Few immigrant journeys can compare to those of the refugees who left Vietnam in the 1970s. Having lost everything after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese troops, they escaped in rickety boats, setting off across the South China Sea. Countless thousands fell victim to hunger, disease, piracy, murder, and the ocean itself. Survivors ended up in refugee camps, waiting for resettlement in countries such as New Zealand. Their hopes were simple: freedom to live in peace, to express themselves, to earn a decent living.
Full story by Trung Tran
Main image: Vietnamese women stroll on an Auckland beach
The Short Story
A quick, easy summaryRead the Full Story
The boat people
With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, refugees poured out of the country, escaping the Communist regime. Desperate to find freedom, they set off in small, overcrowded vessels. Thousands of these boat people died at sea. Those who survived often spent years in refugee camps before being resettled around the world.
Settling in New Zealand
In 1977 New Zealand accepted 412 refugees. Hundreds more arrived in 1979–80, with few possessions. New Zealanders helped by donating clothes and other items. Some families were later reunited – relatives would arrive in New Zealand to tearful greetings. They were settled around the country, but many were lonely and moved to the cities for greater support. By the late 1990s about one-third had left for Australia, with its large Vietnamese communities.
Community and culture
By the 2000s New Zealand’s boat people had been in the country for 25 years. They had built up strong communities, especially in Auckland, and worked in factories, trades and family businesses such as bakeries.
Learning English, eating western food, watching rugby: the refugees adapted to New Zealand life, yet retained much of their own culture. In the 2000s the Vietnamese language was still spoken in most Vietnamese households in New Zealand. Families would gather for a traditional evening meal or to celebrate festivals such as the Lunar New Year. According to custom, children often remain at home even after they marry. But these second-generation Vietnamese also speak English and have Kiwi friends. Some have fulfilled their parents’ dreams by gaining professional qualifications.
In 2001 about one-half of New Zealand’s 3,459 Vietnamese were Buddhist and one-quarter were Christian. They attend Mahayana Buddhist centres and other churches.