- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2009

DANANG, Vietnam

On the day his family’s side lost the Vietnam War, Hung Ba Le, 5, fled his homeland in a fishing trawler crammed with 400 refugees. Thirty-four years later, he made an unlikely homecoming as the commander of a U.S. Navy destroyer.

Cmdr. Le piloted the USS Lassen on Saturday into Danang, home of China Beach, where U.S. troops frequently headed for rest and recreation during the war. The war ended on April 30, 1975, when the southern city of Saigon was taken by communist troops from North Vietnam.

That was the day Cmdr. Le and his family embarked on an uncertain journey in a fishing boat piloted by Cmdr. Le’s father, who was a commander in the South Vietnamese navy. They were rescued at sea by the USS Barbour County and taken to a U.S. base in the Philippines, a refugee camp in California and finally to Northern Virginia, where they rebuilt their lives.

Cmdr. Le returned on the Lassen, an $800 million, 509-foot destroyer equipped with Tomahawk missiles and a crew of 300. The ship and the USS Blue Ridge, the command vessel for the Navy’s 7th Fleet, are making the latest in a series of goodwill visits to Vietnam, which began in 2003 when the USS Vandergrift paid a port call to Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.

“I thought that one day I would return, but I really didn’t expect to be returning as the commander of a Navy warship,” Cmdr. Le said after stepping ashore. “It’s an incredible personal honor.”

“I’m proud to be an American, but I’m also very proud of my Vietnamese heritage,” said Cmdr. Le, who spoke a few halting words in Vietnamese.

The ship visits represent the efforts of both the United States and Vietnam to develop their relationship as a balance to Chinese power in the region, without antagonizing Vietnam’s massive northern neighbor.

Directly east of Danang are the Paracel Islands, where China and Vietnam are engaged in a sensitive territorial dispute over the archipelago, from which the Chinese drove out South Vietnamese troops in 1974. They also are wrangling over the Spratlys, another island chain believed to contain valuable oil and gas reserves.

Cmdr. Le spent his early childhood in Hue, a city on the central coast about 65 miles north of Danang where he still has relatives. He returned to a country that is vastly changed from the days of the Vietnam War.

Along the Danang coastline, where U.S. troops used to swim and surf, luxury hotels with names such as Hyatt and Marriott are springing up. Tourists are flocking to the region, where they can shoot a few rounds at a course designed by professional golf star Colin Montgomerie.

The relationship between the United States and communist Vietnam also has changed dramatically since the former foes normalized relations in 1995. Trade has boomed, and diplomatic and military ties have grown closer.

One vivid symbol of their changing relationship can be found not far from where Cmdr. Le stepped ashore, at a former U.S. air base where American troops used to store, mix and load the herbicide Agent Orange onto planes. U.S. forces sprayed Agent Orange, which includes the highly toxic chemical dioxin, to deprive Vietnamese troops of ground cover.

The two countries are working together to rid the site of dioxin, which remains in the soil for decades.

But in an indication of remaining hurdles, Saturday’s welcoming ceremony for the Americans was delayed for two hours while the two sides discussed how to display their flags aboard the Blue Ridge.

Public-affairs officer Cmdr. Jeff Davis from the U.S. 7th Fleet said the Americans wanted the flags on the quarterdeck, while the Vietnamese wanted to fly them from the mast. In the end, they flew them from the mast.

When Cmdr. Le fled in 1975, just four of the eight children in his family made it out of the country. The others stayed in Vietnam until 1983, when the family was reunited.

Cmdr. Le has few memories of his three-day journey on the fishing trawler, which ended just as they were running out of food, water and fuel.

However, he has vivid memories of the example set by his father, Thong Ba Le, who is 69 and has never returned to Vietnam. After the family settled in Northern Virginia, he took a job in a supermarket, where he worked his way up from bag boy to manager.

“I always wanted to be like my dad,” Cmdr. Le said. “He persevered and overcame many challenges.”

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