From boat person to Queen's man

Governor Designate Le

When the next Governor of South Australia, Hieu Van Le, arrived at Darwin as a penniless boat person fleeing Vietnam in 1977, he was greeted by two zinc-nosed fishermen in a tinny, who raised a beer and said: 'G'day mate, welcome to Australia!'

The remarkable journey of this Adelaide Catholic 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... 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.

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 abandonned 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; disease was rife and supplies insufficient. And, perhaps worst of all, there seemed little prospect of settlement in another country.

'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. It took more than 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.

He has served as Lieutenant-Governor of South Australia since 2007. He is patron of more than 200 charities and organisations across South Australia, and was made an officer of the Order of Australia, AO, in 2010.

Read full article: A remarkable journey (Lumen, University of Adelaide magazine)

MORE:

Hieu Van Le to be next SA Governor: From war-torn Vietnam to vice-regal post (Radio Australia)

Biography (Government of South Australia)

LISTEN:

Hieu Van Le speaks to PM host Mark Colvin (ABC Radio)

WATCH:  

We Were Refugees - Hieu Van Le (ImmiTV/YouTube)

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