General LE VAN DUYET
Chat V. Dang
         According to Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Lê Văn Duyệt was a Vietnamese statesman and military strategist who served as a diplomatic liaison between the Court in Huế and France, and protected Christian missionaries against the early Nguyễn Emperors. Perusing family oral history and Internet resources especially the article of Professor Nguyễn Thanh Liêm, President of the Tả Quân Lê Văn Duyệt Foundation based in Westminster, California, the author attempts to summarize the life and contribution of one of the most famous and venerated heroes of South Vietnam. As the structure of the Vietnamese military and Court at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries differs from Western military and governmental organization, some liberty was taken in the account of titles bestowed on General Lê Văn Duyệt.

         Early Childhood
         Lê Văn Duyệt was born in 1764 in the village of Hòa Khánh situated in Tiền Giang Province which corresponds to the former province of Định Tường (Mỹ Tho). His grandfather had moved to the Mekong delta from Quảng Ngãi, Central Vietnam. He was born a boy with bilateral undescended testes or ambiguous genitalia, explaining why he was derisorily called (castrated) eunuch by his detractors. Of average stature but well-built, he excelled in hunting skills and martial arts. He used to organize mock battles with his friends, and is also known to enjoy cockfighting. He did not get a formal education and often displayed unpolished manners. However, he knew Chinese legends well and adored the Hát Bội traditional Vietnamese theatrical plays. He admired their heroic characters, legendary and historic, and might have patterned his life after them.

         Encounter with Fate
         Vietnamese texts document that when he was 17, Lê Văn Duyệt by chance met heir Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ánh and might have saved his life. The year was 1780, and he was actually only 16 year-old. The one-year discrepancy comes from the Vietnamese tradition of starting age 1 right at birth, and not after one year, at the first birthday celebration. The prince's junk was caught in a severe storm near Lê Văn Duyệt's village in the Mekong delta. The teenager courageously guided the junk to a protected shore. At the time, Nguyễn Ánh and the Tây Sơn (future Emperor Nguyễn Huệ and his brothers) were engaged in a deadly struggle for control of the South of Vietnam which was called Gia Định Thành. Prince Ánh and his entourage were being hunted by Nguyễn Lữ, the younger brother of Emperor Nguyễn Huệ. Lê Văn Duyệt's family provided food and shelter to the future King and his staff before they resumed their perilous journey to seek refuge in the Gulf of Thailand.

        Please read the rest of the story in THE MEN OF VIETNAM.
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