Amid the chaos of the fall of Saigon, no one noticed the young man dressed in rags making his way to the port, carrying suitcases.
He was, after all, one of many trying to flee the South Vietnamese capital as their communist neighbors to the north took over the city on April 30, 1975.
The secret of the suitcases — stuffed with $7 million in cash and gold — became a uniquely New York story: the money belonged to Truong Dinh Tran, a shipbuilder who ended up one of Manhattan’s most notorious hoteliers, whose violent, drug-ridden Hotel Carter in Times Square was the filthiest in the city, three years running.
The man carrying the bags wasn’t Tran. It was James Dau, who was “adopted” by Tran in 1960, when he was just 11. By the time they fled Saigon, the 25-year-old had lived a life by Tran’s side.
Over the next four decades, Tran turned the money into a $100 million fortune that his 14 children and four wives have squabbled over for years since the 80-year-old died in 2012 without a will. They each stand to inherit between $2.5 million and $3.3 million.
Dau wants his fair share.
Dau was born to a Catholic Vietnamese family that escaped to the south part of the simmering nation in the 1950s, and first encountered Tran at a seminary, where Dau’s father worked as a cook.
The two men came from neighboring villages in the north and by 1960, Dau’s father asked Tran to adopt his son to give the boy “a better chance in life,” Dau explained in Manhattan Surrogate Court papers.
“I then moved in with Mr. Tran and never lived with my natural parents again,” Dau recalled in the legal filing.
Tran’s Vishipco Lines by 1975 owned 16 ships. Tran paid for Dau’s private school, clothes, food and had maids to tend to the boy’s needs.
“Occasionally, Mr. Tran took me to movies with him … and afterwards would explain to me the moral lessons embedded in each movie we watched,” Dau said.
Dau claims Tran gave him a hefty position in Vishipco, “watching over the funds of the company,” and, when it came time for Dau to serve in the military, secured him a cushy gig as an air traffic controller.
Tran didn’t want to leave Saigon. “But when he started seeing people trampling on each other to scale the [American] embassy’s gate to force themselves inside, he realized that South Vietnam would collapse quickly into communist hands,” Dau said in court papers.
Tran told Dau to be ready. They filled the suitcases with cash and gold.
“He told me to dress in torn clothing and pretend I was deaf and dumb, which I did to avoid being robbed,” Dau said.
Tran gave Dau a new name, to hide his Air Force service, and the pair set off for the port with one of Tran’s mistresses and her sister, passing crowds begging for a way out on Tran’s ship.
“We left the port in Saigon immediately before the North Vietnamese army arrived,” Dau said.
“I hid and guarded the two suitcases inside the exhaust of the ship,” he continued.
They went to the Philippines, then Guam, then Arkansas, where the cash and gold was put in a bank. Tran sent Dau back to Guam to oversee his ship, and moved on, buying hotels in Buffalo and New York.
Drugs and prostitutes were so rampant at Tran’s Kenmore Hotel on East 23rd Street, the FBI seized the 620-room building in 1994.
Back in 2007, a prostitute was found murdered on the sixth floor of Hotel Carter, which sold for $190 million in 2014. Tran lived in his hotels, apparently rotating between the mothers of his kids and their offspring.
Dau last saw Tran during a 1982 New York visit, when, he says, he declined a request to stay and help with the business because “his other children were there and I didn’t want to further burden him.”
Now whittled down by taxes to just $60 million, the estate is awaiting a judge’s decision on whether to include Dau among Tran’s nearly two dozen heirs.
The rest of the family has already acknowledged Dau as a member of the extended clan who deserves his piece of the financial pie, according to court records. Dau, now 70, only needs a Manhattan Surrogate Court judge’s final approval.
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