Memoir of former Dalston councillor details journey from Vietnamese refugee to MBE

Mr Vu with his children Tam, Linh and Toan

Mr Vu with his children Tam, Linh and Toan - Credit: Archant

When Vu Khanh Thanh fled war-torn Vietnam in 1979 on a small boat holding 20 people he had no idea what life would bring.

Artwork for the book

Artwork for the book - Credit: Archant

The 35-year-old had left his wife Diep, son Toan and youngest daughter Tam behind, taking eight-year-old Linh on a leap of faith.

Fast forward almost 40 years and Mr Vu – the first Vietnamese person to be awarded an MBE and the first Vietnamese councillor in the UK – is welcoming guests to the launch of a book detailing his incredible life.

It’s being held at Linh’s restaurant Vu Viet, Victoria Park, and among guests are old boss mayor Jules Pipe and Cllr Peter Snell.

Born in 1944 in the communist north Vietnam, Mr Vu moved to the south when he was 10. While there he enjoyed a good education and was elected as a councillor – a role that would prove to be dangerous.

He publicly criticised lieutenant general Do Cao Tri, a “very powerful” commander he accused of corruption. General Tri vowed to teach Mr Vu a lesson upon his return from Cambodia in three days.

“He had a message for me to say I couldn’t talk to a general like that and he would give me a lesson,” said Mr Vu. “The next day his helicopter crashed and he died.”

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In 1979, with Vietnam at war with China, north Vietnamese people, most of whom are of Chinese ethnicity, were forced from their homes and made to leave by the authorities, who feared they would side with the Chinese.

So he joined the thousands of people leaving by boat. Almost 800,000 people would do the same between 1975 and 1995 – with many dying faced with over-crowded boats, storms and pirates.

But Mr Vu and Linh were lucky. He continued: “There was only myself and my daughter – she was eight. People told us the boat was big but actually when we came down to get on we saw it was very small. It held about 20 people and after three weeks we had no food or water.

“We don’t know why but a British ship came and we asked them to rescue us and they did. After about one month they finished their work and took us to Singapore.

“We stayed there for three months and after that we were taken to Thorney Island in Chichester.”

While in Thorney Island, Mr Vu worked for the Home Office, helping interview the 3,000 Vietnamese refugees who arrived. He was effectively an interpreter, counsellor and friend, helping find accommodation for many.

Three years later and the settlement project had finished, and Mr Vu moved to Hackney, where he and his family would make their life along with the other 5,000 refugees – the largest community in the UK.

His wife and children joined him and Linh, and he earned his keep as a cleaner. But his real job remained being a leader of the Vietnamese people and he would offer help in his Woodberry Down flat.

In 1982 he founded the An Viet foundation in Englefield Road, Dalston, a community centre for the Vietnamese and somewhere for them to gain qualifications, receive housing support and play ping pong and mah jong.

So the decision to run as a councillor in Dalston in 2002 came naturally.

“I had experience of working with a democratic society in Vietnam and wanted to compare the two,” he said. “I found it was really the same here as it was there! If you have a problem with something in the council you ask the mayor. The work was the same.”

He resigned after one term, just in time to pick up his well-earned MBE for service to the Vietnamese community.

And he continues to run the foundation today, though he has found time to write his memoirs, with help from old friend Christina Puryear.

“I wrote this book to tell people about my life,” he said.

It will be some read.

Catholic with Confucian Tendencies: The True Story of the Extreme Adventures of a Vietnamese Boat Person by Vu Khanh Thanh with Christina Puryear is out now on

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