A remarkable journey
South Australia's Lieutenant Governor and University of Adelaide graduate Hieu Van Le came to Australia in 1977 as a Vietnamese refugee. His remarkable journey to Australia is the stuff of legend and his achievements within Australia almost as extraordinary.
If there was a defining moment which said to the world that Hieu Van Le would be a leader, it came in a small wooden fishing boat crammed with more than 50 seasick people three days out to sea from Vietnam in 1977.
Mr Le, just 21 at the time, his wife Lan, and Vietnamese people of all ages and from all walks of life had successfully escaped their war-torn country, but now faced miles of ocean with no maps or navigational aids and a skipper who had reached the limit of the waters he knew.
"The skipper, a local fisherman, summoned us together and said he didn't know which way to go or what else to do," said Mr Le.
"We were mostly people from cities, many of us had never even been in a boat before. I waited for someone to come up with a solution. Nobody had any practical suggestions, neither the older people we deferred to or the professional people - everyone was arguing. Eventually, with youthful exuberance, frustration and some recklessness under the circumstances, I grabbed some paper and drew a map of Vietnam and the region as best I could remember."
With roughly sketched map in hand, Mr Le announced that the only way to go was west which should bring them to Malaysia or Thailand. Two days later they saw fishing boats with Malaysian flags and Hieu Van Le was their acknowledged leader.
One major hurdle overcome, the next few days were nightmare material with coastguards turning them away, sometimes at gunpoint, every time they tried to land.
"When you escape from one country to another in a fragile boat with very limited supplies, water and fuel, the first thing you want to do is to land at the nearest place you can. But it turned out to be quite impossible," said Mr Le.
"Mentally we weren't prepared for that. Before we left we were told by the so-called skippers and people in the know that once we'd successfully escaped the Vietnamese shore and made it into international waters there would be plenty of ships - a kind of highway of ships - that would pick us up and bring us to shore. It wasn't happening. Nobody wanted us."
They tried to land six times at different points along the coastline of Malaysia and Singapore and, every time, the coastguard towed their boat back out to sea.
Eventually, running out of water and supplies, in hopelessness and desperation they all abandoned the boat and swam towards shore, again to Mr Le's direction and in defiance of the shouts to stop and the weapons being aimed at them.
Ten days after leaving Vietnam, they found themselves in a Malaysian refugee camp of 5000 people. It was overcrowded and the conditions were appalling with disease rife and supplies insufficient. And, perhaps worst of all, there seemed little prospect of settlement in another country.
"We were out of sight and out of mind and weren't getting a lot of attention from any other countries," said Mr Le.
"Again with youthful determination we thought we've come this far but we haven't yet reached our goal, so we decided to go again."
Hieu and Lan were asked to join a group planning to leave for Australia. They were much better prepared for the second boat journey with good maps, lessons in navigation, spare parts for their motor and adequate supplies.
It took over a month of often stormy open seas until they reached Darwin on 21 November 1977 and then by plane to Adelaide just over a week later.
Settling into Australian life was a challenge although they met with unexpected kindnesses like the Schwarz family who heard about them in the media and invited them to Loxton for Christmas.
Hieu and Lan found work at the local Actil factory and then, in 1978 Mr Le started his degree in Economics and Accounting at the University of Adelaide, studying part-time while he worked as a Finance Officer for the Health Commission. He also worked hard to help the growing Vietnamese community integrate into South Australia.
"Right from the first day I became active in the community," he said. "This served a lot of purposes. I always felt a huge responsibility to make sure that the communities were able to integrate and settle well into their life in Australia.
"On the other hand, I was extremely pressured by the fact that the Australian public had very little, if not a false, understanding of Vietnam's history and the presence of refugees. Also, the anti-Vietnam war movement was quite strong, and therefore the arrival of Vietnamese refugees was not readily accepted or welcomed by some people."
Ever since his arrival, Mr Le has enjoyed a strong presence in the media and worked with governments, local members of parliament and various organisations to educate the Australian public, give his community a voice and promote their culture.
In 1991 Mr Le was appointed a member to the SA Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission, becoming Deputy Chairman in 2001 and Chairman two years ago. He is the longest serving member of the Commission and the first person of Asian background to be Chairman.
"Today, everywhere you go in South Australia, you find existence of cultural diversity," he said. "People accept the diversity as a fantastic, positive blend of life that's quite enriching. South Australia has a wonderful cultural heritage."
Mr Le is also a Senior Manager with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), responsible for regulating the financial services industry and investment markets in the State.
In 1996 Mr Le received an Australia Day Medal for outstanding service to ASIC and was awarded the Centenary of Federation Medal for service to the advancement of multiculturalism. As this edition went to press he was due to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Adelaide in recognition of his outstanding achievements.
In 2001 he completed his Masters in Business Administration (MBA), again at the University of Adelaide and in 2007 Mr Le was appointed South Australia's Lieutenant Governor.
He treasures the time he spent at the University. "We Vietnamese highly value academic achievement," he said. "The University of Adelaide has been a fantastic institution for me, both helping me to settle and to integrate, but also as a wonderful foundation for life. I'm so thankful for that." ■
STORY ROBYN MILLS