Former refugee Hieu Van Le assumes role as SA governor

Hieu Van Le has become the first Vietnamese-born person to be appointed as the Queen’s representative in South Australia.


He says the journey from refugee to South Australia’s governor has had its challenges.

He was only 23 years old in 1977 when he fled war-ravaged Vietnam on a small boat with his 19-year-old wife.

“It was one of the fiercest battles that occurred in that land and quite miraculously I survived in that environment,” he said.

The tiny boat offered little protection against a three-day monsoon and volcano eruption in Indonesia. The food and fuel supplies also rapidly dwindled.

After being refused entry in Thailand, Hieu Van Le ended up in Malaysia where he lived in a refugee camp.

“Living in a refugee camp was one of the most horrific experiences one can go through,” he said of the experience.

He boarded another leaky vessel to try for Australia, nervous of being turned away. But the fears proved to be unfounded. He says he still recalls the greeting he received from a pair of fisherman in a small boat off Darwin Harbour.

“One of the guys raised a stubby up as if proposing a toast. ‘G’day mate,’ he shouted. ‘Welcome to Australia’.”

From 1976 to the mid-1980s, Australia accepted about 90,000 Vietnamese refugees – the first wave of Vietnamese migrants.

Hieu Van Le says while he encountered racial hostility he also saw opportunity.

“Thanks to the generosity of spirit and the way this society treated us, we were offered a fair go.”

He forged an accounting career with the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) and was tasked with fighting corruption.

“We wanted to ensure that the people weren’t being ripped off by all these white collar cowboys and rogue operators,” he said. “So I found it extremely satisfying not just on the career and professional point of view, but also on the personal values.”

Struck by the Australian obsession with sport, he named his two sons after Australian cricketers, Don Bradman and Kim Hughes.

“So I named my first son Don, with the hope he would turn out to be a good cricketer.

“Now Don turned out to be quite a hopeless sportsman, he’s not good at sport at all!”

With his second son, he saw another chance.

“One of the guys playing cricket caught my eye. He was fantastically built and had the skill – Kim Hughes.

“…Now, [my son] Kim turned out to be not a bad cricketer, so I’m quite happy with that,” he said.

He says he steps into his new role as South Australia’s governor with a sense of trepidation but also with a fair amount of optimism.

“My appointment says very loudly about the way the society appreciates and acknowledges the work and the contribution of all migrants and all refugees who come to this land.”