The Vietnamese-born community comprises one of Melbourne's most significant ethnic minorities. At the 2001 Census, the Vietnamese-born in Australia numbered 154 830 and were the country's fourth largest migrant group after those from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Italy. With about 37% of the Vietnamese-born population living in Melbourne, Victoria is home to the second highest concentration of Vietnamese people in the country after New South Wales.
Before 1975, there were only about 700 Vietnamese-born in Australia. After the communist victory in South Vietnam on 30 April 1975, however, an overwhelming refugee crisis developed, with a mass exodus of people from the country. Many of the initial refugees were Catholic, the elite, small businesspeople and ethnic Chinese who feared reprisals from the new regime, but by the following decade, approximately 2 million Vietnamese had fled their homes. The Australian Government accepted more than 137 000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos over the next 20 years. From the late 1980s, although Australia continued to resettle refugees, government policy focused more on family reunion.
Melbourne was a major destination for Vietnamese in the 1970s and 1980s, because of the existence of several migrant hostels: Eastbridge in Nunawading, Enterprise in Springvale, Midway in Maribyrnong and Wiltona in Altona. Melbourne now has several regions of high Vietnamese residential concentration, particularly in Footscray, Sunshine, Springvale and Richmond. This is mainly due to these suburbs' proximity to the migrant hostels, although cheap housing and the availability of unskilled jobs have also been significant. Over time, these areas have developed Vietnamese businesses and services and, as a consequence, serve to maintain the high Vietnamese presence. A stroll along Victoria Street in Richmond, Springvale Road in Springvale or Hopkins Street in Footscray is a vibrant reminder of why these shopping strips are known as 'little Saigons'.
Over 50 organisations, including business associations, outreach and support services, Vietnamese language schools, churches and temples, youth and student associations, and several Vietnamese-language newspapers and radio shows, cater to every facet of Vietnamese life in Melbourne. The community is also religiously diverse: 58.3% of Australia's Vietnamese are Buddhist, 22.1% Catholic, 10.1% have no professed religion, while smaller numbers are Baptists or belong to another religious denomination.
Many Vietnamese who arrived in Melbourne as refugees have achieved marked success. In 2001, 16.5% of Vietnamese-born had some form of post-secondary educational qualifications. Several members of Melbourne's Vietnamese community have also become well known in the wider community. For example, Tan Le was the recipient of the Young Australian of the Year award in 1998, Sang Nguyen became an MLC in the Victorian parliament after serving as Richmond's mayor, and Hung Le has become a popular comedian. Overall, however, this community has a poor rate of English language acquisition, with 43.3% of Vietnamese in Australia speaking English only poorly, or not at all. Coupled with a high percentage of unskilled workers, this has meant that the Vietnamese-born have rates of unemployment about 2.4 times higher than the broader Australian community. Those Vietnamese who are employed are overrepresented in the unskilled sector.
These social conditions have led to problems of drug use and crime, which are exacerbated by intergenerational conflict and the long-term results of displacement. As a consequence, the Vietnamese have been the frequent target of hostility and unfavourable newspaper reporting. Despite this, the Vietnamese presence has significantly enriched Melbourne's cultural life. Each year, Melburnians join with the Vietnamese community to celebrate the Autumn Moon Lantern festival and Lunar New Year festivals; while the Tet festival attracts an estimated 20 000 people. In 2001, 96% of Vietnamese immigrants had become Australian citizens, evidence that the Vietnamese feel a deep sense of belonging to, and gratitude towards, Australia.