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Vietnam Divided

Read more about the historical events that shaped the lives of Dan Nyugen, Allan Maitland and Stuart Holmes.
Vietnam was finally reunited in 1976 after thirty years of almost continuous conflict. But the following decades witnessed a remarkable exodus in which over a million people left Vietnam.

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Vietnam was colonised by France in the mid 19th century. During the Second World War the French Vichy government ruled Vietnam and collaborated with the Japanese. A communist resistance movement grew and was supported by the American Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S). In March 1945 the Japanese overthrew the French and encouraged Vietnamese nationalism.

Vietnam declared independence in 1945. But France was reluctant to lose her South East Asian empire and so resisted Vietnam’s bid for independence. Fighting soon broke out and only ended in 1954 when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu.

At the Geneva conference in 1954, Laos and Cambodia gained independence and Vietnam was temporarily divided along the 17th Parallel. A communist government under Ho Chi Minh was established in North Vietnam. In South Vietnam the government, which was headed by President Ngo Dinh Diem, was backed by the US.

‘Between 1975 and early 1990s over 20,000 Vietnamese refugees came to Britain, around 1 percent of the total.’

National elections were due to be held in 1956 after which it was hoped that the country would be reunited. Ho Chi Minh was confident that the elections would go in favour of the communists. The United States, worried that the communists would win, did not push for the elections to go ahead. They feared that if Vietnam became a communist state other countries in South East Asia would follow. The elections were never held.

Civil War
In the late 1950s the Viet Cong, a communist army guerrilla movement backed by the North, mounted a campaign against the US-backed South. The Viet Cong, also known as the National Liberation Front, hoped that they could reunite Vietnam under communist rule.

But the US was determined not to allow this and supported South Vietnam against the Viet Cong. The US increased the number of military advisers and aid to South Vietnam. But the communists made important gains and by the mid 1960s US troops had to be deployed in combat operations against the Viet Cong.

American involvement
The number of US troops in Vietnam peaked at more than 500,000. They were supported by forces from Australia, New Zealand and America’s allies in the Far East including South Korea. A massive bombing campaign was also initiated. But the Viet Cong were still able to launch the ‘Tet Offensive’ in 1968 which attempted to overrun South Vietnam. US troops managed to regain much of the ground lost during the offensive, but by then many Americans were convinced victory could not be achieved in Vietnam.

The bombing campaign continued but brought no real gains. At the end of 1972, the Viet Cong controlled the entire western half of Vietnam.

A ceasefire was arranged in January 1973 and under the terms of the Paris Peace Accords, the US had to withdraw all its forces from Vietnam. It was also agreed that the division along the 17th Parallel would be respected. But the Viet Cong continued their campaign and in April 1975 Saigon fell to the communists. In 1976 Vietnam was officially reunited and became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

US troops crossing a river near An Ke in October 1965 IWM Ref: CT_155

Read their stories

  • Dan Nguyen
    Dan left Vietnam on a boat with his family when he was only twelve months old. His family was eventually sent to Britain, where Dan grew up. But Dan has always been aware of his Vietnamese roots. Read Dan’s story.
  • Stuart Holmes
    Stuart joined the Royal Air Force in 1949 and was involved in operations during the Malayan Emergency and the Korean War. Between 1969 and 1971, he was posted to the British Embassy in Saigon as the Assistant Air Attaché.  His job was to observe the war in Vietnam. Read Stuart’s story
  • Allan Maitland
    Allan joined Reuters News Agency in 1962 and spent the next twenty eight years working throughout the world. Between1969 and 1971 was based in Saigon reporting on the war in Vietnam. Read Allan’s story
A Vietnamese refugee with his belongings secured between his teeth climbs a cargo net to the deck of the combat store ship USS White Plains. The ship is picking up twenty-nine refugees from a 35-foot wooden boat in 1979. National Archives (428-N-1175389)
The refugee crisis
The war came at a terrible cost to the Vietnamese people. Up to two million people were killed and there was massive displacement of the civilian population.
After the fall of Saigon, hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring countries and the US. The numbers leaving Vietnam increased as discontent with the communist government grew, especially among the ethnic Chinese who were facing deep hostility. This was exacerbated by the outbreak of war between Vietnam and China in 1978.

Many left Vietnam using boats to cross the South China Sea. They became known as the ‘boat people’ and the journey was extremely dangerous. Some boats were barely seaworthy and there was the risk of dehydration, drowning, and attacks by pirates.

By the end of 1978, the number of people fleeing by boat had increased by four times and over 70 percent were ethnic Chinese. Most ended up at United Nations refugee camps and there were over 60,000 ‘boat people’ in camps throughout South East Asia at the end of 1978.

By the end of 1979, members of ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) including Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand announced that they were no longer willing to accept any more refugees. International resettlement increased and between 1979 and 1982, 20 countries led by the US accepted over 600,000 Vietnamese refugees. The exodus from Vietnam continued throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

The Vietnamese in Britain
Between 1975 and the early 1990s over 20,000 Vietnamese refugees came to Britain which is just over 1 percent of the total. They came from very diverse backgrounds.

Adapting to a new life in Britain was a huge challenge for the Vietnamese. The experience of fleeing Vietnam had been very traumatic and many had spent time in refugee camps before coming to Britain. Most did not speak English and there was no existing Vietnamese community to depend on.

The war and the flight from Vietnam had broken up many families. Added to this, the Vietnamese were part of a compulsory dispersal programme that meant they were settled in towns and cities throughout Britain. Many felt very isolated and there was considerable secondary migration to London and other large cities. More than half the Vietnamese community in Britain now live in London.