When this Vietnamese fishing boat was acquired by the museum in 1990, very little was known about Tu Do's history. The name, meaning 'Freedom', hinted at the motives of its passengers who were part of the exodus from South Vietnam after the fall of its capital, Saigon, to communist forces in 1975. The boat's Vietnamese registration documents identified its home port and the name of the owner and his wife. Research into immigration records revealed sketchy details of the Tu Do voyage but it wasn't until 1995, when a museum curator finally tracked down the original owner in a NSW country town, that the full story unfolded.

"Making the decision to escape is like going to war. You do it because you think it's necessary, but you never want to do it twice."

Tan Thanh Lu was a 30-year-old businessman who meticulously planned his secret escape - with 38 others - from the new regime which he feared. He had Tu Do built specially for the voyage. A typical fishing boat design of Phu Quoc Island off the southernmost part of Vietnam, the boat plied its trade for six months to allay suspicion and to help pay for crucial supplies which were hidden in his fellow voyagers' houses.

The original owner of Tu Do, Tan Thanh Lu aboard the vessel at the Maritime Museum in 1995. Photo: Jenni Carter for ANMM
The original owner of Tu Do, Tan Thanh Lu aboard the vessel at the Maritime Museum in 1995. Photo: Jenni Carter for ANMM

When he was ready to set off Mr Lu staged an engine breakdown so that surveillance of Tu Do would be relaxed. A powerful replacement engine was installed by night and his group set off in the dark, pushing the boat across kilometres of tidal shallows before starting the motor. Children had been given cough medicine to make them sleep - and a head count revealed that one, Mr Lu's 6-year-old daughter Dzung, had been left sleeping on the shore! They returned to fetch her and the voyage began, on 16 September 1977. On board were Mr Lu's pregnant wife Tuyet, 27, infants Dao and Mo, relatives, friends and neighbours.

Tu Do, with gold and cash hidden about the vessel, outpaced the notorious Gulf of Thailand pirates who preyed on boat people. Turned away from one port on the Malaysian coast, the group managed to land in Mersing where eight of the exhausted passengers disembarked as refugees. After a month, and unsuccessful approaches to US Embassy officials, Mr Lu bought more supplies with some of his gold and sailed for Australia with his remaining 30 people.

In Java they were resupplied and encouraged to move on by Indonesian authorities. Off Flores they rescued another Vietnamese refugee boat which had run aground and towed it across the Timor Sea to make an Australian landfall near Darwin. The family was transferred to Wacol Refugee Centre in Brisbane, where a son Quoc was born to Mr Lu and Tuyet. It was here that Mr Lu arranged to sell Tu Do - and was charged import duty.

Tu Do's intrepid 6000 km voyage, guided by a map torn from a schoolbook and a compass, ended on 21 November 1977, a day Mr Lu says he'll never forget. After revisiting his well-worn fishing boat at the museum, and taking a trip on Sydney Harbour, he said: 'Making the decision to escape is like going to war. You do it because you think it's necessary, but you never want to do it twice.'

Download the full story (PDF, 545kb)


Ship specifications

Length
18.25 m overall
Breadth 5.2 m
Draught 1.8 m
Displacement
35.6 tonnes
Engine 3-cylinder Jinil diesel 33.56 kW

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