Michael Batson

Travel Writer

Vietnam

Cambodia

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Travelogue

The Bình Xuyên and the Battle of Saigon - 7 April 2021

By 1954 Bay Vien (“Bay the Seventh”), an illiterate gangster once impoverished and homeless, had become the richest man in Saigon with immense wealth at the head of a criminal-military organisation thousands strong, and the key to the French presence in Cochinchina. He was the leader of a powerful Vietnamese criminal enterprise decreed by the Head of State, Bao Dai, as an independent army within the Vietnamese National Army. Through his crime syndicate, the Bình Xuyên, who were once river pirates, the French Deuxieme or “2eme Bureau”—the military intelligence bureau of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps—countered the growing power of the Vietnamese nationalist parties, kept Viet Minh (the Independence League of Viet Nam) fighters off the streets, and battled the growing influence of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for control of what was later to become, South Vietnam.

 

The Bình Xuyên themselves were the by-product of poverty, of rotten government and devolved power through a kaleidoscope of groups but also colonial intransigence followed by global geo-political forces albeit in a localised setting. Colonialism was attributable to the French, who after World War Two got help from the British, and the later Cold War factors can be blamed on the Americans—all representatives of arguably the most dangerous creatures in human history, white men in suits.

 

The key to the Bình Xuyên’s power was money, buckets of it, and they got it through transport and protection rackets, gambling, prostitution, and drugs. They did all this with the agreement of French authorities, the collusion of the French secret services, and the active participation of the French military. Through their criminal activities, the Bình Xuyên began what came to be known later as the French Connection. Hollywood would even make a movie about it albeit about where it wound up, New York, rather than where it started.

 

Bay Vien’s lifestyle had something of the movie villain about it. A crocodile moat surrounded his house and the Bình Xuyên headquarters on Rue Catinat (named for a French warship but these days called Dong Khoi Street or “duong” in Vietnamese, where Notre Dame Cathedral stands), not far from the presidential palace. He had a collection of large pythons and kept a full-grown leopard chained to a guard post outside his bedroom and inside, a tigress in a cage. Big cats, top dog. Rumour had it that he would feed the tigress any one of the thousands of men serving him who dared displease him. He was Pablo Escobar before there was the Medellin cartel, and in real life Tony Montana before there was Scarface.

Bay Vien

 

The most important asset in the Bình Xuyên’s commercial empire was gambling, principally casinos, the biggest and most lavish in Saigon, and hugely profitable. The (Le) Grand Monde, the richest, had been opened in 1946 at the insistence of the governor-general of Indochina, Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, a devout Catholic (he eventually retired to a monastery) and an ardent Gaullist, to finance the colonial government of Cochinchina. Nicknamed the “Bloody Monk”, d’Argenlieu was, through his hard-line actions, the man aside from Charles de Gaulle most responsible for starting the First Indochina War, a bloody conflict which killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. The Grand Monde was originally owned by a Chinese Macao syndicate, which made payoffs to all of Saigon’s competing political forces—the Bình Xuyên, Emperor Bao Dai, prominent cabinet ministers, and even the Viet Minh (founded in 1941 and led by Ho Chi Minh, it was later absorbed into the Lien Diet or Association of United Vietnamese People).

 

In early 1950, Bay Vien suggested to Captain Antoine Savani of the French 2eme Bureau, that payments to the Viet Minh could be ended if he were awarded the franchise. The French agreed, and Bay Vien’s political adviser, Lai Huu Tai (brother of Lai Van Sang, later Saigon’s police chief), met with Emperor Bao Dai and promised him strong economic and political support if he agreed to support the deal. But when Bao Dai made the proposal to President Do Huu Phuong and the French governor of Cochinchina, they refused their consent, since both received stipends from the Macao Chinese. The Bình Xuyên then broke the deadlock in their own inimitable fashion. They advised the Chinese franchise holders that the Bình Xuyên police would no longer protect the casinos from Viet Minh terrorists, they then kidnapped the head of the Macao syndicate, and, finally, pledged to continue everybody’s earnings – an offer they could not refuse.

 

The French authorities cut from the deal was USD20,000 a day (USD220,741 in today’s money) from what knowledgeable French observers estimated was the most profitable casino in Asia, perhaps in the world. The previous arrangement offered by the Macao syndicate, saw the Grand Monde pay USD2,600 a day (USD28,696 today) as protection money to the Bình Xuyên as insurance that their gangsters would not throw grenades into its gaming halls. The Bình Xuyên also owned the most prestigious department store in Saigon, once the epitome of colonial chic (the main staircase was something to behold), the former Grands Magasins Charner (GMC) and later known as the Saigon Tax Trade Centre. After reunification it became the City General Department Store, and later it had other names. As the GMC it was “the place to shop” in Saigon and also featured in the film of Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’ as the place the central character stands to watch the bicycle bomb attack.

 

The sex industry was another lucrative earner. The Bình Xuyên owned and operated a wide variety of brothels, all the way from small, intimate villas staffed with attractive young women for generals and diplomats down to the Hall of Mirrors, whose 1200 “inmates” and assembly-line techniques made it one of the most profitable bordellos in all of Asia. While American gangsters preferred a low profile, the Bình Xuyên by contrast flaunted their power: their green-bereted soldiers strutted down the streets, they flew their own flag, their opium dens and gambling casinos operated openly, and a government minister even presided at the dedication of the Hall of Mirrors, the largest brothel in Asia.

 

Le Grand Monde

The brothels not only provided income, but they also yielded a steady flow of political and military intelligence to the Bình Xuyên. The French did the same; there were 73 known French prostitutes residing in Indochina, mainly in Saigon, accessible only to rich businessmen, senior officers, airline pilots, and other persons with either means or connections, and who provided a steady stream of intelligence to French authorities. The French intelligence chief in Indochina, however, was aghast when Marshal Laittre de Tassigny, commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Corps and endowed with both military and civilian powers, decided to have them all expelled but was convinced to delay until Vietnamese prostitutes were organised and briefed as replacements.

 

Another key component to their commercial empire was opium, the impact of which would become global. The Bình Xuyên involvement in running the opium trade in Saigon had its origins in the French prosecution of the First Indochina War. Realising they were losing the war with just conventional means, a group of younger, innovative French officers developed a new strategy of counterinsurgency warfare. Indochina became a vast chessboard where hill tribes, bandits, and religious minorities could be used as pawns to hold certain territories and prevent Viet Minh infiltration. From the Gulf of Tonkin to the hills of Laos, the southern central highlands, and the Mekong Delta, the counterinsurgency efforts were continually plagued by a lack of money. The war was tremendously unpopular in France, and the French National Assembly slashed its spending to barely enough for the regular military forces, leaving almost nothing for extras such as paramilitary or intelligence work. The solution was “Operation X,” a clandestine narcotics traffic in raw opium so secret that only high-ranking French and Vietnamese officials even knew of its existence.

 

The opium trade was run through the Groupement de Commandos Mixtes Aéroportés (GCMA in French or the Mixed Airborne Commando Group, or MACG in English). French intelligence agencies have always been closely tied to the regular military hierarchy. The most important French intelligence agency, and the closest equivalent to the CIA, is the SDECE (Service de Documentation Exterieure et du Contre-Espionage). During the First Indochina War its Southeast Asia chief for six-and-a-half years was Colonel Maurice Belleux, creator in 1943 of the Hunter Network within the Bureau Central Renseignments et d’Action (BCRA, the Bureau of Intelligence and Operations in English), the intelligence service of the Free French set-up to detect and then eliminate enemy agents in Occupied France.

 

Most of GCMA’s innovative counterinsurgency tactics were developed by Major Roger Trinquier, a cold-blooded scientific tactician. It was Trinquier who forged most of the important hill tribal alliances and organised much of the opium trade during 1951-54. He evolved a precise process for transforming any hill tribe area in French Indochina from a scattering of mountain hamlets into a tightly disciplined, counterguerrilla infrastructure-a maquis (dense scrub vegetation but also the name of the French Resistance in World War Two). The first step involved carefully selected officers flying over hill tribe villages in a light aircraft to test the response of the inhabitants. If they were shot at, they concluded the area was probably hostile, but if the tribesmen waved, then the area might have potential, and they went on from there.

 

Trinquier’s theories fascinated the CIA and later inspired similar American programmes in Vietnam and Laos. Trinquier wrote a book ‘Modern Warfare’ based on his theories, one of which advocated the use of torture. Later he went on to serve in Algeria, another bloody war of independence from France, where he as second-in-command to Jacques Massau during the Battle for Algiers, and where the methodical torture of civilians by French soldiers was widespread. He then flaunted international law by organising Katanga’s white mercenary army to fight a UN peace-keeping force during the 1961 crisis in the former Belgian Congo.

GMC - in its heyday

 

During its peak from 1951-54, Operation X was sanctioned at the highest levels by Colonel Belleux for the SDECE and General Raoul Salan, the most decorated soldier in the French Army and commander-in-chief of the Expeditionary Corps (he was later charged with treason as a founder of the OAS, the Organisation Armée Secrète or Secret Armed Organisaton, a French dissident paramilitary group which plotted against the French government). Below them was Major Trinquier of the GCMA whose liaison officers worked with Hmong commander Touby Lyfoung and Tai Federation leader Deo Van Long to ensure a steady supply of opium.

 

By 1954, Trinquier had more than 40,000 tribal mercenaries commanded by 400 French officers, and were busy ambushing Viet Minh supply lines, safeguarding territory, and providing intelligence. French irregular forces were mainly Hmong, sometimes referred to as “Meo” a corruption of Miao, but also Tai (not Thai) forces from the Tai Federation. The Tai Federation (Sip Song Chau Tai or the Twelve Tai cantons) was a confederation of chiefdoms in the mountainous north-west of today’s Vietnam, dating back at least to the 17th century. It became an autonomous part of the French protectorate of Tonkin, and thereby of French Indochina, in 1889. The Tai Federation were Black Tai (Tai Dam), White Tai (Tai Dón), and Red Tai (Tai Daeng) distinguished by the colour of the tribal womens’ clothing (there were also Green Tai).

 

The French set up the Tai Federation’s autonomous budget in 1947 based on the only marketable commodity—opium. As one French colonel put it: “The Tai budgetary receipts are furnished exclusively by the [Hmong] who pay half with their raw opium, and the other half, indirectly, through the Chinese who lose their opium smuggling profits in the [state] gaming halls.” Although the French euphemistically referred to these local troops as “supplementary forces” and attempted to legitimise their leaders with ranks, commissions, and military decorations, they were little more than mercenaries and greedy, very expensive mercenaries at that. France had to pay dearly for their services and counterinsurgency efforts were continually plagued by a lack of money.

 

French intelligence and paramilitary agencies took over the opium traffic to finance their covert operations. As soon as the French colonial government, which was actively seeking to eliminate opium addiction (which began with the abolition of the Opium Monopoly in 1946), abolished some aspect of the trade, French intelligence services proceeded to take it over. This clandestine opium traffic produced a legacy of Corsican syndicates and corrupted French intelligence officers who, according to those studying the topic, remain even today key figures in the international narcotics trade. The impact of the programme on the French officer corps revealed the dangers inherent in clandestine military operations that allows its leaders carte blanche to violate any or all military regulations and moral laws and arguably led to the abuses perpetrated by French forces in the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62).

 

Sometime after 1950 the French military awarded the Bình Xuyên Saigon’s opium commerce, another lucrative colonial asset. The Bình Xuyên started processing the GCMA’s raw opium from the hill tribes of Laos and Tonkin, and then distributing prepared smokers’ opium to hundreds of dens scattered throughout Saigon-Cholon where the population had tripled from 500,000 in 1939 to 1.7 million in 1954, an increase caused by war, not industrialisation. Once the opium was collected after the annual spring harvest, Trinquier had the hill tribes ready raw opium to be flown-in regularly to Cap Saint Jacques (Vung Tau) near Saigon, where the SDECE’s Action Service school trained hill tribe mercenaries at a military base. The planes used were mainly ex-American DC3s from CAT (Civil Air Transport) formerly a Nationalist Chinese airline and later owned and operated by the CIA as Air America, which flew drugs for the USA.

 

There were no customs or police controls to interfere with or expose the illicit shipments as the Bình Xuyên controlled all the land routes. From Cap Saint Jacques the opium was trucked 100kms into Saigon and turned over to the Bình Xuyên, who also controlled the city’s police force and managed its opium traffic with the collusion of the 2eme Bureau’s Captain Savani. The Bình Xuyên paid a fixed percentage of their profits to Emperor Bao Dai, the French 2eme Bureau, and the GCMA commandos. Just as the relationship between the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA which, it should be noted, once supported Ho Chi Minh) and the Italian Mafia during World War Two and the CIA-Corsican alliance in the early years of the Cold War affected the resurrection of the European heroin trade, so to the French 2eme Bureau’s alliance with the Bình Xuyên allowed Saigon’s opium commerce to survive and prosper during the First Indochina War. The underworld in Corsica usually refers to the Union Corse (Corsican Union); secretive with some in elected office, others in the Gendarmerie Nationale (a branch of the armed forces) and the SDECE, and who ran the French Connection to the US from 1930-70.

Hotel Continental Saigon - Corsican-owned


The Bình Xuyên operated two major opium-boiling plants in Saigon (one near their headquarters at Cholon’s Y-Bridge, French-built and still standing, and the other near the National Assembly) to transform the raw poppy sap into a smokable form. The bandits distributed the prepared opium to dens and retail shops throughout Saigon-Cholon, some of which were owned by the Bình Xuyên (the others paid the gangsters a substantial share of their profits for protection). The Bình Xuyên divided its receipts with Trinquier's GCMA and Captain Savani’s 2eme Bureau. Any surplus opium the Bình Xuyên were unable to market was sold to local Chinese merchants for export to Hong Kong or else to the Corsican criminal syndicates in Saigon for shipment to Marseille. GCMA deposited its portion in a secret account managed by the Action Service office in Saigon. When Touby Lyfoung or any other Hmong tribal leader needed money, he flew to Saigon and personally drew money out of the caisse noire, or the black box.


It is somewhat ironic, that when following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, many of the Tai Federation commandos were to be resettled in Laos which was to be financed out of the drug monies kept in the black box in Saigon. However, when Touby went to the office in person, the French officer on duty reported the money was missing. One of Trinquier’s own officers had stolen USD150,000 (USD1.452 million today) collected from the last winter opium harvest.


According to observers, Bay Vien’s control over Saigon-Cholon enabled him to build “a multi-faceted business enterprise whose economic potential constitutes … one of the most solid economic forces in South Vietnam.” The French 2eme Bureau concluded that Bay Vien’s business model succeeded in following exactly the rules of horizontal and vertical monopolization so dear to American consortiums. The CIA later reported “The Bình Xuyên were participating in one of the world’s major arteries of the dope traffic, helping move the prize opium crops out of Laos and South China. The profits were so huge that Bao Dai’s tiny cut was ample to keep him in yachts, villas, and other comforts in France.”

 

Currency smuggling was another source of income and the Corsican underworld in Saigon, principally through Matthieu Francini, used their connections in Marseille to make them wealthy. According to Vietnamese sources, it was Franchini who controlled most of Saigon's opium exports to Marseille. Not that the Americans seemed particularly bothered. When Edward Landsdale (see below) a CIA operative, reported the existence of Operation X to Washington around mid-1953, their response was around the lines of “Don’t you have anything else to do” and was told to drop any investigation as it would be a” major embarrassment” to a friendly government.

Defeated French soldiers at Dien Bien Phu

 

Soon after Lansdale arrival in Saigon he sized up the French and the Bình Xuyên financial and military strength. Knowing something about the importance of the opium trade as a source of income for French clandestine services (he had stumbled it on one of up-country inspection tours), he now looked more closely at Operation X with the help of a respected Cholon Chinese banker. The banker was then abruptly murdered, and Lansdale dropped the inquiry. There was reason to believe that the banker had gotten too close to the Corsicans involved, and they killed him to prevent the information from getting any further. After the Battle of Saigon was over and French interests lost, the Corsicans carried out a deadly vendetta against Americans, throwing grenades into their houses and blowing up and booby-trapping their cars.

 

All this continued during a bloody war of independence from colonial rule which killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. The Vietnamese estimated 500,000 mainly civilians died. A French scholar, Bernard Fall, who wrote two seminal works on the French in Vietnam (and six in total), especially the military component, put the death toll at one million. The Vietnamese fought against the French throughout the whole of Vietnam, and by the last years of the war even the military maps of the French themselves showed much of southern Vietnam in the hands of the Viet Minh. Militarily, generally, initial guerrilla campaigns by the Viet Minh in the north developed into campaigns involving thousands of troops and major battles. Whereas in the south, scattered units from both sides clashed in frequent guerrilla and small force actions with “control” over both territory and population often in dispute.

 

The First Indochina War, especially from the Vietnamese view, was a highly politicised war. It was a conflict fought at all military levels, from main-force engagements to local skirmishes. In all, between 1950-54 the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, the north) engaged in eight set-piece battels as well as maintaining a guerrilla war. The doubling of a guerrilla war with a conventional was carried with it a full-blown social and military revolution and the Viet Minh worked to undermine the French position at every level including initiating land reform and literacy campaigns.

 

In early 1950, the DRV led by Ho Chi Minh, declared a state of general mobilisation. As they lacked mechanised transport, and to take the battle to the French, they relied disproportionately on human and animal force. In all they mobilised 1.74 million civilians as porters (half of them women), mainly peasants. To defeat the French at the seminal battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Vietnamese supplied their troops continuously with weapons, ammunition (they fired over 30,000 artillery shells at the French), medicines and especially food over 800kms supply lines through rugged mountain jungles in all weather; an astonishing feat.

 

The day after the battle ended, 8 May 1954, the Geneva Conference (which had begun on 26 April) began negotiations on Indochina. Multiple machinations at Geneva ensued between the powers of the Eastern and Western blocs over the future state of Vietnam. The French, keen to retain a presence considered the “leopard skin” solution, multiple enclaves throughout the south for the communists but changed their minds. In the end the DRV accepted the partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel of the country, the so-called Geneva Accords (though the actual demarcation line ran south of it approximately along the Ben Hai River – the pillboxes are still there) and in July a ceasefire was signed with France. Elections on the future rulers of all of Vietnam were scheduled for mid-1956, but in the end never took place.

 

French rule in Vietnam was over and a planned withdrawal began. They had after all, another war to fight to retain colonial rule much closer to home, in Algeria. Geopolitically, following the ceasefire in Korea at the height of the Cold War, the Americans involved Vietnam in, as they saw it, a struggle to contain the spread of communism, the so-called Domino Theory”.  It was a complex and rapidly changing environment and one that post the Geneva Accords saw the US reset its policy on Vietnam. They would focus on supporting a fully decolonised, anti-communist, economically vibrant, and heavily armed ‘South Vietnam’ capable of holding the Indochinese line in the struggle to contain communism.

 

Bình Xuyên flag

In essence, the US was not ‘new’ to Asia or to Indochina. They were continuing to expand the informal empire that they had been building across the Pacific Ocean since the 19th century. Washington had paid 80 percent of the cost of the First Indochina War, so it was their war too. Bernard Fall disputes the costs. He reckoned actual US expenditure in Indochina had reached in total USD954 million by July 1954. Whereas during 1946-54, the French had spent close to $11 billion of their own funds for the prosecution of the war. The Second Indochina War cost the US USD843 billion, their fourth most expensive war in history by money spent. During the war, the White House approved indirect intervention in the form of advisors, military assistance, intelligence, and covert CIA operations. American pilots flew supply missions over Dien Bien Phu. and hundreds of American advisers had served with French units. Washington did not ‘replace’ the French, they were already ‘there’. Massive amounts of military aid would flow directly to the Associated State of Vietnam (the south) rather than via the French effectively ending America’s proxy war via the French.

 

Part of the continuing covert US war in Vietnam saw Edward Lansdale, a CIA operative, sent to Saigon. Landsdale was a former advertising executive who started out with the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) noted for his mastery of media manipulation and propaganda. According to journalist Stanley Karnow, Lansdale’s clout was exaggerated by both his admirers and critics. He arrived in Saigon in June 1954 and set up the Saigon Military Mission, a covert group of a dozen soldiers and intelligence agents who were specialists in “dirty tricks”. The CIA furnished Landsdale with funds to bring in Filipino auxiliaries. Landsdale was described as a deceptively mild and self-effacing, he counted on “psychological warfare” techniques that resembled advertising gimmicks. He had earlier helped Ramon Magsaysay crush the Hukbalahap (short form of the Tagalog for the National Armed Force against the Japanese) rebellion in the Philippines by using a range of psychological techniques including allegations of vampirism. He was later depicted in literature in ‘The Ugly American’ and Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’ both of which were made into films.

 

Landsdale it was said, exuded a ‘brand of artless goodwill that overlooked the deeper dynamics of revolutionary upheavals and he seemed to be oblivious to the social and cultural complexities of Asia’. Francois Bizot, author of ‘The Gate’ and a long-time resident of Cambodia and observer of Southeast Asia, was scathing of Americans with their, ‘crass ignorance of the milieu in which they had intervened, their clumsy demagogy, their misplaced clear conscience, and that easy-going, childlike sincerity that bordered on stupidity’. Looking around even today, it seems some things about Americans abroad have not changed. Landsdale’s counsel to Ngo Dinh Diem, he became a close friend and even lived in the presidential palace in Saigon, would bring him into confrontation with the French 2eme Bureau, one intelligence force against another and yet supposedly allies, and through them, the Bình Xuyên.

 

Ngo Dinh Diem was then Bao Dai’s prime minister of the Associated State of Vietnam but later premier of the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam) after he trumped the emperor in a rigged election (he awarded himself 98 percent of the votes). Landsdale with his talent for advertising, showed Ngo how to design the ballots to sway the electorate. Those for Ngo were red, which signified good luck and those for Bao Dai green, the colour of misfortune. Ngo was from a prominent Catholic family. He had five brothers, an older brother, Thuc, was archbishop of Hue and a younger brother, Nhu, a ruthless tactician, was his chief political advisor). Ngo was an anti-French, anti-communist Vietnamese nationalist. Despite years in exile in Michigan, the US was never “sold” on Ngo. Eventually he wound up murdered by his own generals in a bloody coup, but first he had to battle the forces aligned against him to consolidate power, including the Bình Xuyên and Landsdale would play a key part.

Bay Vien and French advisors

 

Ngo was a nationalist and the French had previously sent him packing for demanding dominion status. In exile he had made the non-communist case directly to the Americans repeating that the French failure to decolonise was helping the communists.  As Bao Dai’s prime minister, he had been granted full powers but relied heavily on family. His office was characterised by rampant nepotism and he became increasingly authoritarian. His police rounded up his opponents and tortured and imprisoned them in a network of jails even using the old French colonial prison on Con Son Island. Instead of building a non-communist Vietnam and unifying non-communists, Ngo attacked anyone who defied him. As he saw it what counted were actions and results, and time was short.

 

The French encouraged Ngo’s enemies to destabilise him. There was the so-called Hinh or Army Crisis of August 1954, involving General Nguyen Van Hinh. He was chief of staff of the Vietnamese National Army and the first Vietnamese officer in the French Armed Forces to be promoted to the rank of general. Ngo wanted control over the armed forces to free it from French control and to use it to subdue those Vietnamese opposed to his nation-building (he later used army special forces as his private army and his brother, Nhu, personally ran the secret police). In September 1954 Nguyen Van Hinh was sacked. Furious, Hinh immediately began plotting to overthrow his leader, confident that the French would back him. Despite often seething French hostility towards Ngo, Nguyem Van Hinh badly overestimated his French partners ability or desire to help in post-Geneva Vietnam.2

 

Lansdale reputedly intervened to have the general’s key conspirators shuffled off to a junket in Manila ensuring they were out of the country at the critical time. Hinh also underestimated the Ngo brothers, who were turning younger, frustrated nationalist officers in the army against him. They carefully portrayed Hinh as a creature of the French. Bao Dai backed his prime minister and Hinh lost his army and fled to France. His replacement as army chief was Nguyen Van Vy, but he was later arrested in May 1955 for trying to take over the army on behalf of the emperor and he then fled, also to France. He later had his revenge when, upon his return to Saigon, he was involved in the coup which saw Ngo murdered. Later, as defence minister he allegedly embezzled millions from the army’s pension fund.

 

The Ngos wanted to bring order to chaos. Indeed, one of the things they most admired about the communists was their ability to do just that. Events came to a head in early 1955, when French subsidies to the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao ‘sects’ dried up and the Ngo brothers moved to take control of them. To do this they used the army, their contacts, diplomacy, and even American money. When the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao defied Ngo’s regime, Landsdale bribed several of the leaders to rally to the government paying them as much as USD3 million each (USD29.65 million today) out of CIA funds. Those who rallied to the cause received strings of medals and plum positions while the Ngos simultaneously played off one stubborn leader against another.

 

They skilfully exploited the Cao Dai leader General Trinh Minh Thế’s dissatisfaction with the French (he ‘defected’ from them four times before 1954) to rally his forces to the Ngo cause. Thế (pronounced “Tee-r”) was trained in military officer school by the Japanese Kempeitai when Japan began using Cao Đai paramilitary troops in World War Two against the French. In June 1951, The broke from the Cao Đai hierarchy and took about 2,000 troops with him to form his own militia, the Liên Minh, devoted to combating both the French and the Viet Minh. At one point after February 1955, some said Thế might be a realistic replacement for Ngo. On 3 May 1955, while standing near his military jeep, Thế was shot in the back of the head by a sniper. Thế’s murder was unsolved.

 

The Ngos cut similar deals with the Hoa Hao and the Catholics. Fighting against the religious militias finally ended in early 1956 when General Duong Van Minh, a Ngo loyalist, captured the fanatical Hoa Hao guerrilla commander, Le Quang Vinh and popularly known as Ba Cut, who was pthen ublicly guillotined. Ba Cut was known as erratic and sadistic and his forces fought the Vietnamese National Army (Ngo's army, the VNA), the Viet Minh and the Cao Dai, frequently made alliances with various Vietnamese factions and the French. Minh, a burly figure known as Big Minh with a distinctive smile (he had metal teeth as the Japanese military police had pulled his out), was to head the conspiracy that overthrew Diem seven years later, and in April 1975, as interim chief of state, he surrendered Saigon to the North Vietnamese.

Battle of Saigon, April 1955

 

After the religious sects it was the turn of the Bình Xuyên. This was Ngo’s biggest challenge, a showdown with the 40,000-strong army of Bay Vien in what became known as the Battle of Saigon. Estimates of the Bình Xuyên fighting forces varies; some say there were 2000 involved entrenched in buildings across downtown with another 4000 in reserve whereas the government used four battalions of paratroopers, armoured car squadrons while 14 battalions were held in reserve). In March 1955 the Binh Xuyen joined the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao in forming a “United Front of National Forces” (the Front), a loose coalition. The Front sent a mission to Bao Dai, requesting the resignation of Ngo, and issued an ultimatum to Ngo, giving him five days to form a government of national union. His refusal to acquiesce to the demands of the Front resulted in a Bình Xuyên attack on the presidential palace on 29 March 1955. Landsdale also dangled a deal with the Bình Xuyên, but Ngo rejected it. Ultimately, Bay Vien refused to relinquish his lucrative business interests – his riches were enormous, and his influence was such that his men had penetrated the upper reaches of the country’s police force.

 

Ngo now called in the army to put a stop to all of this. Skirmishing began in March. The French intervened in the conflict and temporarily halted the fighting, but renewed hostilities broke out a short time later when government forces initiated military action against the Bình Xuyên. The French openly favoured the Bình Xuyên, fed its officers intelligence and threw up barriers to government troops. Bao Dai entered the fray from his chateau on the Cote d’Azur (he spent much of his life outside of Vietnam), attempting to manipulate the factions in Saigon. In April, Ngo ordered the Bình Xuyên to cease its deployment in the city.

 

Some observers and specialists in Vietnam thought the so-called Battle of Saigon was a war by proxy; the Bình Xuyên and Ngo's VNA (its successor force, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or AVRN, was not established until December 1955) were substitutes in a power struggle between the intelligence services of two Western allies; the French 2eme Bureau and the American CIA. Although there were longstanding tactical disagreements between the French and Americans at the ambassadorial and governmental levels, there was an atmosphere of friendliness and flexibility that was not to be found in their respective intelligence agencies.

 

Prior to the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu the two governments had cooperated with a minimum of obvious friction in Indochina. However, after Dien Bien Phu and the subsequent signing of the Geneva Accords, the partnership collapsed as major policy differences began to emerge between the two allies. The French planned to cede full control over Vietnam to the communists and work closely with Ho Chi Minh to retain French cultural influence and investment. However, these plans were an anathema with Washington’s anti-communist doctrines. According to the declassified Pentagon Papers, the tensions between the US and France boiled down to two core issues: who would train the armed forces of the ‘South”; and whether Ngo Dinh Diem should remain as premier or be replaced by somebody else more sympathetic to Bao Dai and to France. While the French and US politely denied any self-interest and attempted to make even their most partisan efforts seem a pragmatic response to the evolving situation in Saigon, both gave their intelligence agencies free rein to steer Saigon to their side. Behind the smiles on the diplomatic front, the CIA and the 2eme Bureau engaged in a savage covert battle for Saigon.

 

The CIA’s battle with the French was not only with the 2eme Bureau, but was also with the local French community, particularly the Corsicans and their underworld. Some Corsicans were ex-French resistance fighters, while some were gangsters who had come to Indochina with the French forces and stayed to go into legitimate business or to reap profits from the black market and smuggling that flourished under wartime conditions. They had strong underworld connections in Marseille, and they were able to engage in smuggling gold, currency, and opium between the two ports. Many Corsicans outside the military had businesses, positions, rackets, and power that would be threatened by a decline in French influence. While they certainly did not share France’s ideas of cooperation with the Viet Minh, they were even more hostile to the idea of turning things over to the Americans. Game on.

 

Premier in name only, Ngo controlled only the few blocks of downtown Saigon surrounding the presidential palace. The French and their clients; the army, the Bình Xuyên, and the armed religious groups, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, could easily mount an anti-Ngo coup if he threatened their interests. The Bình Xuyên were able to impose a food blockade given they controlled most of the city’s transport networks and heavy vehicles. Bay Vien occupied the Security Service building and controlled passport inspections at the airport and port. The CIA proceeded to fragment his opposition’s solid front and to build the Ngo brothers an effective military apparatus. Lansdale was able to neutralise most of them, leaving the Bình Xuyên as the only French pawn. The government tried bribing Binh Xuyen gangsters to defect but despite being offered up to USD142 (USD1400 today, per capita income for 1956, the next year, in southern Vietnam was USD62), none took up the offer. The Bình Xuyên financed themselves largely from their vice rackets, and their loyalty could not be manipulated through financial pressures. But, deserted by the army after Hinh’s demise and exile and then by the religious sects, the Bình Xuyên were soon beaten.

 

After having allowed the Bình Xuyên to develop this financial empire, the 2eme Bureau witnessed its liquidation during the vicious battle it waged with the CIA for control of Saigon and South Vietnam. For a few days in late April and early May 1955, the Bình Xuyên and the Vietnamese army fought a savage house-to-house battle for control of Saigon-Cholon. The French and the gangsters fought back. More troops were apparently involved in this battle than in the Tet offensive (coordinated attacks made in 1968 against targets across South Vietnam by the National Liberation Front) and the fighting was almost as destructive. In one week, 500 people were killed, 200 wounded, and 20,000 were left homeless overwhelmingly in poor areas. Soldiers completely disregarded civilians and levelled whole neighbourhoods with artillery, mortars, and heavy machine guns in a battle that relied almost solely on brute-force attrition. The area around Cholon (Chinatown) was designated a free-fire zone (military talk for shooting anything that moves) and the army brought to bear its heaviest artillery. To cut off Bình Xuyên reinforcements the army blew up a bridge across the Saigon-Cholon canal.

 

French agents supposedly led Bình Xuyên troops against government forces, while the CIA called in artillery strikes on the city. After 48 hours of fighting, the army began to gain the upper hand. Softened by years of easy living and corruption the Bình Xuyên were no longer the tough streetfighters they once had been. The Grand Monde, the jewel in Bay Vien’s gambling crown, and temporarily serving as a Bình Xuyên citadel, was overrun by Ngo’s paratroopers after a struggle which caused heavy losses on both sides. The Vietnamese army then stormed one of the Bình Xuyên’s most heavily fortified strongholds, the Petrus Ký High School in Cholon (founded in 1927 by the French, for the “gifted” and named after a Vietnamese scholar). By early May, Bình Xuyên forces were broken and in retreat and their command posts were levelled. Bay Vien’s headquarters was battered and his tigers, pythons and crocodiles inside had been killed by mortar attacks and shelling.

 

When it was all over the Bình Xuyên had been driven back into the Rung Sat (the "Swamp of the Assassins" where they had originated) and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem was master of Saigon. Ngo closed down Bay Vien’s operations and looked on with quiet satisfaction as the Bình Xuyên ’s legendary Grand Casino burned to the ground. Ngo then went after the remaining splinter groups and by the following year, his men had put an end to the “war of the sects” as civil war in post-colonial Vietnam was more than just a “communist” versus “non-communist” affair. Back in the Rung Sat, Bay Vien and his loyal troops were defeated by the regular army.

 

Its hold on Saigon broken, the Bình Xuyên collapsed, its members fleeing or melting back into the city’s underworld. Ngo had prevailed but at a cost that he would have to pay later. Nearly 2000 defeated Bình Xuyên, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai fighters joined the underground communist forces in the recesses of the Mekong Delta or escaped to near the Cambodian border. Later many would emerge among the communist guerrillas of the National Liberation Front. Following the defeat of the Bình Xuyên, Bay Vien fled to exile with the help of Captain Savani and the French secret service. Bay Vien was later sentenced to death in absentia. He moved to France, reportedly with large amounts of money, and lived there comfortably until his death in 1972. Never one for the normal life, he could be seen in Paris in his retirement strolling down the Champs Elysees with his pet tiger on a leash. Going out with pride some might say, like a real bandit.

 

Thanks mainly to the following:


Alfred McCoy
Bernard Fall
Christopher Goscha
François Bizot
Fredrik Logevall
Milton Osborne
Stanley Karnow
The Saigoneer
Tim Doling’s Historic Vietnam

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