Le Ly Hayslip

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Advocating forgiveness and healing on both sides in the wake of the Vietnam War, Le Ly Hayslip created the East Meets West Foundation to build clinics, schools, and rehabilitation centers in Vietnam with the assistance of American veterans and other donors.

Early Life

Phung Thi Le Ly was born the sixth child of Vietnamese peasants in the village of Ky La (later Xa Hoa Qui) near Danang, where she lived until the age of fifteen. A premature baby who survived against great odds, she was called con troi nuoi (she who is nourished by God) by the villagers. From her father, Phung Trong, she learned to revere her family, her ancestors, and Vietnamese tradition. Her mother, Tran Thi Huyen, taught her humility and the strength of virtue. Le Ly attended a village school through the equivalent of the third grade, her formal schooling cut short by the Vietnam War. From the age of twelve, she supported and worked for the Viet Cong against the American and South Vietnamese (ARVN) armies. Her two brothers also served Ho Chi Minh: Bon Nghe as the leader of a North Vietnamese Army reconnaissance team and Sau Ban as a soldier killed in the South by an American mine.

In her autobiography, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, Le Ly describes how the people of her village were forced to labor for government soldiers by day and assist the Viet Cong by night. Such a schizophrenic existence led to Le Ly’s imprisonment and torture by the ARVN as well as a traumatic death sentence and rape at the hands of the Viet Cong.

Forced to flee her village, Le Ly first took a job as housekeeper for a family in Danang and then went with her mother to Saigon, where her sister Lan was living. There, Le Ly and her mother found positions as servants to Anh, a wealthy textile factory owner. Giving in to Anh’s affection, sixteen-year-old Le Ly became pregnant with her first child, James (Hung), born in 1967. Anh paid for their return trip to Danang, where Le Ly, with her baby and mother, lived with Lan, who worked as a bar girl.

Le Ly’s father, Phung Trong, remained in the village to keep watch over ancestral land and shrines, but he became more and more depressed over the war’s effects on the village and his family, particularly his daughters. Lan by then was earning money as a prostitute, while Le Ly hawked cigarettes and drugs on the black market. When Le Ly’s father committed suicide, the family risked their lives to give him a traditional funeral. In a moment of shame, Le Ly accepted $400 to have sex with a soldier, but did so knowing that the money would support her family for a year. She worked as a nurse’s aide at the Nha Thuong Vietnamese Hospital in Danang and later as a cocktail waitress at a Korean-owned nightclub.

Life’s Work

Le Ly Hayslip sprang to national prominence with the publication of her first book, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989), in which she chronicled her life as a peasant girl during the Vietnam War in and around her village of Ky La near Danang. One of the first publications to give expression to Vietnam experiences in the ten-year-old war, her book stunned Americans of all political persuasions with the truth that many villagers were tortured and oppressed by both sides in the war. A second book, Child of War, Woman of Peace, appeared in 1993, chronicling her arrival in the United States as the wife of an American much older than herself, a second marriage, and fulfillment of her long-held dream to create the East Meets West Foundation to fund projects that would assist both her own people and the American veterans who were still suffering from their war experiences.

Le Ly Hayslip’s life in the United States began when she married Ed Munro, a sixty-year-old construction worker who sought a young Asian-born wife who would care for him in his old age. Attracted by his promise of education for Jimmy and the opportunity to escape from Vietnam, Le Ly consented. Her second son, Tommy, was born before they left.

Arriving in the United States in 1970, Le Ly adjusted with difficulty to life in San Diego, California, with her in-laws. When Ed’s job prospects failed, they returned to Vietnam and Ed took a construction job at An Khe. There, Le Ly fell in love with an American officer, Dan, who was instrumental in helping her and her children to flee An Khe during a major battle in 1972. Shortly afterward, Ed and his family returned to the United States, where he died of pneumonia.

After the death of her first husband, Le Ly hoped to find happiness with Dan. Because Dan was reluctant to divorce his wife, however, Le Ly married Dennis, who made a heroic trip to Vietnam to rescue her sister Lan and her children as South Vietnam was falling to the Communists in 1975. Unfortunately, Dennis manifested an unstable personality, which found an outlet in fundamentalist Christianity and compulsive gun collecting. During this time, Le Ly began to turn more frequently to Buddhism in search of spiritual comfort and enlightenment. Angered by her resistance to Christianity, Dennis kidnapped their son Alan, Le Ly’s third child, and threatened her life. Following a court order which banned him from his wife’s household, Dennis died accidentally while burning charcoal in a closed van. After his death, Le Ly sought to pacify his angered spirit through Buddhist rituals and find peace of her own. Her thoughts turned to the possibility of returning to her family in Vietnam.

Terrified of the Communists and fearful of right-wing Vietnamese in the United States, yet resisting efforts of...

(The entire section is 2320 words.)