Over the weekend, one of the most colorful leaders during the Vietnam War passed away in Kuala Lumpur. Nguyen Cao Ky was the Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967.
The politics of the Vietnam War is still a touchy subject for many, so I won’t go into that. But Ky’s life, at least to me, seems like something out of a novel.
His first wife was a French woman. His second wife was a Vietnamese flight attendant. Ky was known for his flamboyant purple scarves. So when he and wife #2 appeared at state functions together, they’d wear his and hers black flight suits, his complete with the requisite purple scarf. He later married for a third time.
Ky didn’t leave Saigon on the last flight out, but he staged an exit almost as dramatic as this one:
Ky, a pilot and former Chief of the South Vietnamese Air Force, flew a helicopter to the USS Blue Ridge and sailed away aboard that ship the day Saigon fell. He settled in California where he ran a liquor store.
Which, to me, is the most exciting part of his story. Can you imagine the leader of a country running a liquor store these days?
Ky stayed in exile until 2004, when he was the first of the old guard to return to Vietnam. Back in the early 90s, when Hong Kong still had 50,000+ Vietnamese refugees, no one thought to return to Vietnam voluntarily. (Here I am working at a refugee camp in Kowloon, a highlight of my young life back then.)
Ky’s return in 2004 was a testament to how things had changed in Vietnam. In the last years of his life, he promoted investment in Vietnam and put his past conflicts with the communist government behind him.