Epilogue : Le Ly Hayslip's American Life

Karen Evans is a San Francisco writer.

PHUNG THI LE LY OF KY LA, Vietnam, is now Le Ly Hayslip of Escondido. The one-time teen-age Viet Cong collaborator is now an American citizen living in a ranch-style house, high atop a hill, surrounded by palm trees and the dry, rolling California landscape. She is worlds away from the rice paddies of war-torn Ky La.

The memories, however, are never far away. Indeed, as Hayslip writes in the forthcoming book "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey From War to Peace," "for a daughter growing up on the Central Coast, there is almost too much to remember."

Now 39, Hayslip has a serene countenance that belies the grueling life she chronicles in her book. Her giggle still sounds girlish; her emotions are close to the surface, and her tears break through as easily as her laughter. Sitting in her living room, wearing a powder-blue suit and a red silk flower in her dark, curly hair, she speaks with a softly impassioned voice. She is a natural storyteller. Words come easily--poetic Buddhist metaphor one minute, American vernacular the next.

Around her, overstuffed sofas and the Encyclopaedia Britannica mix with touches of Oriental decoration--small lacquer and mother-of-pearl plaques on a wall, a straw tea basket on a table. In the dining room, bookshelves have become a family altar. A statue of Buddha, as large as a toddler, sits serenely among incense and pieces of paper bearing the names of her deceased loved ones. The white, late-model Toyota in the carport, and the house--which Hayslip shares with her two youngest sons (her eldest son is away at college)--are the trappings of her new American life; the altar is the bridge to the old.

In a small office off her living room is a computer, at which she dictated her memories to Jimmy, her eldest child. The events came spilling back. "My mind," she says, "was like a computer when you call it to come up."

Her story, polished with the help of co-author Jay Wurts of San Francisco, is about a side of the war not written about before; it is an unflinching account of a peasant family and an entire people caught in the cross fire of a war waged first by the French and the Viet Minh, and then by the Diem regime, the Viet Cong and the Americans. For Hayslip, coming of age was a fight for life itself.

The book is a survivor's tale, and Hayslip was a survivor from the start. She was born in December, 1949, the youngest and smallest of the six children in her family. "Suffocate her!" are the first words of the first chapter of the book. That's what the midwife who delivered her said to her mother. "I weighed only 2 pounds and looked just terrible."

The end of her childhood comes at the end of the excerpt published here. It was 1965, and Hayslip was 15. She had been arrested three times by the Republicans. The Viet Cong suspected that she had become a traitor. She was shunned, condemned to die and then raped. She fled to nearby Da Nang.

In Da Nang, Hayslip found a job as a housekeeper and wandered between the city and Ky La, returning finally to find her family still under suspicion. Eventually, her father petitioned the Viet Cong for a pardon; in return, she and her mother were exiled from Ky La. In November, 1965, they headed for Saigon. Both found jobs as servants for a wealthy family. But when Le Ly became pregnant by her employer, they were out on the streets again. Mother and daughter returned to Da Nang, where Jimmy was born in 1966.

With three mouths to feed, Hayslip ventured into the wartime black market--selling Vietnamese crafts to GIs, buying American products with the cash and selling these, in turn, on the Vietnamese black market. Her "business" lasted a little more than two years, but she became too good at what she was doing. "I realized I had come to worship at the shrine of the street-smart and shrewd, the tough and canny, and not at the altar of my ancestors. I had become my own worst enemy." At one point, she even agreed to one act of prostitution, because the fee, $400, was enough to support her family for a year.

She longed for her village, and she feared for her father. When she sneaked back to visit him, the village she remembered no longer existed; much of it had been leveled by the Americans. She found her father, badly beaten by the Viet Cong, lying in the ruins of her childhood home. As she nursed him, he told her: "Don't make vengeance your god because such gods are satisfied only by human sacrifice. Go back to your little son. Raise him the best way you can. That is the battle you were born to fight."

As Hayslip recalls his words more than two decades later, she breaks into tears. It was the last time she saw him alive. Less than a week later, in April of 1968, her father killed himself. His message was a turning point for her. "I was no longer confused with where my duty lay," she writes in her book. "With the Viet Cong? With the legal government and its allies? With the peasants in the countryside? No--my duty lay with my son, and with nurturing life, period."

She returned to Da Nang bent on finding a better way to survive. She found work at the American hospital and at an enlisted men's club, and fell into several hapless liaisons with U.S. servicemen. One tried to turn her into a topless dancer, another tried to strangle her--but other Americans came to her aid. "Some of my best protectors (were) Americans . . . some of my worst antagonists were Vietnamese . . . the dividing line between friends and enemies--spiritual kinsmen and barbarian disrupters . . . became a blur."

Increasingly, she began to look to the United States for her survival. "If (Jimmy) and I and my father's family name and the things he stood for were to survive the death of Vietnam, we should have to turn our eyes elsewhere--the West." By 1970, she had met and married an American civilian contractor from San Diego named Ed Munro. Her second son, Tommy, now 18, was born in Da Nang. When Munro's contract expired, he took his new family out of Vietnam.

HAYSLIP'S BOOK IS ACTUALLY THE STORY OF TWO JOURNEYS. HER PERILOUScoming of age in Vietnam is intertwined with an account of her return to Vietnam in 1986, in search of her family and her past. The 16 years in between, spent in Southern California, are only hinted at.

Her first intimation of American freedom, Hayslip recalls, came when she was in a car on a Southern California freeway and she realized that she could sing all the songs she'd learned growing up in Vietnam. Among the other things drowned out by the war had been music; it had not been safe to sing, lest the songs, many of them about suffering or hardship, be interpreted as political sentiments.

At first, Hayslip stayed home, learning the ways of washing machines and dishwashers, keeping house and caring for her sons. "Because of the way I thought and was

brought up," she recalls, "I was more a servant than a wife."

She watched American accounts of the war on television, and her question was always the same: What about the Vietnamese people? No one seemed to be reporting their side of the story. "I read books by GIs, and some of them were true, but it only told their side." She and her husband discussed the idea of collaborating on a book about Vietnam. But "Ed had two sons in the Navy in Vietnam," she explains. "We didn't see things the same way."

She was devastated by cultural collisions, and she longed for Vietnam. So Munro arranged for another civilian contract, and they went back in 1971. A year later, they returned to San Diego, and seven months after that, Ed Munro died of emphysema. That period, she says, was her most difficult in this country. In Vietnam, she explains, she would have stayed with relatives for a few months. But on the way home from Munro's burial, she remembers, "My sister-in-law dropped me off at the door and drove away."

She was on her own in a country so strange to her, she recalls with a laugh, that she thought Taco Bell was "some kind of temple" and that the Jack in the Box figure was a version of the happy Buddha.

Her first paying job was cleaning houses. She took classes in English. "Little by little, I learned about the American way of life." By 1973, she had discovered country-western dancing; she met her second husband, Dennis Hayslip, at a dance spot. They were married in 1975, and a third son, Alan, was born that year. In April of 1975, Hayslip, a U.S. customs officer, made a trip to Vietnam and managed to get Le Ly's sister, Lan, and her two children out the day before the Communists took over.

At about the same time, she found work in an electronics assembly plant in San Diego. "That's when I started to learn how America worked," she says. She hadn't forgotten about writing her story, but once again, she got little encouragement from her husband. "What do you know?" she remembers his saying when she brought it up. "You're a communist."

"We had a lot of problems in our marriage," she says, among them a conflict between her husband's rigorous Baptist views and her own Buddhist traditions. They were in divorce proceedings when he died in an auto accident in 1982.

No longer forbidden to pay tribute to her ancestors and burn incense, she set up a family shrine, added Hayslip's name to her list of relatives to honor and began to unravel and record her past. In 1985, before Jimmy left for college, the two finally went to work on her book.

In the meantime, she raised Tommy and Alan and managed a Chinese restaurant in Rancho Bernardo for a while and, in 1984, opened her own Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant with partners in Temecula. She took business classes at Mesa College and made a few profitable real estate deals. She had gained a foothold in her new country.

IN THE BACK OF HAYSLIP'S MIND LINgered a desire to return to Vietnam. Hayslip had not seen her mother, or her sisters Hai and Ba, or Ba's husband, Chin, for more than a decade. She had not seen her brother Bon Nghe, who had become a party official in Da Nang, since he had gone to Hanoi in 1954.

She returned in March of 1986, filled with trepidation, knowing that her past troubles with the Viet Cong or her work in the black market could endanger her and her family. And she wondered whether her family would accept her at all.

Ultimately, the survivors of her family, and Jimmy's father, with whom she had corresponded, at last sat down together for a meal. Across the gulf of years and turmoil, the family slowly mended its broken ties. Only her brother Sau Ban--believed killed by an American land mine in 1963, and Lan, in San Diego, were absent.

That trip back, Hayslip says, "completed the first cycle" of her life. She returned to the United States a different person. She sold her share in the restaurant and finished the book she'd been thinking about for 20 years. The book's message, despite its descriptions of death and destruction, is one of forgiveness and hope. "If you were an American GI," she writes in the prologue, "I ask you to read this book and look into the heart of one you once called enemy. I have witnessed, firsthand, all that you went through. I will try to tell . . . why almost everyone in the country you tried to help resented, feared and misunderstood you . . . if you have not yet found peace at the end of your war, I hope you will find it here."

"The U.S. is ready for the book," she believes. "There are signs of people looking for answers, lots of veterans wanting to speak out and go back to Vietnam." Then, in her curious amalgam of Eastern poetry and Western jargon, she says: "Souls are hungry. If the car is empty, you go for the gas."

BORN INTO WAR, HAYSLIP IS NOWsomething of a one-woman peace movement. She made a second trip to the new Vietnam in February, 1988--the 20th anniversary of the Tet Offen sive. Her album from that visit contains no photos of smiling tourists. Instead, there are pictures of war victims and inadequate medical clinics.

So affected was she by the lack of medical facilities to care for the thousands still hurt by the war, that a year ago, Hayslip founded the nonprofit East Meets West Foundation to support rural clinics in Vietnam. Her plan calls for "re-enlisting" Americans who served in a medical capacity in Vietnam or in other wars. One such group, the Vietnam Restoration Project, based in Garberville, Calif., has received approval to build a clinic, she says, and Hayslip is attempting to raise funds for that project.

"It gives me an opportunity to be a bridge," Hayslip says. For one generation of Vietnamese, such aid would be a chance "to see Americans as human beings, as civilians, with compassion--to change the old image." She'd also like American veterans to see a more compassionate side of the Vietnamese--"to have a bowl of rice, a cup of tea and sit down and talk."

In the Chinese astrological system, Hayslip was born in the year of the water buffalo and therefore destined, she says, to be a "servant of mankind." But family honor also motivates her. The words of her father echo in her mind. "Through him, I learned that although great love alone cannot remove all obstacles, it certainly puts no new ones in the path toward peace.

"You come here to do things, to grow and serve," she says simply. "If you complain, you miss the point.'

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
78°