Le was born on November 30, 1969 in Da Nang, Vietnam. In 1978, her father became a refugee who defected from Vietnam to Hong Kong. A year later when Le was 8 years old, she and her younger sister, along with approximately 60 other refugees, got themselves hidden in a secret compartment behind a galley pantry on a fishing boat sailing to Hong Kong to reunite with their father. "Sometime during the night, just as we arrived at a Vietnamese checkpoint, my sister woke up and started screaming for our momma," Le says. "Everyone thought we were going to die." That night, a fishing boat captain grabbed her screaming 7-year-old sister and put a knife to her throat. Le witnessed it and it scarred her for life. "Tears rolled down her face, but there was no more crying," says Le. "I thought her eyes were going to fall out of their sockets." Her sister survived, and when they both reached port, they stayed in a Hong Kong refugee camp. They eventually reunited with her father in Hong Kong. Le's entire family—her parents and five children—were eventually reunited in Northern California.
Eventually, Le moved to Oakland, California as a child, where her mother worked at a French-Vietnamese restaurant. Le graduated from Oakland High School. She attended the University of California, Davis with a major in physiology. Le originally had plans to graduate in June 1993 and pursue a career in science. During her tenure as a college student, she went to an open casting call in Northern California "because all my friends were doing it for fun" and ended up being cast in the leading role of Oliver Stone's third film set amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War, Heaven & Earth (1993).
"I don't know how I got here," she says. "My cousin heard about these auditions for a movie, and I just went with a friend to see what it was about. They kept calling me back." Le was one of 16,000 Vietnamese-Americans seen by casting scouts for Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth and was finally chosen for the starring role Le Ly Hayslip. In the film, she plays a woman who ages from 13 to 38, who is raped and tortured in Vietnam and who becomes an abused housewife, mother and businesswoman in the United States.
According to Stone, "Our people saw her, put her on video, thought she was electric, and flew her down to Los Angeles. I thought she was charismatic. We worked with her, put her on video with other actors, introduced her to Tommy Lee Jones and Joan Chen and Haing Ngor, and then we put her on film. We tested her out for about five months, continuously, and she won the role. I didn't send her to any acting school. I didn't feel that it was necessary; she was a natural."
Although the film required Le to age over 30 years and cast her opposite a number of accomplished American and Asian actors, the untrained actress received excellent reviews citing her sensitivity and actorly grace as Hayslip. In his review of the film, Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan described her as "nonprofessional but very capable."
When Le was asked what she had learned from her experience with the film: "I have grown a lot. I have grown so much in the past two years, but the experiences that I went through throughout my whole life really made me what I am today."
Le subsequently appeared in Bugis Street (1995, released in the United States in 1997) and co-starred in the little-scene Dead Man Can't Dance (1997). Le made an appearance in the 1999 film Bastards. She also appeared in Green Dragon (2001) with Patrick Swayze and Forest Whitaker.
After a long stint in the film industry, Le opened up Le Cellier, a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant on the Venice and Marina del Rey border in 2002. "Although it's not easy to find out here, French-Vietnamese food dates back to the 18th century," Le said. "This unique cuisine combines the fresh herbs of Vietnamese food with the fine heritage of country French cooking." As of 2012, she owns the restaurant Le Cellier's with Mark Van Gessel and Bernard Louberssac.
On February 23, 2014, Le appeared on the Food Network game show Chopped, appearing and competing in the eighteenth-season episode "Beer Here!" While she utilized her culinary skills to survive the appetizer round, she was ultimately eliminated in the entrée round for serving undercooked beef to judges Scott Conant, Chris Santos, and guest judge Greg Koch, as well as not using enough beer cheese to be tasted in her dish. The episode was ultimately won by head chef Lauren Kyles, who defeated consulting chef Bradley Stellings in the dessert round.Heaven & Earth (1993)
Bugis Street (1995)
Cruel Intentions (1999)
Green Dragon (2001)
National Security (2003)
The Princess of Nebraska (2007)
Lakeview Terrace (2008)
Sympathy for Delicious (2010)