The Current

Vietnamese 'boat people' share refugee survival stories 40 years on

Looking back on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, we look at how Canada responded to the post-Vietnam War refugee crisis as over 60,000 'boat people' arrived on our shores.
The flow of Vietnamese refugees on wooden junks continues as good weather gives their boats perfect sailing to Hong Kong 05 June 1979. Several boatloads reached Hong Kong waters and were towed in by a Royal Hong Kong Police boat. (COR/AFP/Getty Images)

It was April 30th, 1975, forty years ago, that the last U.S. helicopter slipped over the horizon on the outskirts of Saigon and unceremoniously signaled the end of the Vietnam War. Within 24 hours, on May Day, as they'd planned it, the North Vietnamese flag went up over the Presidential Palace, and Saigon officially became Ho Chi Minh City.

But it took much longer for hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to start new lives... Over the next four years, they clamoured onto boats headed for virtually anywhere.

Tuan Tran was part of the first wave, fleeing in November, 1975. Tuan Tran got into the boat with his two children and they became one of the many Vietnamese 'boat people', part of wave after wave of refugees fleeing Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. At least half a million died. But Tuan Tran was one of the lucky ones.

Dr. Tuan Tran describes his escape from Vietnam to a refugee camp in Malaysia. 7:00

Tuan Tran's boat landed on the shores of Malaysia and he found his way to a United Nations refugee camp. But for many so called 'boat people', there was no such warm reception. Boats were often simply pushed back out to sea. And many of those people who did make it to dry land were destined to scratch out a meagre existence, with little or no support.

After four months inside that refugee camp, Tuan Tran emigrated to Canada. So did another 5,000 or so other members of that first wave, between 1975 and 1976. And another 50,000 would join them in a second wave, mostly between 1979 and 1980. 

Today we're setting out to hear some of their stories four decades on, and to look back on how Canada responded to the international crisis.

Two men who left Vietnam as Saigon fell and eventually made their way to Canada joined us today in studio to share their story. (L) Kien Le, Anna Maria and Nhu Van Nguyen.

We spoke with Dr. Kien Le, who was a 12-year-old boy living in Saigon forty years ago, as well as Nhu Van Nguyen, who also lived in Saigon at the time of its fall but was unable to leave the city right away. They both joined us in Toronto.

Part two of this story will air on tomorrow's edition of The Current.

Do you have an immigration story to share? Tweet us @TheCurrentCBC, write to us on Facebook, or send us an email.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar, Gord Westmacott, and Ines Colabrese.


Pirates and sinking ships: One refugee's story - CBC Archives

Vietnam's 'boat people' - National Geographic

The fall of Saigon: how CBC, CTV covered the 1975 events - CBC News