In the decades after the end of the conflicts in Southeast Asia, diasporic Vietnamese have constructed memorials dedicated to the boat people exodus and in gratitude to their countries of resettlement as far and wide as Southeast Asia, Western Europe, Australia, and North America.
Through these memorials, oversease Vietnamese seek to resist multiple forms of forgetting and reclaim control of narratives about their experiences.
Vietnamese refugees and their memories of war and migration have been selectively omitted from public history in a number of ways.
Three Servicemen, by Frederick Hart. Vietnam War Veterans Memorial. Washington D.C.
In the United States and other countries of resettlement, historical narratives and films about the Vietnam War (or American War) are often understood solely through individualized representations about the plight of the American soldier.
Narratives by the political Left often solely focus on anticolonial critiques of United States involvement; those on the political Right hone in on the threats posed by global communism. South Vietnam, as a former nation whose civic population (and subsequent generations) now physically resides across the globe, is often overlooked.
Such selective acts of forgetting are prevalent in American commemorations of the Vietnam War as well as in popular culture.
Notably, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., the installation by the sculptor Frederick Hart is described as, "bronze statues of three men—one white, one black, and one intended to represent all other ethnic groups in the country." There is no mention or representation of their South Vietnamese allies with whom they fought alongside.
Memorial installed by overseas Vietnamese in 2005; demolished six months later by Malaysian officials due to pressure from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Document. Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Sjøblomst (‘Sea Flower’) by Thor Sandborg
In postwar Vietnam, memories of South Vietnam, of those who fought to defend it, and of those forced to flee after defeat have no official space to engage in historical discourse.
In Vietnam, narratives about the war are disseminated only through official channels controlled by the communist Vietnamese government, whose claim to victory is predicated on the forgetting and erasing of South Vietnam, both literally and symbolically.
In 2005, in Malaysia and Indonesia, at the former sites of refugee camps, two memorials were installed by overseas Vietnamese communities.
They were demolished six months later due to pressure from the Vietnamese government.
The memorial inscriptions in contention read:
"In appreciation of the efforts of UNHCR, the Red Cross and Malaysian Red Crescent Society and other world relief organizations, the Malaysian Goverment and people as well as all countries of first asylum and resettlement. We also express our gratitude to the thousands of individuals who worked hard in helping the Vietnamese refugees. - OVERSEAS VIETNAMESE COMMUNITIES 2005.
"In commemoration of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people who perished on the way to freedom (1975-1996). Though they died of hunger or thirst, of being raped, of exhaustion or of any other cause, we pray that they may now enjoy lasting peace. Their sacrifices will not be forgotten. - OVERSEAS VIETNAMESE COMMUNITIES 2005."
The struggle over historical representation continues. In 2015, the Norsk Maritimt Museum coordinated an outdoor installation donation from a local organization of Vietnamese boat refugees and their descendants.
In response, the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam sent a letter urging the museum to install a memorial with a "politically neutral design."
The document also stated:
"it should also be noted that the boat people illegally left Viet Nam to seek for economic opportunities and that they had never been badly treated by the Government of Viet Nam."
The final design resulted in a non-figurative sculpture that is installed in the water. The website description reads:
"After a dramatic escape the refugees were rescued by Norwegian ships and given the opportunity to establish a new future for themselves in Norway."
English language interview with Nõng Duy Trường. His father was in the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). His parents were sent to reeducation camps after the war. He recalls his family's escape on a boat that he navigated.
In order to counter conflicting narratives and historical omissions, community members have organized and developed grassroots projects, such as the 500 Oral Histories Project, catalogued on this site.
These testimonials have created a digital space where the unacknowledged stories about oppressive postwar policies in Vietnam, reeducation camps, forced relocations, and the suppression of cultural, religious, political, and civic life can be shared and disseminated and made to matter.
The installation of memorials dedicated to the experiences of boat people are another way in which the overseas Vietnamese communities have defined themselves.
These material manifestations of memory forge a distinctive community of remembrance that stake claims on multiple geographies across the globe.