Vietnamese boat people
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, more than a million people left Vietnam, about 5 percent of South Vietnam’s population, most of them by boat. Many sailed long distances in overcrowded small boats, at risk of shipwreck and pirate attacks. Many were Chinese Vietnamese. Some didn’t make it to their final destinations. Some died. Most settled in the United States, which accepted political refugees but turned back economic refugees. Many of those who didn't make it were detained at camps in Hong Kong or the Philippines.

More than 3 million people fled Communist-controlled Vietnam and neighboring Laos and Cambodia after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. More than a million Southerners, including about 560,000 "boat people," fled the country soon after the communist takeover, fearing persecution and seizure of their land and businesses. The plight of the so-called "boat people" turned into a humanitarian crisis as they came under sometimes deadly assault. More than 125,000 refugees from Vietnam were resettled in the U.S. between 1975 and 1980, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

For this privilege of leaving Vietnam Chinese had to pay the Vietnamese government about US$2,000 a head in gold. At the time these fees were Vietnam's main source of hard currency. At that time the Chinese owned many businesses in Vietnam and there was a lot of hostility towards Chinese in Vietnam. China and Vietnam have long history of animosity. Many Chinese were thrown out of Vietnam at the time China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979. In the early 1970s there were about a half million ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. In the early 1980s there were practically none. Vietnam made US$2 billion from the forced migration. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, November 1979]

Suffering of the Boat People

Many of refugees crowded onto unseaworthy boats. Large ships with over 2,500 passengers were organized by Vietnamese racketeers. Smaller ships were purchased by people who pooled their money. Life savings were paid for a place on a boat. Families split up. Fat people were sometimes denied a spot because they took up as much room as two smaller people that paid as much.People died of thirst, hunger, exposure. Some people who got very sick were pushed over the edge. Some boats had engines that conked out at sea. Some of the boats lost more than half their passengers to exposure, drowning, starvation and attacks from pirates.About 90 percent of the boats didn't make it. Those who made it to Hong Kong, Thailand or Malaysia were often turned back, driven from shore or towed back to sea. In Hong Kong authorities tried to prevent the ships from landing. One ship was moored in Hong Kong harbor for 20 weeks until someone cut the anchor. When the boat drifted into shore hundreds of people jumped overboard and fled to the hills where they were later rounded up and placed in a camp.

Many Vietnamese refugees who made it out of Vietnam are still suffering from problems related to traumatic experiences. A large number of families were separated, fortunes were lost, and many who fled on small fishing boats perished at sea. Some people already had a pre-war trauma in Vietnam, and had to acculturate in a new country, learn a new language, find jobs, and raise their children in a new place. Now, 30 years after the war, there are still people having related health problems. Most of them experienced trauma and torture in the past but were wary of seeking help for mental health issues because it is seen as taboo and is rarely spoken about. For older Vietnamese people, seeking help is more of a last resort. They do not do it until they feel so helpless that they do not know where else to go. [Source: Vietnamese Cultural Profile, Diversicare, March 2009]

Many Vietnamese from the second wave of immigration had severe health problems on arrival to this country as a result of poor living conditions during the war and in camps, injuries, starvation, abuse, and little access to health care. Health problems experienced in this population include TB, hepatitis B, malaria, malnutrition, conjunctivitis, trichinosis, anemia, leprosy and intestinal parasites. Once arriving in the U.S., poverty and crowded living conditions posed health risks, along with under-utilization of health care. [Source: Pamela LaBorde, MD, Ethnomed + ]

Boat People and Pirates

20120515-South_China_Sea..a mphibious_cargo_ship ietnamese_refugees_aboard_a_small...jpg
Vietnamese boat people
Many Vietnamese boat people sought asylum in neighboring countries. Instead, they were turned away from shore and often robbed by pirates. The photographer Eddie Adams boarded one of the boats being towed away from Thailand. The 10-meter craft was packed with 50 adults and children. The pictures he took were widely published and then presented to Congress by the State Department. According to Mr. Adams, his images helped the government decide to admit as many as 200,000 South Vietnamese to the United States. [Source: Andy Grundberg, New York Times, September 20, 2004]

Piracy surged during the boat people exodus for Vietnam in the 1970s. Boat people were robbed, raped and even murdered by pirates. They were easy targets. The women on these boats were often raped, and men were robbed of everything they had. There were reports of being people being killed so gold teeth could be ripped out their mouth. Many of the pirates were Thai fisherman who took up piracy because it was easier and more profitable to prey on fleeing Vietnamese than fishing. Vietnamese boat people that escaped from pirates often attributed their good fortunes to large fish or whales that they believe saved them. Whales are considered sacred to the Vietnamese.

Most of the time the victims of piracy were dropped on shore. Sometimes however the boats were cast adrift, drifting into land by chance was the only hope of survival that the passengers had. Sometimes all the passengers were shot or stabbed out right. Survivors that somehow made it to shore had horrible stories to tell.

A Vietnamese painter who painted my house told me about how pirates stripped all men naked on a boat he was on. They were shown a Playboy magazine foldout. If a man got an erection he was shot. There is no way to tell if this story is true. Most pirates carried fishing nets so that if were tracked down by police it was difficult to distinguish them from fisherman.

Boat People Refugees

During the Boat People saga many Vietnamese refugees in camps in the Philippines and Hong Kong were denied political asylum in the U.S. and other counties and were were forced to return to Vietnam. Some refugees were dragged kicking and screaming on to planes which carried them back to their homeland. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, November 1979]

As of 1979, 65,200 boat people went to Hong Kong, 9,500 to Thailand, 49,500 to Malaysia 49,600 to Indonesia, 5,900 to Philippines. Some countries turned away the boats and made them go back to sea. Overland, 233,000 went to mainland China. At that time 233,300 were resettled in the United States, 53,700 in France; 23, 500 in Australia and 16,400 in Canada. Germany repatriated 40,000 mostly North Vietnamese in East Germany

In Hong Kong the Orderly Departure Programme started in 1979 and implemented in the 1980s, was set up to deal with the boat people that arrived there, When the boats arrived in Hong Kong harbor they were first checked for rats because Vietnam at the time was having a problem with the the plague.

In Hong Kong boat people that were allowed to come ashore were housed in warehouses, prisons and factories. In some places 200 people were assigned to a room where each person was allocated a surfboard-size space to live in. They were given twice-daily rations of rice, meat or fish, bread and an orange. Some of refugees made money by performing jobs such as stringing cotterpins. With the new immigrants the population of Hong Kong jumped by half a million people, an increase of 10 percent, in 1979.

Many Vietnamese ended up in the Philippines. When the Philippine government decided in 1993 to repatriate them some of the Vietnamese involved threatened to commit suicide if they were forced to return to Vietnam.

Boat People Return Home

1995, about 40,000 Vietnamese boat people were still in detention camps: half in Hong Kong, the remainder in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan and Thailand. In the camp refugees suffered from boredom, depression, hard board bunks, cockroaches and rats.

The camps shut down at the end of 1995 after the United Nations refugee agency determined it was possible for the migrants who faced deportation to experience a "decent life' in their home country without fear of prosecution.

After being refused admission to the U.S. because they were not deemed political asylum seeks, thousands of Vietnamese stranded at refuge camps in the Philippines were forced to return to Vietnam. Some of them were carried kicking and screaming onto planes.

In June 1995, 100 Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong were placed on a chartered Royal Brunei bound for Hanoi. Some were carried aboard the plane in handcuffs. When the plane landed in Hanoi, most of the people refused to disembark. It took eight hours to get all them off the plane.

Boat Person Who Survived Pirate Attack Reunited with Son After 34 Years

Ben Dobbin of AP wrote: "Hao Truong was tossed into the South China Sea after pirates attacked a boat taking refugee families to Thailand in December 1977. He said he managed to stay afloat for 16 hours before being rescued by a fishing boat. In a Thai refugee camp, Truong learned weeks later that his wife had died – her body washed up on shore along with another female victim. But he said he'd long assumed that their 7-month-old baby, Kham, had survived and was raised by someone else. [Source: Ben Dobbin, AP, November 21, 2009]

Truong resettled in the United States in 1978, sponsored by an uncle living in Louisiana. On a trip to Thailand in June after hearing Kham might be alive, a social worker helped him locate his son, now a 34-year-old father of two named Samart Khumkhaw who lives in Surat Thani province. "At this minute, I feel so excited and happy," Truong said as he stood next to his son at Rochester's airport surrounded by two dozen relatives and friends waving tiny U.S. flags and "Welcome Home" balloons. "We're going to have a big Thanksgiving holiday! "When I found him in Thailand, I stayed with him for almost three weeks. Then we know each other well, without asking anything, just like we know (each other) a long time ago."

In late 1978, Truong traveled to Rochester to meet his late wife's siblings and stayed. He remarried, raised four children and was a metalworker for 30 years. During four days of captivity before being pushed overboard, Truong said the pirate boat crew seemed enthralled at how cute his child was. "That's why he never think for a moment that anybody would kill this little baby," said his sister, Hong Truong. While the circumstances of the child's passage to safety remain murky, he was given to a bereft young couple in Thailand whose daughter had died two days after birth. "A lady – we don't know the relationship – told the couple she had a little baby boy and asked if they would raise him," Truong's sister said. "The foster mom saw the baby and wanted to adopt him, but she can't ask where the baby come from."

Boat Person Become a U.S. Navy Commander

On the day South Vietnam lost the Vietnam War, Hung Ba Le fled his homeland at the age of five in a fishing trawler crammed with 400 refugees. Thirty-four years later, he made an unlikely homecoming—as the commander of the USS Lassen, $800 million, 155-meter U.S. Navy destroyer with a crew of 300, which docked in Danang. [Source: Ben Stocking, Associated Press, November 8, 2009]

In April 1974, as Saigon was falling to the Communists, Mr Le and his family embarked on an uncertain journey in a fishing boat piloted by his father, who was a commander in the South Vietnamese navy. They were rescued at sea by the USS Barbour County, taken to a US base in the Philippines, a refugee camp in California and finally to northern Virginia, where they rebuilt their lives.

Mr Le grew up in Hue, the historic former capital on the central coast about 105 kilometers north of Danang where he still has relatives. Wen he fled in 1975 only four of the eight chldren in his family made it out. The others stayed in Vietnam until 1983 when the family was reunited. His family settled in northern Virginia where his father got a job at a supermarket and worked his way up from bag boy to manager.

Fleeing Vietnamese Boat Person Becomes an Optometrist in California

Rachel Raskin Zrihen wrote in the Times Herald, "She could have been captured by pirates. She could have drowned or perished from thirst or starvation. But fate had other plans for former Vietnamese "boat person" Bach-Kim Nguyen". She became an optometrist in Vallejo, California. The second of 10 children and a single mother of two, Nguyen escaped her native Vietnam in 1982, at 22. [Source: Rachel Raskin Zrihen, Times Herald, January 21, 2004 ]

"I didn't want to escape," Nguyen said. "I wanted to become a doctor in Vietnam. I love my country so much and I don't believe anyplace else would appreciate a good doctor with a good heart as much. I never wanted to leave." Nguyen said she applied for and was the only person in her province to pass the medical school entrance exam, but she was blocked from attending by a local government official who had a grudge against her family. "My family wasn't communist enough," Nguyen said. "Plus my father had a disagreement with (this bureaucrat's) business partner once, and those things combined, they wouldn't let me go. So I started to plan my escape."

Nguyen tried and failed to escape twice before succeeding. "The first time, some of us planned to steal a boat, but too many people showed up and it became too dangerous," Nguyen said. "The second time, we paid for a boat, but it never came. We waited for hours, all night, hiding on the beach. One little boy died when he woke up from his sleeping pill, and his mother had to suffocate him to keep him quiet." Nguyen said she almost gave up, and in fact, took accounting classes, but didn't like it.

"My uncle convinced my parents that I have a calling and they should let me go if I could find a way," Nguyen said. "Some people my mother knew were planning an escape, and I went with them, even though getting caught would ruin not just my life, but my family's, too." Nguyen and a friend boarded their secret craft on a beach on the appointed night, and waited for the men to load supplies. However, she said, they were discovered, and the boat hurriedly set sail without the men or the supplies.

"We had to cut the rope," she said, "and 59 women and children, and about 10 older men, left alone. We met some fishermen and they sold us some food and after a week, we were rescued by an American cargo ship. "They took us to Subic Bay in Manila and we registered as refugees and were sent to a refugee camp," Nguyen added. "The only reason I'm in America is that we were rescued by an American boat." Nguyen said that without a sponsor in the United States, she could easily have languished in the camp for years, like thousands of others. But fate had other plans.

"You can be in a camp forever if you have no one in another country to sponsor you," Nguyen said. "I had no one outside Vietnam. It was just luck or chance that I got here. Being rescued was like being born a second time. Everyone on the boat felt that way. "I thought I was so smart and brave and I learned I didn't know anything," Nguyen said. "People died on these trips. Sole survivors ended up eating human flesh. Sometimes the boats were overtaken by Thai pirates and the girls sold into prostitution. It's kind of a miracle that I'm here."

Nguyen said she met her oldest daughter's father in the camp, and moved with him to San Francisco, where he had an aunt. The relationship didn't work out, but Nguyen started working toward achieving the goals that brought her here. "My only goal was to get into medicine," Nguyen said. "Getting rescued solidified my determination to do something with my life. Nothing was going to stop me."

On welfare, Nguyen took classes at San Francisco City College, where she made grades good enough to earn her scholarships. After four years, she transferred to the University of California at Davis, where she earned a degree in biochemistry. But by then her second marriage had produced another daughter and another divorce, and study time was at a premium. "Someone suggested optometry school," Nguyen said. "I volunteered at an office to see what they do, and I liked it. It wasn't as long a program and is still medical-related. It was possible to do as a single mother." Nguyen said she applied and was accepted to the optometry program at U.C. Berkeley, from which she graduated.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBCand various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.