Vietnamese “Boat People” Archive

When I started documenting my family history, the legacy of Vietnamese refugees in Britain during the 1980s and their impact on the generations to come, I had no idea that my words would touch others living all over the globe. The feedback I received for my work from family, friends and strangers was very warming. Former Vietnamese refugees now living in New Zealand and Australia have personally messaged me to say thank you for shedding some light on the “unseen pain” of Vietnamese people. I have also been approached by BBC Vietnamese to say a word on my experience of being a second generation immigrant, and how it has defined me. My aunts are now organising family virtual gatherings in which I can ask my grandma about stories from Vietnam (she is recovering from illness at the moment and we feel very moved to preserve these memories!). I have never felt prouder to be Vietnamese and it motivates me more to keep going with my writing. Below are stories from Vietnamese people, fieldworkers and listeners I have met along the way. Each refugee centre in Britain was different; Sopley was self-catering, and there were shops issuing food, whilst Thorney Island had central catering. The photos included in this archive have been very generously donated by Sopley fieldworkers, who are the copyright holders of the images (see caption).

  • The Sibonga
  • On board the Sibonga
  • Boat Folk's new life

Quynhnhu Nguyen (marketing manager)

Yes, [Georgina’s Whatever Happened to the Boat People? article] definitely resonated. I am also British-Vietnamese, born here to refugees. My parents fled Southern Vietnam in the early 80s and my dad was imprisoned by Pol Pot before they ended up in the UK, met and had a family years later. They don’t talk about it much, more since I’ve gotten older though. I can definitely relate to feeling like you’re straddling two cultures and seeing the generation before us struggle but do their best to create a life in the UK whilst also seeming vacant for a life they led before. It’s incredible how much people can go through in a single lifetime. It’s almost like their stories could easily be that of two separate people. It’s been amazing and thought provoking to see the documentary and your article, these different forms of content highlighting these histories and issues. I’ve just really appreciated having the insight.

I asked Quynhnhu about how we could improve and diversify coverage of Vietnamese people in mainstream media.

Hmm, good but hard question! So many things. Would be interesting to see how it’s effected our generation and hear more about growing up between cultures, I think that can be a universal theme of being a child of immigrants or refugees. Showcasing Vietnamese people in different, less stereotypically common fields, sharing different experiences of the boat people as like we already know they’re so different. 

There’s a good podcast called Vietnamese Boat People you should check out if you don’t know it.

Rachel Nguyen (therapist)

In March 2020, Rachel Nguyen’s documentary Whatever Happened to the Boat People, the powerful final episode of the BBC Four series A Very British History, gave voice to Vietnamese people in Britain. This felt like opening the lid of a vessel – and uncovering so many buried memories from my family’s history. The documentary reveals a harrowing vision of the tragedies of wartime and the different experiences that Nguyen’s family faced when they arrived in Britain during the 1970s and 80s. As a therapist, Nguyen brought a necessary sensitivity to the lifelong psychological burden of surviving such violence and upheaval. Her path of discovery converged with mine, and we met soon after the programme was broadcast earlier this month. Rachel and I were connected by our desire to regain the emotions locked within our mother tongue and culture – before we become entirely Westernized. 

I never thought to ask…when I was a little bit older, I did ask my brother – he speaks more English – questions [about the refugees’ journey]: ‘what was the boat like? How big was it?’ I never really asked my parents directly, but they’d share stories.

In my interpretation, my sense was that the older generation [our grandparents] feel very left behind. They can’t speak English. Of course, when you leave, you want the best for your children, but you don’t really prepare yourself for what that means. Of course, they wanted us to adapt and assimilate into the culture – that could be a mark of success, feeling like you belong – but I don’t think they really thought how lonely you become as their children and grandchildren become less and less Vietnamese. I know a lot of people who don’t speak as much Vietnamese as they did when they were younger. What I really wanted to convey [in the documentary] was to pay homage to the choice that they made, which we’ll fortunately never have to make. My parents risked not only their lives but my siblings’ lives. That’s a huge thing to ask from yourself, and to reconcile within yourself. The fact that they did that has meant that I won’t ever have to escape to the jungle…sacrifice my livelihood.

Julia Thanh (Chair of the Vietnamese Family Partnership and Founder of Vietnamese Londoners)

I asked Julia about her connections to Vietnam and what brought her closest to her heritage.

I think the defining moment which brought me closer to my Vietnamese heritage was the time I spent living in Dakar, Senegal straight after graduating university. It was the first time being away from my family for a significant amount of time and so I found a new-found appreciation for my Vietnamese culture. Also, discovering the Vietnamese-Senegalese community in Dakar brought me even closer. Up until that point, I had no idea there were Vietnamese people in Senegal and my curiosity led me to research on the French colonial history between Francophone countries in West & North Africa and their links with Vietnam.  It opened my eyes to the Vietnam diaspora from outside of the more well known communities such as in France and the US. Ultimately, it became the catalyst period during that period of my life which brought me closer to my heritage! On a similar front, another key element has been meeting new people who share a similar Vietnamese heritage or interest in Vietnam. I have definitely felt closer to my culture through meeting like-minded individuals and communities. 

For many of us in the British-Vietnamese community, our voices can feel lost or marginalised in mainstream media. I wanted to hear Julia’s thoughts on how we can progress and diversify our narrative, particularly of refugees – even more so after the Essex 39 tragedy, which Julia spoke so movingly about for the Metro.

I mull over this a lot; it keeps me up at night sometimes which is something I don’t like to admit! For me, it is two-fold, firstly, we need a platform but most importantly, we need to own our multi-faceted identity and be fearless and confident to express ourselves both authentically and openly. What does that look like? I’m still trying to figure it out! However, I do recognise we lack a political voice in British mainstream society. Without a political voice, the Vietnamese community will find it extremely difficult to have a say in local, national and even international policy. This goes back to my point about confidence in our identity and being able to navigate the duality of it. We can both be British and Vietnamese without having to compromise.

Chris Bentall (fieldworker at Sopley refugee camp)

“In early March this year I watched a recording of a new BBC television documentary about the Vietnamese so called ‘Boat People’, who were headline news around the world at the end of the 1970s. The programme packed in a lot of information, too much I think for a single programme, and there were only a few brief glimpses of the Sopley Reception Centre. Filmed forty one years ago, the scenes looked old and the images had a grainy quality, whereas my memories remain vivid and fresh, although in the last few years on thinking back to those days at Sopley my feelings are tainted by grief and a sense of loss.

Pictured from back left to right: John Silver, Chris, Eamonn, Helen (driver), Sue Millman and two unidentified men. John Silver was the site caretaker, who took charge of  vehicles used to take refugees to appointments/outings etc. He was popular with some refugees who visited him and his wife. The building is where cooking was done, four kitchens in total, serving two huts. Picture credit: Chris Bentall©

“In mid-July 1979 I turned 26.  My mental, spiritual and emotional health was not good and I had no idea about the future. I was in a Bournemouth bed-sit and just surviving day to day, teaching temporarily at an EFL school in central Bournemouth. My classes included holidaying Germans and Libyan children following in the footsteps of a former student, Colonel Gadaffi. On 7th January 1979, during the so called ‘winter of discontent’, I made a deadly serious suicide attempt, following a decade of chronic mental health problems. Strictly speaking I should have died but divine providence saved my life.

“Philip Baker, a friend from teacher training college, was teaching in the Upper School at Sopley and when a fieldworker vacancy came up in early October, he told me and I was accepted (I remember phoning up from the EFL school premises where I was working, to find out). In an extraordinary turnaround my life was about to change, and I would be free of mental and emotional pain. However for the first two weeks at Sopley I probably looked like and I felt like a refugee; I remember not washing my hair for that period and I wore a grubby green army style padded jacket. Half-term approached and David Hardisty, the Activities Coordinator, was struggling for ideas to occupy the time usually taken up by school and adult education classes. I suggested a treasure hunt. Clues were dotted about the camp (e.g. in fieldworker Helen Clifford’s car, the Medical Centre) and a shop in Bransgore. The event was a great success, won by a man with polio (from Hut 24 I think) who fieldworker Eamonn Doherty had wanted to win and a crowd gathered in front of the admin building to see the winner receive his prize. That treasure hunt really kick-started my new life at Sopley; I washed my hair, smartened myself up and embarked on what still is the best period of my life. I never thought about the reception centre closing, that it was a temporary situation etc. Instead, and really for the first time, I lived, as the saying goes, ‘for the day’.

Eamonn Doherty (senior field worker at Sopley refugee camp)

I asked Eamonn about what brought him to working at the camp, as he was at Sopley from the beginning, and one of the first fieldworkers to be employed when the Sibonga refugees arrived in 1979. He was also there at the end when all the refugees had gone; he and another fieldworker Michael (who died in Africa) spent weeks cleaning the site.

“I came to Sopley because I needed to find a year’s work placement for a four course I was doing at Bradford University. The course was called Peace Studies, (a Social Sciences Honours Degree), and one of our visiting lecturers was an ex Army Brigadier turned peacekeeper, Michael Harbottle. Michael was asked by what is now the British Refugee Council to run a reception centre for Vietnamese refugees in what turned our to be Sopley. He needed volunteers to help run the Centre, we needed a placement and so a number of us volunteered in June 1979…when I returned to University the following year, I was obliged to write a placement report about the whole experience.

“There was a reunion of Sopleyites late last year. Sadly, we couldn’t get hold of any Vietnamese, refugee or staff, but we hope to rectify that next time, whenever the world gets back to some sort of normality.

Helen Clifford (fieldworker at Sopley camp)

I asked Helen why she decided to become a fieldworker. She was also a driver, so took people for hospital appointments, mainly to Bournemouth.

I had just completed a three year teacher training degree at Winchester and heard that a refugee centre in Dorset was looking for teachers. This appealed to me so I arranged to go and have a look around.” There was a vacancy for a fieldworker position, and Helen was accepted.

Resettlement day: Andy Palmer (hand to his head) and Helen Clifford with Tó To Thai and his young friend facing. Photo credit: Christopher Bentall©

Life at Sopley:

My first impression of the camp was how organised it all was with Schools for all ages, Adult education, Medical centre as well as all the other services to make it run effectively. The food store was always on the go, WRVS clothing store, sewing room run by Sally. The Guard Room where the job was treated very seriously by the staff there.  Resettlement office with Brian Heddy, Michael Meadows and Valerie Walling. Michael spoke fluent Cantonese.

The Vietnamese people I found to be charming, friendly and so resilient. I was responsible for huts 25-29 and this was a good opportunity to get to know individuals and families. Even basic communication could be managed with a lot of smiling and gesticulations. One of our roles was to equip every hut with the correct number of bunk beds, bedding, crockery and pots and pans and to make sure it was clean for the next arrivals. There were differences between how some people kept everything so clean and for others it didn’t seem to matter. Cockroach infestations were a common problem!

The care shown by older children to their younger siblings was a delight to see and often a 5year old would be carrying a little tot around and be totally at ease with this. I can’t recall the children crying much or being difficult.

When refugees eventually left the camp, Helen was responsible for driving them to their new settlement.

As fieldworkers, we were paired up with Vietnamese interpreters and this was a good working relationship and as we shared the same office there was a lot of banter between us. As a driver I was sometimes called on to take people for Hospital appointments, mainly to Bournemouth and I am sure it wasn’t my driving but sometimes people were travel sick so we always had a supply of bags!

Photo kindly donated by Helen Clifford©

Photos above belong to Helen Clifford, who has kindly donated them for the purpose of this archive.

On longer Resettlement trips it was always an early start with the big van being loaded to the gunnels with possessions in boxes and those large checked plastic bags.

There was happiness that this was the next chapter of a family’s life in the UK but also trepidation and maybe sadness at leaving the familiarity of the Camp. Newly made friends were left behind and sometimes extended family that were going to be temporarily apart. Usually the move went well with a welcoming group to meet and help settle in every family. One trip to Tower Hamlet in London that I went to was not as good as the newly prepared flat was trashed by some locals who objected to the pending arrivals.

Karyn Smyth (Secretary to the Administrator of the British Council for the Aid of Refugees)

I heard about the vacancy for a Secretary to the Administrator of the British Council for Aid to Refugees (as it was then – it is now the Refugee Council ) through my local Church in 1979. I was working for a local building society at the time and felt it was right to take up this new job. I wasn’t there for the arrival of the first refugees, but joined a couple of months later. I lived locally so I drove in each day. I worked there until the last refugees left in September 1982, staying an extra month to help with closing down the Centre. For me, it was the best job I have ever worked in! Although I didn’t generally go into the Vietnamese families living quarters, I was invited to several meals with different families. As I learnt about the Vietnamese people and what they went through, I grew to love their culture and have every respect for them. I particularly fell in love with the children who often came to see me in my office, bringing their siblings with them! I have many photos and newspaper cuttings etc which are now rather old, but precious! 

I asked Karyn about whether she knew much about Vietnamese people and their culture, and the reception of the refugees during this time.

In general, I feel the British people were saddened to hear about the troubles in Vietnam and regularly heard about the Vietnamese people fleeing their beloved country on the news on TV. When the British ship Sibonga rescued 600 Vietnamese people in the South China seas and it was announced that the disused, local RAF Camp was to be opened up to welcome them, I remember how excited people were to help and do what they could to prepare the Camp for their arrival.

Although I wasn’t there for the arrival of the first refugees, I remember hearing about it at my church and in the local news. I know that many British people felt it would be a privilege to help the refugees after the trauma they had been through. The majority of refugees had paid a lot of money to escape in old rickety boats that were unsafe, and many had died on the journey. Many of those who were rescued were ill and starving, with no possessions of their own. Many who had fled had left some of their family back in Vietnam. 

However, there were a few local people who were unhappy with the Camp reopening and some didn’t like the Vietnamese shopping in their village. I think it was mostly because of the difference in culture; the Vietnamese were used to buying their produce in local markets and often picked up the fruit and vegetables to see if they were bruised etc, but the local people were used to being served by assistants. It sounds a trivial matter, but I think some shopkeepers were unhappy. I remember some complaints coming in to the administrator I worked for! But generally local British people helped the Vietnamese in many ways by taking them out to local places and having them back to their homes so they could get a feel for the British culture. 

I knew very little about the Vietnamese culture before I worked at Sopley. Even though the people were from Vietnam, they included  Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian people who lived in Vietnam. I loved learning about the country, the people and their way of life. As staff, we had the option to have cooked food, English or Vietnamese, and I always chose to eat the Vietnamese food! Over the 3 years I worked at Sopley, there were many celebrations such as Vietnamese/Chinese New Year, Christmas and numerous weddings amongst refugees and staff! I learnt so much about their culture whilst I was there, and it has left me with a love for the people of China & Southeast Asia. 

Karyn’s daily routine in Sopley camp:

My day to day routine was mostly as a secretary in the admin office. I lived locally so I drove in each day. I worked for the administrator so my work was mainly typing letters, answering the phone calls, filing etc. The administrator was a great man to work for with a heart of gold and a sense of humour.! The admin office was a central place where visitors gathered so I met many people.

The Vietnamese refugees often had meetings with the Administrator so they would come into the office first. I grew to love the children as they often came in to see me, bringing in their babies and friends too! The other staff often gathered in our office, so it was always a busy place! 

There was an obvious language barrier between the two very different cultures, but usually there was an Vietnamese interpreter nearby to help! I do remember how respectful many of the Vietnamese people were to us when they entered our office and many would bow in respect to us. 

How were the residents resettled? What was the process like and how did the residents reunite with their families who may have already moved?

During the three years,  the Vietnamese families were interviewed by the Resettlement office on site and when houses/flats became available through Local Councils, they would be resettled. Most of the families chose to be resettled in large groups, many to London, Birmingham, Wales, to the big cities. Some of the houses/flats were in pleasant areas but unfortunately, some were in the ‘poorer’ areas of the cities. I had the privilege of going with a family who were being resettled to Birmingham, and who received a warm welcome from the local people. Throughout the three years, many of the refugees’ families were traced and brought over from Vietnam and reunited with the rest of their family living in Sopley. They were then resettled together as a whole family.

I remember generally hearing that the majority of refugee families were happier when they were resettled in areas together, in towns & cities, rather than isolated families in rural areas. I don’t know much about the English courses or the opportunities. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear how well the refugees did in the tests they were given. Two schools were set up at Sopley, a Lower School for younger children and an Upper School for older children and adults, and I do remember hearing how keen the people were to learn as they regarded learning as a privilege and not to be taken for granted. 

As the refugees were resettled and the time came for the Camp to be closed, we spent the last month (October 1982) finalising the paperwork, cleaning the huts where the people lived and just generally closing down the Centre. Sopley had become a place of refuge, a place of happiness, a place of laughter and of tears, a place of business and of people coming and going. I remember how awful the last week was, as refugees and staff we had got to know and befriend gradually left. The Camp became deathly quiet and deserted. I remember driving out the gate and feeling very sad. As I look back on Sopley, it was the best job I have worked in and a privilege to have been part of it. 

Helen Granger or Helen hai [Helen number two] (fieldworker at Sopley camp)

I was at Sopley from November 1980 to December 1981.

It was accidental or possibly providential that I became a fieldworker in Sopley. After university I had volunteered in the west of Canada for 3 years, in a school and parish and during my time there the “Boat People” exodus happened. I heard a little about it on the news and our parish sponsored a Vietnamese family to live in the town. I met them but I didn’t really get involved.

When I returned to England I decided to continue volunteering and approached Community Service Volunteers; they asked if I’d be interested in volunteering with refugees and placed me in Sopley Reception Centre which, after a month, took me on staff and applied for another volunteer! I became part of the English and Vietnamese fieldworker team; I was paired with Duc and we got on well together. Each day we would visit the families we had been assigned, to get to know them and help sort out any problems they might be having, liaising with the health, education and resettlement departments.

We also accompanied the residents on trips. I remember driving a group of residents to a Buddhist temple in Southampton which was really only a small house; the Vietnamese residents had brought the monks food and, as monks ate only once a day before noon, we sat and watched them eat, mostly custard cream biscuits but they made no complaints. I also remember going with a group to speedway racing and coming back with a splitting headache from the engine noise.  

As the residents went to school on site to learn English there were times when we couldn’t visit and I remember a lot of sitting around in the fieldworkers’ office, drinking coffee, and chatting. When the post arrived one of the Vietnamese fieldworkers would go to the tannoy and read out the names of all those who had received letters and who would then come rushing to pick them up. Every few days there was food distribution – the amount depending on the number of people in the family group and sometimes I would go to the food store to watch Minh, who was in charge, packing the food into crates. There was a lot of rice, noodles, vegetables and chicken – and monosodium glutamate. Sometimes I would see the residents preparing their meals, squatting on the ground and chopping everything into small pieces before they started frying. They were especially busy when a family prepared a feast before they left for their new home. We were often invited and the food was wonderful, meals lasted for hours and there was a lot of chat and home-made “rice wine”.

As many of the residents were embarrassed by their lack of English and wouldn’t speak at all unless they made no mistakes I decided to try to learn Vietnamese so that listening to my feeble attempts at their language would make them laugh and not worry so much about their own mistakes. I found a Vietnamese staff member called Mỹ willing to teach me and we had a few lessons before he got bored and I had to continue from books. Still, I managed greetings and a few words and the pronunciation of the six tones. One day the person doing the post on the tannoy allowed me to read out the names, starting with xin lỗi, xin lỗi (attention, attention) and most people recognised their names though they must have wondered who had the atrocious accent.

I stayed only 14 months because the camp was due to close at the end of 1981 and I had arranged to do further volunteering in the USA from January 1982. In the end it stayed open several months longer before all the residents were resettled. I didn’t really get to know any of the residents though I made friends with some of the Vietnamese staff members with whom I am still in touch. One was engaged to marry a resident and I remember staying with her family in Lambeth and helping to make hundreds of spring rolls for a festival in Battersea Park.

I valued my time at Sopley and learned a lot about Vietnam and about the huge sacrifices the people had made to escape but I didn’t really advert at the time to their mental suffering and dislocation. When I moved on I kept in touch with one or two people and never entirely forgot the experience and what I’d learned.

In November 2018 I spent a week in Vietnam visiting a young second-generation Vietnamese woman, Tra-My Nguyen, I had enabled to volunteer in Ho Chi Minh City for a year. I was happy to see some of the sights like the Mekong delta as well as where she was working. I especially valued seeing how happy she was to learn about her roots, integrate the Vietnamese and the British parts of herself and, as she said, rediscover her soul.

With the kind help of Helen Granger, I connected with Tra-My and learned so much about her childhood growing up surrounded by a strong Vietnamese community, which contrasted with my experience. Her passion for travel definitely encouraged me to return to Vietnam and discover more about my roots!

Jim Laurie (foreign correspondent)

I have been involved with both Vietnam and Cambodia since 1970. I arrived first in Saigon and then in Phnom Penh as a freelance reporter.  My forthcoming book – due out in August – will remember those early days and my experiences. 

My experience with Indochina refugees began as a TV reporter in 1975. My then girlfriend was a Khmer who I eventually managed to extract from Cambodia. My wife since 1991 is a former refugee who left on a ship down the Saigon river on April 30 (just after midnight) 1975. She was the “anchor” for her family to help bring much of it to America between 1978 and 1992.

I interviewed many Vietnamese Chinese refugees in China, Hong Kong and elsewhere after the Chinese attack on Vietnam in 1979. My time was very much spit between the plight of the Vietnamese and the Khmer who by March 1979 were flooding camps in Thailand.
Another area I focused on was the AmerAsian issue.  My reports assisted a number of Vietnamese with American fathers who in the 1970’s and 80’s I found living in the streets to emigrate to the United States.

All these years later, I continue to sift through old TV reports and documents.  I post them from time to time on my Twitter account or on Youtube.