A hijack committed by an anti-state propagandist in the early 1990s has remained vividly imprinted on the mind of a former Vietnamese ambassador.
At age 90, Vo Anh Tuan, former Vietnamese Ambassador to the United Nations, cannot forget the details of a hijack committed in September 1992 by Ly Tong, a pilot under the former Saigon regime.
“As the Vietnamese ambassador to Yugoslavia at the time, I returned to Vietnam while the embassy was closed after the outbreak of the civil war there,’ he recalled.
“I would have flown in the Russian-built TU-154 aircraft, but the airline staff told me to try the Boeing 737 they had just hired. I ended up changing my ticket to the flight which was later hijacked,” Tuan recalled.
The Boeing jet, with a crew hired from Bulgaria, took off from Bangkok at 5:00 pm and was scheduled to land at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport at 6:30 pm.
Hijacker Tong began to put his plan into action around 30 minutes before the jet landed in Vietnam.
At 5:45 pm, he pinched an unoxidized steel knife from the meal he had just been served.
Approximately 20 minutes later, while an air hostess was serving him drinks, Tong suddenly threw a paracord around her neck and held her at ‘gunpoint’ while pushing her into the flight attendants’ room.
There, a Bulgarian flight attendant who had also been hand- and foot-tied by Tong was locked in.
He coerced the two women to lie still on the floor by threatening to detonate a bomb.
When another stewardess named Thuy Tien stepped in, the hijacker intimidated her into opening the cockpit door.
Once he was inside the cockpit, Tong claimed he had a bomb in his bag and would not hesitate to blow everyone up if the crew refused to act on his commands.
|Vo Anh Tuan, former Vietnamese Ambassador to the United Nations, recalls details about the hijack in September 1992. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
The man then shoved Tien out of the compartment, overpowering the pilot and co-pilot and taking over the jet.
Much to everyone’s relief, lights were then turned on in the passenger compartment, former ambassador Tuan recalled.
Flight attendants informed passengers of the reduction in altitude and that they were preparing for landing.
“Fifteen minutes later, we heard nothing from the stewardesses. It was getting dark. I clearly saw the street lights beneath, which meant the plane had dropped to a worryingly low altitude,” he added.
The plane then suddenly gained altitude, striking fear amongst the passengers.
“An Asian passenger is subduing the crew up there. I think he’s a psycho,” Tien, the flight attendant, revealed to passengers as she hurried down from the first-class section of the plane.
“He’s not a psycho. The plane is being hijacked,” the former ambassador immediately told his wife and a provincial official on the same flight.
In the cockpit, Tong coerced the captain into flying around the downtown areas of Ho Chi Minh City and left the window open so that he could scatter propaganda leaflets.
“I spotted a man who was sporting something like a parachute suit and a helmet in the first-class compartment. He was scurrying back and forth and scattering stacks of fliers onto the ground,” the former diplomat said.
Tuan grabbed a leaflet that read “Ly Tong, Commander-in-Chief of the South Vietnam Uprising Army,” meaning he was calling on people in the southern region to rebel against the government.
Upon Tong’s command, the jet hovered several times and made repeated dives above the city’s downtown areas.
The situation lasted for half an hour, sending the passengers into panic, with some putting on their life vests.
One of the hostesses then requested the passengers to fasten their seatbelts, as the crew was about to open the doors.
Tuan’s heart pounded hard when he heard this.
Everyone held their breath and braced for the worst.
After distributing the leaflets, Tong requested the captain to maneuver the plane to an altitude of 2,300m and open the door for him to make his parachute jump.
“We suddenly heard a deafening sound like that of a bomb blast,” Tuan said.
A formidable gust flew into the cabin, blowing away objects that had been placed in front of the passengers.
The plane teetered violently but remained airborne.
Following Tong’s jump, the captain steered the jet toward an emergency landing at Tan Son Nhat Airport.
The landing was over 30 minutes later than originally scheduled.
The local police, fire trucks and ambulances had been deployed on the ground by then.
|Hijacker Ly Tong. Photo: Internet|
Uncertain whether Tong had accomplices, the police officers requested all the passengers be interrogated.
As an ambassador, Tuan was spared the investigation procedure.
“I was told by the crew later that the hijacker had forced the pilot to steer the plane to District 8 before he made the jump and ended up in a pond,” Tuan added.
Tong then made his way to a local neighborhood security guard in plain clothes.
He offered to pay US$200 to the man if he agreed to take him to a designated address.
The watchman then rode him straight to the police station.
Born in 1946, Ly Tong was a pilot and first lieutenant in the former Saigon regime.
After 1975, he crossed border to the U.S.
Tong pleaded guilty at a court hearing, claiming he had returned to lead the insurgents in southern Vietnam.
He was sentenced to 20 years behind bars and was released early in an amnesty in 1998 before returning to the U.S.
In November 2000, only one day before then-U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to Vietnam, Tong hijacked a Thai plane and commanded the jet be steered to Ho Chi Minh City for him to distribute leaflets again.
The man was apprehended by the Thai government and convicted for hijacking and intruding on the country’s air space.