Skip to main content

Vietnamese refugee with big heart builds life and helps community in Western Australia

Hien Le in front of her Bunbury cafe
Hien Le fled Vietnam in 1982, settling in Perth then Bunbury.

ABC South West: Gian De Poloni

A Vietnamese refugee who owns four businesses in Western Australia has come a long way since her first night in Perth, when she slept on the floor of a public toilet at a train station.

Hien Le, 55, piled all her belongings into a 6-metre fishing boat in 1982 and made the long, treacherous journey to Australia.

It took six days for her and 12 other people, including her husband, to reach Australia, escaping a post-war communist Vietnam.

"I don't like to talk about it a lot, because it's a sad story. But oh well, I'm happy now because from that I can stand up to make this day happen," she said.

On a sunny day in Bunbury, a port city in Western Australia's south, Ms Le is serving coffee at a bakery, one of the local businesses she owns.

Of her first night in Perth, she said, "When you heard the noise of people come in, you had to hold your breath because you don't want to scare them.

"I came here with nothing — just a pair of clothes. Nobody told me how cold it was here, I cried a lot."

Speaking barely a word of English, she was unable to defend herself from the constant bouts of abuse and racism directed at her by others.

Learning English with Days of Our Lives

Ms Le recalls how a Perth bus driver once refused to stop for her, forcing her and her infant child to walk kilometres though sweltering heat.

"With my tears running down, I say to my one-month-old son, I swear to you and swear to God, from now on my tears will only run down for family," she said.

She taught herself the language over three years, using an unorthodox method.

"I said to myself I have to study but I don't have time. I look after my son. I can't go to work with no English," Ms Le said.

"I hear the words, write down what I imagine the word to be like, then I check with dictionary."

Giving back through community service

When her eldest son become gravely ill, Ms Le decided it was time to move out of the Perth shelter she called home and resettle in Bunbury.

"We think we go down [to] stay for two years, but now it's been 24 years," she said.

"In my family, I am the one who is always the head of the train. I have to be tough, strong and know where I'm going and what I'm doing to make the whole family follow."

Aside from attending to her business, Ms Le spends a great deal of her time helping out other young Vietnamese girls who have moved to Australia for a shot at a better life.

"I help lots of people — whatever they need. I just think when I first arrived, nobody helped, so I do a lot," she said.

"I do whatever I can — it makes me feel better."

Well known in community

WA Vietnamese Community president Anh Nguyen said Ms Le was well known in the community for her humanitarian work.

"She's very down to earth and works very long hours, has very little sleep," he said.

"She has a cheerful personality, smiling all the time, laughing, not complaining about her hard work or anything like that.

"She helps people without any wish to have anything in return — that's the best personality and that's why people love her a lot. She has a very big heart."

Mr Nguyen fled to Australia by boat in 1981, seeking refuge from the hardships of post-war Vietnam.

"We had a feeling that we had been rebaptised.

"From that kind of mindset, people like Hien and I had to overcome the hardship and start life from the beginning without any regrets."

And that is exactly what Ms Le said she had done.

"[If] I wasn't tough I would have died a long time ago," she said.