The underground cache of weapons and ammunition under the house at the address 287/72 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street, District 3, HCM City, used by the Sài Gòn Special Commando Force during the war against the Americans was recreated by Đặng Thị Thiệp and her family. VNA/VNS Photo Hoàng Tuyết
HCM CITY — Prior to 1968, Mai Hồng Quế was a rich contractor whose knack for furniture design had earned himself the trust of the Saigon regime.
Little did they know – until it was too late – that the man from the northern province of Thái Bình with the real name of Trần Văn Lai was an undercover Communist agent whose dedication to the revolutionary cause started long before the American intervention in Việt Nam.
A few days ago, when the country celebrated the 44th anniversary of Reunification Day, in one of the houses that Lai bought to double as a weaponry cache on Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street in District 3, Đặng Thị Thiệp, Lai's second wife sat down with the press to talk about their past struggles in the war.
Thiệp said the circumstances under which the pair met each other felt like fate had been pulling the strings.
She was supposed to have gone on a study trip to northern Việt Nam in 1965, but last-minute heavy attacks from the enemy prevented her from going, and together with other members of the National Liberation Front, she was moved to the Củ Chi resistance base, famous for its vast and complicated defence network of underground tunnels.
It was here that she met Lai, who was also temporarily relocated from the urban Saigon, and was assigned with assuming the role of his mistress.
At that time, Lai was using his cover as a rich contractor in Saigon with connections to elite officials to safely purchase houses and dig underground basements to store materials and ammunition, right under the enemy’s nose.
He purchased a house on Võ Di Nguy Street (now known as Nguyễn Kiệm in Phú Nhuận District) and told the previous owner that the house was for his mistress, because his wife was a very jealous person.
The cafe shop with the nickname 'Saigon Special Commando Force' on Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street, District 3, HCM City, once served as the weaponry cache for the National Liberation Front of Việt Nam's commando force to launch attacks on high-profile targets throughout Sài Gòn, especially during the Tết Offensive in 1968. VNA/VNS Photo Hoàng Tuyết
Thiệp did not know the true purpose of the house, and she also didn’t know that over time their pretend love would grow into something real.
They were married, legitimately but in secret, but Thiệp still saw that in her neighbours’ eyes she was a homewrecker and needed to keep her lips shut tight.
Thiệp said Lai was a meticulous man, whether what they needed to transport was medicine, money or classified documents, he carefully prepared hiding places for them before giving them to her.
“One time, he inserted a small stack of documents into the sandals I wore and challenged me to find them, but I couldn’t,” Thiệp said.
In 1965, Lai and Thiệp bought three houses on Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street in District 3 to prepare for the assaults on the then Independence Palace (now known as Reunification Palace), the US embassy and other landmarks throughout Saigon, with the aim of breaking the enemy’s sense of invincibility.
Senior Colonel Trần Minh Sơn, former deputy commander of the Sài Gòn-Chợ Lớn-Gia Định military zone and former advisor to the Sài Gòn special commando force, said that “digging a basement was hard enough, but transporting weapons inside the urban area was even more of a challenge.”
But thanks to Lai and Thiệp, three tonnes of weapons and ammunition were successfully sneaked into the city.
However, it was during this campaign in the spring of 1968 that Lai’s cover was blown when two cars that were frequently used by Năm Lai to move in and out of the palace were quickly identified. Nearly immediately afterwards, South Việt Nam’s police announced a two-million-dollar reward for anyone who caught him.
“From a respected figure who could enter the Independence Palace with ease, suddenly Lai disappeared and had all his assets seized, while the police launched a massive manhunt for him,” Thiệp said, adding that it was immensely lucky the Saigon regime was not aware of the house on Võ Di Nguy where she lived.
Lai went into hiding and was constantly on the move and unable to visit Thiệp and their children often at first when the police were still hot on his trail.
The enemy finally caught up with him some time afterwards but were not aware he was the fugitive contractor they were after while Lai didn’t breathe a word despite being tortured. They eventually released him after he was reduced to a feeble physical state.
From a rather comfortable living given Lai’s work for the Saigon government and United States Foreign Operations Mission (USOM), Thiệp became the sole breadwinner for the family.
The seven years after Lai’s true identity was discovered was filled with hardship.
Thiệp recalled that just three days after their third child, Trần Vũ Bình, was born, she was already up and running, selling petrol on the street for meagre profits.
Some good-natured neighbours lent a helping hand for her out of pity, but more often than not, ‘the lowly mistress’ and her ‘bastard children’ were the subject of people’s scorn.
What she remembered most was the vicious abuse she received from the wife of a South Việt Nam police official. On one occasion, Thiệp had bought a canister of gasoline to resell when the woman rushed in and wrestled it out of her hands.
“You stole another woman’s husband so I'm going to steal from you", were the bitter words she threw at me, Thiệp said.
On April 30 during the fall of Sài Gòn, Thiệp recalled how much she just wanted to rush outside and scream to the entire world her true identity, that she was not someone’s mistress and that her children had a father.
After fleeing to Cambodia, Lai returned to Saigon a really ill man, asking Thiệp to buy a nylon sheet so that if he died, she could bury him under the house and just wait for the ‘final victory’ for a proper burial.
That was the most difficult time for Thiệp, as she had to balance raising their children with earning extra money to buy expensive medicine for the ailing Lai, but eventually her hard work paid off. Lai gradually recovered and the house became a frequent clandestine meeting place for Communist agents.
After Reunification Day, Lai continued to work for the revolutionary cause while Thiệp did odds-and-ends jobs to keep the family afloat.
“Lai didn’t want to waste time trying to regain the ownership of the many houses and estates he owned during his time as a contractor, so the two of us worked really hard to make ends meet and raise our children,” Thiệp said.
In 2002, Lai passed away. Thiệp and Trần Vũ Bình, their son and now a Government official, started to look everywhere to find and collect evidence about Lai’s efforts.
More importantly, they went looking for Lai’s past comrades and provided support for their offspring.
Bình managed to obtain a few of his father’s old houses turned weapon stashes during his time as a member of the Saigon special commando force, including one at the address 287/70 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, which Bình has refurnished into a café shop and a living museum of the force’s works.
The ‘Saigon Special Commando Force’ café has had the honour of receiving high-ranking leaders of the Việt Nam’s Communist Party and Government, including legendary General Võ Nguyên Giáp and General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng, who came to pay their respects to the contributions of Lai and his comrades. — VNS