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Anyone who thinks refugees and asylum
seekers are not good for Australia clearly
hasn’t met Tran Ngoc-Dung.
The diminutive 77-year-old is living proof
of what courage, hard work and an
unfathomable love for one’s family can
achieve against all the odds.
“Call me Mary – it’s easier,” she says with
a smile that is permanently etched on her
Mary’s story begins in southern Vietnam
where her mother handed her over to some
local nuns for six months to make sure she
“She had two boys but her baby girls had
died so she wanted the nuns to look after
me,” Mary explained.
This was the beginning of her mother’s
life-long devotion to God which turned out
to have a major impact on her family later
After leaving school, Mary became a
primary school teacher and studied
English before starting a family with her
husband Dang Ngoc-Day who worked as a
secretary in the local courts in Vietnam.
“Before the war we have a very good life
but the war changed everything,” she said.
“Every day, every night we were scared.”
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, their life
continued to be very difficult.
“We had not much money and only rice to
Her husband lost his job after the war and
her two brothers were gaoled for serving in
the South Vietnam army.
They lived on the coast and one night
Mary, her mother and the eight children
went down to the port and boarded a small
boat transporting about 40 refugees. Her
husband stayed behind to make sure they
got away unnoticed and a month later fled
with a friend on another boat.
Mary said she vomited most of the
time during the 15-day journey on very
rough seas to Malaysia. She fed the two
youngest breast milk and the other children
had only a small amount of food and water
that they had taken with them from home.
“I thought we were going to die,” she said,
“but we had no choice, we had to escape.”
“I prayed, and my mum prayed a lot,”
she said, adding that they had been
very restricted in their worship under the
The family spent 18 months in a refugee
camp in Malaysia where they were well
fed and the children were able to study
English. Before departing Kuala Lumpur,
they were reunited with Mary’s husband
Ngoc Day who had been on a different
camp on an island off Malaysia.
“We were very happy to see each other
again,” said Mary. By this time Mary’s two
brothers had escaped Vietnam and settled
in Adelaide so the family were flown to
Melbourne, then Adelaide.
The older children watched excitedly as
other passengers changed money at the
Melbourne Airport. The family had just
five Malaysian dollars which converted to
$2.50. On their arrival at the Pennington
Hostel in Adelaide, they noticed other
children eating icecream so Mary gave
them 50c but ended up having to hand
over the whole $2.50 so each of the eight
children could afford one.
Their first home in Australia was a
presbytery house, belonging to the
Woodville parish, which Fr Augustin
Thu and Sr Nien Tran found for them.
They were charged $1 a month rent
and the children began learning English
and attending St Aloysius College and
Blackfriars Priory with financial assistance
from the schools.
“We had a lot of help,” said Mary. “We felt
She found work in a Chinese restaurant
in Rundle Mall and the couple bought a
small, second-hand car to take the children
to and from school each day.
One of the children’s teachers was
concerned about transporting so many
children in such a small car but it was all
they could afford until Mary saved enough
money to buy a second car. They also
moved into a Housing Trust property at
The family began sourcing cheap eggs
from the market and selling them at the
Brickworks Market on Sundays. Mary
was also a skilled seamstress and made
clothes to sell at the market. This income
supplemented her restaurant work and
enabled the couple to put their four
daughters and four sons through school
Mary’s mother, who died five years ago,
played a close role in her grandchildren’s
lives, praying to Our Lady that they
would pass their exams. All of Mary’s
eight children were successful in their
medical field studies. The Dang family has
contributed to Australia two doctors, two
dentists, two pharmacists and two nurses.
The family owns two large pharmacies
in the northern suburbs and Mary is still
working in one of them.
She rises at 6am every day to prepare
lunch and evening meals and works until
6pm in the pharmacy. The siblings and
their children gather after work at the
family home for dinner and they help each
other out as much as possible.
All of the family were baptised in Australia
and they are closely connected to the
Mansfield Park parish.
Asked if she ever imagined her children
becoming so successful, she replied: “I
never expected it, I thought if I was lucky
I would have a home for my family to live
More than 80,000 Vietnamese people moved to Australia in the decade following the Vietnam War. Among them was the Dang family
who arrived in South Australia in 1979 with nothing but the clothes on their back. As we celebrate Migrant and Refugee Sunday on
August 28, Tran Ngoc-Dung spoke with Jenny Brinkworth about her incredible journey.
A mother’s devotion
FAMILY COMES FIRST: Mary at work in one of the family’s pharmacies, and below her four daughters who attended
St Aloysius College.
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