When I told my friends, both Vietnamese and foreign, that I was going to Vanuatu for five days, over half of them had never heard of the country.
So I was surprised to come across a store in Port Vila, the capital, called “Thai Viet Hardware”, and find a young Vietnamese woman working behind the counter. She was from northern Vietnam and had been in Vanuatu for just over a year. Her uncle owns the hardware store – he has been in Vanuatu for over 20 years.
After leaving the hardware store and walking to the city center, I immediately saw a Vietnamese restaurant called Joe’s. Later on, I came across a number of roadworks with signs bearing the company name “Dinh Van Tu”. I also found out that one of Vanuatu’s most prominent businessmen and former politicians is called Gilbert Dinh Van Than.
The Vietnamese restaurant called Joe in Vanuatu. Photo by Joe Buckley
I was in Vanuatu to run focus groups. When I went to speak to some subsistence farmers – the work I was there to do – they were very interested to hear I lived in Vietnam, and told me that there are a lot of half ni-Vanuatu, half Vietnamese people today in Vanuatu. One even had an uncle who had married a Vietnamese woman.
What was going on? How had I arrived in Vanuatu, a country that over half of my friends in Vietnam had never heard of, and been hit by signs of Vietnam everywhere?
All was revealed when I got talking to an older ni-Vanuatu man, who introduced himself as John from the River Jordan. He had worked for the British colonial government when Vanuatu was a French-British colony, known as the New Hebrides. After finding out I was British, he paused, and looked at me inquisitively:
“Do you live in Australia or somewhere though? Because nobody sensible would come here all the way from Britain for just five days.”
“I live in Vietnam.”
And so John from the River Jordan began telling me about the large Vietnamese community that used to live in Vanuatu. It’s a story that’s largely forgotten in Vietnam these days, but is definitely not forgotten in Vanuatu.
At the beginning of the 20th century, plantation owners in the New Hebrides had a labor recruitment crisis. Unable to recruit or force enough local peasants to become workers on the plantations, they found their solution in French Indochina, which was at the time stricken with poverty, famine and overpopulation.
From 1921-1940, over 21,000 indentured workers from Indochina – especially Ninh Binh, Nam Dinh and Thai Binh – were brought over to the New Hebrides to work for French settlers, creating a substantial Vietnamese community. In around 1929, the Vietnamese made up about 10 percent of the colony’s population.
Vietnamese laborers were employed on five-year indentured contracts. Despite attractive promises on the documents they signed before coming over, they were generally forced to work in poor conditions, akin to slavery. They were frequently deprived of the food and other benefits they had been promised, and often victims of violence at the hands of their employers.
Other Vietnamese laborers were put to work as domestic workers in the homes of plantation owners and other wealthy Europeans. Many Vietnamese women, however, did not like this work, and preferred work on the plantations – there, it was easier to avoid the gaze of predatory masters who had been known to sexually assault and rape their staff.
Thai Viet Hardware store owned by a Vietnamese man who has been in Vanuatu for 20 years. Photo by Joe Buckley
After the Second World War, the French liquidated all labor contracts and the Vietnamese were suddenly freed from their indentured status. Many demanded to go home and there were large demonstrations by the Vietnamese population demanding repatriation, which forced the French, initially slow to respond, to speed up the process.
Pamphlets supporting the Viet Minh began to circulate around Vanuatu, and many people openly declared their support for the anti-colonial movement in Indochina. This scared the French into thinking that if they repatriated these Vietnamese, it would strengthen the Vietnamese Communists. Repatriations were halted in the early 1950s, but resumed again in the 1960s. By the middle of that decade, most Vietnamese had “returned” to Vietnam – an odd phrase as over half of them had been born in Vanuatu.
This left only a very small Vietnamese community, and John from the River Jordan lamented to me that most of them have died now. But the community, although small, still remains.
And while back in Vietnam this history is largely forgotten and unknown, the Vietnamese language does contain one legacy of the Vietnam-Vanuatu link – chân đăng, the most interesting thing I learnt during my trip. This noun refers to Vietnamese people who were brought to New Caledonia and Vanuatu – specifically these two places – as indentured laborers. It is also the first time – and almost definitely the last time – that I have successfully taught a Vietnamese word to my Vietnamese teacher.
The main market in Port Vila, capital of Vanuatu. Photo by Joe Buckley
*Joe Buckley is a PhD candidate in International Development at SOAS, University of London. The views expressed are his own.