Recording the Journey, 1970s–2000s

Man in Shock
Detail from Panel Four, Brown - “Man in Shock”.
Image: Thomas Le
Source: Museum Victoria

Those making the journey to Australia have recorded their experiences in many different ways over the years. Records have varied, depending on the materials available and the skills and preferences of the person making the record.

The following paintings and descriptions beautifully evoke for us the journey made to Australia by Mai Ho, a Vietnamese 'boat person' in the 1970s.

Mai Ho's story in words and images

So we still waiting, and then one hour later, nearly 3 o'clock in the morning [...] and then they come, they say that "Okay it's ready. The taxi boat is here, now everybody slowly get out one by one." When I went there everybody was there [...] Many house in that village was packed with people, 161 you see.

And then we go half an hour later or nearly one hour later we saw our boat, our ship, it was very far from that and then they were loading people from the small one, many small one, four small one into our boat.

All the sailors gone mad, and we was you know, we praying and then all the people underneath were praying, and the sailor come and let us know what is situation, and they say that "Please pray for our safety, please pray, everyone of you, according to your own religion. Just pray now. Concentrate and pray and don't make any noise. We must keep quiet because lots of other boat went pass by and they all government boat, they can come and have a look at the problem and check and you will be all arrested. So.

If we could not get out of Vung Tau we would be arrested because that where we could be arrested you know. [....] After we get in to the international border the first night was okay, the second night was level 6 and level 7 wind. So, up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. And I was thinking that we will die in the sea [...] and everybody vomit, all vomit you know. And then they say that "If we know it was so dangerous like this, we wouldn't escape" (laugh). Because you wouldn't, you couldn't have a whole comprehensive thing of how horrible it is. You couldn't, you could not imagine.

Because you know it's dark. So we saw—they said there's an oil rig and [...] then we saw [...] all this light. [...] it was the most beautiful thing, 'cos you know. And [...] when we opened our eyes we thought it was stars and everything.

So we was put in this [...] basket three, four at the same time and then they lowered us on their ship so they continue for a few hours, until 9 o'clock in the morning, so everybody actually on their ship. So was a beautiful moment.

When we were sent to the refugee camp in Malaysia that is Pulau Bidong we actually first didn't really go to the refugee camp because of all the stories that we have heard in Vietnam. We would like the oil drill to take us to, back to Australia but it would be impossible so we came to Malaysia to Pulau Bidong Island with anxiety feeling.

Before my father die he ask me that "Go for your life, and go to Australia."

Two and half month later it mean that one and a half month after we live in the Sungai Baisi camp then come one day in the afternoon at about 3 o'clock the announcement from the [...] camp saying, reading my name, "Aaah, we'll be arrive in Australia on 15th of December. You will fly from Malaysia at that time at say 6 o'clock, 4 o'clock you will be blah, blah, blah and you will be arrive in Australia on the 16th of December 1982. [...] I so happy. [...] All night I couldn't sleep and count the days and count the days that we will be arriving in two weeks. They let us know two weeks before the day we fly.

And so we actually fly on the 15th of December 1982. We were taken to Malaysia Airport and everybody was very happy. [...] asking me how was the experience in the aeroplane. How big it is. What it is. And then I say that is an iron bird. And then they ask me is it beautiful. I said that "Well, it bring the dream to us. So of course it beautiful than we ever can thought about." So they wonder because I try to, you know, older mother always want to bring fairy tale to tell their children. So I bring my dream with a fairy tale to my children about the aeroplane.

[The flight's] about ten hours, eight, ten hours. We can't remember. [...] We were so anxious to know what Australia look like, [...] but then because we travel at night time so you don't see anything underneath. All we see is Malaysia with lots of lights [...] Once the flight going up we don't see anything any more. [...] All we see is dark. Only darkness.

You just fly from the sea, you know all the same, and then you say now is Vietnam and now is Australia [...]. And then near Melbourne the sky gets brighter and brighter. The flight slower, lower and lower. And then I can see and we very anxious. [...] We try to look over the window to see how Australia and there we see a big land. All we see is the brown, the browny colour of the ground, of the land, of the soil. Then we don't see any house. We only see trees, but then we only see... the most thing that we realise is all the squares, square by square, you know from the aeroplane. [...] And then I say "Oh my God, I've travel to a desert or something! How come we haven't got a city life like I imagine?"


Many Vietnamese and Cambodian people came to Australia in small boats or planes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. More recently, other refugees, many from the Middle East, attempted to make the journey in small boats via Indonesia.

Search for Australian websites that describe the ordeals of these refugees. Use the underlined words below in your search.

What was the Tampa Affair?

What happened to the boat known as 'SIEV-X'?

What are Detention Centres?

Image Gallery

Boat Voyage (turbulent water) On plane Fishing Net Large Crowd of People