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Madame Nguyen Cao Ky’s flights from Saigon

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 10, 2024 5:00 am

Just like the pivotal helicopter scene in the ongoing musical Miss Saigon when Kim and the masses clamor to get a ride out of the country, Madame Cao Ky’s escape during the Fall of Saigon was an unforgettable moment, a life-changing event in the course of her charmed life.

One of the most glamorous women of her time, she was the First Lady of South Vietnam as the wife of Nguyen Cao Ky, who was Prime Minister from 1965 to 1967, then Vice President until 1971.

Her flight with her daughter aboard a cramped US cargo plane, arranged by her husband who fled by helicopter that landed him on the USS Blue Ridge before flying to the Philippines, was still part of her lucky streak, even if the amenities were not what she was accustomed to. Other plane journeys in her younger days were just as indelible, some of which were to and from Manila, including the one where she met her future husband and one where she was chased by him with two planes doing aerobatics to profess his love.

A young Dang Tuyet Mai

Born Dang Tuyet Mai in 1941 in Bac Ninh, Vietnam, the family emigrated in 1953 to Dalat, where she enjoyed a French education at the Lyceé Yersin School. At 18, she was recruited as one of the first stewardesses of Air Vietnam because of her fluency in English and French. She was always elegant, both in an ao dai or in Western clothing. She caught the eye of many local bigwigs, including that of Nguyen Cao Ky, who was a General then, flying from Manila to Saigon.

Madame and Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky wearing a terno and barong at the Manila Summit Conference in 1966

Born in 1930 in Son Tay, Ky joined the Vietnamese National Army of the State of Vietnam as an infantry officer before undergoing pilot training in France, where he met his first wife, a Frenchwoman. After the French withdrew from Vietnam, he moved up the ranks to lead the Air Force and participated in the coup that deposed President Ngo Dinh Diem. Another coup made him Prime Minister in mid-1965 while his rival, General Nguyen Van Thieu, was figurehead head of state.

Madame Cao Ky with a nun in the 1960s

He gained notoriety as a flamboyant womanizer and gambler prone to risky and brash behavior, which deeply concerned South Vietnam’s American allies and angered the Vietnamese public, who regarded him as a “hooligan” who once pulled a handgun on a journalist whose questions annoyed him. Even in military school, he was already considered a “thug,” as related by Col. Francisco Punzalan, who was one of his Filipino classmates. Ky was known to always use a helicopter to fly to work, parking on the lawn of the Independence Palace right below the bedroom of Van Thieu and his wife, to their consternation.

Prime Minister and Madame Cao Ky

Seen wearing his trademark aviator glasses and a purple silk scarf together with his black flight suit, he cut a swashbuckling figure for the younger Tuyet Mai. “I still remember Mr. Ky with his very manly eyes; any woman who looks at him will tremble,” she reminisced in an interview.

As a young pilot, he landed a helicopter in front of a girlfriend’s house to impress her, but for his future wife, he upped the ante by flying two military planes with a colleague to woo her while she was working on an Air Vietnam flight. Causing a commotion among the passengers who saw the planes spinning in loops outside their windows, the pilot alarmingly pleaded with Mai to tell the General to stop via intercom: “This is a violation of airspace law. His flirting method is romantic but too dangerous.”

Madame and Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky at a state function

On another trip to Bangkok where he continued to court her, she witnessed him avert a coup in September 1964. Giving orders by phone for bombers to fly close to central Saigon, he kept on flirting with her in his usual self-assured manner. The coup factions ended up restoring order without any bloodshed and Tuyet Mai returned home, more smitten than ever with “the hero of her dreams.” After a whirlwind courtship, their romance blossomed into an extravagant wedding in November 1964.

The couple twinning in white with Madame Cao Ky accessorizing her ao dai with a pearl necklace and black velvet gloves

After Ky became Prime Minister in June 1965, Tuyet Mai was henceforth referred to as Madame Nguyen Cao Ky, cementing their power couple status. She also became a fashion icon as she made appearances in state affairs in Vietnam and abroad.

She was particularly stunning wearing an ao dai in a photo taken in Tagaytay with other First Ladies during the 1966 Manila Summit Conference. In another photo, she was even lovelier in a terno.

Madame Cao Ky always carried the ao dai with refinement and sophistication

Some of her flights were quite controversial. On a 1966 trip to Tokyo, she emerged from the Jujin Hospital of Cosmetic Surgery wearing dark glasses. A doctor remarked, “We cannot reveal what sort of treatment Madame came for, that would be unethical.” Madame Cao Ky was even more circumspect: “I want to be more charming to my husband,” she said coyly.

US First Lady Claudia Alta Johnson, Madame Nguyen Cao Ky and Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos at the 1966 Manila Summit Conference

 A 1983 solo, unannounced journey to Manila fueled even more speculation when she was found unconscious at a Manila Hotel room and rushed to the hospital, where it was discovered that she had overdosed on Valium. As a guest of First Lady Imelda Marcos, she recuperated at the Coconut Palace, to which she was escorted by a motorcade of limousines and an ambulance.

At age 73, Madame Cao Ky still had a slim figure, as seen on a yacht with her daughter, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen.

What was presumed to be a suicide attempt engendered more gossip about her life after moving to the United States. Reuniting with her husband, they opened a liquor store in Huntington Beach, California. A photo of the couple behind the store counter was a profound change indeed from their jet-setting days.

Madame Cao Ky stayed fashionable even in her senior years, wearing Hervé Léger at the 2009 opening of her restaurant Pho Ta in Ho Chi  Minh City.

There were a few media releases about her, including her selling off jewelry, supposedly the only thing she could bring in haste during Saigon’s fall, aside from the $7M in gold bars that her husband allegedly spirited away. She tried to make herself productive, however, opening a boutique and participating in art programs like the Asia Center and ASIA 40 to ASIA 49.

Madame Cao Ky with her daughter Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen

She later divorced Ky and made a triumphant return to Vietnam, where she opened Pho Ta Restaurant in Saigon, which was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. She aged gracefully, still astonishing everyone in her 70s with her looks and grace befitting a former First Lady. Her death on December 21, 2016, in a hospital in California was met with many tributes and articles about her legendary life and sense of style, which stood the test of time through all those tumultuous years.