A Vietnam Memoir

updated 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Of all the books that have come out of the Vietnam war, Le Ly Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is one of the most remarkable. One of the few published in the U.S. to be written from a purely Vietnamese point of view, this poetic and dreamlike memoir tells the story of a young peasant girl's struggle to survive. Pressed into service by the Viet Cong, Hayslip was captured and tortured by government forces; then she was raped and almost murdered by her "comrades" in the V.C. Later she lived with and loved several GIs. Finally, she married a kindhearted American to escape the terror and insanity of the war.

Once she arrived in the U.S. in 1970, Hayslip lived the American Dream to the hilt: She studied at night, worked during the day in an electronics factory and eventually became the owner of three houses and a restaurant near San Diego. Twice widowed and now unmarried, she has raised three sons. Meanwhile happiness proved elusive because the traumas of the war years lingered on in nightmare memories. In 1986 Hayslip went back to her homeland and was shocked to see the country and the people still profoundly scarred by the war. She subsequently sold the bulk of her property to start a foundation dedicated to building health clinics jointly staffed by Americans and Vietnamese. (Over the past three years she has donated at least $50,000 of her own money.)

This past October, Hayslip, 40, returned to Ky La, her home village, to dedicate the first clinic. In the meantime Oliver (Platoon) Stone has bought movie rights to her book, and Hayslip has made plans to channel any additional money she makes into the construction of more clinics. In New York, she spoke with reporter Martha K. Babcock about her extraordinarily eventful life.

I'll never forget the day a green metal "dragonfly" came down out of the sky and I saw my first American. It was 1963, and I was 13 years old. I was tending water buffalo on our family's small rice farm in Ky La, a village three hours by foot from the city of Da Nang, when I heard the roaring noise from the helicopter. Suddenly I found myself clutching the ground as the wind from a whining, flapping machine whipped my clothes and knocked the sun hat off my head. The tallest man I'd ever seen stepped out. He had on a yellow scarf, black boots as bright as a beetle's shell and blond hair on his hands. He ignored me, scanned the trees with binoculars and then climbed back into his machine and disappeared above the treetops. After that, more and more Americans came to Ky La. Because they always wore sunglasses, some of us thought they were blind. Their feet were so much softer than ours, the VC told us that when they captured the Americans they always removed their boots to keep them from escaping. We thought, "How can men who are blind and lame be good fighters?"

The South Vietnamese Republican Army sometimes came into the village by day, but by night Ky La was controlled by the Viet Cong. I was inducted into the secret self-defense league, and my responsibility was to warn the Viet Cong about enemy movements. My parents were worried, but it kept me from being sent North to fight in the North Vietnamese Army. I was the youngest of six children and the only one still living at home. When I was on duty, my father protected me by relaying my signals to the Viet Cong guards on the edge of the forest. If anything went wrong and some Viet Cong were killed, he said, he wanted the next body found on the road to be his, not mine.

One night I was caught in a roadside trench outside my village after a Republican bombardment. Some soldiers tied my hands behind my back, and I was taken to the nearest jail for questioning. My mother had always told me, "It doesn't matter which side gets you. You answer, 'I don't know. I'm too young. I am stupid farm girl.' " It didn't protect me from a savage beating, but they did let me go.

Six months later, in the spring of 1964, the fighting intensified and two-thirds of the village was destroyed. I was jailed a second time, after doing sentry duty one night. The third arrest, I was caught hiding in a VC bunker, and this time I was taken to the army's maximum security POW camp. They gave me electric shock and threatened to cut off my fingers to feed to their guard dogs. I was roped to a post in an area covered with anthills and my feet were painted with honey. The red fire ants had bites worse than bees. When the guard finally came back, he reached into a bucket and brought out a water snake about the length of his arm. When he dropped it into my shirt, it slithered and probed around my armpits, breasts and neck, trying to get out. It broke any self-control I had left. I screamed and screamed.

My mother was desperate. Very few ever got out of the camp alive. So she bribed my way out, paying half the gold she'd saved for my dowry. Because so few people were ever let go, the Viet Cong were convinced I had been released to act as a spy. Soon after I got home Loi and Mau, two cadremen who always supervised my sentry duty, summoned me to a Viet Cong meeting. I went willingly. At last, I felt, I could tell my comrades the truth. It turned out to be a "people's court" that, on the spot, condemned me to death as a traitor. Loi and Mau marched me to a clearing where a grave with two shovels stood and made me kneel down beside the hole. But rather than kill me, they decided to rape me instead. Bleeding and too ashamed to go home, I spent the night with a cousin.

I never told my parents about the double rape that reprieved me from death, but from then on life for our family became intolerable. My mother was accused of collaborating with the Republicans and almost had her brains blown out one night by the Viet Cong. Somehow my father struck a deal—he never told us what it took—to allow my mother and me to leave the village. He refused to go, saying, "My ancestors are buried here. I remain." But without us, he got more and more depressed. Eventually he took his own life by drinking acid.

With our names temporarily off the VC death list, my mother and I made our way to Saigon and got jobs working in the household of a wealthy textile factory owner named Anh. I was nanny to his two little boys; my mother was housekeeper to the grandparents. Anh was kind and handsome. Trouble was, my mother was not sleeping in the same room with me. Although I had been raped by Viet Cong, at the age of 15 I had never even been kissed. When Anh came to my room one night and caressed me, I did not resist. After I got pregnant, his wife threw my mother and me out.

Anh gave us enough money to get to Da Nang, where I moved in with my sister Lan in her one-room apartment. Lan worked as a bar girl and often brought home American soldiers. When they stayed overnight, I took my blanket and slept on the streets. After my son Jimmy was born, one of my cousins let us sleep in the house she shared with a dozen other people and taught me how to trade on the black market. I sold sunglasses and sandals made from rubber tires and other souvenirs to the GIs.

One day a military policeman I was friendly with introduced me to two GIs, one short and one tall. He told me they were getting ready to ship out and asked if I would go "bum bum" with them. I thought it was a joke. I was 17, but I looked so young all the Americans called me baby-san. And I had never made love to any man since Anh got me pregnant. At first these men offered $20, then $50 and on up until they got to $200 each. Then they pulled out the green money. I thought maybe I could quit the black market and look for a safer job, because my family could live a long time on that much money. So I led them into a bunker in the parking lot. There was only time for one soldier to do it before the bus left, but they let me keep all the money anyway.

After that I had a couple of boyfriends. I guess one man led to another. Vietnamese women are good to men: Even though we may not love them, we still go out of our way to do everything for them. Then I met Ed Munro, a civilian contractor from San Diego. I was 19, and Ed was 53—an old man. I wasn't in love with him. But he wanted to marry me and adopt my son. And I wanted to get out of Vietnam.

Ed and I were married in August 1969. I didn't think a man his age could still have children, but I got pregnant. My mother accepted Ed, but she worried that our baby Tommy's light skin would make him an outcast, and she constantly tried to flatten his nose. Meanwhile, I didn't have the courage to tell her I was planning to leave for America.

On May 27, 1970, my two sons and I boarded a jetliner bound for the States. In the years that followed, I experienced my share of both hardship and good fortune. I was widowed twice, but watched with delight as my three sons—I had another here in the U.S.—grew up healthy and strong. In the meantime, I discovered that America truly is a land of promise. It nurtured me and educated me and allowed me the comfort of peaceful dreams. Nevertheless I felt a lingering sadness until 1986, when I returned to Vietnam to visit with my mother. I felt very ill at ease in my Western clothes and makeup as my mother greeted me like a timid deer. As I looked into her ancient eyes, all I could do was break into sobs.

During my visit I was distressed to learn that the people of Ky La and other nearby villages did not have even the most basic health care. I vowed—and succeeded—to raise the money to build several clinics. In October, when I returned to dedicate the first one, a group of young children looked with awe upon five Americans, four of them veterans, who accompanied me. But instead of the fear I felt when I first saw Americans descending in noisy dragonflies, the eyes of these kids were filled with wonder. I felt that the shame my family had suffered because of my marriage to an American was washed away. We named the clinic Tinh Me, which means Mother's Love. And my mother, now 83, blessed the project when she said, "Now I can die with a happy face."

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