Vietnam Refugees  – A Background Story

The fall of South Vietnam in April 1975 triggered one of the greatest evacuations in modern times. Several million people (the exact figure will never be known) fled the country over the next fifteen years, spreading some 1.6 million Vietnamese refugees and immigrants throughout the world.

The North Vietnamese defeat of the country created an immediate panic at the end of the war, causing tens of thousands to flee by land and sea to neighboring countries. In some cases, the United States government was able to assist in the evacuation of some Vietnamese nationals with their own civilian, diplomatic, and remaining military personnel. Still these people represented only a small fraction of those wanting to leave their doomed country.

The reunion of Vietnam , under the communist regime, did not bring lasting peace and the region and new nation remained highly unstable. Vietnamese military incursions into neighboring countries such as Laos and Kampea, and a brief war with China , left an already shattered economy in ruins. Vietnam was never a wealthy country and it became one of the poorest countries because of the following reasons:

  • Terror and imprisonment of former foes of the communist government,
  • Collectivization of land,
  • Efforts to build a communist model economy coupled with a U.S. trade embargo imposed after the war.

During the late 1970s hundreds and thousands of people began to desert the country under pressure which had reached a breaking point.  The groups of people who entered other countries around the South China Sea in old, beaten-up boats were called “the Boat People.”

The evacuations by sea resulted into countless deaths because these people had no previous knowledge of the sea or navigation.  The Boat People had more trouble once they reached a destination because the host countries were not willing to take them in as new citizens.  Countries did not have the means or willingness to take in and take care of all of these refugees because their economies were also poor. 

As a result, most Boat People were herded into hurriedly prepared refugee camps. They had to wait in these refugee camps for years until a new country accepted them. These camps were no better than prisons. By the early 1990s the continued existence of these refugee camps began to try the world’s patience because they had already began to accept the fact that the original conditions that led the boat people to flee Vietnam , were no longer as bad.  The Boat People were worse off in the camps than they would be back in Vietnam .

During the 1980s the United Nations refugee agency assisted some 76,000 Vietnamese refugees to voluntarily return to Vietnam and had established monitoring agencies to ensure that they would be treated fairly. But even in the spring of 1995, 37,000 people still remained in camps in Hong Kong and Malaysia .

This led to some acts of force by the host people such as burning down of refugee camp homes and facilities to make it as physically uncomfortable as possible for the refugees to continue to exist under these conditions. Finally, the countries with the remaining refugees, simply forced them aboard planes, and dropped them off back in Vietnam .  

A  Comparative Study of Vietnamese Diaspora In U.S. , Canada and Australia .

Vietnamese population in United States , especially the second generation, is the largest population of refugee children in American history. This huge population, which amounts to 1,122,528 in total, has called the United States of America its home since 1975. And it is very interesting to see how they have assimilated in three different countries like the United States of America , Australia and Canada . This is a comparative demographic study of Vietnamese Population in United States of America with the Vietnamese population in Canada and in Australia .  It provides an interesting insight of the different experiences that the Vietnamese community has had in these three different countries.

Vietnamese Refugees in the United States of America

The Vietnamese refugees began coming into the US after the fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975. Mostly upper middle class urbanites composed this first wave of refugee immigration from 1975-1978. These people brought financial and cultural capital with them to help them settle down in United States of America . They had a professional occupation, higher education, and some knowledge of English. Their religion also played an important role here because many of these refugees were Roman Catholics originally from North Vietnam , so it was easier to adapt to the strong Christian sentiment in the US . These refugees fled from the new North Vietnamese Communist government and settled in South Vietnam after 1954 as refugees. They got help from the US government to leave by ship or airplane in safely organized groups in return for the favors they did for the US military.

The second wave refugees were mostly ethnic Chinese who came to United States during 1978 - 1979. They had to leave their homeland because of the hostility that they faced for decades and they became the target of the new Communist government. . These refugees who fled by fishing boats or bribed their way out of Vietnam had middle-upper class backgrounds.

 The third wave Vietnamese refugees, who came around 1978 – 198, were commonly labeled as the “boat people”. They were basically rural farmers. These refugees had little or no prior encounter with the western culture and had to go through brutal conditions to reach the United States . They had to go through conditions such as murder, rape, extreme hunger, getting lost, being  ship wrecked and recaptured.  

The American government dispersed these refugees across the country carefully to avoid too much concentration in a particular state and to encourage assimilation into American culture. Because of this dispersion it became assured that Vietnamese Americans are to be found in almost every large metropolitan area in the US including areas that historically have not experienced any ethnic immigration before. Vietnamese Americans are mainly dispersed in large metropolitan areas like California , Texas , Virginia , New York , and Florida , mostly areas that has similar weather conditions as Vietnam ’s. Currently, the Vietnamese American community is one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the US with an estimated population of over 1,100,000 people in 2000. The Vietnamese Americans are the 4th largest Asian American community after the Filipino, Chinese, and Asian Indian Americans.

The distribution of Vietnamese Americans throughout United States of America is presented here:

Vietnamese population by U.S. Region            

U.S. Census 2000
Total Enumerated Vietnamese

Population in the U.S. - 1,122,528 (593,213 – 1990

  • Western States - 564, 424
  • Southern States - 335,679
  • Northwestern States - 115,487
  • Midwestern States - 106,938 

Vietnamese Population in U.S. States

U.S. Census 2000
1990 figures in parentheses

1. California - 447,032 (276,759)
2. Texas - 134,961 (66,329)
3. Washington - 46,149 (18,246)
4. Virginia - 37,309 (21,729)
5. Massachusetts - 33,962 (14,653)
6. Florida - 33,190 (15,221)
7. Pennsylvania - 30,037 (14,961)
8. Georgia - 29,016 (6,990)
9. Louisiana - 24,358 (16,545)
10. New York - 23,818 (15,943)
11. Illinois - 19,101 (9,329)
12. Oregon - 18,890 (8,375)
13. Minnesota - 18,824 (9,543)

Clustering of the Vietnamese community in United States of America

Among the 50 states, California contains the largest Vietnamese population  - 447,032, which represent about 40% of the entire Vietnamese population in the U.S. And over 56% of the total population lives in California and Texas . So despite the government policies to stop concentration in a particular state, Vietnamese communities have ended up forming some kind of concentration in some particular states in growing numbers through word of mouth and through extensive kinship and family networks. Currently the Vietnamese American community is one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the US with an estimated population of over 1,100,000 people in 2000. The Vietnamese Americans are the 4th largest Asian American community after the Filipino, Chinese, and Asian Indian Americans. 

According to U.S. census data released in May 2001, 1,122,528 Vietnamese were counted across the United States in last year’s census. This figure is nearly double the 593,213 Vietnamese enumerated across the nation in the 1990 census. Among the four major regions of the United States , the greatest number of Vietnamese was counted in the Western states- 564,424. The next largest number of Vietnamese resided in the Southern states - 335,679. Just over 100,000 Vietnamese were counted in both the Northeastern and Midwestern states.

Among the nation’s cities, a remarkable 20% of the entire U.S. Vietnamese population (233,573) was enumerated in just one metropolitan area - the Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County. The next largest number of Vietnamese was observed in the San Francisco-San Jose metropolitan area (146,613). The California cities were followed by the very large Vietnamese populations in two Texas metropolitan areas-Houston (63,924) and Dallas (47,090). The Washington D.C. metropolitan area (43,709), with a sizable concentration of Vietnamese in its Virginia suburbs, possessed the 5th largest Vietnamese population enumerated among American cities.   

By Tasnuva Kamal Topa

Transnational Migration and Diasporic Communities


Prepared for

Prof. Van Dusenbery



Copyright © 2011 Vietnamese-American Community of Greater Dallas. All rights reserved.
Designed & Maintained by Jason Ly