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Diep Nguyen
Portrait of Diep Nguyen
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in March 2023

Diep Nguyen is a proud 1.5 generation Vietnamese Australian, who currently volunteers at the Vietnamese Museum of Australia (VMA) as the Contents and Collection Lead. She is in charge of collecting, curating and preserving stories and artefacts from the period of the Vietnam War, to stories of the multifaceted refugee experience after the Fall of Saigon.

Diep was 12 years old when the war ended, and experienced the economic restructuring imposed by the communist regime for the next 4 years, before fleeing Vietnam by boat with her family in 1979. She arrived in Thailand within 3 days, and stayed in a refugee camp for 10 months before landing in Australia. Since then she has led an enormously colourful life. She graduated from university with a computer science degree in the 80s, has worked in numerous IT and software engineering roles (her last role at Macquarie Bank), took part in a freedom fighting movement for Vietnam, has run her own business and is now back in Melbourne looking after her elderly parents and volunteering her time at the VMA.  
I met Diep at the 2023 Vietnamese Museum Australia Black Tie Gala Dinner, a gala organised to raise funds and celebrate the Vietnamese Museum - Australia's first museum dedicated to preserving and telling the incredible story of Vietnamese refugee settlement in Australia.

As a refugee herself, Diep has firsthand experience of the refugee experience and settling into Australia in the 1980s. She also sits at a generational crossroads, where she is witnessing how the stories of older Vietnamese refugees are getting lost as they pass on, and how the younger Vietnamese-Australian generation don’t relate to or truly understand the stories and history of the older generation.

I wanted to interview Diep to understand her own connection to the museum and what it means to her to the point that she will spend all her spare time volunteering and collecting these stories and artefacts for the museum. I also wanted to showcase not only how it’s important that this museum is being built, but how we as individuals, and as a part of the Australian community, should engage with the stories the museum will hold, and honour the journey of freedom and the contributions that the Vietnamese Community have made to the fabric of Australia.

I hope Diep’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
What does the VMA personally mean to you?
The VMA is going to be showcasing the Vietnamese war and refugee experience and I hope that it helps narrow the generational gap between the Vietnamese first and second generations, but also the cultural gap, since Australia is such a multicultural country.

I want the VMA to represent hope and freedom, unity and inclusion. As someone who settled down in Australia, I think it’s important that we share our stories with a wider community - especially as the stories get lost as the older generation passes on. I also want the future Vietnamese generation to understand their cultural heritage and the sacrifices of their ancestors to be able to enjoy their life in Australia now. The VMA is also a chance for us to say thank you to Australia for embracing us and giving us a second chance in life.
What is the scope of the content and collections that you will be showing in the VMA?
The museum is going to showcase the stories and artefacts from the 20 year war period back from when the country was divided in 1954, up until the day the war ended, as well as the refugee experience afterwards. Artefacts will be collected from all around the world, and are not specific to Australia.

In terms of artefact collection - when the news came out that the VMA was getting built, people from all around the world starting reaching out, wanting to donate their artefacts to the museum. There was a man who is currently living in Japan, who donated the clothes that he wore when he left Vietnam 40 years ago. We’re currently accepting most things that people give to us (as long as it is in good enough condition), and reserving the right to use it in the future. What we ultimately present in the museum depends on the exhibition theme at the time. 

We will also feature the oral stories of the older, first generation Vietnamese-Australian migrants, in order to note down the diversity of our experiences. For example some people fled twice - once from the North to the South back in 1954, and then once after the Fall of Saigon, when the Communists came to the South and they had to flee out of the country. Everybody’s refugee experience is so different - from how we fled Vietnam, how we managed to survive the journey by boat, how we settled in Australia and how we proposed and began to contribute back to the country. It’s hard though - many people don’t want to talk about their experiences since it’s so painful for them to remember and think back on those times. 

We’re also attempting to capture as many diverse stories as possible through secondary research and sources like the United Nations’ source materials and national libraries from all around the world. For example, it’s harder to find primary-source stories of people who were placed in the New Economic Zones program (a communist policy whereby displacing or forcibly replacing Southerners with family backgrounds connected to Vietnam Republic to uninhabitable areas), or ex-servicemen who were placed in education camps, or get information about the conditions in different refugee camps all across South East Asia such as in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines or in Singapore. We’re trying to document Vietnamese history since the start of the war, as thoroughly as possible.
What is a significant artefact that you have collected so far?
I found an audioclip of these morning announcements made in the Pulau Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia which immediately brought back my own memories of being in the Songkhla Refugee Camp in Southern Thailand for 10 months. Every morning, they would announce every day camp life activities and sometimes a list of people who can leave for resettlement.

Even though this audio clip is from a different camp in a different country, I still feel teary every time I listen to it - remembering the announcement that announced my name and my family members’ name for resettlement. 
What do you hope people get out of visiting the museum, reading about the history of Vietnam and hearing these stories?
The purpose of any museum, anywhere is for it to be educational. I want the second generation to learn of the ancestors’ past, and more about their history and heritage. For the wider Australian community, I hope that the VMA serves as a symbol of hope for anyone facing adversity. And for the Vietnamese community, I hope that it will be a safe space for people to come, reflect, remember, learn and also feel a sense of belonging.

on culture and identity
What was it like growing up in Vietnam during the war, compared to after the war once Vietnam was reunified into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam?
I’m from the Mekong region in Vietnam, so very down South. During the Vietnam war, warfare was more prevalent in the central and more northern region, with a lot of North Vietnamese fleeing from the north to the middle. 

My life was quite peaceful during that period. We didn't really experience war as much as people think. I did feel the real effects of the war on the last few days before Saigon fell to the Communists. 

I distinctly remember, from the window of my house, watching aircrafts drop bombs. My family didn’t know where to run, but I saw a lot of people running around and being displaced. After the fall of Saigon, the atmosphere drastically changed. Our home would get ransacked anytime by the authorities. If they had suspicions about anything, they would come without warning or notice. At school, we were indoctrinated with communist studies, and we were also used as child labour - our school became a veggie patch of some sort. 

In 1979, I was studying in another part of Vietnam at the time. I lived next door to a station where they were torturing people who rose up against the regime and I could hear their voices screaming. I saw bodies floating on the river on the way to school. I was 16 at the time. Even though the turmoil of the actual Vietnamese war ended, our society at large within the Vietnamese population was much more affected once the communist regime started. 
You fled Vietnam 4 years after the Fall of Saigon, when you were just 16 years old. Could you tell me more about your journey in getting to Australia?
Recalling this journey, I don’t think I was scared or worried initially. I think I was just so excited that the day for us to leave had come, after planning for so long. I didn’t realise that there would be danger waiting for us, until we were escaping and got shot at by the coast guard station. One of the people on my boat got seriously injured. There were actually 126 people on our boat - it was a riverboat so it was not designed to be used for open or rough seas. When we finally got onto the ocean, I remember seeing absolutely nothing and thinking how vast the ocean was. It was deep into the evening where the moon had already risen, and I could see the sparkling of the salt water. It was beautiful but so scary at the same time.

One of our engines stopped working the next day, since we had used it nonstop from being chased after for the whole night. We just floated along the water. We met Thai pirates twice on this journey. The first time we didn’t realise they were pirates, we thought they were just fishermen. We begged them to let us onboard since our boat was leaking and the sea was getting rough. Onboard the vessel, we started getting robbed. We had all been warned about pirates, but it was only then, when we realised that these were the pirates we had been told about. Luckily they only robbed us and didn’t do anything further.

The next day we saw another boat of Thai pirates, but this time we denied their help even though we were running out of water and food. From there, the pirates actually started ramming into our boat. From there, the two small engines which had been keeping course, fell into the ocean. Luckily we had a gun onboard, since we had prepared for this kind of circumstance, and were able to shoot them and get away.  

The same day, we saw this large Thai ship approaching us. They had probably seen us from  a distance. We were able to communicate with them since one of their people onboard was Chinese-Vietnamese. They let us board their ship, fed us and let us stay for one night. In the morning they showed us the direction to get to land and we boarded our boat again, before we landed on shore that morning.

We then stayed in the Songkhla Refugee Camp in Southern Thailand for 10 months before settling  in Australia on humanitarian grounds. We were very lucky that Songkhla accepted us as refugees. At the time, 4 years after the fall of Saigon, there was an influx of Vietnamese refugees fleeing to the bordering nations in Southeast Asia like Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand to the point that these nations started turning the boats away. We were only accepted into the refugee camp since one of the people on our boat had been shot at as we were fleeing Vietnam - his injury showed that we were actually being persecuted and fled for a valid reason. 
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
I came here when I was 16 years old, but I’ve lived here for more than 40 years now. I still have very conservative, Vietnamese values but I’ve picked up the Australian values along the way - especially given how I went to high school and university here, and learnt how to live and work in the system here. My experiences in Vietnam and Australia have influenced me to really value democratic values, freedom and respect for other people. I would say I’m very much comfortable with my blend of identities.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
The fall of Saigon is always a significant memory. That's why we always commemorate that day every year as a community.

Another memory is the first and only time that I went back to Vietnam in 1998. When the plane touched down, I felt like I was home. But when I did venture into the cities, I actually felt uncomfortable being there. I would see people suffering or even hurt on the street, but nobody passing by would care for them. Seeing what the Vietnamese people were like now, after being brought up in the environment that my family had escaped from, made me really sad. Even then, Vietnam feels like home.

But I have a similar sense of home for Australia. There was a period of time where I worked in America for a year. When I came back home, I caught a glimpse of Channel Nine News in the inflight news and that small thing also gave me a sense of comfort, and being home.

It reminds me to this day how I have two homes - Vietnam and Australia. 
What is your favourite food from your culture?
Canh chua which is Vietnamese sweet and sour soup. It’s similar to Thailand’s tom yum, and it’s always served with rice. It’s usually cooked with some kind of seafood like fish or prawn. It’s also usually served with Cá Kho fish which is this braised and caramelised fish that simmers in fish sauce. They’re usually eaten together - it’s a very ordinary Southern Vietnamese dish which is where I’m from in Vietnam. Families will typically sit down and eat this for dinner - my family will usually eat this once a week, and it’s something I can definitely cook unlike pho! 
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
Lyma Nguyen, who is a young Vietnamese barrister who practises both internationally and domestically, primarily in the area of criminal law and human rights. She was actually born in a refugee camp, and grew up hearing the stories of her parents’ trauma being wrongfully persecuted and oppressed. As a result, she decided to study law to help others who had been wrongfully persecuted and has spent over 10 years in Cambodia representing victims of Cambodia’s genocide Khmer Rouge regime. I really admire her for the courage that she’s had from such a young age.