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Peacemakers : Vietnam War: Nguyen Ngoc Hung once fought against American troops. Now, like some of his former enemies, he hopes to bury past.

November 28, 1990|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scene along the Strand at Hermosa Beach Sunday afternoon was one of America at its most carefree--people basking in the brilliant sun, spiking a volleyball over a net, skateboarding, strolling. The Pacific Rim looked peaceful and thoughts of war seemed very far away.

In fact, they were not. The crowd milling around June Pulccini's patio and living room--which opens onto the Strand--seemed to expect something momentous. Guests kept their eyes on a slightly built man in gray flannel pants and navy blazer as they munched on vegetable dip and Thai takeout.

Nguyen Ngoc Hung, 42, an English teacher at Foreign Languages College in Hanoi and veteran of the North Vietnamese Army, 1969-1975, sat talking quietly, waiting until it was time to speak formally.

Suddenly, people tensed; a few caught their breath. Ron Kovic, U.S. Marine sergeant ("retired," he said dryly), wheeled himself into the room and shook hands with his former enemy--a man who had fought in what his army called "the anti-American war," lived in the jungle for six years and traveled the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

"I've heard so much about you," Hung said softly to America's most famous Vietnam vet.

"Have you?" Looking pleased, Kovic handed Hung--the first veteran from the other side he had ever met--a copy of his autobiography, "Born on the Fourth of July."

Hung had not read the book or seen the movie. He had seen only a Rambo movie and "Missing in Action," films that dehumanized Hung's people, he said.

"It makes more sense to be friends with you here than to be fighting with you there," said Kovic, who is paralyzed as a result of injuries suffered in the Vietnam War.

And it seemed to make more sense to most of the people in the room--a sympathetic group of about 50 longtime political activists, peace movement supporters, and several Vietnam veterans. The National Network of Indochina Activists had invited them, and had brought Hung to America, as part of its campaign to normalize relations between the United States and Vietnam. The organization is a self-described "loose network of old anti-war activists," said Tony Russo, a member who, along with Daniel Ellsberg, was involved in the Pentagon Papers case. The network invited Hung after seeing a CBS television interview with him in Vietnam.

It was a day for talk of reconciliation, of healing wounds, comparing notes and looking toward the future--with the crowd drawing parallels between Vietnam and the brewing conflict in the Middle East, looking to avoid what network coordinator Merle Ratner called "making the same mistake again."

No battles were refought nor war stories told. Rather, people talked about the war's aftermath, and asked Hung about life in his country. After years of eating supper with the war on their televisions, Americans watched their screens go dark; guests said they knew next to nothing about present-day Vietnam.

"Life is very difficult there," Hung told them in his soft-spoken, nearly flawless English. Vietnam had been eager to normalize relations with America after the war, he said. Instead, there has been the economic boycott, a border war with China and prolonged combat in Cambodia.

As a result, Hung said, his teaching salary amounts to about $10 month. Married, with two young sons, he said he moonlights as a translator and interpreter, and his wife works. Together, they pull in about $20 a month. His salary, he said, would buy about two pounds of meat and 50 pounds of rice. Housing is provided for them, but the family must pay for electricity and water.

"Luckily," he said of making ends meet, "we don't have a telephone."

In a private conversation, Hung attributed the plight of the Vietnamese boat people largely to a disastrous economy and fears of war. He downplayed fears of present-day political repression.

"It's a vast tragedy," he said, second only to the war with the Unite States itself. "If we'd been able to normalize relations, we may have been able to avoid it."

It was a time of poverty, he said, of fear of more war. Ethnic Chinese, fearing repercussions from China, fled. People emboldened by Voice of America broadcasts promising asylum or refugee status fled. Those who had worked for the South Vietnamese government and had spent time in rehabilitation camps fled.

"We made some mistakes. We discriminated against the intellectuals in South Vietnam. A tiny mistake led to vast destruction. We lost of hundreds of thousands at a time when we needed them most. . . . In coming back, many of them were scared they'd be put in camps. A few years ago the government called them traitors. That's a terrible word to use against these poor people."

He had seen the Vietnamese settled here, he said, and had visited Bolsa Avenue, the famous Little Saigon in Westminster.

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