WESTMINSTER — The latest chapter in the extraordinary life of Ly Tong began in September when the former South Vietnam air force fighter pilot and one-time Orange County resident hijacked a commercial plane over Ho Chi Minh City and tossed out 50,000 leaflets calling for the overthrow of the Communist regime. The naturalized U.S. citizen then parachuted to the ground and was promptly arrested.
The act by the man they call "the Vietnamese James Bond" made him the latest Communist-fighting hero to Vietnamese emigres. While the Vietnamese government characterized him as a terrorist who endangered the lives of 115 passengers and crew aboard the airliner, Tong has taken on an almost mythical quality among Vietnamese overseas. He is already famous for his 17-month, prison-breaking, 1,600-mile odyssey across three countries to find political asylum in the West.
Those who know Tong say that his spirit can spark a revolution by both Vietnamese overseas and at home to rid the Southeast Asian country of Communist rule.
Earlier this month, the announcement that the Vietnamese government was going to put Tong on trial renewed a series of protests by Vietnamese all over the world. Hanoi, without explanation, then postponed the trial. No new date has been set.
In Orange County, Vietnamese-Americans have organized a "Ly Tong Spirit Task Force" to mobilize support. Attorneys in the Little Saigon district have written to the White House and Capitol Hill on his behalf. Lawyers, including those experienced in the Vietnamese courtroom, have offered to travel back to lend pro bono help. Buddhist temples have set up a couple of prayer ceremonies for Tong, a born-again Zen Buddhist.
For weeks now, local Vietnamese-language papers have kept minutiae about Tong on the front page. "He's the biggest news after the election," said Yen Do, editor of Westminster's Nguoi Viet, perhaps the largest Vietnamese-language paper in the United States.
Some publications ran excerpts from his autobiographical book, "Black Eagle." And his old air force buddies are compiling a book on "The Life of Ly Tong."
The phenomenon is by no means limited to Southern California. He dominates the news in virtually every Vietnamese enclave in the United States, Canada, France and Australia.
Vietnamese newspapers in Toronto, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento, New Jersey, Washington, Seattle and Houston printed "Ly Tong special editions." One Houston magazine sponsored a poetry contest, with Tong as the sole subject. A Vietnamese radio station in San Jose has been reading excerpts from Tong's book for an hour each day. And plans are in the works for a scholarship in his name.
His story, as reflected by these publications, offers a glimpse into the revolutionary psyche of the Vietnamese, a characteristic that enabled the small Southeast Asian country to thwart numerous invasions by the Chinese, its giant neighbor to the north, as well as the Mongolians and the French.
"Vietnam nationalism is what's kept Vietnam together all these years," said one Vietnamese-American writer.
Some doubt that Tong's action will force any change by the current regime in Hanoi, but its visceral effects are strong. "Their action won't contribute to the strategic or tactical effects," Do said. "But it makes a difference; it proves again the indomitable spirit of the Vietnamese."
Tong followed a long line of underdog Vietnamese heroic figures, those who were rich in symbolic acts, but low on concrete achievements.
Winning is not a prerequisite for a hero in Vietnamese society. Rather, it's based on battling something much larger than oneself, no matter how high the odds. "Heroism is not based on achievements," Do said. "Even when someone tries and fails, he's a bigger hero."
Douglas Pike, director of Indochina Studies at UC Berkeley, points to the example of the Trung sisters. The duo rode elephants to battle a larger, vastly superior Chinese army about the time of Christ, won some battles, but eventually lost the war. Rather than surrendering, they committed suicide by jumping into a lake, thus becoming a pair of Vietnamese Joans of Arc. He also pointed to the Buddhist monk who immolated himself to protest religious persecution in the 1960s.
"The Vietnamese take great pride in people like that," Pike said.
It's hard to foresee whether such acts will have any effect in the long run, Pike said.
"We saw this sort of thing in the Soviet Union with (Alexander) Solzhenitsyn," he said. "Everybody said it wouldn't amount to anything."
There are some who wonder whether such acts are quixotic and outdated.
"Somehow the 19th-Century idea of heroism doesn't translate well in the 20th-Century world of new order," said a Vietnamese-American journalist who asked not be named because any criticism of Tong can bring threats from hard-core anti-communists.
Some are turned off by Tong's propensity for self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, but there's no denying his passion.
His exploits are legendary.