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U.S. Biography of Vietnam's Most Famous Spy Passes Censors

erfect Spy'' wasn't the perfect book for an American author trying to avoid the attention of Vietnamese censors.

     Yet despite its sensitive subject, Larry Berman's newly translated book about Vietnam's most famous spy made it to Vietnamese bookstores this week without any significant changes to the text.

     ``Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An'' tells the story of the charming, insightful spy who befriended America's best-known journalists covering the Vietnam War, as well as high government officials in both Washington and the former Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

     An was completely immersed in two worlds, working as an undercover communist agent and as a journalist for Reuters news service and Time magazine. He was so well informed that many of his American journalist friends suspected he worked for the CIA.

     Shortly before his death at the age of 79 last year, An told his story to Berman, a historian at the University of California-Davis, whose book was originally published last May by Harper Collins.

     ``Perfect Spy'' is among just a handful of American nonfiction works to be translated by one of Vietnam's government-owned publishing houses, which usually choose more romantic fare. ``Gone With the Wind'' is a big seller here, and Sidney Sheldon is huge.

     An was a hero to the communist revolutionaries who outlasted the U.S. troops and their South Vietnamese allies during the Vietnam War. He provided crucial intelligence that helped turn the tide of the conflict.

     But when the war was over, he criticized the communist regime in Hanoi. ``Perfect Spy'' does not soften his critique.

     That the censors at the Ministry of Information and Communication let it through untouched indicates that perhaps they are relaxing their grip a bit.

     ``It had to be true to my words,'' Berman said in an interview with The Associated Press during a recent visit to Hanoi. ``And if I said no, the deal was off.''

Thu October 4, 2007 21:01 EDT
BEN STOCKING Associated Press Writer HANOI, Vietnam

Pham Xuan An, 73, led a remarkable and perilous double life as a communist spy and a respected reporter for Western news organizations during the Vietnam War, died Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006 in Ho Chi Minh City, according to his son. He was 79. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)


     As a wartime correspondent, Pham Xuan An befriended top American journalists covering the Vietnam war, including David Halberstam of The New York Times and Neil Sheehan of United Press International, holding court with them at the Givral Cafe in the former Saigon.

     An was trusted completely by top officials of the South Vietnamese government, which the U.S. supported until the end of the war in 1975. The regime's top intelligence official was his close friend, and he also befriended the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's top man in Vietnam, Edward Lansdale.

     ``He fooled everybody,'' Berman said. ``Everybody! He was a great conversationalist, he was witty. And he was so American.''

     As part of his apprenticeship as a spy, An spent two years attending Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, soaking up American culture by attending square dances and cookouts. He developed a genuine fondness for American culture.

     ``The Americans were so human, they knew how to laugh and be so free,'' An told Berman.

     Like many of his fellow revolutionaries, An was a nationalist fighting for Vietnamese independence, not a Marxist-Leninist ideologue, Berman said. An sincerely hoped that the two sides would reconcile after the war.

     When the conflict ended and An's identity was finally revealed, many of his American friends forgave him despite his deceptions. Most understood his desire to see Vietnam win independence, Berman said, and they respected his journalistic work, which was accurate and insightful.

     But the communists became suspicious of him. He had befriended too many Americans and had helped a top South Vietnamese official escape at the end of the war.

     The Hanoi authorities sent An to absorb dogma at a communist political institute for a year. They put him under surveillance and prevented him from meeting American friends who tried to visit, Berman said.

     Then, when his ``studies'' were complete, they offered him a job training Vietnamese journalists.

     ``I thought they were kidding,'' An told Berman. ``I believed in a free press.'' Instead, An lived out the rest of his days quietly in Ho Chi Minh City as a self-described ``house husband.'' He became renowned as a trainer of fighting cocks and invested his aspirations in his son, An Pham.

     With the help of his old American journalist friends, An raised money to send An Pham to study journalism at the University of North Carolina and law at Duke University.

     A historian at the University of California-Davis, Berman is the author of two previous books on the Vietnam War. He met An in 2001 at a dinner in Ho Chi Minh City.

     ``You're from California?'' said An, who didn't mention that he was Vietnam's most famous spy during their lengthy chat. ``I spent the two happiest years of my life in California. I'm so glad to see you.''

     An spent the entire evening smoking, talking and neglecting his food. Berman found him so fascinating that he canceled a trip to Angkor Wat and spent the next three days chatting with the retired spy.

     Five years later, Perfect Spy was published in the U.S.

     Berman made a few minor changes at the suggestion of his Vietnamese publisher, but nothing that changed the essence of the story, which includes quotes from An saying that Vietnam's communist government was too ideological and had ``blinders on.''

     ``An's story certainly wouldn't have been published in Vietnam 20 years ago,'' said David Lamb, an American journalist who had trouble bringing copies of his book ``Vietnam, Now'' into Hanoi a few years ago. ``I hope this means that censors at the Ministry of Information are maturing and loosening up.''


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