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Ringing in the Vietnamese New Year in Ireland


Ringing in the Vietnamese New Year in Ireland

27 February 2015
Tri and Snow outside their Vietnamese Restaurant, 'Pho Viet'


“Irish people and Vietnamese Refugees have a similar background, a similar history, a lot of Irish People fled in Coffin Boats to America and Britain in the 1800s.”

Tri Nguyen was only 14 years old when he, along with his parents and six siblings, was forced to flee Vietnam in a rickety fishing boat in search of safety. Over 35 years later, he recounts the fear and uncertainty he felt as a teenage boy as he narrates the long and treacherous journey from North to South Vietnam and the perilous sea crossing that lay ahead.

Following the capitulation of Saigon to North Vietnamese Forces in April 1975, Tri’s father, an ex-South Vietnamese Soldier, was arrested and interned for almost three years in a Re-Education Camp as punishment for his collaboration with the American Forces in the war against the North Vietnamese Communist Regime. Thankfully, Tri’s mother was eventually able to negotiate his father’s release with the little gold she had managed to conceal from the Northern soldiers who had already confiscated most of their assets. Free but under constant fear of re-imprisonment Tri’s father was left with no alternative.

“When we left Vietnam we didn’t know where to go (but)…“My father said, we have no choice, we have to escape from Vietnam.”

Tri and his family travelled overland for 2-3 days from Central to Southern Vietnam in constant fear of discovery. When they eventually reached the South coast they set out to sea in a small fishing boat, fit only for river usage. Luckily, the family was rescued by a Norwegian ship which brought them to Malaysia where they were registered as refugees in an UNHCR Refugee camp. While Tri recalls the meager conditions in the camp his family was very grateful for access to food and security after their traumatic journey,

“Things were bad in Vietnam at that time, we did not have rice to eat... ( in the camp) we lived in wood and leaf structures and (each day) we would get a little square box, and in it we’d have some rice, some noodles, some canned fruit, some condensed milk and some sugar provided by UNHCR, once a week we would get some fresh vegetables.”

While in the camp, Tri’s father applied for third-country resettlement to the United States. As an ex-South Vietnamese soldier his application would be looked upon favourably, however, due to the mass exodus of Vietnamese refugees, with almost 500,000 fleeing in 1979 alone, processing times were lengthy, around 1-2 years. Following a visit by an Irish church-led delegation offering resettlement opportunities in Ireland, Tri’s father made another bold decision.

“At that time we knew nothing about Ireland, because Ireland is very small country… but my father said he doesn’t care where we go as long as we have the freedom to live.”

Tri and his family arrived in Ireland in October 1979, among the second group of a total of 212 Vietnamese Boat People, as they became known, to be resettled in Ireland in 1979. Among the group were people of all ages, with varied dialects, backgrounds and religious affiliations from both North and South Vietnam. Only two people in the whole group spoke English.

Their first impressions of Ireland?  “Cold! We had no coats or jackets, just t-shirts.”

Tri spent the majority of his first year in St. Mary’s Convent, Swords where food, basic English tuition and a £3 weekly allowance were provided by the Red Cross. After almost a year living in St. Mary’s, the family were relocated to Tralee. The Irish Government at the time were eager to discourage the ghettoization of refugee communities and thus followed a policy of dispersal, relocating the refugees to various localities throughout the country. However, Tri recounts that many Vietnamese families felt a sense of loneliness and distance from their community and a lot of families moved back to Dublin within a few years.

For Tri, growing up as a teenage refugee in 1980s Ireland was not easy,

“I had a lot of problems with school because I did not have proper English…I tried to avoid school as much as possible.”

While Tri praises the support and friendly nature of Irish Society towards the new arrivals, he admits it was very difficult to assimilate and communicate with friends,

“Irish friends thought I was an alien, I was the odd one out.”

Upon completing his schooling, Tri moved to Hong Kong to work for UNHCR before returning to Ireland 5 years later, in 1993, when he met and married his wife, Snow. They now live in Dublin and own one of the first Vietnamese Restaurants in Ireland, ‘Pho Viet’, on Parnell Street. They have five children, all of whom were born in the Rotunda hospital.

“They are more Irish than Vietnamese…they have a lot of Irish friends….it’s easy for them within their own circles, but if they walk up O’Connell street people look at them as not Irish…I think Irish people’s attitudes are now changing a lot.”

However, he urges his children not to allow these sentiments to affect them,

(I tell) my children this is your home…those people who call you names…just ignore them,  because whatever you try to say they don’t understand or they don’t want to understand.”

Tri and Snow’s eldest daughter is currently studying business in National College of Ireland while his other four children are still in school. While Tri and Snow both retain a strong sense of loyalty to the country they left behind (both have recently visited Vietnam and Snow volunteers with charities in Saigon caring for children living with HIV and disabilities), Tri maintains that he still feels the need to repay Ireland’s generosity,

“I try to repay what I can back into the Irish society and economy, so since I came here I have never received a penny from social welfare. I try to do my bit to give back.”