised all by choosing the Viet Minh as allies over the others, but the alliance was not to last

 

World War Two in Asia ended abruptly when Japan surrendered after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.Vietnam (also Indonesia) was where the first armed confrontation in battle to achieve post-war independence was waged against the British – who acted as the Allied representative in these areas of Southeast Asia. In September 1945, 1400 Gurkhas and a company of French soldiers under British General Douglas Gracey (some sources say his force was 20,000) were airlifted from Burma to Saigon. Gracey, an arch-colonialist, disobeyed strict orders to stay out of politics and intervened decisively on the side of the French. Following a series of events known as the August Revolution, the Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed the establishment of an independent Vietnamese state on 2 September 1945. But when the Viet Minh went to welcome Gracey as an independent government at Saigon airport, he ignored them and later refused to see them at his office. He then had the People’s Committee of the Viet Minh ejected from their headquarters in the former Gia Long palace (now the city’s museum) – the soon-to-be-arriving French commander moved back in shortly thereafter.

Japanese forces occupy Saigon

 

The British then secretly rearmed 1500 French troops, who promptly executed a countercoup, reoccupying the city's main public buildings and removing the defeated Japanese. Backed by Japanese soldiers (lacking sufficient ground forces, the Allies resorting to using those of their defeated enemy) and Indian troops, the French recaptured downtown Saigon and began rounding up Viet Minh leaders. As British and French troops reoccupied downtown Saigon, the Bình Xuyên took up defensive positions in the city suburbs. At the end of October, French troops broke through their lines and Ba Duong was forced to lead a retreat of thousands of Bình Xuyên , Avant-Garde Youth (a nationalist student force), and Japanese deserters deep into the Rung Sat Swamp but not before leaving behind a network of secret cells or “action committees” (formerly “assassination committees”) to terrorise the French.

 

The French then began shipping in their army from Marseille, the Far East Expeditionary Corps, commanded by General Leclerc, who set himself up in the same building from where the Viet Minh were ejected. By early 1946 they had landed 53,000 soldiers. Full-scale war ensued between the French and the Vietnamese nationalists in December 1946. By 1947, French forces had doubled in size to 110,000 before later reaching a peak of 204,000 in 1954, mainly from outside France including Africans and Asians, and including about 73,000 mainly other European French Foreign legionnaires (see Bernard Fall’s breakdown of the French Foreign Legion in Indochina in ‘Street Without Joy’). France’s reconquest of Indochina was underway and the Bình Xuyên were to be a key player as events unfolded.

 

In the wake of the French and Allied attack on Saigon, the Viet Minh withdrew from Saigon to prevent further losses, leaving the Bình Xuyên in military command of Saigon-Cholon. At the suggestion of the Viet Minh the Bình Xuyên merged their forces with a citywide nationalist youth movement, the Avant-Garde Youth, a collection of idealistic students and intelligentsia. One of the Avant-Garde's Saigon leaders, the future police chief of Saigon, Lai Van Sang (his brother Lai Huu Tai, was Bay Vien’s political advisor -see below) saw that the merger made sense as the Avante-Garde lacked weapons and money, while the wealthy Bình Xuyên lacked numbers. Saigon's toughest criminals now commanded idealistic young students and intelligentsia; it was a strange alliance and one destined also not to last.

 

While the Bình Xuyên amphibious guerrillas harassed the canals (they were river pirates after all), the action committees left in Saigon collected intelligence, extorted money, and unleashed political terror. The Viet Minh were led by Nguyen Binh, a streetwise, ex-dockworker who had also been imprisoned on Poulo Condor where he lost an eye in prison fight. Despite not being a communist (he was in fact a member of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party, a non-communist nationalist organisation), Ho Chi Minh offered him military command of Viet Minh armed forces in the Mekong Delta. He arrived in Saigon dressed in military gabardine and boots with a long Mikado sabre hanging from his side. Nguyen Binh favoured a scorched earth approach, but the Viet Minh leadership looking long-term at the bigger picture also wanted to be able to later engineer negotiations with the French for independence. Nguyen Binh’s hard-line was unsurprising after witnessing the French bomb and shell Haiphong killing 3,000 civilians. His relationship with the Bình Xuyên would turn violent, with neither trusting the other.

 

As academic Alfred McCoy noted; despite their important contributions to the revolutionary movement, the Bình Xuyên marriage to the Viet Minh was doomed from the very start. It was not sophisticated ideological disputes that divided them, but rather more mundane squabblings over behaviour, discipline, and territory. Whereas relations between Bình Xuyên gangs had always been managed on the principle of mutual respect for each chief’s autonomous territory, the Viet Minh were attempting to build a mass revolution based on popular participation. A clash between brash impulsive bandits and disciplined party cadres was inevitable. A confrontation came in early 1946 when Nguyen Binh convened a military tribunal against a friend of Ba Duong, a minor Bình Xuyên gang leader accused of murder, extortion and wanton violence. During a heated argument between Nguyen Binh and Ba Duong, the accused grabbed the Viet Minh commander’s pistol and shot himself in the head. Blaming the Viet Minh for his friend’s suicide, Ba Duong began building a movement to oust Nguyen Binh, but before he could do so he was killed a few weeks later in a strafing attack by a French Spitfire. As an aside, Nguyen Binh later joined the Communist Party and was made a general but was killed in an ambush in Cambodia in 1951 by the French-commanded 4th Bataillon de Chasseurs Cambodgiens, one of the so-called “Hunter Battalions”. His remains were returned to Vietnam from Cambodia in 2000 and were buried at the Saigon cemetery.

Viet Minh- League for the Independence of Vietnam

In February 1946, the Bình Xuyên held a rally in the Rung Sat to honour their fallen leader and elected his successor as leader, Bay Vien (Bay the Seventh). Under his rule the rise and sudden fall of the Bình Xuyên would rank as one of the most incredible stories of 20th century crime. They would rise to control the police, Bay Vien would become a cabinet minister and almost prime minister. The gang would become the most powerful organisation in South Vietnam and would go on to battle the government backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency in the lead-up to the Second Indochina War.

 

Bay Vien was born in 1904 in Cholon, to a Chinese father and Vietnamese mother. His father was a reputedly a gangster, and was a member of Tiandihui, the Heaven and Earth Society, also called Hongmen (the Vast Family), a fraternal society sometimes wrongly called a triad. Bay Vien drifted into crime after reputedly being disinherited in a family dispute, wound up homeless, and was arrested several times as a teenager. He started out as a driver for Ba Duong and other gangsters, and by his twenties had become a prominent member of the Bình Xuyên; then involved in protection rackets, robberies, prostitution rings and the opium trade, and was known to the colonial police. In 1940, the French colonial authorities sentenced him for theft to Con Son Island, a penal colony in the South China Sea.

 

Con Son (also Con Lon, also known by the French variant Poulo Condor or Condore), the largest island in the Con Dao archipelago over 600kms southeast of Vietnam, was known for its harsh conditions—later the Ngo Dinh Diem regime employed torture and the notorious tiger cages for political prisoners—and from where, remarkably, Bay Vien escaped. Mass arrests by French colonial authorities had filled the jails with criminals, nationalists and communists all crammed in together. Many of the Bình Xuyên bandits had crash courses in Vietnamese nationalist politics while imprisoned on Con Son, and where they learned what the name Vietnam really meant, a unitary political state. Following his escape from Con Son in early 1945, Bay Vien returned to Saigon filled with nationalistic fervour and embittered toward French colonialism. His career trajectory was to be quite unique that in coming from a criminal background he become a (non-Communist) leader of the Viet Minh’s Zone 7 near Saigon, then later named a general in charge of an auxiliary military force within the colonial French Union, and, finally, named a General in the Vietnamese National Army (VNA).

 

Bay Vien worked closely with the Viet Minh against French colonial rule, but the Viet Minh were political idealists, whereas the Bình Xuyên were gangsters.  At the end of World War Two, the Bình Xuyên temporarily left their base and joined the Viet Minh, and where they made Bay Vien director of municipal affairs raising considerable sums for the military activities of the Viet Minh’s Provisional Executive Committee, the Nam Bo, commanded by Binh Nguyen. With arms supplies and cash from extortion and gambling, the Bình Xuyên increased their numbers to seven full regiments, about 10,000 men, reputedly then the largest Viet Minh force in Cochinchina.

 

But Bay Vien was more ambitious than patriotic and following Ba Duong’s death and bored with life in the swamps, he and his lieutenants devised strategies to catapult him and them, to greater heights. They decided they were going to kill Binh Nguyen. They began working with the Hoa Hao religious group to form an anti-French, anti-Viet Minh alliance, and they initiated secret negotiations with the French secret service, the Deuxième Bureau, the 2eme Bureau or Second Office (French external military intelligence) for the control of territory in Saigon. Aside from the Bình Xuyên and Hoa Hao, the latter emerged in the delta in the 1930s under a messianic leader, Huynh Phuh So, there was the Cao Dai (“Very High’), another large religious group also with a militia. The Cao Dai emerged after World War One and adopted an increasingly political trajectory in the 1930s. Their main leader was Pham Cong Tac known as the Defender of the Tradition, or in Cao Dai terms, the Pope. Both leaders were arrested by the French. Pham Cong Tac wound up exiled to Madagascar while Huynh Phuh So was incarcerated near Saigon in a lunatic asylum.

 

These groups were actors too, perfectly playing the French to preserve their autonomy around the Mekong Delta. Initially both religious groups were allied with the Viet Minh, but cooperation did not last long. Religious leaders of both groups were wary of the communists and the idea of subordinating their forces to any control other than their own. Loyalties and strategies did not remain static in the south; and friction between the different groups was a constant feature. As they returned to the Mekong Delta, the French quickly picked up on this tension as they sought to rebuild their Indochina colony. They sought to turn this friction to their advantage by divide and rule: affording special privileges and autonomy to certain groups. The French released Pham Cong Tac in 1946 on the condition he signed a deal with them, which he did, and from early 1947 thousands of his Cao Dai followers crossed over to the French.

Nguyen Binh (in glasses) and Ho Chi Minh (centre front)

 

The Viet Minh and the other Cao Dai leaders began talks to prevent further defections, but a civil war broke out between the two (the Cao Dai had asked Viet Minh forces to leave the Cao Dai base at Tai Ninh near Saigon and the latter refused) with the French supplying the Cao Dai. By June 1947, most Cao Dai had crossed over to the Franco-Vietnamese side. Relations between the Viet Minh and the Hoa Hao soured. Their leader, Huynh Phuh So entered secret negotiations with the French secret service also in early 1947. Violence with the Viet Minh ensued and thousands were killed. The Viet Minh decided to execute Huynh Phuh So (they cut his body up and scattered the pieces), which turned out to be a monumental blunder and created a sea of hate. After his death, and without centralised leadership, the Hoa Hao became a network of war lords.

 

The next year, in 1948, in an effort to stabilise Saigon the French would turn the Bình Xuyên to their cause. This suited Bay Vien for lacking a special ideology, the Bình Xuyên was a target for Communist recruitment efforts. To compensate for this, Bay Vien became fanatically anti-Communist in his activities. Later, when Viet Minh bombs rocked Saigon nightly, Cholon for example, policed by the Bình Xuyên who were paid by the wealthy Chinese, remained quiet. The price for the French was to turn the largest city in southern Vietnam over to gangsters whereby the French granted permission for the Bình Xuyên to police the capital. The Bình Xuyên cleared the Viet Minh out of Saigon and in return, the French made Bay Vien a Brigadier General in their sponsored armed forces, the VNA.

 

The Viet Minh’s southern command under Nguyen Binh continued a terrorist assault on Saigon, targeting French installations and Vietnamese collaborators “grenading” (the throwing of grenades) the city. In one spectacular raid Nguyen Binh’s commandos blew up part of the French naval arsenal built in the 1860s. The attacks lasted from 1946-50, but never managed to halt Saigon’s bustling activities but changed the way people went about business. In Saigon protective and iron mesh went up but in the countryside Vietnamese civilians who were in so many ways what the armed struggle was all about, had no such protection. The First Indochina War was not a simple war of urban terrorism and rural counterinsurgency, culminating in a massive military showdown at Dien Bien Phu; but a sustained and increasingly savage battle about controlling people. The Bình Xuyên were to make sure they got a piece of everything.

 

The Viet Minh knew all about Bay Vien’s intentions and activities to betray them, their intelligence was better than anyone’s, but watched and waited. They acted when, in March 1948, his top advisers went to Saigon to negotiate a secret alliance with Captain Antoine Savani of the 2eme Bureau. Savani, known to his peers as the “Corsican Bandit”, was a Machivellian character who, together with some other French intelligence officers, was up to his neck in hill tribesmen, paramilitaries, pirates, and drugs – the end seemingly justifying any means.

 

The colonial French rulers were not a homogenous group by any means. French from Brittany and Bordeaux administered separate associations. The French Corsican community were a large part of colonial society (about 1500 of 32,000 French residents) with their own papers, language classes, clubs, and sporting events.  They dominated the civil service and were prominent in business circles and the criminal underworld. The unchallenged leader of Saigon's Corsican underworld was the eminently respectable Mathieu Franchini, owner of the exclusive Continental Palace Hotel, where all the war correspondents used to stay. He became the Bình Xuyên 's investment counsellor and managed a good deal of their opium and gambling profits. When Bay Vien's fortune reached monumental proportions, Franchini sent him to Paris where “newfound Corsican friends gave him good advice about investing his surplus millions.” And according to reliable Vietnamese sources, it was Franchini who controlled most of Saigon's opium exports to Marseille. Neither he nor his associates could view with equanimity the prospect of an American takeover.

 

Knowing Bay Vien had betrayed them, the Viet Minh invited him to attend a special meeting at their headquarters in the Plain of Reeds (Đồng Tháp Mười a vast inland wetland west of Saigon, known to French military planners as Plaine des Joncs) in May 1948, Ho Chi Minh's birthday. Realising that this was a trap, Bay Vien turned up with 200 Bình Xuyên  as bodyguards. While he was there, the Viet Minh moved into the Rung Sat. anticipating events, the Viet Minh had months before sent cadres to infiltrate the gangsters. Outraged at Bay Viens’ betrayal, the Avante-Garde launched a coup; Bay Vien’s supporters were arrested, unreliable units were disarmed, and the Rung Sat refuge was turned over to the Viet Minh. Back on the Plain of Reeds, Bay Vien sensed an ugly change of temper in the meetings with Binh Nguyen, massed his bodyguards, and took-off toward the Rung Sat with Viet Minh troops in hot pursuit. En route he learned that his refuge was lost. Hounded by pursuing Viet Minh columns, and aware that return to the Rung Sat was impossible, Bay Vien found himself on the road to Saigon.

 

Not willing to join with the French openly and be branded a collaborator, Bay Vien went to ground in the marshes south of Saigon for several days until 2eme Bureau agents tracked him down. Bay Vien may have lost the Rung Sat, but his covert action committees remained a potent force in Saigon-Cholon and made him invaluable to the French. Savani convinced Bay Vien his life was over unless he sided with France. In June 1948 he signed a declaration denouncing the Viet Minh as traitors and declaring his loyalty to Vietnam’s titular emperor, Bao Dai (the French thought he had the attributes they particularly valued. In their eyes, he was weak, concerned principally with indulging his passions for gambling, sport and womanising, and spent most of his time out of the country, mainly in theirs). In return, the French announced that it “had decided to confide the police and maintenance of order to the Bình Xuyên troops in a zone where they are used to operating” and assigned them territory along the southern edge of Cholon. The Bình Xuyên had become officially sanctioned gangsters.

 

In return, Bay Vien rallied 800 gangsters from the Rung Sat and together with their aligned covert action committees, aided the French in a massive sweep through Saigon-Cholon hunting down Viet Minh cadres, cells, and agents. As Bay Vien’s chief political adviser, Lai Huu Tai (Lai Van Sang’s brother), explained, “Since we had spent time in the maquis and fought there, we also knew how to organize the counter maquis.” The hunted became the hunters. But once the operation was finished, Bay Vien, afraid of being branded as a collaborator, retired to his turf in Cholon refusing to budge. The Bình Xuyên refused to set foot on any territory not ceded to them and labelled an independent “nationalist zone.”

French Foreign Legion in Saigon 1945

 

To avail themselves of the Bình Xuyên’s unique abilities as an urban counterintelligence and security force to counter the Viet Minh and nationalist forces, the French were obliged to turn over Saigon-Cholon block by block to the gang. By mid-1954 the Bình Xuyên military commander, the aforementioned Lai Van Sang, was chief of police, and the Bình Xuyên controlled Saigon-Cholon and surrounding area including a 100kms strip between the city and Cap Saint Jacques (now Vung Tau) on the coast. Since the Bình Xuyên’s pacification technique required vast amounts of money to bribe thousands of informers, the French allowed them carte blanche to plunder the city. Their economic and political hold on the city, the military defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phnu in 1954, and the burgeoning involvement of the US in Vietnam at the height of the Cold War would soon lead to a pitched battle on the capital’s streets, a showdown between the river pirates and the government of South Vietnam, called the Battle of Saigon.

 

To be continued ...

 

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