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13 November 2014

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You are in: London > TV > Television > TV Features > Vietnamese boat people come full circle

Vietnamese Boat People

Vietnamese boat people come full circle

Thirty years ago hundreds of Vietnamese refugees crammed into a boat and left their destiny to fate. Days into their journey, and as a terrible storm was about to break, a British merchant ship, the Wellpark, encountered the stricken boat.

A dramatic rescue led to weeks of uncertainty of where the so-called boat people should be landed.  BBC London's Special Correspondent, Kurt Barling, has been speaking to some of those who ended up in Hackney.

Paul Tran remembers his head being smacked against the side of the Wellpark as he was hoisted aboard in a makeshift net. This woke him from his slumber. He remembers being desperately sea sick during the early part of the journey, mostly over his mother, and then the adventures of playing on deck of a ship ill-suited to the refugee cargo.  

Tran was four at the time and his family were among several thousand Vietnamese boat people who were allowed to come and settle in the United Kingdom. There were over three hundred people on his boat, including his parents and several siblings. Most of the family remained in Britain and run their own businesses.

When I met Paul and his brother Gabriel at a popular Vietnamese restaurant in Hackney it was clear that the rescue was still vivid in their minds.

Paul Tran

Paul Tran 30 years ago

Gabriel was already in his late teens when they were rescued and remembers the kerfuffle as the Captain struggled to get the support he needed back home to bring the unexpected passengers on board and then finally to deposit them on British soil.

Gabriel recalls the conversations between the Captain and the elders on the escape boat over the deteriorating weather conditions. The Captain later made it clear that the ferocity of the storm that swept across them within 24 hours would almost certainly have led to a mass drowning.

Escaping the communists

Vu Khanh Thanh left Vietnam in similar circumstances but without his family. He was only re-united with them a few years later when he convinced the Vietnamese authorities to let his wife and three children join him in Hackney.

Thanh had been a teacher and an elected Councillor in South Vietnam. At the end of the war when the Americans evacuated Saigon he was one of those cast as a collaborator by the new regime. The North Vietnamese victors wanted their triumph to signal the start of a communist reckoning and people like Thanh were forced to conform.

Thanh says the situation became increasingly intolerable inside Vietnam in the late 1970s and he believed that he and his family would never be able to prosper in such conditions. Like the Tran family he was allowed to settle in Britain. Because of his command of English and knowledge of the Vietnamese community he was recruited almost immediately by the Home Office to help the resettlement of the refugees. 

It was not an easy task. Thanh recalls having to approach Hackney Council to force the issue of housing and as a consequence many of the refugees secured tenancies and remain in the borough.  The An Viet Foundation emerged from this collective effort to secure a firm footing for the new community.

As well as starting up one of the first Vietnamese cafés in the borough, An Viet also continues to run a day centre for the older generation and offer advice from everything from benefits to job training. Between 2002 and 2006 Thanh himself became the first member of the Vietnamese community to become a local councillor in Britain. As sure a sign as any that the community had finally come of age after making Britain their home.

Vietnamese boat people in London in 1979

Vietnamese boat people in London in 1979

Links with the old country

Vietnam is of course a changed country since this group of refugees left in 1979. Some have already renewed links with the old country. A few have become successful entrepreneurs trading between Britain and Vietnam. Nam clothing company, based on Mare Street in Hackney, is probably the largest and has contracts to supply Primark and other British supermarkets with ladies fashion wear.

These renewed links with the old country have not gone unnoticed by the Foreign Office. For the past week the current British Ambassador to Vietnam, Mark Kent has been conducting a diplomatic tour of the Vietnamese community in Britain. An Viet escorted him on a whistle-stop tour of Hackney Vietnamese businesses and held a dinner for him in Hackney last week.

Ambassador Kent is a lively character, and at 43, part of a new generation of British diplomats who advocate that modern diplomacy is not just about government to government links but harnessing the relationships that already exist between British businesses and citizens in their dealings with the countries where they migrated from.

Adding to foreign expertise

This willingness to reach out to minority communities in London by the Foreign Office is a sign that the relationships of these communities with the old country are slowly becoming a significant feature of guiding how our external relations are negotiated. It's also recognition of the value that migrant communities can add to foreign office expertise of the culture in any given country.

Since the London bombings it has become obvious that links with the old country can be both a blessing and a boon. In the case of Pakistan it has helped Britain get to grips with terrorism. In Vietnam it's hoped it will help Britain improve trade relations.

One of Britain's most recognised exports to the Far East is the Premier League.  Ambassador Kent took in Arsenal football club on his London visit because the club helps fund a football academy in Vietnam. Perhaps a less noticeable example of the capital’s global reach.

Paul Tran 2009

Paul Tran in 2009

Coming full circle

It is clear from talking to members of the Vietnamese community, that there is a deep sense of loyalty to the country that took them in and gave them a second chance. Fate, they believe, dealt them a kind hand.  

For Paul Tran the Ambassador's visit has, in his view, almost brought the Vietnamese community full circle from the events which led them to leave their home country thirty years ago. Now with their knowledge of living in the West there is a sense in which they can make a positive contribution to the country they fled and enhance the relationship between the new homeland and the old. 

last updated: 25/03/2009 at 13:40
created: 24/03/2009

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