OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Hiep Thi Le’s life story is a reflection of the times in which she lived.

Le died last week in Los Angeles of stomach cancer. She was 46.

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As a child, Le was part of the desperate ‘boat people’ exodus from Vietnam as the nation fell to the communists in the 1970s. Her father had already fled to the United States and her mother arranged for Le and a younger sister to escape aboard a fishing boat.

“We were just told by my mom that we had to go look for Dad,” the New York Times quoted from an interview with Le. “He had gone to someplace called America, which we interpreted was the city across the river, since it had lights.”

She spent time in Hong Kong refugee camps before reuniting with father in Oakland, where she would grow up.

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Le was studying at UC Davis when she went to an open casting call in San Jose held by Oliver Stone for his film ‘Heaven And Earth.’

Even though she did not have any acting experience, Le would win the part of the film’s main character Le Ly Hayslip. She would go on to receive rave reviews for her performance.

She starred in a dozen other movie including “Cruel Intentions” (1999) and “Green Dragon” (2001) where she starred opposite Patrick Swayze and Forest Whitaker.

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Along with her film roles, Le also became a well-known restaurateur in Los Angeles. She owned Le Cellier, a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant in Venice, Calif.