Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Phung Nhat Minh (1926–1995)

by Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen

This article was published online in 2020

Phung Nhat Minh (1926–1995), South Vietnamese diplomat, was born on 21 January 1926 at Cua Ong, northern Vietnam, eldest of eight children of Phung Thoi Tien and his wife Do Thi Soan. A ‘ready scholar’ who ‘loved nature, poetry, and song’ (Armstrong 1995, 7), Phung had to leave home for his education. He was studying for the baccalaureate when famine engulfed northern and north-central Vietnam, killing an estimated one million people between 1944 and 1945.

At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Viet Minh, briefly seized power in Hanoi. Phung joined the Viet Minh in 1946, after members of a battalion were billeted in his grandmother’s house. Over the next three years, he was enmeshed in the brutality of war in the countryside. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese died in purges between 1945 and 1947, and while violence did occur on both sides of politics, it was far more systematic on the part of the Viet Minh. Phung became disillusioned with the communist control of the Viet Minh, and was fortunate to survive leaving them. Financially supported by his father, he went to France for further study. He enjoyed the cultural attractions and nightlife of Paris, but became addicted to gambling and later felt guilty about misusing his family’s money.

Following the 1954 Geneva Agreements, Vietnam was partitioned at the seventeenth parallel. One million refugees fled from the communist north to the non-communist south including Phung’s parents, who resettled in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). He joined them there. After his father’s death, Phung became the head of the family and began working as a teacher. He then secured employment in the foreign service of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) as third secretary at the embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. Following the coup d’état against South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, he lost the position and found employment as a translator. During the next year he met and married Valerie Joe King Chew, a New Zealander who was working at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club.

Reinstated to the foreign service in 1965, Phung was appointed first secretary in Kuala Lumpur under the ambassador Tran Kim Phuong. In 1967 they were both transferred to Australia. As first secretary at the embassy in Canberra, Phung appeared regularly in the local press. On 25 August 1967 he apologised for a booklet on ‘The Truth of Vietcong Terror’ being sent in error by the embassy to schoolchildren. In February the next year, as guest speaker at the Australian Capital Territory branch of the Democratic Labor Party, he reported that the communists fighting in Vietnam had superior weapons, supplied by the Soviet bloc and China, and on Saigon’s concerns about the allied forces’ unwillingness to attack communists in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. During 1968 he also spoke about foreign adoptions of Vietnamese children, drew attention to reports of disillusionment in North Vietnam, and wrote letters to the Canberra Times rebutting criticism of South Vietnam. On 19 July, after he delivered an address on the war at the University of Queensland, a protesting student held a noose over his head (Courier-Mail 1968, 7). Phung was promoted to counsellor in November and was often chargé d’affaires when the ambassador was overseas.

In January 1970 Phung returned to South Vietnam, where he was appointed chef de cabinet to the foreign minister. During the next year he was a delegate to the Viet-Nam Troop Contributing Countries meeting and he accompanied the foreign minister to the United States of America to meet with representatives of allied nations. In mid-1971 he took up a senior post at the embassy in Washington, DC. Described as a ‘thin man of philosophic calm’ (Pace 1973, 3), he remarked on the heightened workload at the embassy during the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973. In addition to reporting on the American political situation, and dealing with two hundred letters a day, the seven staff assisted South Vietnamese representatives to lobby members of Congress. Soon after, he was directed to take up a post in Rome. By then he ‘despaired of the south’s cause’ (Armstrong 1995, 7) and its likelihood of success, and left with his family for Australia, assisted by friends there. After the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, his youngest brother Cuong was sent to a re-education camp, and was shot for refusing to dismantle landmines. Phung did not keep in touch with former colleagues or with the Vietnamese refugee community after that year.

Based in Sydney, Phung was employed by Amatil Ltd while Valerie worked as a judge’s associate. His friend the philosopher David Armstrong—whom he had met during his diplomatic career—wrote that ‘the cloud lifted’ from Phung, and in retirement he ‘entered an Indian summer, taking up the hobby of cutting gemstones’ (1995, 8). He became an Australian citizen on 8 August 1991. In his last weeks he recorded his life history, and observed that: ‘During the time that I have lived in Australia, for more than 20 years, I have never received so much sympathy, so much solicitude, from people everywhere’ (Armstrong 1995, 8). Survived by his wife and son, he died of stomach cancer on 7 July 1995 at Riverwood and was buried in Woronora cemetery.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Armstrong, David. ‘Phung Nhat Minh.’ Australian, 7 August 1995, 7–8
  • Canberra Times. ‘Children Sent War Book “By Mistake.”’ 25 August 1967, 1
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘Vietnam Goes to University.’ 20 July 1968, 7
  • Luu, Tuong Quang. Email correspondence with author, 9 December 2018
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, 1500/1/65/2 Part 1
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, 1500/1/65/2 Part 2
  • Pace, Eric. ‘Saigon’s Embassy Is Beset by Work and Worries.’ New York Times, 21 January 1973, 3
  • Scalmer, Sean. Dissent Events: Protest, the Media, and the Political Gimmick in Australia. Sydney, NSW: NewSouth Publishing, 2002

Additional Resources

Citation details

Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, 'Phung Nhat Minh (1926–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/phung-nhat-minh-29613/text36496, published online 2020, accessed online 29 February 2020.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020