South Vietnam’s Refugee Crisis, 1965-1967

The South Vietnamese refugee crisis that began in 1965, and worsened in 1966 and 1967, remade South Vietnam’s geography.

At the beginning of the U.S. build-up in 1965, South Vietnam possessed approximately 15,000 hamlets. By late 1967, U.S. airstrikes, artillery barrages, and ground operations had destroyed thousands of hamlets.[1] The peasants who fled those destroyed hamlets migrated to places they believed to be safe – regions unlikely to be subjected to U.S. military operations. They frequently built shantytowns just outside the wire of every major U.S. base in South Vietnam, trusting the Americans and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) not to blast them out of their new homes. One refugee explained why his family moved into an area controlled by the South Vietnamese Government (GVN), “…we were afraid of death. We came to the GVN side because we wanted to live.”[2] Many refugees thought that proximity to Allied military bases meant safety. The American response to the Tet Offensive proved that assumption to be tragically wrong.

First Lieutenant Frederick Downs described the shantytown next to the U.S. base at Duc Pho, Quang Ngai Province. “We traveled out the front gate, onto the highway leading through Duc Pho. Duc Pho was typical of the villages I was to become familiar with along the fringes of the American army. It consisted of scroungy mud, straw, and cheap tin hooches located on both sides of the highway….”[3] Gary Ernst remembered the rickety slum dwellings next to the U.S. base at Bien Hoa. “The poverty that I saw when I just arrived was unexpected. Around Bien Hoa, there were shacks of corrugated iron, mud, what have you. I wrote home that this place made Tijuana look like Palm Springs.”[4] W.D. Ehrhart, who served with the U.S. Marines in I Corps, recalled that as soon as his unit set up a new tactical base, South Vietnamese civilians began building a shantytown next to it. “The day I’d arrived at Ai Tu, I’d noticed a hastily constructed ramshackle tent just across the road from the compound…Then the building became two buildings, then three, and finally four: one each for a laundry, barbershop, souvenir stand and snack bar….”[5] Ai Tu blossomed in a matter of days into a misshapen boomtown.

In addition to seeking safety, refugees migrated toward Allied bases because they hoped to financially benefit from the U.S. military presence. Denied the economic self-sufficiency available in their former hamlets, refugees turned to the Americans for a livelihood. Because South Vietnam lacked the manufacturing and service sectors to absorb all but a tiny fraction of the uprooted rural peasantry, the only hope for survival for millions of refugees rested on finding some way to make money from the Americans. This is why so many refugees sold candy, sodas, haircuts, massages, and their bodies. The displaced population had no other means of making a living. Adult South Vietnamese did not want to sale soda for a living, but the war forced them to do it. As for prostitution, few women wanted to engage in the practice, especially because there existed such strong familial and social prohibitions against it. But without any other way to feed their families, women turned to the oldest profession to survive. During the first two and a half years of the big American war, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were forced to cater to the Americans or risk hunger and utter destitution. The refugee crisis fostered a dependent population.

Many South Vietnamese peasants found it difficult to serve the very people who had rendered them destitute. For South Vietnamese adult males, it was especially hard. Working-age males were vital to the financial well-being of every South Vietnamese household. Males were considered not only the heads of their households, but also the primary breadwinners. In refugee camps and roadside shantytowns, men suffered from unemployment, underemployment, and demeaning labor conditions. In such circumstances, men lost status and respect within their families and within the larger society. No adult male relished the idea of rummaging through garbage for food or begging for piasters on the side of the road. In the new, distorted war economy, teenage boys could earn more money in a month selling over-priced Cokes to GIs than their fathers made growing rice in a year. And a teenage daughter selling sex to American GIs could supplant her father as the family’s primary breadwinner.

The overturning of the familial economic structure diminished the status of men and had a corrosive effect on their sense of order and justice. The GVN and American degradation of Vietnamese manhood partly explains why so many adult males refused to join the throngs of refugees in the refugee camps and instead headed for the hills to join the guerrillas. The Rand Corporation discovered that in one sample of former Vietcong volunteers, thirty-two percent of the men had volunteered for the Vietcong because of social-economic issues, including an inability to financially support their families. The Vietcong offered the dispossessed rural males a degree of dignity, self-respect, camaraderie, and familial honor, while GVN refugee camps and urban slums presented them with disempowerment, personal degradation, and economic hardship. The Vietcong also offered the male refugees who joined their ranks the weapons and ideological justification to avenge the wrongs committed against themselves and their families.[6]

It is unknown how many South Vietnamese relocated to the environs of U.S. bases between 1965 and late 1967. But we do know that hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese left their hamlets-of-origin and re-established themselves next to the nearest roadway. They did this because the roads were controlled and patrolled by U.S. and ARVN mechanized units.

Along the roads, and under GVN and U.S. surveillance, there existed less of a threat of U.S. and South Vietnamese aerial and artillery bombardment. In roadside settlements, as opposed to shantytowns on the environs of U.S. bases, the inhabitants were likely to live near their hamlet-of-origin and their agricultural lands, so they could still work the land, maintain an income from the sale of crops, and thus continue a degree of economic self-sufficiency. Furthermore, by living on the road, with the front of their houses facing the highway, numerous refugees were able to convert their homes into shops and restaurants that catered to passerby.

Hundreds of thousands of other displaced peasants moved into South Vietnam’s towns and cities. From the beginning of 1965 onward, every South Vietnamese city experienced population growth. Saigon registered the largest increase. Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, who visited South Vietnam in 1967, and who later penned a controversial academic article on the “benefits” of rural flight in South Vietnam, estimated that Saigon’s population numbered almost four million by early 1968. That figure was double the city’s pre-1965 population. If Huntington’s population estimate was correct, Saigon’s inflated population amounted to a quarter of South Vietnam’s total population of sixteen million. Danang’s 1965 population of 105,000 increased by tens of thousands by late 1967 as rural peasants moved into the city to escape the intense fighting in adjacent Quang Nam and Quang Tin provinces. The pattern of migration repeated itself up and down the coastal plain and Mekong Delta.

For those who witnessed the great migration out of the countryside, it was as if the United States had taken hold of the country, violently shaken it, broke it into tiny pieces, and then stood back and watched as the shattered bits shimmied across the flat, green tabletop of South Vietnam toward the towns and cities.

By 1967, extensive former agricultural areas of coastal South Vietnam had been abandoned to weeds, the encroaching jungle, and the Vietcong. An estimated one-third of the rice lands in central South Vietnam lay fallow, their owners or tenants having moved away.[7] The abandonment of South Vietnam’s agricultural lands dismayed many South Vietnamese and infuriated others because for them the land symbolized both cultural continuity and peasant economic self-sufficiency. One Vietcong POW explained to a Rand interviewer that the bombing and depopulation of the countryside motivated him in part to join the guerrilla army.  “…the Americans did not do anything beneficial, but only bad things to the people. Bombs and shells have caused the death of the people, and the land was left uncultivated.”[8]

Although peasants left the countryside in droves, the Vietcong did not. The guerrillas reconstructed abandoned and partially destroyed hamlets into mini-fortresses. Vietcong soldiers occupied dilapidated huts, constructed bunkers and trench systems within the ruins of hamlets, and booby-trapped the approaches to their small military bases to keep the Americans and ARVN out. These mini-fortresses dotted the rural landscape, serving as way stations, supply depots, and communications hubs. Along the coastal plain, the mini-bases linked the larger Communist base camps in the mountains and foothills to the still-populated hamlets and towns on the fringes of Route 1. American and South Vietnamese military commanders rarely attempted to take these fortified positions, judging the benefits of dislodging a few guerrillas not worth the cost in men and equipment.

The peasants who migrated to South Vietnam’s cities received little or no GVN or U.S. assistance. Often, they received a hostile reception from South Vietnam’s urban population. Catholics, Chinese business owners, government bureaucrats, educated elites and pro-Western elements in places such as Saigon viewed the uneducated and illiterate peasant refugees with contempt and suspicion. Some of the contempt stemmed from the cultural and political divide that separated urban residents from the peasantry. South Vietnam’s city dwellers viewed themselves as worldly, better educated, and in every way superior to the country folk. Urbanites also distrusted the new arrivals in their midst because so many of them had come from Vietcong-controlled areas. In spite of their aloofness and occasional animosity, the urban residents were not averse to exploiting refugee labor. Knowing the dire economic circumstances faced by the recent arrivals, the urban well-to-do took advantage of them, employing the refugees in menial, low-wage jobs.

Most refugees had no chance of achieving even the smallest degree of upward mobility. An overabundance of cheap labor in the cities brought on by the refugee crisis, the total absence of labor laws and worker’s rights, the lack of high-paying industrial jobs, and an education system which functioned as a tool to preserve the social and economic standing of the elite and their offspring, meant the refugees remained stuck – an exploited underclass with no chance of improving their situation. The refugees were a discarded people, traumatized by war and exploited by their fellow South Vietnamese.

And their circumstances were truly deplorable. An American research team familiar with the refugee crisis in urban centers across South Vietnam penned a report that stated, “…as bad as the camp conditions we observed were, the living conditions of the unregistered refugees of the urban centers are often far worse.”[9]

In Saigon, the refugees constructed sprawling slums on the outskirts of the capital. Along the road between Saigon and Bien Hoa, a slum rose out of a mosquito-infested swamp. Another huge slum covered the southern approaches to Saigon. This slum pushed right up to the edge of the city center. The Ben Nghe Canal acted as the northernmost boundary of the slum. The canal marked the demarcation line between the upscale buildings of downtown Saigon and the makeshift homes of the refugees. The “Y” bridge linked the two disparate worlds. On the south side of the bridge, people struggled in unimaginable circumstances. On the north side of the bridge, the South Vietnamese elite sipped coffee in cafés, browsed boutiques for the latest fashions, puttered aimlessly around Saigon’s wide boulevards on their Japanese scooters, and went to their Catholic churches, where they prayed for the defeat of the godless Communists.

In Saigon, and elsewhere, refugees constructed homes out of cardboard, flattened tin cans, corrugated steel sheeting, and pieces of wood. Rain, dust, and vermin easily found entry into these shoddy huts. South of Saigon’s Ben Nghe Canal, buildings were built so close together that they overlapped with one another. From the air, the rooftops of the shanties took on the appearance of a crazy patchwork of bright colors and odd shapes. Under that patchwork, people endured incredible suffering. During the dry season, Saigon’s daily temperatures consistently reached into the 90s Fahrenheit. Because the shanties did not have electricity, slum residents went without electric fans or air conditioning. The unbearable midday heat pushed people outside. Sitting under awnings, slum dwellers waited patiently for the cool evening breezes so common to Saigon. As for bathing water, people utilized the fetid Ben Nghe Canal. Drinking water came from a handful of wells. Indoor plumbing did not exist. Peter White, writing for the National Geographic Magazine in mid-1965, just as large numbers of refugees began to pour into Saigon, described this slum. “In many already crowded blocks, the last inches of space were swallowed by ramshackle houses, with walls of cardboard or wood scraps and roofs made of sheet metal or thatch. Here as many as two hundred families depended on a single communal water faucet, and on a communal toilet or two over an open ditch or a canal. Now 250,000 people lived that way.”[10]

In every slum, boredom was an unwelcome companion of the refugees, as was despair. Diseases, such as cholera and influenza, spread among the tightly-packed population, killing those with immune systems already weakened by anxiety disorders and depression. Fire was a constant danger too. Because the South Vietnamese used coal to cook their meals, there was the ever-present chance that a stray ember would set a slum ablaze. Narrow streets, crowded conditions, and inadequate planning guaranteed mass death if a slum went up in flames.

Sadly, for the rural residents who fled the war in the countryside, they swapped one miserable existence for another in the cities. Senator Edward Kennedy’s colleagues on the Senate Subcommittee for Refugees wrote a description of refugee life in Saigon, “In large sections of Saigon, there are hundreds of thousands of people living in squalor, in subhuman conditions. They sleep in the alleys and in the streets, in courtyards and halls, even in graveyards and mausoleums…most have no work, the children run wild; there is little food, little to sustain them both physically and mentally. The areas they live in are breeding grounds for disease and illness and for Vietcong recruitment.”[11]


[1] New York Times, “Saigon’s Rural Reconstruction Plan Turns the Enemy’s Tactics Against Him,” Charles Mohr, January 23, 1966.

[2] Leon Goure,, “Some Findings of the Viet Cong Motivation and Morale Study, June-December 1965, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, February 1966), 41.

[3] Frederick Downs, The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 38.

[4] Eric M. Bergerud, Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam, (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 14.

[5] W.D. Ehrhart, Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1995), 189-190.

[6] Frank Denton, “Volunteers for the Viet Cong,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, September 1968), 19.

[7] Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, (New York: Random House, 1988), 617.

[8] Konrad Keller, “Conversations with Enemy Soldiers in Late 1968/Early 1969: A Study of Motivation and Morale,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, September 1970), 95.

[9] Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees, United States Senate, “Civilian Casualty and Refugee Problems in South Vietnam, Findings and Recommendations of the Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees,” May 9, 1968, 90th Congress, 2d Session, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1968), 11.

[10] Peter T. White, Photographs by W.E. Garrett, “Saigon: Eye of the Storm,” National Geographic Magazine, Volume 127, Number 6, June 1965, 834-872, 868-870.

[11] Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees, “Civilian Casualty and Refugee Problems in South Vietnam,” 11.

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