HANOI, May 16 (Reuters) - As a thousand Vietnamese rioters stormed his factory on Tuesday night, smashing windows and ripping down Chinese-language signs, Taiwanese executive Henry Yeh hid with a colleague in the back of a fire truck, clutching the only weapon he could find: a golf club.
"With that many people surrounding us, it was useless. I was afraid they would kill us," said Yeh, 27, who works for a Taiwan textile company at an industrial park in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City.
Yeh and his colleague eventually escaped unscathed. Others were not so fortunate.
What started as heated but peaceful nationwide protests against Chinese oil-drilling in a patch of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam exploded into two days of rioting that left hundreds of Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean factories damaged or destroyed. The Vietnamese government says one person was killed but a doctor at a hospital near one area of rioting said he had seen 21 dead bodies and that at least 100 people were wounded.
Anger over China's maritime claims sparked the unrest, but it was also fuelled by local grievances and exploited by criminal elements intent on looting and vandalism, witnesses told Reuters. The violence quickly spread, apparently wrong-footing the police who struggled to disperse mobs of hundreds and even thousands.
The first factories hit were in Binh Duong and Dong Nai, two provinces indistinguishable from Ho Chi Minh City's manic sprawl. The worst violence took place in Ha Tinh province, 1,300 km (807 miles) further north, where pitched battles between Vietnamese rioters and Chinese workers at a big Taiwanese steel project filled a hospital with dead and wounded.
Some ruined factories were still smouldering on Thursday and hundreds of foreign workers, fearing for their safety, fled from the country by road and air.
Factories can be rebuilt. Much harder to repair is the confidence of foreign investors attracted by Vietnam's strong economic growth and stable government.
The scope and ferocity of the riots have shaken that government. It has always tried to keep tight controls on anti-Chinese protests, for fear that nationalistic fervour might morph into anger against corruption, land grabs and soaring prices.
But the noisy anti-Chinese protests that began last Sunday in Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and other Vietnamese cities were the biggest in decades. The government tolerated them initially, apparently wanting to send a message to China, while allowing people to let off steam. But it may have miscalculated how much larger, more focused and more violent the protests would become.
By Tuesday morning, protesters had gathered outside Chinese- and Taiwanese-owned factories at the Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park (VSIP) in Binh Duong, considered one of the country's best industrial parks.
The ring leaders pressured factory workers to join the protests, said the general director of a Western company at VSIP, who requested anonymity.
By mid-morning, crowds were vandalising Chinese and Taiwanese factories nearby. "It was ratcheting up as the day went on," he said.
The crowd swelled into the thousands, he said, then atomized into hundreds-strong mobs which rampaged through the park attacking factories.
One mob arrived at the front gate of his factory, which employs about 100 workers. "They left after they were sure that we were not a Chinese factory," he said. Afterwards, he sent his workers home and shut the factory.
Witnesses told Reuters the violence seemed coordinated, with men on motor-bikes scoping out targets then calling in the mob by mobile phone.
"There were definite instigators who were using the protest as a way to engage in criminal behaviour. I don't think this just sort of organically happened," said the Western company director.
Little or no protection was provided by the police, according to witnesses of the Binh Duong violence. Instead, factories hung signs over their gates expressing solidarity with Vietnam, hoping it would deter attacks.
"Down with China," read a sign at one Taiwanese factory.
As night fell on Tuesday, a much larger police presence was seen entering the area. Overnight, however, unrest spread to neighbouring Dong Nai province, taking many companies there by surprise and opening new fronts for the hard-pressed police.
At 10:30 p.m., anticipating trouble at its petrochemical and fiber material plant, Formosa Plastics Group called the police, who were overwhelmed by the rioters on motor-bikes, who broke in just before midnight.
In a four-hour spree of theft and vandalism, they robbed the offices and company dormitory of televisions, computers and other valuables. "The looters claimed to be patriotic, but actually broke into Chinese-owned factories in the province for stealing and destruction," the company said in a statement.
Many foreign workers fled the area, despite reports of roadblocks put up by rioters. Taiwanese businessman Chong Ming-cheng, 50, disguised himself as a Vietnamese worker and rode out on a motor-bike. "The Vietnamese didn't really notice me," he said.
One foreign businessman told Reuters Westerners helped Taiwanese flee at least one industrial park in the trunks of their cars.
Others spent a terrifying Tuesday night holed up in besieged factories.
Dexter Hsu, a product developer at a Taiwan-owned footwear company in Binh Duong, hid with Chinese and other Taiwanese workers at a company dorm, its doors barricaded with furniture. Earlier that day, thousands of flag-waving Vietnamese had entered the factory, which employs 9,000 Vietnamese and about 100 Taiwanese or Chinese.
"We took turns watching out for intruders," said Hsu. "We were too scared to even turn on the lights." The next day, Hsu and his foreign colleagues sneaked out a back door into cars with tinted windows and drove to the safety of Ho Chi Minh City.
"Overall, this is a terrifying situation," said Hsu. "Most Vietnamese can't tell the difference between Taiwan and China. They generally think Taiwan is simply a province of China."
Wednesday morning came, and the violence spread in Dong Nai. At the factory of Simon Shen, a Chinese employee at Taiwanese shrimp feed firm Grobest Industrial, employees took down all signs with Chinese characters, then convinced a mob outside that the company was American.
"I don't remember if they carried sticks or other weapons, but if I walked out, I would have been stampeded to death," said Shen. "I saw several policemen walking around. But what could they do?"
The Grobest factory was spared, but a neighbouring Chinese one was looted.
By Wednesday evening, 460 companies in Binh Duong had reported some damage, according to a report by the province's police cited in the state-run Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper.
At least 40 policemen were injured by rock-throwing "extremists" and 599 people arrested, said the newspaper.
But Wednesday's worst violence was in Ha Tinh province, far to the north, at a giant steel plant under construction by Formosa Plastics Group, Taiwan's biggest investor in Vietnam.
There, anger over Chinese muscle-flexing in the remote South China Sea commingled with local grievances.
Nguyen Van Phong, 56, a farmer in Ha Tinh, accused the steel plant of grabbing land and inundating the area with Chinese workers. "We've been angry with China for a long time," he said.
A factory worker in Ha Tinh, speaking to Reuters by phone, said five Vietnamese protesters entered the Formosa complex on Wednesday afternoon to ask the workers to join them. Rumours circulated among the crowd that two of the Vietnamese had been beaten to death by Chinese.
Soon, about 5,000 Vietnamese were battling 1,000 Chinese at the entrance before setting parts of the plant ablaze.
"I saw 13 Chinese dead and dozens of them injured," said the Ha Tinh factory worker, who asked Reuters to withhold her name. "Vietnamese workers didn't want to send the Chinese to hospital. They said, 'Let them be. We treat Chinese like they treated us'. But then the police came and took them to hospital."
Up to 21 people were killed and hundreds injured, a local doctor told Reuters. Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh confirmed one death and described media reports and accounts on social networking sites of higher casualties as "groundless".
Ha Tinh police said they had detained 76 people as of Thursday afternoon.
By Thursday morning, hundreds of Chinese were pouring out of Vietnam into Cambodia. Others were crowding onto flights to China and Taiwan.
But many laid low in Vietnam at ravaged industrial estates whose future looks uncertain.
Henry Yeh, the Taiwanese textile executive, said some smaller Taiwanese companies now talked about pulling out of Vietnam rather than making costly repairs. Bigger companies would stay but freeze investment plans, he said.
Belatedly, riot police were out in force in the industrial estates. Many factories have remained closed, while others were already adapting to life in post-riot Vietnam.
A notice outside the Grobest factory said it is closed, but production continued inside on Thursday. The company now used local transport to move its goods, said employee Cindy Chu.
"We don't dare to use our company's vehicles," she said. (Writing by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Reporting by Martin Petty, and Ho Binh Minh in Vietnam; Yimou Lee and Nikki Sun in Hong Kong; John Ruwitch in Shanghai and Faith Hung in Taipei.; Editing by Robert Birsel and Bill Tarrant.)