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by  Trung Tran

Few immigrant journeys can compare to those of the refugees who left Vietnam in the 1970s. Having lost everything after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese troops, they escaped in rickety boats, setting off across the South China Sea. Countless thousands fell victim to hunger, disease, piracy, murder, and the ocean itself. Survivors ended up in refugee camps, waiting for resettlement in countries such as New Zealand. Their hopes were simple: freedom to live in peace, to express themselves, to earn a decent living.


The plight of the boat people

After decades of war in Vietnam, in 1975 the South Vietnamese capital Saigon fell to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese forces. The social upheaval and adverse economic conditions arising from the Vietnam War, combined with fear and uncertainty under a new Communist government, led to a mass exodus of Vietnamese people during the late 1970s and early 1980s. For most, the decision to emigrate was not one of choice – they risked everything to escape.

These refugees were called ‘boat people’ because they fled their war-ravaged country in crowded boats. The voyage was often made in dangerously unfit vessels to nearby countries including Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia. During these perilous journeys they suffered ill health, food shortages, piracy, rape and murder.

On arrival in asylum countries they were placed in camps to await official refugee status, which allowed them to apply for permanent resettlement in countries such as New Zealand.

Arriving in New Zealand

New Zealand assisted in the international effort to resettle Vietnamese refugees. Initially this was on the condition that they held United Nations status as refugees and had an occupational qualification useful to New Zealand.

The first settlement approvals were granted in 1976, one year after the fall of Saigon. Initial approvals were to those already in New Zealand – diplomats, their families and staff – and to Vietnamese students. The acceptance of 412 refugees in 1977 truly marked the start of Vietnamese migration to New Zealand.

The greatest intake of Vietnamese refugees occurred between 1979 and 1980 when approximately 1,500 arrived. The following year approvals declined significantly, and ever since have fluctuated at much lower levels.

Who are the refugees?

The official categories under which refugees were selected included:

  • Family reunification – any refugee who had a relative in New Zealand was assured of resettlement, regardless of work or language skills.
  • ‘Hardcore’ or ‘chronic’ refugees – those who have lived in a camp for a long period or have children born in the camp.
  • Disabled refugees – those who are physically, medically and/or socially disabled.

Generally Vietnamese who arrived in New Zealand during the post-war period (early 1980s) had limited education and only basic English. Although the majority worked in fishing or farming, others were professionals, soldiers and businesspeople.

During the 1990s and early 2000s few Vietnamese entered New Zealand as refugees. They came to be reunited with their family members, or as general migrants.


As a result of the government’s resettlement policy at the time, Vietnamese who came in the late 1970s were settled in various towns and cities. Many gravitated towards the main centres to be nearer friends and relatives, as in Vietnamese culture the extended family is important for mutual support and assistance. There were also greater work opportunities and established services such as churches, community centres and associations.

By 1998 around one-third of the population had moved on to Australia as they found it easier to get work, the climate was more favourable and there were larger Vietnamese communities in Sydney and Melbourne. After three years in New Zealand they could apply for New Zealand citizenship, which allowed them to freely enter Australia. Many had felt lonely and had lost their factory jobs in New Zealand’s economic troubles of the 1980s.

In 2013, 6,660 Vietnamese were living in New Zealand, most of them in distinct suburban concentrations in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Auckland groups were evident in Ōtāhuhu, Papatoetoe, Manurewa, Māngere, Howick and Papakura. As Vietnamese people integrated into New Zealand society, more were establishing themselves in other parts of Auckland.

Culture, language and work

A thriving community

As Vietnamese immigrants moved to the main cities, a strong community evolved, particularly in Auckland. There are many restaurants and cafés, and various religious and social service organisations. Every year traditional festivals are celebrated.

Festivals far from home

Celebrated over three days in January or February, the most important Vietnamese festival is the Lunar New Year, known as Tet Nguyen Dan. It is believed that the events in the first day of the New Year will set the course for the next 12 months. It is a time to show respect and forgiveness, and to relax after a year of hard work.

Tet-Trung-Thu (the Mid-Autumn or Children’s Moon Festival) is held in the eighth month of the oriental calendar. Gathering to watch traditional dances and discuss education and art, the Vietnamese community enjoys traditional delicacies such as moon cake and lotus seed paste cake.

Blending cultures

By the 2000s the first Vietnamese arrivals had been in New Zealand for 25 years. Like many other immigrant groups, their levels of adaptation to the ‘Kiwi way of life’ varied. Integration is influenced by such factors as ability in English, the length of time in New Zealand, the extent of social networks and friends, and occupations.

Some cultural traditions are still strongly practised. For example, it is common for children to remain at home with their parents until marriage, and it is not unusual for newly-weds to move in with the groom’s family until they become financially stable. This custom fulfils a sense of duty in children to look after their parents in old age, and highlights the strong family values Vietnamese hold. Other traditions have been lost and replaced by new ones, especially among the younger generation. For example, many socialise with their non-Vietnamese friends and may choose to have a Kiwi boyfriend or girlfriend.

For many, daily life includes a mixture of Vietnamese culture and the New Zealand way. The vast majority will eat a traditional meal for dinner, but not for breakfast or lunch. Additionally, many Vietnamese have adopted various New Zealand leisure activities like shopping at the mall, having a barbecue with friends and family at the beach, or watching rugby on television.


Vietnamese is the predominant language spoken in most households. This helps to facilitate communication between older relatives or newer family migrants and second-generation family members.

Outside the home, many will speak Vietnamese or English depending on the situation and their proficiency in each language. Many of the elderly and the first generation speak predominantly Vietnamese and have a fairly basic command of English. In contrast, many second-generation Vietnamese choose to speak English. Although Vietnamese is spoken within the home, the language is slowly being lost by the younger generation.


During the 1980s Vietnam’s Communist government was opposed to religion. In New Zealand, Vietnamese immigrants enjoyed freedom of worship and set up Mahayana Buddhist centres. By 2003 the Thien Thai Vietnamese Monastery in Upper Hutt was serving the Wellington community while in Auckland the Vietnamese Buddhist Association operated out of Ōtāhuhu. In 2013 41% of Vietnamese were Buddhist, and 14% were Catholic.


Many first-generation Vietnamese were manual workers, as are more recent arrivals. A limited education and command of English, combined with fairly basic work skills, restrict this group to occupations such as factory work and semi-skilled trades. Many early refugees operated their own small businesses. Bakeries and fast-food bars are still typical enterprises, as they enable whole families to work together. This offers both economic advantages as well as maintaining family cohesion. Vietnamese cuisine also proved popular as restaurants and cafés opened.

Increasingly second-generation Vietnamese pursued the educational and employment opportunities their parents were seeking for them when they came to New Zealand. Many have qualified for higher skilled and professional occupations.


Vietnamese New Zealanders have not forgotten the political situation in their homeland. In 1999 Vietnamese in Wellington held a rally protesting against human rights abuses in Vietnam. They lit 45 candles, representing the 45 years of Communist rule.

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Vietnam.

  • 1976 census: 236
  • 2001 census: 3,948
  • 2006 census: 4,875
  • 2013 census: 6,153

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Vietnamese: 4,773 (2006); 6,660 (2013)

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Trung Tran, 'Vietnamese', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

Story by Trung Tran, published 8 February 2005, updated 25 March 2015