30 years ago today, the first Vietnamese boat people arrived

May 1, 2006

By Farah Farouque
April 26, 2006

From 1976 Australia welcomed Vietnamese asylum seekers as they arrived on beaches (and airports) fleeing communist rule. Son Nguyen led the way for his family, which includes nephew Kenny and his wife Cindy, at rear, and Kenny's brother Dean, with daughter Yasmine.From 1976 Australia welcomed Vietnamese asylum seekers as they arrived on beaches (and airports) fleeing communist rule. Son Nguyen led the way for his family, which includes nephew Kenny and his wife Cindy, at rear, and Kenny's brother Dean, with daughter Yasmine.
Photo: Eddie Jim

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KENNY Nguyen's journey to Melbourne — he arrived at Tullamarine by Boeing — was a relatively seamless one compared to that of his uncle Son, the first of the close-knit extended clan to arrive here.

In the familiar trajectory of Vietnamese refugees, Son travelled by sea to an Indonesian refugee camp before being granted asylum in Australia in 1984. Not long afterwards, he sent money to help 11 other members of his extended family leave their small rural town in South Vietnam. They too travelled by boat.

Now the clan — including Kenny, who is helping plot a family tree — numbers more than 100. "I believe I am one of the lucky ones because I did not have to take the risk of going on the boat," says Kenny. "Many people died on those journeys — no one much talks about that."

Today notches another anniversary in the turbulent history of the Vietnamese exodus after the takeover of South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese communist government in 1975. It was on this day — April 26, 1976 — that the first boat, a 17-metre fishing vessel carrying five Vietnamese, landed in Darwin Harbour.

But contrary to the popular mythology of the "boat people", this method of entry was confined to a small number, just over 2000. The vast majority of the 90,000 Vietnamese refugees who came here by the mid-1980s were processed offshore in camps in South-East Asia.

Today, a community that numbered a few hundred in the early 1970s is estimated to be about 200,000, counting the second generations.

Kenny Nguyen, 27, falls somewhere in between. Arriving as as 12-year-old with his parents — they were sponsored by older siblings who had come in an earlier wave — his experience of migration has been characterised in some places as belonging to a "1.5" generation.

Indeed, he exemplifies this group: equally fluent in English and Vietnamese, he traverses the world of work — as an engineer — and the traditional values of his parents.

Every Sunday, the family — five of his six siblings live in Australia — gather at their parents home for a traditional lunch. At their communal table you will find pho, congee, , spring rolls and sometimes a goat dish.

The legacy, however, goes far beyond the food. At his north-western suburbs high school, Kenny braved the usual insults of the schoolyard. "They used to call me Dim Sum, but I just ignored it."

Instead, mirroring the success of large numbers of young Vietnamese today, he absorbed the hard-working ethos emphasised at home. "I had zero English when I came here," Kenny recalls, but high marks got him to RMIT.

Melbourne University researcher Nathalie Nguyen (no relation) says the story of Vietnamese migration has not been an easy one — entrenched pockets of disadvantage persist, but it is a story reflecting the experience of other refugee groups. "Things do work out," she says.

A STORY OF MIGRATIONNATHALIE NGUYEN, BOB BIRRELL

■Early 1970s: Vietnamese here numbered fewer than 1000.

■Now: 200,000 — 1 per cent of the population

■A quarter are ethnic Chinese by descent.

■A quarter born in Australia

■More than a third live in Victoria, mostly in Melbourne. Settlements in Springvale, Richmond, Sunshine and Footscray but also dispersed around suburbs.

■Arrivals peaked in 1979-80 at 12,915 and 1990-91 at 13,248.

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2 Responses to “30 years ago today, the first Vietnamese boat people arrived”


  1. i wonna learn all about vietnam. i think that it is so cool there, i wonna know what it even looks like. ;):)

  2. ostrov Says:

    Thank you,
    very interesting article


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