Few things define Southern California's Vietnamese American community more than its passionate brand of anti-Communism, on display in heated discussions along the sidewalk cafes of Little Saigon and in frequent demonstrations.
That's what makes the case of Van Duc Vo different. His activism went beyond words to action, making him a folk hero to many in Little Saigon and a wanted terrorist in Vietnam.
Vo, 42, of Baldwin Park, is being held in a Los Angeles jail, accused by the U.S. attorney's office of trying to blow up the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok. His brother, 49-year-old Vinh Tan Nguyen, sits in a Manila jail, accused of a similar bombing plot against the Vietnamese Embassy in the Philippines.
Authorities call the brothers terrorists. But to California's Vietnamese American community, they've emerged as heroes. Last month, the brothers' detainment was the subject of a two-day protest and hunger strike in Santa Ana that drew hundreds of protesters who hailed them for trying to "liberate" Vietnam. Van Vo has received the most attention because of his years of activism in the community.
"He has done something we can't do," said protester Thanh Le, 66, of Costa Mesa.
Anti-Communist activist Chanh Huu Nguyen added: "We want to stand behind him. He's a freedom fighter."
Both brothers were members of a Little Saigon-based group that bills itself as the exiled "Free Government of Vietnam." From its offices in Garden Grove, the group's leaders try to foment opposition to the Vietnamese government.
Van Vo faces possible extradition to Thailand, but the Vietnamese government also wants him to face charges in Hanoi. The Vietnamese have cited the U.S. government's war on terrorism in urging American authorities to turn him over.
Vo denies he is a terrorist. In an interview, he said he planned a bomb attack in the embassy but decided at the last minute not to go through with it.
Vo's story is at once familiar and different from that of many Vietnamese emigres. He escaped the oppression of the Communist government of his homeland on an overcrowded boat and established a successful life in Southern California. But he also turned his back on this success to dedicate his life to the overthrow of the Communists.
His mother, Tim Nguyen of Baldwin Park, said of her sons: "I think back on what happened to our family [in Vietnam], and I cannot blame them. I do not want or need anything in my life. I just want my sons back."
Even at the height of the Vietnam War, the family felt like they had it good.
Tim Nguyen sold duck eggs in Saigon, and her husband was a decorated police officer. Their six children--five sons and a daughter--were good students and most attended universities.
It all changed with the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. Government officials barged into their home and arrested Vo's father. Nguyen said she couldn't afford to feed her children, so she dispersed them to relatives in various regions of Vietnam.
"My mom cried day and night," Vo recalled in a jailhouse interview at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles.
Vo said he spent the next few years in jail or begged on the streets of Saigon for food. He and a dozen friends eventually organized an escape. In 1978, they squeezed onto a 6-foot boat in the middle of the night and pushed out to sea.
Vo arrived a week later at a refugee camp in the Philippines. After a year at the camp, he moved to Indiana to live with a sponsoring family and studied English. He eventually moved to El Monte, which had a growing Vietnamese immigrant community. He went to school at Rio Hondo College, studying architecture. He was voted president of Rio Hondo's Vietnamese Student Assn. and helped form a regional Vietnamese American student group.
By the early 1980s, he felt his life was falling into place. He married and had four children. He opened his own construction business, hiring his older brother, Vinh, to work with him. He also taught Vietnamese to elementary school students on weekends. He slowly brought his siblings over from Vietnam along with his mother and father, who had finally been released from jail.
But after work, his obsession with Vietnam grew. He began organizing protests each April 30, the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and organizing petition drives and cultural events such as the Tet Festival. He frequently spoke out on late-night Vietnamese-language radio shows, criticizing the Communist government and urging expatriates in Southern California to organize.
"I kept thinking about my own escape and my family's pain," Vo said. "How could the regime do this to every family, not just mine, and get away with it?"
The activism was taking a toll on his work and marriage. In 1991, his wife filed for divorce, saying he was seldom home. Vo barely showed up at his company, too, and decided to shut it down.
In 1993, when Vietnam eased immigration restrictions, Vo visited his homeland.