The stories they carried: reflections of Vietnamese-Canadians 40 years after that war.

Author:Koh, Priscilla


This article explores the narratives of former refugees from Vietnam who resettled in Canada. Each of these stories highlights the profound dilemmas, motivations, and experiences of Vietnamese refugees. Collectively, they demonstrate the remarkable resilience of this community, and their determination to survive and remake themselves in Canada. The discussion illuminates the diversity and complexity of my respondents' senses of belonging, homes, and homelands, and how such notions and ties are continually evolving. The research aims to contribute to the postwar/ refugee discourse, and to move the field beyond the parameter of the war and exodus from Vietnam, in order to study Vietnamese in all their complexities--in a new locale.


Cet article explore les discours des anciens refugies du Vietnam qui se sont reinstalles au Canada. Chacune de ces histoires souligne les dilemmes profonds, les motivations et les experiences des refugies vietnamiens. Collectivement, elles demontrent la capacite remarquable d'adaptation de cette communaute, et leur determination de survivre et de se reinventer au Canada. La discussion met en lumiere la diversite ainsi que la complexite des sentiments d'appartenance, de domicile, de patries, chez mes repondants, et comment ces notions et ces liens sont en processus continuel d'evolution. Cette recherche a pour but de contribuer sur le discours de l'apres-guerre et des refugies, et defaire evoluer le domaine au-dela des parametres de la guerre et de l'exode du Vietnam, afin de pouvoir etudier les Vietnamiens dans toute leur complexite, dans le contexte d'un nouvel environnement.


Ah, the stories we tell and the stories told to us.

--Caroline Vu (1)

Memories of the boat journey still trigger strong emotions within the diasporic community decades after their departure from Vietnam. Forty years after that war, stories about the boat journey continue to be told and retold through memoirs, academic research, films, television, and radio programs. (2) The narratives of six Vietnamese-Canadians highlighted in this article show not just the diversity of the "boat people's" experiences, but also its complexity and deeply personal aspects. The first section provides a brief historical overview of Vietnam's refugee crisis. The following sections explore different facets of my respondents' "boat journeys": their reasons for leaving Vietnam, their departures from Vietnam and experiences at refugee camps in Southeast Asia, and the challenges of adapting to their new lives in Canada. Finally, the discussion will examine their current perspectives of and ties with Vietnam.

Respondents and Methodology

In-depth life-story interviews were conducted in Ottawa between October 2014 and April 2015. Through the snowballing method, I was able to meet and become acquainted with my respondents. To capture the diversity of "boat experiences," I sought and selected individuals who had different motivations for leaving the country and espoused varying cultural outlooks and perspectives about Vietnam. My respondents originated from different regions in Vietnam; all live in Ottawa except for one, who is based in Toronto. They range in age from the mid-40S to 60s; all are university-educated and white-collar professionals. Three have made several return trips to Vietnam over the past two decades, whilst the rest have not been back since they fled the country.

The interviews were conducted primarily in Vietnamese, since it is the language my respondents felt most comfortable with. The interviews ranged from an hour to three hours long each time, typically taking place in cafes and restaurants in the Chinatown area of Ottawa, and in the case of one respondent in a home. (3) These venues were not only the most convenient and easily accessible for my respondents, but were also spaces they were familiar with and felt comfortable in. The interview questions were semi-structured and open-ended. They sought to cover the major life domains associated with their refugee experience: experiences growing up in Vietnam, motivations for leaving the country and sense of "home" since their resettlement in Canada. (4)

The narratives presented here are not intended to encapsulate the full spectrum of the sentiments and experiences of Vietnamese Canadians, or for that matter, the Vietnamese refugee diaspora. That is beyond the scope and resources available for this project. The purpose of this research is to describe these emergent themes and what they suggest about the notions of home and belonging for first-generation Vietnamese refugees. As a case study, researching Canada's Vietnamese refugee narratives is useful in understanding other diasporic groups in the country who have followed similar trajectories. Their myriad departure and resettlement experiences can teach lessons about cultural change, the construction of communities, and the evolving meanings of identity, home, and culture. These narratives also shed light on the various forms that national membership and belonging can take shape.

Vietnam's "Boat People": A Brief Historical Overview

The second Indochina conflict (1954-1975) resulted in the largest mass exodus of Vietnamese overseas. In the years following the end of the conflict and national reunification, more than one million former soldiers, civil servants, and teachers were subjected to hoc tap cdi tao (re-education), equivalent to a form of imprisonment whereby detainees were subject to years of intense political indoctrination and gruelling labour in secluded camps. Another million were forcibly de-urbanised and relocated to the khu kinh te moi (New Economic Zones) located in inhabited mountainous areas. (5) As a result of the deprivations of the postwar period, it has been estimated that between 1.4 and 1.5 million Vietnamese fled the country between 1975 and 1990. (6)

Between the mid-1970s and the 1990s, Vietnamese left the country in three distinct waves. The first wave in 1975 included 140,000 southern Vietnamese, mostly political leaders, army officers, and skilled professionals escaping the communist takeover. In the second wave (1978-81), close to 400,000 refugees fled Vietnam. Due to the fact that many of these refugees typically fled the country onboard overcrowded and dangerously constructed boats, the popular misnomer "boat people" became the new term of reference for all Vietnamese refugees. Ethnic Chinese made up 70 per cent of the boat people. The third wave left Vietnam as part of the Orderly Departure Program (odp) (7) By the mid1990s, over 200,000 Vietnamese had entered the United States through the odp. (8) Each wave faced complex contexts of exits and resettlement that affected family dynamics and adaptation. (9) By the end of the 1990s, the vast majority of Vietnamese refugees were eventually resettled in the United States. Others found home in far-flung countries, including Australia, Canada, China, France, Great Britain, and Germany. (10)

Life after the Fall of Saigon

My respondents reflected how both their family and personal lives were affected by the change of political regime. Life for them had not changed drastically in the immediate period following communist victory over South Vietnam in 1975. By the late 1970s, however, they would witness drastic changes in their daily lives as the regime embarked on aggressive socialization campaigns throughout central and southern Vietnam.

Dung was born in Hanoi in 1952. Her family fled to Saigon after 1954 for political and religious reasons; (11) they were Buddhists who detested and feared communist rule. Dung's family lived in Saigon's Phu Nhuan district. She recalled how, after reunification, the communist soldiers moved into her family home and stayed there for a year. Dung found their mannerisms and lifestyle strange and shocking at the time: "I remember how dishevelled and malnourished these young men looked when they first arrived at our doorstep. They were out of touch with modernity and urban living, having fought and lived in the jungles for so many years. They didn't know how to use a stove and almost burnt our house down a couple of times. They were also unfamiliar with modern sanitation; the flush toilet was a shocking discovery for them. They used the toilet bowl to wash their clothes. We were completely flabbergasted when they took our family dog to cook and eat!" (12)

Like Dung, Phuong's family had to share their home in Danang, central Vietnam, with the victorious soldiers, who eventually took possession of the house. Then, he recalled feeling sympathetic towards the soldiers, whom he described as a "raggedy and starved band of men who had sacrificed their youth, and were willing to risk their lives for the sake of unifying the country." (13) During the first round of the regime's socialization campaign, the family business in the sale of imported bike parts was targeted, and the shop was confiscated. Unlike the rest of his family, who were resentful and wary of communist rule, Phuong said he actually felt glad when the communists took over the South. He had always yearned for a single, unified country that was free from war since his childhood. This was a viewpoint that raised the ire of the rest of his family, who were vehemently opposed to communist rule.

By contrast, the experiences of the Le family in Quy Nhon, central Vietnam, were much more dramatic and distressing. Sisters Mai and Chi recounted how their father was arrested shortly after the communist takeover. He had been a manager of the us embassy compound in Quy Nhon. After 18 months in jail, their mother managed to secure a conditional release of their father by bribing the officials in charge of his case; Mr. Le was to serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest. However, this reprieve was short-lived. In 1978, armed police stormed the family house. Chi recalled, "The police tore apart every room in the house, searching...

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