He left her at lunchtime on Monday, bound for cigarettes, she thought.

He also left her a letter, stapled to several others and tossed on his office floor, but Nguyen Bach Hac wouldn't see them until later, as she sifted through his effects at the Falls Church newspaper where they worked.

Then her colleague drove his Toyota truck to the U.S. Capitol. And there, standing on the Lower West Terrace, Nguyen Kim Bang died, wrapped in flames ignited by his own hand, wearing a sweat shirt of the University of California at Santa Barbara, his eldest child's school.

He uttered not a word, not a scream.

It was the close of a life that began 56 years ago in a place Bang had left in body but never in heart. To many who knew him, that place was the answer to the mystery of his death. That place was Vietnam, his obsession even 15 years after he had boarded a ship and sailed away from on-rushing communism, into the waters of exile.

Yet, Bang was a man of other, more immediate troubles. There had been an alleged professional betrayal by a woman with whom he had worked at another newspaper, in San Jose. He reportedly was depressed. He was controversial. There were also whispers of instability and romantic turmoil.

Whatever the impetus, Bang's fiery and very public demise illuminated, however briefly, the state of the Vietnamese abroad, a people saddled with the memory of a now-communist homeland and consigned to countries where they often find no comfort, no peace.

And illumination is what Bang at least said he wanted.

"Our country is in shambles and our people in abject misery without issue," he wrote in one farewell letter, according to a translation provided by a family friend. "In many places around the world, wherever we go we are mistreated, raped and persecuted, on the seas around Vietnam, from the Southeast Asian refugee camps to the workers' compounds in Eastern Europe.

"Acting on a small residue of moral conscience, I have therefore chosen to offer my little self -- in the most total way possible -- to my fatherland so that I may serve as a flickering candle shining into the darkest tunnels in the hope that the civilized world may be awakened by my act of faith and start treating our people simply fairly, with justice."

He capitalized the last three words.

There was too a letter to President Bush and the American people, whose army had fought to save Bang and South Vietnam from the North, futilely.

"Ever since we left our country to be resettled in the United States we have never forgotten all the great favors that you have reserved for our people," he wrote. "On the other hand, we cannot forget either about our compatriots who night and day are undergoing extreme poverty and hardships back home in Vietnam . . . . Our strength has reached its limits and we have become a spent force."

To Nguyen Bach Hac, who published the newspaper Capital Voice with Bang in Falls Church, his act was no suicide. This act was political. This act was in the tradition of Buddhist monks, who immersed themselves in fire to protest corruption in the South Vietnamese government in the 1960s.

"He believes self-immolation is a sign," Bach Hac said in a telephone interview. "I don't see it as a suicide. I think it's a sacrifice . . . . Some of the people say he has mental problems. I don't believe so."

He often talked of such a death, Bach Hac said, and she always tried to talk him out of it. "He said, 'Why are you scared? It's a good way to die. If my dying brings goodness to my people, why shouldn't I do that?' "

Nguyen Ngoc Bich, a friend of Bang's for 20 years and now the coordinator of multicultural programs for Arlington County, said he had "heard him talk about this for years, the need for somebody to do some sort of sacrificial act like this to awaken the world to the plight of the Vietnamese . . . . He's basically a man who can only think of Vietnam."

Bang's grandfather had been killed by the communists, Bich said. And when the country was divided into North and South Vietnam in 1954, Bang's family had to flee to the South, to escape the communist North. Bich added that among the 1 million Vietnamese now living in the United States, "a lot of people have the same level of obsession as Mr. Bang."

"The only difference I see between Bang and the others is that a lot of others talk about it, but they don't do anything about it," he said. "But Bang is a man of his word.

"People still shudder when they read about it {his death}. You have to admire anybody who would choose that way. Most common mortals would not be able to contemplate something like that, much less do it."

Bich said Bang also was unhappy that the Vietnamese abroad squabbled so often among themselves. But this and other concerns apparently were unknown to his wife, three sons and two daughters, who never heard him speak of politics, refugees, boat people.

"He wanted, in his mind, to keep it away from his family, so our family could grow up as happily as we can," said Nguyen Kim Trieu, 25, the oldest of the children and a systems analyst for a Silicon Valley company who graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

"I feel very sad that he's gone and that we don't have a father anymore and sometimes I feel a little bit angry," Trieu said, but having read the letters Bang left, "I feel really proud of him."

"He's a very simple man. He's not into making money and he just wanted to serve the purpose he wanted, which was to express the yearning for democracy in Vietnam," Trieu said.

According to Bich, whose wife is the aunt of Bang's wife, Bang worked in banking in Saigon and fled the country with his family as the North Vietnamese overran the capital in 1975. Sponsored by a church, they moved to Indiana, where he worked as a teller, and then moved to San Jose, where Bang began dabbling in publishing.

He is variously described as quiet, strict, meticulous, difficult. His expertise was not writing, Bich said, but production, particularly typesetting. In San Jose, he started a monthly journal called Humanism, and eventually moved into daily journalism with the Vietnam Daily News, a chronicle of local and world news.

Bang was dogged, working far into the night to ensure that his paper always had the latest news. Bang was uncompromising, Bich said, attacking a rival paper after it published advertisements for vacations in Vietnam, because such travel would financially help the regime there.

Publishing brought Bang no money, friends said. He wasn't interested in it anyway, and the family went through "lean years," his son said.

But in 1987, Santa Clara County officials raided the Vietnam Daily News amid reports that Bang was making money even as his family received welfare payments, according to the San Jose Mercury News. No charges were brought. In fact, the county paid Bang's newspaper $25,000 after being sued for conducting an illegal search.

Bang's biggest problem, though, was internal, friends say. A woman, Quynh Thi, 29, was helping him publish the Vietnam Daily News. And though the reasons are unclear, the two had a falling-out in recent months, and Bang left the paper he had helped create.

Bach Hac suggested Thi wanted a less political newspaper. Bich suggested Thi wanted more news of crime by local Vietnamese, a decision that Bang hated because he thought exiles had enough problems without highlighting their own shortcomings. There was also gossip about a failed romance between the two, Bich said, though he never heard "a hint of that."

In a telephone interview, Thi said there had been no dispute with Bang. She declined to comment further. She told the Mercury News, however, that Bang had "a mental problem" and had even threatened to kill himself with a knife in front of her.

In any event, Bang arrived in Washington in October to spend a few months helping Bach Hac launch her newspaper. He seemed enthusiastic, she said. But he was troubled by recent reports that Vietnamese workers had been beaten in what used to be East Germany. And he was clearly troubled by what happened in San Jose.

"My own reading," said Bich, "is that his unhappiness at the general situation {in Vietnam and among exiles} is something he's had in his mind a very, very long time . . . . But what happened at the paper back in San Jose may be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back."

On Nov. 10, nine days before he killed himself, he wrote his farewell letters. He also wrote a note telling Bach Hac that he wanted her to use his brown suit for his funeral. And he included one final request.

"He said that after he dies, have the body cremated and scatter it to the ocean," Bach Hac said, "so he can go back home. Even though he can't swim, he'll try to make it."