Geographic Origins

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is in South East Asia. It is bordered to the north by China, to the west by Laos, Cambodia and the Gulf of Thailand, and to the east by the South China Sea.

History of Immigration and Settlement

Before 1975, the Vietnamese in Australia were either wives of ex-servicemen, students, or orphans who had come to Australia between 1969 and 1974. In 1975 there were less than 700 Vietnamese-born people in Australia; in 1992 there were approximately 150,000.

With the fall of Saigon, more than a million people who had reason to fear the communists, escaped Vietnam by air, land, and sea. There were three major waves of refugees: in 1975, between 1975 and 1978, and in 1979. Many travelled on foot to Thailand and sought refuge in the camps there. Many others journeyed by boat to Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia or Malaysia. It has been estimated that only half these boats ever arrived. Many were lost at sea, either through the sinking of unseaworthy or overcrowded vessels, or through the attacks of pirates. Other refugee boats were towed out to sea by passing ships and left to perish.

Vietnamese refugees were initially accepted by the Australian government on the grounds of humanitarian and international obligations. The majority of refugees were selected from refugee camps in South-East Asia by Australian immigration officials. Approximately 2,000 Vietnamese arrived directly by boat on Australia’s northern shores during the late 1970s, and a smaller number arrived after being rescued at sea. In August 198, the last Vietnamese refugee boat landed in Australia.

Special programs were established by the Australian government to assist Vietnamese refugees in their resettlement in Australia. The Indo-China Refugee Association promoted understanding of their plight and helped them to resettle.

In recent years the majority of Vietnam-born migrants to Australia have arrived under the Family Stream of the Migration Program. Refugees with residence status have sponsored close family members and enabled them to resettle here. The Australian Council of Churches has been prominent in resettling refugee arrivals as has the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme.

The majority of South Australian Vietnamese live in the metropolitan area, with the greater percentage of these residing in the western and northern suburbs of Adelaide.

Many Vietnamese South Australians have faced difficulties in rebuilding their lives because of a lack of proficiency in English, in having qualifications gained in Vietnam recognised here, or because they have not been able to retrain because they are supporting other family members. Many Vietnamese South Australians work as tradespeople, labourers and plant and machine operators. A significant number have obtained tertiary qualifications since arriving in Australia. A significant number are involved in market gardening. Some have opened restaurants. A number have become very successful pig farmers in Virginia.

The Vietnamese Farmers Association of South Australia Inc was established in 1985 to help promote and exchange knowledge of agriculture, to support those struggling to resettle in a new country, and to create a feeling of community between fellow countrymen and Vietnamese people. The association’s aim is also to help ease the feeling of loneliness amongst Vietnamese South Australians in living so far from home.

The present governor of South Australia, Mr Hieu Van Le, and his wife Mrs Lan Le, landed in Darwin as refugees on the 22 November 1977; shortly after they settled in Adelaide.

The couple had fled war-torn Vietnam in a wooden boat, along with around 50 other Vietnamese people from different walks of life. They had no maps or navigational aids to guide them. When reaching unfamiliar waters their captain, a local fisherman, became hopelessly lost. Mr Le took charge guiding the group towards Malaysia. Here the coastguard denied them landfall, repeatedly towing their boat back to sea. With food and water low, the group abandoned ship and swam to shore.  After some time spent in a disease-riddled, overcrowded Malaysian refugee camp, Mr and Mrs Le were given the opportunity to take a boat to Australia. Better equipped this time, the couple spent over a month on the boat, in often stormy seas, before reaching Darwin.

In Adelaide Mr and Mrs Le initially lived at the Pennington Migrant Hostel and obtained work at the local Actil factory. In 1978 Mr Le started a degree in Economics and Accounting at the University of Adelaide, studying part-time while working as a Finance Officer for the Health Commission. He also became active in the local Vietnamese community helping refugees to integrate into South Australian life.

Over the years Mr Le has received many awards and accolades. He has worked with Federal, State and Local governments, and with numerous organisations to educate the public to his people’s culture and to give them a voice. Mr Le became a member of the South Australian Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission in 1991, its Deputy Chairman in 2001, and Chairman in 2007, the first person of Asian background to do so.  Mr Le has also held senior management positions with the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) receiving an Australia Day Medal in 1996 for outstanding services to that organisation. In August 2007, Mr Le was sworn in as Lieutenant Governor of South Australia and on 1 September 2014 became Governor of South Australia, the first known Vietnamese-born person in the world ever to have been appointed to a Vice-Regal position. Mr Le received an Order of Australia (AO) in 2010 and a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2016 for his service to the South Australian community. Both the University of Adelaide and Flinders University have awarded him with an Honorary Doctorate.

Mrs Lan Le has also forged a successful life in South Australia. After graduating from the South Australian Institute in 1985 with a Bachelor of Social Work she worked for various Commonwealth Government Departments as a Social Worker/Rehabilitation Consultant. For 28 years Mrs Le was a Senior Rehabilitation Consultant with CRS Australia where she provided counselling support and social and vocational rehabilitation services to various client groups. Mrs Le has gained several CRS Australia National awards for her work with CRS. Mental health and disability management issues in the workplace have always interested Mrs Le and she has been at the forefront in developing innovative practices in client service delivery and staff training and supervision. This has been achieved through the implementation of effective mentoring and coaching processes to address these issues. Like her husband, Mrs Le has a keen interest in matters relating to the resettlement of newly arrived migrants and refugees. Through her work she has helped to develop support programs to assist with their resettlement. Mrs Le has also run workshops in cross cultural awareness to help train people working in complex cultural settings.

Community Activities

Vietnamese South Australians are deeply influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity.

Confucianism originated in China in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. From 111 BC until 939 AD, China dominated Vietnam. During this time Confucianism was introduced and consolidated within the country. Confucius’s philosophy teaches that correct personal behaviour, and respect for authority and education, are the bases of a moral and harmonious society.

The influence of Confucianism is evident in Vietnamese family relationships. Traditionally, Vietnam was an agrarian society. Intensive agriculture required large workforces. As a result, extended families of three or four generations, all related by blood or marriage, came to live and work together. Extended families provide mutual assistance, counselling, security and comfort for all members.

In keeping with Confucianist thought, traditional Vietnamese families are organised in strict hierarchies. Each member has a specific rank. Seniority is accorded high status. Family members must treat superiors with proper deference. The young are taught to respect the elderly for their wisdom and regard them as a blessing rather than a burden. Senior members have a responsibility to protect other members and set them a good example. In response to the moral obligation to care for weaker family members and the emphasis placed on education by Confucianism, it has been quite common for senior siblings to leave school early and get a job to assist parents to educate younger family members. Such sacrifice is expected to be repaid when the older brothers or sisters have children of their own.

Westerners who regard the individual as the basic social unit often misunderstand the complexities of traditional Vietnamese family organisation, and mistake responsibility for repression. Each member in a traditional Vietnamese family is accorded rights and respect in proportion with the duties of their station.

Another aspect of traditional Vietnamese families is their cohesion and sense of collective responsibility and community image. Each member is accountable for the actions of other members. If a relative acts nobly, or achieves great things, they bring honour to the entire family. If a member acts badly, shame is cast over the whole family.

Many Vietnamese South Australians are Mahayana Buddhists. Buddhism originated in the sixth century BC in Nepal. It reached Vietnam in the second century AD.

Buddha believed that suffering is an inherent part of the human condition. He taught that individuals could escape the sorrows of life and reincarnation, being reborn in another existence to suffer again, by mental, moral and bodily purification. Buddha taught his followers to live with discipline, humility, tolerance, patience and reverence for all forms of life. He believed that this lifestyle would enable the willing to reach a spiritual state of Enlightenment and liberty called Nirvana. Buddhists believe that Nirvana ensures that, upon death, the souls of believers are absorbed by the supreme eternal spirit and free from suffering forever.

The word Buddha means Enlightened One. Mahayana Buddhists believe in the existence of many Buddhas. Some of them are in heaven; others are yet to become Buddhas. Mahayanists believe that Buddhas are able to save people through grace and compassion. They also stress the role of bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas have vowed to become Buddhas by leading lives of virtue and wisdom. Often bodhisattvas postpone entering Nirvana so they can devote themselves to helping others.

Vietnamese Buddhist South Australians held their first Buddhist ceremony, organised by Thien-Lien Nguyen Van Tuoi, at Pennington Hostel in 1977. On May 2, 1980, the Buddhist Association of South Australia Inc. was officially registered. Less than a year later, the Vietnamese Buddhist Association of South Australia was established. On September 12, 1981, the first Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in South Australia was opened. On 3 June 1982, the Vietnamese Buddhist Association invited the Venerable Thich Nhu-Hue from Japan to become its spiritual leader. From late 1983 until late 1989 the Venerable Thich Nhu-Hue presided over a committee for the construction of a larger temple. On 23 December 1989, the Phap-Hoa Temple at Pennington was officially opened.

Phap-Hoa Temple is an important symbol to Buddhist and non-Buddhist Vietnamese South Australians. It stands for the commitment of Vietnamese people to their new life in Australia. The temple is not only a religious centre. It also has valuable educational, cultural and social functions.

The garden in front of Phap-Hoa Temple is fenced with a porticoed, three-entrance gateway. In the garden a white, standing statue of Buddha lifts the spectator’s face to the sky. The Buddha’s gaze and his gesture are supposed to carry the spectator beyond the realm of earthly things.

Phap-Hoa is a typical Vietnamese temple. Its tiered roofs curl up gracefully at the corners. Its interior is solemn, beautiful and joyous all at once. Colourful banners declare Buddhist truths, among them, ‘A doctrine that is not a doctrine is The Doctrine’. Flowers, gongs, incense, paper plum tree blossoms and images of bodhisattvas and Buddha abound. Tall, free-standing pillars are covered with countless images of Buddha on metal plates. Each of these images light up and the structure spins to remind the congregation that there is a Buddha for every galaxy. The spectator’s gaze keeps returning to meet that of the main statue of Buddha. Cross-legged, the Enlightened One regards the viewer with calm and peace, reflecting the Buddhist ideal of detachment from all desires and worldly things.

The congregation of Phap-Hoa Temple is guided by two monks and two nuns. The main festivals of the Vietnamese Buddhist year are Buddha’s birthday, Ulambana, Remembrance of Qouan-Yin and New Year celebrations. Phap-Hoa Temple alternates with other Buddhist congregations to organise these festivities, which are usually very well attended.

Buddha’s birthday often falls in May. The congregation makes special offerings of food, flowers, fruit, incense and candles at the temple on this day. The monks teach from the scriptures about the significance of Buddha coming to earth. A vegetarian meal and social gathering follows the prayers and meditation.

Ulambana is also known as Parent’s Day. It often falls in August. Ulambana honours mothers and fathers for giving their children life and support. It also acknowledges the sanctity of marriage. Buddhist teachings and discussions are held on these themes. People wear two flowers, each representing a parent. A red rose means that a parent is still living. A white rose means that a parent is dead. A paper effigy of Phor Thor Kong, god of the underworld and an incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, is burnt so that mercy and freedom might be bestowed upon the dead.

Remembrance of Qouan-Yin takes place in March. Qouan-Yin is a bodhisattva who vowed during his lifetime to help anyone in distress who called his name. On his Remembrance Day the monks teach from the scriptures on the theme of compassion. The congregation makes offerings in honour of Qouan-Yin.

The Lunar New Year falls in February. At Phap-Hoa Temple lectures are given about the meaning of the New Year for Buddhists. The New Year is regarded as a chance to leave the old behind and make a fresh start. Vietnamese South Australians believe that the New Year brings good luck and that bad luck will disappear with the going year. A yellow-flowered plum tree is a symbol of luck and good fortune. The blossoms of this tree are a traditional New Year’s gift in Vietnam, and many people have them in their homes during the season. The South Australian climate is not suitable for these trees, so Vietnamese Buddhist South Australians make realistic handmade paper blossoms and glue them to branches of similar trees. On New Year’s Day friends and relatives share a festive meal, spend time with each other and exchange wishes for good luck, prosperity, long life, peace and good health. Traditional New Year delicacies include bahn chung, a square, sticky rice cake that represents the earth and bahn day, a sweet, round bean cake that represents the sun. A Lion Dance and firecrackers in the grounds of Phap-Hoa Temple ward off evil and celebrate the new hope of the coming year.

The Vietnamese Buddhist congregation of Phap Hoa Temple also meets regularly for chanting, prayers and confession.

Christianity reached Vietnam in the fifteenth century. It was introduced to Vietnam by Catholic missionaries from France, Spain and Portugal.

The Vietnamese Christian Community of South Australia was founded in 1977. Seventy-nine Vietnamese Catholic South Australians met in Beulah Street, Norwood, to celebrate Mass with Father Augustin SJ. Present day Christian Vietnamese-South Australians worship at various churches throughout the metropolitan area.

The community has four satellite groups each with a Patron and hold feasts on that Saint’s Day. The four groups are Our Lady of Fatima; Our Lady of the Assumption; the Sacred Heart of Jesus; and Saint Paul. Each has a range of internal clubs including choirs, youth, family, widows, elderly, scouting, counselling, vocational and devotional groups. The community conducts a language and cultural school, open to all Vietnamese children.

Throughout November Vietnamese Catholics pray for all souls and visit cemeteries. One of the most important festivals for Vietnamese Catholic South Australians is held during this month. It is the Remembrance of Vietnamese Martyrs, which is celebrated on 24 November. A Mass commemorates all those who died trying to preserve peace in Vietnam. A social gathering with light refreshments is held after the Mass.

On 3 May Vietnamese Catholic South Australians celebrate the feast of Our Lady of the Boat People. They give thanks for safely escaping Vietnam, and for their new life in Australia. A small party marks the occasion.

The Vietnamese Community in Australia was organised as a federal body in 1983. In that year a South Australian chapter was established.

One of the highlights of the community’s year is Tet Trung Thu, the Full Moon Festival, also known as Children’s Day. This is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth Lunar month, which usually corresponds with September. The festival is an expression of joy and hope in the younger generation. It is a time when parents take pride in their children and hope that they will have happy and productive lives. Children from other cultural backgrounds are invited to share activities including traditional songs, dances and games. For weeks before the festival children build lanterns made from wire frames covered with cellophane. Often these are in the shapes of butterflies, birds and flowers. The children march in a procession and display their lanterns. Prizes are awarded for the best lantern and to the top Vietnamese Studies students, painters, woodworkers and sportspeople. Vendors sell show bags full of trinkets and sweets. Traditional foods available include banh mi, bread rolls; banh bao, meat dumplings; and cha’gio, spring rolls. The most important festive food is banh deo, moon cakes. These are made from a light, pale pastry, filled with nuts and candied fruit. A Lion Dance is performed, accompanied by traditional music.

Sport is a recreation enjoyed by many members of the Vietnamese Community’s South Australian chapter. The most popular sports are volleyball, soccer, badminton, table tennis and swimming.

The Vietnamese Community closely follows events in Vietnam. It provides support to Vietnamese people in refugee camps, collecting and sending financial aid and educational and cultural resources. Many Vietnamese South Australians are also involved in campaigning to end human rights violations in Vietnam, and for the release of its political prisoners.

Organisations and Media

  • Vietnamese Community in Australia (S.A. Chapter) Inc.: publishes a monthly newsletter
  • S.A. Vietnamese Teachers’ Association Inc.: publishes an occasional newsletter
  • Indo-Chinese Australian Women’s Association Inc.
  • The United Vietnamese Buddhist Congregation in S.A. (Phap-Hoa Temple)
  • The Vietnamese Christian Community Inc. (S.A.): publishes a weekly newsletter and Giao Cam, Sympathise, a quarterly magazine
  • Vietnamese Veterans’ Association, members of this association march with the Australian Vietnam War Veterans on Anzac Day
  • Vietnamese Women’s Association
  • Vietnamese Vovinam Association of S.A. Inc., a martial arts group
  • Vietnamese Elderly Association of S.A. Inc.
  • Vietnamese Meal Mates, similar to ‘Meals on Wheels’
  • Vietnamese Social Welfare Workers Association of S.A.
  • Vietnamese Parents’ Association of S.A.
  • Vietnamese Community Ethnic School, lessons are conducted at Ridley Grove Primary School
  • Bo-De School
  • Dac-lo Vietnamese Ethnic School
  • Lac Long Vietnamese Ethnic School
  • Saint Mary’s Vietnamese School
  • Sunrise ‑ Vietnamese newspaper
  • The Bell of Saigon ‑ Vietnamese newspaper
  • Vietnamese Herald ‑ Vietnamese newspaper
  • 5EBI-FM Radio Programs


The 1981 census recorded 3,845 Vietnamese-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 6,986. Only 6,066 people stated they were of Vietnamese descent. A significant number of refugees from Vietnam are actually of Chinese descent.

According to the 1991 census there were 9,271 Vietnamese-born South Australians. 9,771 people said that their mothers were born in Vietnam, and 9,699 that their fathers were.

According to the 1996 census there were 10,657 Vietnamese-born South Australians. The second generation of this birthplace group was 3634.

The 2001 census recorded 10,441 Vietnamese-born South Australians, while 11,544 people said that they were of Vietnamese descent.

The 2006 census recorded 10,546 Vietnamese-born South Australians, while 12,493 people said that they were of Vietnamese descent.

The 2011 census recorded 12,025 Vietnamese-born South Australians, while 15,780 people said that they were of Vietnamese descent.

The 2016 census recorded 14,338 Vietnamese-born South Australians, while 20,292 people said that they were of Vietnamese descent.

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