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A Journey From Glory to the Grave : Prominent Vietnamese Family's Saga Began in Palace, May End in Court in the Wake of a Double Death

November 05, 1987|SAUNDRA SAPERSTEIN and ELSA WALSH | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — "You are my baby," Nam Tran Tran Van Chuong told her then-60-year-old son one evening in the summer of 1986, kissing his hand at the dinner table. Then, pulling out a sketch of her burial plot, she pointed to the place where her husband would lay beside her, and, on the other side, the spot where their son would join them someday.

It seemed a portrait of tranquillity, after years of upheaval, for this prominent Vietnamese family. Here in Washington, the parents--a former ambassador and his wife of royal blood--appeared reconciled with their long-wandering son. In a Roman villa, their youngest daughter, Madame Nhu, was safely exiled, and another daughter was teaching at a small North Carolina college.

One week later, on July 24, the mother and her husband, Tran Van Chuong, lay dead, crumpled one atop the other in their bedroom. Their only son, Tran Van Khiem, was arrested and accused of their murders.

The charge of patricide and matricide, charges that Khiem vehemently denied, shocked the Vietnamese and diplomatic communities. "The end did not match the beginning," said Khiem's sister, Lechi Oggeri. "For such beautiful lives, it should have been a beautiful end. The more you tell about the glories of the past, the more horrible the end becomes."

Court Action Awaited

It was not the first time the bizarre or the tragic had touched this once-powerful family, whose fate seemed intertwined with the demise of a Vietnam the members once had known. Scenes from the past had been captured on front pages, recorded in books and singed into memories. The deaths of the ambassador and his wife and the arrest of Khiem are like the final act in a tragedy, whose denouement may be played out this month in D.C. Superior Court, where a judge will determine whether Khiem is mentally competent to stand trial for murder.

In passionate public letters and a six-hour telephone interview from St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he is being examined by psychiatrists, Khiem has talked of a global conspiracy that has come to focus on him. And he has alleged a conspiracy of a more intimate nature as well. Khiem said his sister Oggeri and her sons-in-law have conspired to paint him as a murderer to gain control of his parents' $650,000 estate.

From her villa outside Rome, Madame Nhu has come to her brother's aid, charging in a telephone interview that her sister Lechi (pronounced Leechee) Oggeri has been "excited" by "agents provocateurs."

Lechi Oggeri's husband, Etienne, said of Khiem, "He is a mad dog barking. And we don't want to bark back."

Madame Chuong's beauty was renowned throughout Hanoi, as was her family tree. Her uncles had sat on the throne, and she was the cousin of Emperor Bao Dai, the ruler of Vietnam until he was deposed by Diem in 1955.

Her husband, whose father had been governor of a major province for years and whose brothers held important government posts, was practicing law when the three children were growing up. Schooled in France and Algeria, Chuong was the first man in Vietnam to have earned a doctor of law degree.

"We were a great family of Vietnam, very rich and very powerful," Khiem recalled. "In the house at Hanoi, we had . . . 20 servants."

One of the Ruling Families

The family of Tran Van Chuong was one of the 50 ruling families of Vietnam in those days, said Stanley Karnow, former Washington Post foreign correspondent and author of "Vietnam, a History."

Chuong and his wife were near the center of a movement to create a new Vietnam, free of French rule. Their lives and the lives of their children were always part of the roiling pot that was the politics of Vietnam, forever filled with intrigue.

In 1945, when many believed that the way to independence was through Japanese support, Chuong was vice premier in a short-lived Japanese puppet government. Later that year, when the communist Viet Minh took control of the government, Chuong was arrested. His wife, whom the Viet Minh were willing to leave behind, insisted on going with her husband.

The couple escaped, taking refuge in the south, and in 1947 they went to Paris. When Diem became prime minister in 1954 and then the nation's president, Chuong was named Vietnam's ambassador to the United States. His wife became Vietnam's permanent observer at the United Nations.

In Washington, Tran Van Chuong and his wife cut a glittering swath in the capital's social circles. Diplomats crowded their parties.

But outside the ornate walls of the embassy, a family feud was about to erupt.

Their daughter was married to Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who many believed was the power behind the president. She had styled herself as the first lady to the bachelor president, but her saber-tongued comments won her another name: the "Dragon Lady."

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