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Lệ Hải: Saigon’s Gangster Queen

Before 1975, Saigon’s underground was controlled by gangs and mob bosses. Yet all those criminal minds were vulnerable to the intoxicating smile of one woman, Lệ Hải, whose name fittingly translates to “ocean of tears.”

Growing up in a wealthy Saigon family, Lệ Hải was not only born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but was also graced with a beauty that could soften even the toughest men.

Receiving a fine French education at Couvent Des Oiseaux in Dalat followed by stints at 2 of Saigon’s most famous schools, Saint Paul and Marie Curie, Lệ Hải was among very few young women at that time who had access to a world-class education and graduated with the Baccalauréat I (Baccalauréat I and II were the standard high school degrees in colonial Vietnam).

During her school years, Lệ Hải was a boy magnet but appeared cold toward rich and flashy suitors. Wealthy and having no worries in the world, Lệ Hải, decided to stay in Saigon instead of going to Paris to continue her studies.

She remained uninterested in the city’s upper class gentlemen once saying, “Those who throw millions at women and spare none to a beggar are those who would be ruined by women.”

Running the opposite direction, Lệ Hải became attracted to powerful men from Saigon’s gangs. Bars and discos became her playground and it didn’t take long before they had permanently reserved tables for her. She had become the queen of the city’s nightlife.

It was at one of these venues that she met the king of Saigon gangsters – Đại Cathay. They instantly fell in love and Lệ Hải traded in her safe, stable life for a ticket into Saigon’s criminal underworld.

The couple lived like husband and wife, but their romance, like the cigarettes they burned every night, died out after a year. But even when Đại married another woman, the two remained friends.

After the breakup, men who envied Đại Cathay approached Lệ Hải, but little did they know, she was the flame and they the moths. One of those men was a French Vietnamese named Vincent. Loathed by his lack of noble honor, Lệ Hải initially refused him but put a deadly plan into motion.

She seductively invited him to meet her at Maxim’s, a very fancy club on Đồng Khởi Street at the time where she had also led on the club’s bouncer - Tầm “nhái”.

When leaving, she pretended to be afraid of nhái, and Vincent, full of liquid courage, insulted him. The bouncer, in attempt to save face in front of his friends, put a bullet in Vincent’s chest.

Vincent was just an example of those who fell for Lệ Hải’s charm. The list grew with names of criminals such as Bình Toyota and Maurice Thăng, the latter of whom was a former classmate of Lệ that had turned to crime to impress her. Another noteworthy man on her love hit list was Minh “đen,” an infamous diamond thief.

Eventually, Lệ Hải married a rich Chinese man, who spent a fortune buying a ship to immigrate to England. On the day they were set to depart, Lệ Hải sailed off with his money leaving him and her past at the port.

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