The Quiet Vietnamese
Journalist and spy Pham Xuan An led a life of ambiguity.
Oct 9, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 04 • By DAVID DEVOSS
PHAM XUAN AN, the gifted Time magazine war correspondent who secretly served as a spy for Vietnamese Communists in Hanoi during the war, died last week. The obituaries were remarkably kind. An was remembered as an excellent journalist who by day filed dispatches for Time and at night sent microfilm and messages written in invisible ink to Viet Cong lurking in the jungles outside Saigon.
What the obits failed to reveal is that An, whom Hanoi proclaimed a Hero of the People's Armed Forces following the fall of Saigon, came to loathe the political system he had helped bring to power.
I first met Pham Xuan An in 1972, when I arrived in Vietnam as a 24-year-old war correspondent for Time. By then, An was a legend, a jovial boulevardier nicknamed "General Givral" after the Tu Do Street coffee shop he frequented. Despite the prevailing climate of suspicion, everybody trusted An. When the war ended abruptly in April 1975, his family was evacuated with other Time employees who wished to flee, while An remained and continued to file for Time. "All American correspondents evacuated because of emergency," he telexed New York. "The office of Time is now manned by Pham Xuan An." Time's publetter celebrated his decision to stay and published a picture of him standing on a now deserted street smoking a cigarette and looking pugnacious.
I met his family at Camp Pendleton in California and helped send them to Arlington, Virginia, where they settled. Finally, after a year of silence, his wife received a cable telling her to return home. Despite serious misgivings, she did as instructed. Bringing back his family established An's loyalty to the new Communist government, but it did not prevent him from receiving ten months of reeducation in Hanoi.
In 1979 I returned to Vietnam. It was the first of 24 trips I would make to the newly united country over the next five years. It was difficult for a foreign reporter to get to Ho Chi Minh City during that period, but I finally managed to do so in 1981. The place I'd known as Saigon was grim. The hotels were full of East Germans, Bulgarians, and Soviets, whom the Vietnamese called "Americans without dollars." Secret police followed me everywhere. Thousands of Vietnamese denied employment because of their connections with the regime of Nguyen Van Thieu were fleeing the country in leaky fishing boats. Those who remained subsisted by selling family heirlooms.
My goal was to find An, but that was no easy task. Old city maps had been confiscated and burned. All but the major streets had new names. Houses still had numbers, but they were not in sequence, making it nearly impossible to locate a home even if you had the address. Finally, in desperation, I bribed a Hanoi official with baby vitamins and disposable diapers brought in from Bangkok and got An's phone number. I called and we arranged to meet at the Bird Market. "I'll be walking my dogs," he said.
An warned me not to say or do anything when we saw each other because police would be watching. Apparently, not even a decorated hero now in charge of diplomatic intelligence for the government could escape surveillance. The Bird Market actually was a sidewalk both sides of which were stacked high with bamboo cages filled with twittering birds that could be taken home as pets or simply released to improve one's karma. An had come with his German shepherd, and we passed each other with barely a nod. An and I got into separate cyclos, each peddled by an impoverished veteran of the South's defeated army, and I followed him home.
Once inside the house, An expressed great sadness over what had become of his country. "Why did we fight a war just to replace Americans with Russians?" he sighed. He confided that twice in the past he had tried unsuccessfully to smuggle his family out of the country. The first time the boat had had an engine problem. The second time, the boat had appeared to be seaworthy but the captain had failed to show. An escape was even more critical now, he said, because his son soon would be sent away to school in Moscow. An asked me to go to Sing apore and seek out a mysterious man at a Chinese hotel who could arrange passage on a boat if paid the right sum of money. An said he was desperate.
I wrote a long memo to Time and sent copies to correspondents still with the magazine who had served in Vietnam. The plan was dangerous because of An's notoriety, I wrote. If a famous major general and his family were captured trying to escape, embarrassed Communist officials would execute them. I cautioned against starting a chain of events over which Time had no control.
Time decided not to get into the people-smuggling business, which was fraught with danger. In the Gulf of Thai land, Vietnamese refu gees fell prey to pirates. Fishing trawlers rammed and sank their boats, saving only young women who were kept for amusement and then traded between trawler crews until they died or committed suicide. It was a difficult decision to make, but neither I nor anyone else at Time had experience dealing with these sorts of people, and the odds of something going wrong seemed enormous.
An stayed in Vietnam, waiting for better times. They finally arrived in 1986 in the form of doi moi, Hanoi's attempt at perestroika. I returned to see him and his wife, Hoang Thi Thu Nhan, in the mid-1990s and found them both relatively optimistic. As An had feared, his son Pham Xuan Hoang An was sent to Moscow, but later he was allowed to travel to North Carolina, where eventually he received a law degree from Duke University. Although foreign law firms have offered jobs paying up to $4,000 a month, Pham Xuan Hoang An works for the Department of Foreign Relations in Ho Chi Minh City, where he earns $200 a month. Unlike his father, he is not a member of the Communist party.
Last week, Pham Xuan An was laid to rest in Saigon's City Cemetery. His final request was not to be buried too close to Communists.
David DeVoss writes about Asia from his base in Los Angeles.