Indo-Chinese Boat People Begin Fleeing Vietnam Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Refugees who fled in boats from the instability of Vietnam after the fall of Saigon were often met with hostility when they began arriving in Malaysia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations. International fears of a humanitarian disaster led to conferences on the issue and the development of massive resettlement programs.

Summary of Event

The last U.S. troops left Vietnam in 1973 in accordance with the Paris Peace Treaty signed by the United States, represented by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and North Vietnam, represented by Le Duc Tho. The treaty marked the end of American involvement in South Vietnam after more than a decade of war; however, the treaty did not stop the fighting in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese continued to fight against the South Vietnamese, with the goal of reuniting their country under a communist government. By April of 1975, it was clear that the communists would win their war and that the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, was on the verge of falling to the North Vietnamese. Boat people (Indo-Chinese) Refugees;Indo-Chinese[Indochinese] Vietnam War (1959-1975);postwar period [kw]Indo-Chinese Boat People Begin Fleeing Vietnam (May, 1975) [kw]Boat People Begin Fleeing Vietnam, Indo-Chinese (May, 1975) [kw]Vietnam, Indo-Chinese Boat People Begin Fleeing (May, 1975) Boat people (Indo-Chinese) Refugees;Indo-Chinese[Indochinese] Vietnam War (1959-1975);postwar period [g]Southeast Asia;May, 1975: Indo-Chinese Boat People Begin Fleeing Vietnam[01930] [g]Vietnam;May, 1975: Indo-Chinese Boat People Begin Fleeing Vietnam[01930] [c]Vietnam War;May, 1975: Indo-Chinese Boat People Begin Fleeing Vietnam[01930] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;May, 1975: Indo-Chinese Boat People Begin Fleeing Vietnam[01930] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;May, 1975: Indo-Chinese Boat People Begin Fleeing Vietnam[01930] Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;Indo-Chinese refugees[Indochinese refugees] Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;Indo-Chinese refugees[Indochinese refugees] Kissinger, Henry [p]Kissinger, Henry;Indo-Chinese refugees[Indochinese refugees] Le Duc Tho

The six thousand Americans remaining in Vietnam, along with the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who had fought against the North Vietnamese, were desperately afraid of the fate that awaited them with the fall of Saigon. Although the American State Department, under Kissinger’s direction, had begun to make arrangements with other Southeast Asian nations to accept Vietnamese refugees, the department had failed to predict how quickly the North Vietnamese would overwhelm the South. The actual numbers of Indo-Chinese the United States was able to evacuate from the area fell woefully short of the original estimate of 200,000. As the Americans left Saigon, many Vietnamese attempted to go with them; most, however, did not succeed. Nonetheless, no one predicted that a flood of Vietnamese would be ready to risk their lives by putting to sea in small boats to escape the wrath of the North Vietnamese. The rush from Vietnam was chaotic, traumatic, and tragic, and many lives were lost.

Within just two weeks after the April 30, 1975, fall of Saigon, some 132,000 people fled Vietnam in whatever way they could manage it. These people were primarily those who had worked directly with the U.S. military or government and thus felt they were in mortal danger from the North Vietnamese. As a group, they were fairly well educated and had financial resources; many were Roman Catholic. Some had political connections in the United States. They all had in common the fear that they would be put to death. International law recognizes as refugees, rather than immigrants, individuals who leave their home countries because they face persecution or death there. This distinction allowed many countries, including the United States, to adjust or waive immigration quotas in admitting the Indo-Chinese refugees, including those who left Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia by boat. President Gerald R. Ford and members of Congress believed that the United States had a moral responsibility to help these refugees, and they consequently passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act in 1975, Indochina Migration and Refugee Act (1975) giving Indo-Chinese refugees special status.

The group of Indo-Chinese refugees most commonly referred to as “boat people” were those who made up a second wave of refugees that began around 1977. This group included many ethnic Chinese whose families had lived in Vietnam for generations and were citizens of Vietnam; the North Vietnamese not only persecuted members of this group but also expelled them from the country. In addition, the Hmong, the Cham, the Montagnards, and the Khmer—tribal groups within Vietnamese society—also began to leave the country in large numbers. Indeed, some researchers consider the exodus of Indo-Chinese from Southeast Asia to be one of the largest mass movements of people by sea in history.

The members of this second wave were, for the most part, less educated and poorer than the refugees who left immediately after the fall of Saigon. In addition, many of these people were from rural areas and had little understanding of English. In contrast to members of the first wave of refugees, who adapted fairly successfully to life in the United States because of their relatively high education levels and experience with urban living, members of the second wave found assimilation to be much more difficult. The Hmong, for example, did not have a written language; in order to learn English, they had to master the entire concept of reading before they could begin to acquire adequate language skills in their new language.

The experiences of the people leaving Vietnam were often horrendous. It has been estimated that half of the people who left Vietnam by boat perished. Sometimes their boats sank; often, the refugees were beset by pirates, in many cases more than once in the course of the journey. Those who were lucky lost only their worldly goods; others lost their lives when they were either murdered by pirates or set adrift when pirates took their boats’ engines and sails. There are many accounts of women being raped and later committing suicide as a result of their experiences.

The boat people fleeing Vietnam generally arrived at neighboring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The initial response of these countries was humanitarian, and they opened their borders to the waves of asylum seekers. Soon, however, the sheer number of refugees overwhelmed even the most well-intentioned countries, and their governments looked to the rest of the world for help. Ultimately, in 1979, some forty countries, through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), created the Orderly Departure Program, Orderly Departure Program which helped approximately 500,000 refugees resettle in the United States before the end of the program in 1994.

Under the program, after refugees arrived at the country of first asylum, they were placed in camps where they awaited permission to continue their journeys to their ultimate resettlement locations. A refugee might have to wait for a long period, sometimes years, in a camp until a sponsor could be found in the United States or other country willing to aid in the resettlement. To help ease this process, the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, Refugee Act (1980) which further relaxed restrictions on refugee entry into the United States.

Once in the United States, Vietnamese refugees were deliberately scattered across geographic locations, because it was believed that they would assimilate into the American culture more quickly if they were not surrounded by other Vietnamese people. In addition, the geographic dispersion was designed to minimize the impact of too many refugees on any one community. Because of the strong family orientation of Vietnamese culture, however, most refugees left their original resettlement communities within a few years to join other family members in other locations, most notably Texas, Louisiana, and California. Many Indo-Chinese boat people also settled finally in Australia and Canada.


The Vietnamese diaspora had great significance for the people who left their homes as well as for the people who greeted them in their new homes. Before 1970, only a handful of Vietnamese lived in the United States; by the year 2000, 1.5 million self-identified Vietnamese were living within American borders. In addition, many more Indo-Chinese who did not consider themselves Vietnamese also left Vietnam during the 1970’s and finally settled in other countries. It is impossible to say how many people ultimately left Indochina by boat as a result of the Vietnam War. The UNHCR has estimated that 250,000 boat people died at sea and that 929,600 reached a place of asylum.

For the most part, the Indo-Chinese refugees who survived eventually adapted to their new homelands. They had to learn a new way of life while reflecting with regret and sadness on all they had lost. Although the trauma that the boat people endured during their flight continued to take a toll on many, the relocated Indo-Chinese made positive contributions to the fabrics of the nations in which they settled, and members of the Indo-Chinese community achieved success in virtually ever sector of their new societies. Boat people (Indo-Chinese) Refugees;Indo-Chinese[Indochinese] Vietnam War (1959-1975);postwar period

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, David L. The Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Essential guide to the Vietnam War includes a helpful concluding chapter on Southeast Asia after the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cargill, Mary Terrell, and Jade Quang Huynh. Voices of Vietnamese Boat People. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000. Offers excellent insight into the ordeals of the Vietnamese boat people. Features black-and-white photographs. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. Moving account of a Hmong family’s flight from Laos and their experiences as they try to make a new life in California.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rutledge, Paul James. The Vietnamese Experience in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Draws on interviews in following Vietnamese refugees beginning with the 1975 fall of Saigon through their eventual resettlement in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vo, Nghia M. The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975-1992. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Excellent, detailed work offers a compassionate assessment of the Vietnamese diaspora. Places in historical context the flight of millions of Indo-Chinese people during the period covered.

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Categories: History