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Do Van Ly, 1910 - 2008

Ex-diplomat, Cao Dai leader

September 01, 2008|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Do Van Ly, a founder of the first Cao Dai Center in Los Angeles and one of the religion's senior leaders in the United States, has died. He was 98.

Ly died Aug. 11 at his home in Chatsworth, said Janet Hoskins, a USC anthropology professor who is writing a book about Cao Dai. A cause of death was not released.

A native of South Vietnam and a former member of its diplomatic corps, Ly began his career in the mid-1950s under President Ngo Dinh Diem. After serving as consul general in Jakarta, Indonesia, and New Delhi, India, he became South Vietnam's ambassador to the U.S. in September 1963 but was quickly called home after Diem was assassinated in a government coup.

The incident led Ly, who was raised Buddhist, to convert to Cao Dai, a religion founded in Vietnam in 1926 that combines elements of Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity.

"Cao Dai is a synchronistic, modernist religion with nationalistic overtones," said Robert Ellwood, an emeritus professor of religion at USC who has written about the faith.

More than 5 million people follow Cao Dai in Vietnam, according to Hoskins. An estimated 40,000 followers, mostly Vietnamese, are in the U.S., and about half of those are Californians, she said.

Ly's loss of faith in politics led him to religion. "The day Diem was assassinated I knew that Vietnam could not be saved politically," he said in an interview with Hoskins. "I did not join Caodaism for political reasons but to find another way to save my people."

Ly was born May 3, 1910, in Sa Dec in the Mekong Delta, when his country was under French rule. His scholarly father sent him to France to be educated, starting in high school. He studied law at the Sorbonne in Paris and earned a master's degree in political science at Columbia University in New York City.

He returned to South Vietnam in the mid-1950s and soon married. He and his wife, Tuyet, had five children.

Ly continued to work for the South Vietnamese government after the death of Diem, serving as ambassador to Japan for two years. When Ly and his wife returned to Saigon in 1975, he left his children behind at an international school in Tokyo.

In April of that year, the city was captured by the North Vietnamese. Ly's wife was evacuated, but he chose to stay and witness the fall of the city.

"I watched the North Vietnamese troops parade in the streets," Ly told Hoskins. "I saw the red flags and the red scarves waving and . . . I saw all my dreams fall apart."

He fled South Vietnam in a boat with about 50 others, drifting for a week before reaching Malaysia. Reunited with his family, he came to Los Angeles, where a daughter lived. He became a U.S. citizen in the 1970s.

After helping found the Cao Dai Center in Los Angeles in 1979, Ly became director of the Center for Cao Dai Studies in Perris, Calif., a position he held until his death. He also wrote the book "Understanding Caodaism," which was published in 1989.

He is survived by his wife, five children and a number of grandchildren.


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