The Magazine

The Quiet Vietnamese

Journalist and spy Pham Xuan An led a life of ambiguity.

Oct 9, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 04 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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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.