Tu Do is the name of a boat that docked in Darwin in 1977. That name means freedom in Vietnamese. The boat had carried 38 passengers–later 30–across 6000 kilometers, from Vietnam to Australia (a 5170 km distance as the crow flies) with nothing but a simple compass and a torn map taken from a class room as guide.
Anywhere But Here
The period between 1977-1979 would later known as the period of mass exodus of the so-called Vietnamese “boat people”. Millions of South Vietnamese flocked out of the country during that time. Following the Fall of Saigon that marked the end of Vietnam War in 1975, driven by fear of communists persecution and retaliation or dream of better life somewhere, anywhere but communist-occupied Vietnam, many of them fled the country. The majority of them took the less guarded pathway out of Vietnam: the open sea.
Most of the seaborne refugees sailed to nearby Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Under UNHCR‘s program, they would spend some times there before being resettled in third countries such as the U.S., Denmark or Australia. From those who sailed to Australia, only a small number – 2,059 people – arrived safely between 1976 and 1981. One of such refugee was Tan Tanh Lu, a native of Phu Quoc Island in South Vietnam.
For two years since 1975, Tan and his friends had discreetly built an escape boat to take them and their families out of Vietnam. To minimize suspicion, they built the boat in the same style of fishing boat common to the area. It’s a 18.25 meter long boat, with forward mast and a cabin. He named her Tu Do.
Initially, Tan used the boat for actual fishing with the purpose of even lowering officials’ suspicion and to finance the procuring of logistics such as fuel and spare engines needed for the escape.
After staging engine breakdown to further eliminate scrutiny, they installed more powerful engine on the vessel.
It was in September 1977.
Finally, they’re ready to go.
The pressure and stress got to be unbearable as Tan, his pregnant wife Tuyet (27), daughters Dzung (6) and Dao (4), son Mo (2), and relatives, friends and neighbours, ready to set off once the dark settled in. For security’s sake, it’s imperative to ignite the boat engine as far away as possible from the shore. So they manually pushed the boat across the low tidal for a few miles. Children were given cough syrup so that they fast asleep during the whole ordeal.
To everyone’s horror, a head count revealed that they’re one children short. Dzung, Tan’s daughter, had been left sleeping on the shore. Now, imagine the anxiety triggered by this event as they needed to go all the way back to the shore to get her and then pushed the boat again to the deeper water.
Luckily, nothing happened during that time, and at last, their journey began.
Southeast-Bound Journey to Australia
Shortly after they cleared off Vietnam coast, they met the open sea, and with it, the notorious pirates of the Gulf of Thailand. These pirates would be infamous for preying upon waves of waves of refugees during the height of the Vietnamese Exodus. These pirates were notorious for killing them, robbing their valuables and raping their women, as reported in the following articles by New York Times (1982) and Washington Post (1980). To the relieve of everyone aboard, Tu Do managed to outpace the pirates’ vessel coming to intercept them.
They sailed first to Mersing, Malaysia where eight of his passengers disembarked, too exhausted to continue the journey. This would also be where this story ended. Malaysia and Indonesia housed two biggest Vietnamese refugee camps, namely Bidong Island in Malaysia and Galang Island in Indonesia, where refugees could stay and live prior to being resettled in third countries. Following fruitless negotiation with US representative, Tan decided to sail to Australia directly with his remaining 30 passengers.
Off Flores Island in Indonesia, Tu Do encountered another Vietnamese vessel jam-packed with refugees bound to Australia. The PK3402, the name of the boat, had run aground, so Tu Do towed it all the way across the Timor Sea before they landed in Northern Territory, near Darwin, and the rest is history.
Tu Do is, perhaps, the most famous fishing boat in the Southern Hemisphere (if not the world altogether). It tells the story of human bravery and the extend they’re willing to take to achieve freedom.
After they made landfall near Darwin, the Australian government relocated the whole entourage to Wacol Migrant Hostel in Brisbane, Queensland. They spent six month at Wacol, where Tuyet gave birth to another son, Quoc, before the Government granted them asylum.
The historical fishing boat had changed hands several times before the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) procured it in 1990 as part of its collection. The museum conducted a restoration attempt in 2003 and again between 2009-2012 to bring back the boat to its original appearance.
Tu Do, with its sky-blue body and streaks of red colors on the cabin and lower hull, was reborn.
Its presence represents an important history of modern human in general and Australia in particular. It tells story of forced mass-migration that coincided with, and partly triggered, the end of White Australia policy.
The values it represents are still relevant today, especially with the tough policies toward refugees and asylum seekers coming with boats the Australian government had put in place. The journey of Lu family and Australia acceptance painted a stark contrast with what happens now. In ANMM’s word:
Tu Do provides a fascinating contrast to more recent unauthorised boat arrivals in Australia, which have contributed to a growing culture of fear in both the political and public discourse.
More importantly though, the journey of Tu Do is a story of how one family fought to have a better future.
The story couldn’t be more impressive. If only the man of the story, the captain of the boat and the father of the children could see how his legacy are cherished, preserved and remembered. Tan Than Lu died shortly before the restoration of Tu Do took place in 2003.
Source and photos: Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM)