A Vietnamese criminal brotherhood turned paramilitary and political force during the French Indochina War, working first with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), then with the French but perhaps above all for themselves. The Binh Xuyen got their start in the late 1920s and 1930s in racketeering, petty crime, and river pirating in and around Cholon-Saigon. During World War II, this loosely organized group operated its activities from Binh Xuyen village located on the far side of Saigon’s “Y3” bridge. The Binh Xuyen owed their name to that village.
Following the Japanese capitulation in August 1945, the Binh Xuyen put their organization in the patriotic service of the DRV. The independence movement and the war with the French offered financial and political opportunities to these bandits turned patriots. In exchange, at least at the outset, the Binh Xuyen provided the fledgling state with much needed connections and experience in the use of armed violence. In February 1946, the leader of the group, Ba Duong, was killed and replaced by Le Van Vien (Bay Vien) as supreme commander of the movement. The latter supported the military alliance with the DRV against the returning French. However, serious problems divided the Binh Xuyen from the DRV’s military leader in the south, Nguyen Binh, who sought to unify southern forces under the government’s national control. Like the Cao Dai and Hoa Hoa politico-religious forces, the Binh Xuyen balked at ceding their local military power to a national army, communist or not. As tensions mounted among the Vietnamese, astute French intelligence officers led by Antoine Savani and Marcel Bazin launched secret overtures, cut deals, and played on existing Vietnamese disputes in order to splinter the Binh Xuyen from the DRV’s armed forces, as they had done in 1947 with much of the Hoa Hoa and Cao Dai forces.
The Binh Xuyen’s break with the DRV came in June 1948 when Le Van Vien and forces loyal to him crossed over to the French and their emerging counter-revolutionary government under Bao Dai. In exchange for Le Van Vien’s collaboration, the French and Bao Dai allowed him to resume his underground and lucrative activities in Saigon-Cholon, including the trafficking of opium flown in from Hmong areas in northwestern Vietnam. However, once back in his urban stomping grounds, Le Van Vien was no more ready to integrate his 2,000 militia into Bao Dai’s national army than he had been in those of the DRV led by Ho Chi Minh. Upon assuming leadership of the Republic of Vietnam a few years later, Ngo Dinh Diem resumed the battle against the “bandit” Binh Xuyen and won, determined as he was to crush any opposition to a national army under his control. See also ARMY, ASSOCIATED STATE OF VIETNAM; DAP CHHUON; PEOPLE’S ARMY OF VIETNAM.