Anniversary of first Vietnam boat marked

Thirty-five years ago, a fishing boat arrived in Darwin Harbour, carrying the first Vietnamese boat people to arrive in Australia.

Their guide was a page torn out of a school atlas. Their destination was Guam, or perhaps Subic Bay in the Philippines.

But a chance meeting with an Australian sea captain on Borneo in Malaysia changed their course, changed their lives, and, instead, they became the first Vietnamese boat people to land in Australia.

Tuesday April 26 marked the 35th anniversary of the arrival of Lam Binh, his brother Lam Tac Tam and three friends on a leaky wooden fishing boat in Darwin Harbour.

Their arrival on April the 26th, 1976, would start a desperate flow of more than two thousand Vietnamese boat people to Australia's shores over the ensuing decade.

But because of the official secrecy surrounding their landing those 35 years ago, the real story of their journey has never been told until now.

It was, says Lam Tac Tam, a journey intended to take the five young asylum seekers to American territory before the encounter that diverted history.

“We (were thinking) about the Philippines -- Subic Bay -- or Guam, to the Americans, because my brother had a friend with the Americans. So we were thinking to go there, because we thought, (in) the Vietnam War, the Americans helped Vietnam, so they'd help to take some refugees,” Tam told SBS.

“So my brother said, "'We'll go there'. But, when we were in east Malaysia, (the state on Borneo) called Sarawak, (in the city of) Kuching, we docked next to an Australian ship, a timber ship from Australia.

“And the Australian captain talked to my brother. He said, "Why don't you go to Australia? Australia is closer to you. Because, if you go to Guam on your small wooden boat, I don't think you can cross the Pacific Ocean."

The island of Guam was 2,500 kilometres to the north-east.

The US naval base of Subic Bay, on the Philippines' main island of Luzon, was almost 2,000km to the north-east.

Darwin was 1,700km to the south-east.

And, Lam Tac Tam says, the captain suggested there were further reasons to consider trying to get there.

“The sea captain said: 'Australia's a big country, but (there's) less population and friendly people. You should go there, take a chance there," Lam said.

“And because, during that time, the sea captain said, (under) the Commonwealth law, 'When any ship lands in the country, the country has to accept the boat people'. So, my brother (said) 'Okay, so we can change.' Because we thought America maybe could not take us anyway. So, 'Okay, we'll go to Australia'."

The sea captain even lent them a real map to replace the page from the school atlas, but, unfortunately, it only went as far as the then-Indonesian island of Timor.

From there, the group was on its own, with a small compass and an arrow at the bottom of the page pointing to Darwin.

The captain advised them not to stop on Timor, suggesting Indonesia might not take kindly to their flight, or plight, at the time.

They repaired their boat, with help, at Kuching, then set out again on what would become a non-stop, 16-day journey -- the final stage of a three-month journey -- into Darwin Harbour.

Lam Tac Tam says the plan was to try New Zealand or even Fiji if Australia said no.

But that part never came into play.

The Kien Giang, or, officially, fishing boat KG 4435, arrived off Bathurst Island, part of the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin, on the evening of April the 26th.

Unsure of just how to proceed, the five young men spent one more night sleeping on the bare boards in the ship's cabin, a kilometre offshore from the Darwin suburb of Nightcliff.

In the morning, they slipped into the harbour, asked a fisherman on a nearby boat where to find "immigration people," then borrowed 10 cents to call from a public phone onshore.

“ My brother called the police, and they said: 'Oh, this is not the way how to do it'. We had to call (the Department of) Immigration and Quarantine (the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service). 'You stay there. Don't move around. Stay in your boat. Wait. We're coming.' Stay in the boat, wait here, they're coming. And, first, we were coming in to Quarantine,” Lam said.

When Immigration arrived, the idea that the five men could have travelled 3,500 kilometres from Vietnam on an ageing, 20-metre boat was so unimaginable the officials refused to believe it.

Surely, they said, the men were from Indonesia.

The immigration officials were so baffled by the landing that they went into secrecy mode, telling the men they had no rules for handling such a thing.

At first, they told the men they could only give them one-month temporary visas, but they could look for work.

But within a few weeks, Lam Tac Tam and his fellow refugees were told they could stay permanently.

“We were real refugees. We had to go, because, if we didn't go, we had problems -- we would have died in our country. Because the communists were coming to kill us,” he said.

Lam Tac Tam and Lam Binh's family had operated an iceworks in the former South Vietnam, Lam Binh using $10,000 from those earnings to buy and repair the boat.

The story has long been that Lam Binh, the older brother, was 25 years old when they sailed into Darwin, Lam Tac Tam was 17 and the three friends ranged in age from 16 to 25.

The truth, Lam Tac Tam says now, is that he was 20 and his brother 28 -- their ages disguised in earlier years to avoid conscription into the South Vietnamese army.

Originally, the boat was to carry the two brothers, their parents, two other brothers and two sisters.

Lam Binh studied navigation, and, when the three friends were later added to the boat, one of them had some experience with boats as well.

The boat had been bought in July 1975, two months after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War, and the group of 11 set off in late January of 1976.

At a time when neighbours or relatives often betrayed those planning to leave, when government patrols caught many others as they left, the group escaped across the Gulf of Thailand.

They reached Thailand, and a Laotian refugee camp, and the other six family members stopped there.

“We don't want the whole family in the same boat. When the boat sinks, our whole family (will be) gone, finished. So we have set up two groups, two parts: some to Thailand, to try to go in a refugee camp, and we go by boat, looking for other countries. So, we're landing first, (and) we can sponsor them," Lam said.

The two brothers and three friends headed off again, first to mainland Malaysia, then to Singapore, then to Sarawak and Sabah, the other Malaysian state on Borneo.

Each time, they were offered whatever they needed in food, fresh water and fuel -- as long as they kept moving on.

The pirates that would haunt Vietnamese boat people by the next year, once they figured out the boats carried people with money and gold, were not yet a threat.

With food, water and fuel, it was just a matter of keeping the small fishing boat afloat in a major storm at sea and headed in the right direction -- without a map, once they passed Timor.

They made it with four days' supplies left and a hundred dollars in their pockets.

Tragically, Lam Binh and one of the three friends would die in a car crash in Brisbane in 1980, before the family could be reunited.

The family members dropped off in Thailand eventually moved on from the refugee camp to, first, Canada, then Australia, settling in Darwin and on Queensland's Gold Coast.

All these years later, Lam Tac Tam lives just two kilometres from the sand where he landed and remains in contact with his two remaining friends from the boat in Darwin and Sydney.

And all these years later, after more than 150,000 Vietnamese refugees in all fled the communist government and settled in Australia, what does he do for a living?

In perhaps the ultimate irony, he works as a consultant in food exports to now independent East Timor for the Vietnamese government -- in name, the very government he fled.

“After 1992, I go back to Vietnam. The Vietnamese, they opened the country. I go back to see, and say, Yep, the town, we have to go back to do business, help them."

“So the country can do better, so no more boat people come out anymore. (The) country now is very good -- freedom, and you can do everything you want. And, yeah, it's good”.

Source SBS

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