Of the approximately 800,000 people who fled Vietnam by sea after 1975 and arrived safely in another country, some made landfall on the west coast of Palawan, the most westerly of the large Philippine islands.  There they were taken to PFAC, the Philippine First Asylum Camp, in Puerto Princesa.  PFAC opened in 1979, as the “boat people” arrived in great numbers.  (I’ve not been able to get a reasonable estimate of how many Vietnamese passed through PFAC in its 17 years.)

PFAC in 2009

The view east from PFAC

Like their counterparts at first asylum camps in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong, they waited, for months or years, to be resettled in third countries.  Many went on the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC) in Bataan, where after six months of training they moved on to the US.  Others were never accepted as refugees and remained on Palawan.

The PRPC closed in June, 1994 and the Vietnamese who remained there were taken by boat to Puerto Princesa and from there to PFAC.  Lina accompanied them on this journey.  She had worked since 1986 in PRPC and would spend two more years at PFAC with her Vietnamese friends.  These were families who had been denied refugee status, even though they’d been taken to PRPC, either because of health or legal problems.

Goats at PFAC

In 2009, goats roamed the land where PFAC once stood.

The Philippine camp was unusual among others in Southeast Asia because it allowed its residents to leave the camp during the day and run small businesses, perhaps fishing or selling goods in the market.  The camp itself had a market, schools for children and adults, and places of worship for Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants.

Lina lived about one mile from the camp.  Every morning she’d walk to PFAC in time for a 6AM prayer service at the Vietnamese Protestant church; then enjo y breakfast with her friends.  She would return at midday to her room, rest and shower, then walk back in the afternoon to the camp until evening.   She accompanied these families through the difficult choices they had to make as the camp drew near to closing, as she’d accompanied them through the tremendous disappointment of being refused entry to the US and returning to Palawan.

Lubaton & Anh!

At Viet Ville in 2009, with Pham thi Anh (to Lina’s right) and Pastor Lubaton (to my right), who worked in the Protestant Church in PFAC with Lina.

These friends now live all over the world, and we have visited them in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, all over the US and back in Vietnam.  They love Lina and she loves them, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet them through her and to hear their stories.  If you’ve been reading this blog in past years, you’ve already met many of them.

PFAC closed in 1996.  By that time, many Vietnamese had accepted repatriation with cash gifts to help them establish themselves again in Vietnam.  A few were forcibly repatriated, but unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines allowed others to stay.  The Catholic Church opposed forced repatriation and supported the integration of the remaining Vietnamese into Philippine society.

Vietville Restaurant

The Viet Ville restaurant

With the help of the church, a 13 hectare village called VietVille was built in 1997.  It contained “more than 200 cottages, a restaurant, a chapel, a pagoda, and a vast playground for children that included a basketball court”.   Over 1,500 Vietnamese moved there, but by 2006, most had been accepted for resettlement in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

In 2009 we visited Viet Ville and met Pham thi Anh, a lovely older woman who has made her life on Palawan, running the kitchen that now serves tourists who include Viet Ville on their itinerary to nearby Honda Bay.

Pham thi Anh

Pham thi Anh and Lina in 2017

We returned a few days ago to see Anh again and to enjoy her good food.  She and another old woman are the only Vietnamese left.  They continue to run the restaurant with the help of the Filipino staff.  The French colonials bequeathed good coffee and baguettes to the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese have now brought those gifts to Palawan along with their wonderful cuisine.  Crisp loaves of “banh mi” are now found at many restaurants in Puerto Princesa which advertise Vietnamese cooking.

Banh mi!

Banh mi

Will Viet Ville survive as a tourist stop if not as a home for Vietnamese?  That will depend on the Church’s willingness to intercede again, to invest in developing the site.  Anh told us that the Vatican must make this decision.

While we talked, a workman was repainting the arched gate to the Catholic Church in preparation for a celebration of Our Lady of La Vang, who appeared to persecuted Catholics in Vietnam in 1798.  Boat people reported that the Virgin Mary and Guanyin, the Boddhisattva of Compassion, appeared to them at times of greatest danger on the seas and helped them through.  Faith has played an important role in the lives of many of our friends.  Anh concluded that all she and we can do is to pray for a good outcome.

VietVille Church

If you’d like to read previous posts about the Philippine Refugee Processing Center, go back to

“Journey to the Philippines”  https://orionblair.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/journey-to-the-philippines/

“Riot”    https://orionblair.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/330/

“Belinda’s Journey”      https://orionblair.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/belindas-story-the-long-journey-home/

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