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‘We would like permission to stay in Australia’

1976: First arrival of Vietnamese refugees by boat

Northern Territory Archives Service
1900 2000
Year level



Learning area


Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Look at another defining moment about a more recent asylum seeker story that has affected Australia – the Tampa affair. Why do you think the Australian Government’s reaction to the boat people in this case was so different to the earlier government’s reaction to the Vietnamese boat people?


2001: Tampa affair

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the arrival of the first Vietnamese boat people is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Which 3 images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

2. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group, create a final list of 3 questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Ship's wheel from the fishing and refugee vessel <em>Hong Hai</em></p>
National Museum of Australia

In a snapshot

On 26 April 1976 the first boatload of refugees fleeing Vietnam sailed into Darwin Harbour. They, and those who followed, left Vietnam following the Vietnam War. Over the next few years about 2000 more refugees travelled to Australia in boats. But most refugees from Vietnam came to Australia by plane after being selected by Australian officials in refugee camps set up throughout South-East Asia. Since 1976 Australia has become home to a thriving Vietnamese community.

Ship's wheel from the fishing and refugee vessel Hong Hai

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. Who were the first Vietnamese refugees to come to Australia in 1975?

2. How did Vietnamese refugee Lam Binh and his brother reach Australia in 1976? 

3. How did the majority of Vietnamese refugees make their way to Australia?

Why did people flee Vietnam?

Since the 1950s North and South Vietnam had been at war with one another. North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union (Russia) and China, and South Vietnam was supported by the United States, the Philippines, Australia and others.

By early 1975 it became clear that North Vietnam was going to defeat South Vietnam. As the North Vietnamese military took control of the whole country, it began to persecute those who had (or were thought to have) supported South Vietnam. This caused many people to flee Vietnam, usually on boats. Most sought asylum in neighbouring countries.

Not everyone who tried to leave Vietnam was successful. Many people were captured while trying to escape. An unknown number of refugees died because of dangerous seas, overcrowded or unsafe boats and pirate attacks.

When did the first Vietnamese refugees reach Australia?

The very first Vietnamese refugees to reach Australia were orphaned children. In April 1975, before the North Vietnamese victory, 3000 children were evacuated from Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam). This was called Operation Babylift. The children were flown to the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Research task


Find out the important differences between a migrant, a refugee and an asylum seeker.

Bamboo hybrid stringed musical instrument called a ‘dan tre’.

The first adult refugees arrived in Australia in a 20-metre boat named the Kein Giang. The boat sailed into Darwin Harbour on 26 April 1976. The 20-year-old captain, Lam Binh, had sailed for 3500 kilometres with his younger brother and three friends, hoping to find safety.

Binh was not a sailor; he had taught himself to navigate as part of his escape plan. At first he used a page torn from a school atlas as a map. Later he found a better map, but it did not go past Timor. Binh navigated the rest of the way to Australia without a map.

<p>Black battered Russian-made binoculars used on the fishing and refugee boat <em>Hong Hai</em></p>

National Museum of Australia

<p>Black battered Russian-made binoculars used on the fishing and refugee boat <em>Hong Hai</em></p>

How did most Vietnamese refugees arrive in Australia?

Refugees kept fleeing Vietnam during the late 1970s. In 1978 a total of 106,489 refugees arrived in Hong Kong and South-East Asian countries. Between 1978 and 1979 another 166,604 refugees arrived.

Vietnam’s neighbouring countries struggled to cope with the growing numbers of refugees. Many refugees arrived by boat to seek safety, but were only given fuel and sometimes food then sent back out to sea. Lam Binh and his group were sent away several times before deciding to try to reach Australia.

Australia promised to take in more refugees, but only if South-East Asian countries would stop turning away boats. The Australian Government sent officials to the refugee camps to choose the refugees who would be given an Australian visa. These refugees then travelled by plane to Australia. This is how most Vietnamese refugees arrived in Australia. Until 1983 Australia took more than 15,000 Vietnamese refugees each year.

Since 1976 when the Lam brothers and their friends arrived, Australia has become home to a successful Vietnamese community. In 2016 the national census showed that 219,355 people in Australia had been born in Vietnam.

Research task


Search the Museum’s collection for objects and images related to refugees. Choose one to examine closely. What does the object or image tell you about the experience of refugees?

Collection Explorer

‘Welcome on my boat. My name is Lam Binh and these are my friends from South Vietnam and we would like permission to stay in Australia.’

Lam Binh’s greeting to immigration officials on 26 April 1976, when they boarded his boat in Darwin Harbour

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. Who were the first Vietnamese refugees to come to Australia in 1975?

2. How did Vietnamese refugee Lam Binh and his brother reach Australia in 1976? 

3. How did the majority of Vietnamese refugees make their way to Australia?