Le Ly Hayslip’s memoir is a remarkably personal account of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a native who was victimized by both sides. Her viewpoint is a sharp departure from other histories of the Vietnam conflict, which has often been written about from the standpoint of combatants or by scholars writing highly academic histories. Hayslip’s account shows how one’s understanding of the world can be determined by an ideology, and how it can be changed radically by personal experience. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is an important work in that it reveals the terrible sufferings endured by an ancient and pastoral people caught in the middle of one of the 20th century’s most brutal conflicts.
Keywords: Le Ly Hayslip, Vietnam War, Vietnam, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places
A Non-Traditional History: Violence and Transformation in ‘When Heaven and
Earth Changed Places’
Le Ly Hayslip - biography
Le Ly Hayslip, the author of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, was born in a small village in central Vietnam. One of seven children, she was exposed to war, torture and rape as a teenager. She was victimized by both sides of the Vietnam conflict, in which she and her family were variously seen as revolutionaries or collaborators, depending on which side held the upper hand in her region. After the war she came to America where she was married and divorced twice, and where she founded charitable organizations. Her memoir was made into a movie by Oliver Stone, entitled Heaven and Earth.
Most histories of the Vietnam War have taken the viewpoint of the American combat soldier or approached the subject from an objective and detailed third-party perspective. One is reminded of Philip Caputo’s famous biopic A Rumor of War, or Stanley Karnow’s scholarly Vietnam: A History, books that heavily influenced future contributions to one of the 20th century’s most popular literary milieus. The experience of the Vietnamese populace, which has been a virtual blind spot for American readers, is compellingly revealed in Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. The horrors of the Vietnam War and its effect on the lives of people at the village level are recounted in a manner that reveals what the Vietnam conflict did to Hayslip’s family, and to her human dignity.
The central theme of Hayslip’s story is that despite the circumstances and brutality of war, war itself is the enemy. This was her father’s perspective, an enlightened and insightful outlook that becomes difficult to bear in mind as one reads of the killings, rapes and degradations that Hayslip and her people endured. Le Ly gradually comes to understand her father’s wisdom, which helps her to reach a state of forgiveness and an acceptance of the events that so radically altered her life. The violence of war is only a part of her emotional struggle; Le Ly also experiences kindness, which creates a moral ambiguity in her mind, making it difficult for her to arrive at a moral conclusion or work through what has happened to her and her family. Family also comprises another key theme in the book. The war was the cause of her father’s death, and forced her separation from the rest of her family. Seventeen years after the war, Le Ly returned to Vietnam to see her family, an event which taught that, despite the petty differences that arise between relatives and the catastrophe of war, familial bonds may be interrupted but cannot be severed.
The war not only forced an interruption of Le Ly’s family ties, it required her to take on various roles in order to survive amid the confusing and constantly shifting political landscape of civil war. As such, one may conclude that war itself is disruptive change, a form of artificial evolution. Le Ly’s father was a victim of this phenomenon. Unable to adapt or to understand what was happening to his world, he resorted to suicide. This is another lesson Le Ly learns from the war: change, whether forced or natural, is the condition of life itself and all one can do is try to make the best of it. In this sense, the changes she underwent; for instance, from innocent village girl to Viet Cong spy, are seen to be part of the “bigger picture,” a consequence of life rather than merely a symptom of war.
Hayslip deftly weaves her narrative and the personal effects of war with a sense of her family’s background and ancestry. The importance of personal integrity and honor are also conveyed, as witnessed by the social impact of her rape and exile from the village, along with her mother, to Saigon. The book is written and organized in the form of a memoir, with anecdotes intended to personalize her story. It is a story about change and, ultimately, survival. In one of the most interesting parts of the story, Le Ly intersperses memories of the brutality her family suffered with scenes of her family’s reunion many years after the war. At the end of the book, she describes a painful gathering, in so doing making an important philosophical point about pain and reconciliation. Her family had “an uneasy reunion, yes – one orchestrated solely for my benefit – but at least it’s a reunion. A truce, if not full-scale peace, has finally broken out among these injured spirits. If my trip was the catalyst to make this happen, that alone is enough.
The displacement of Hayslip’s family, and countless others, speak to a broader theme, one that has been overlooked in more traditional accounts of the war. Peasant families were constantly under pressure from both sides, with the Americans undertaking “sweep-and-clear” missions intended to force Viet Cong infiltrators out into the open, and from the communists, who used the Vietnamese people in various subversive roles. The changing affiliations of the village, which literally shifted daily, is illustrative of the pressure that the contending forces placed on the Vietnamese villagers. By day, the South Vietnamese-backed forces controlled the village, with the Viet Cong forcing the villagers to change affiliations at night. One particularly important theme of Hayslip’s book is the gradual shift in ideological sympathies that takes place in the village. Initially, Le Ly and her people identified with the North Vietnamese, whose motivations for fighting the war initially found sympathy among the villagers. However, the ruthlessness of the Viet Cong’s tactics eventually forced Le Ly to reassess her loyalties.
Her father’s death solidified Le Ly’s feelings about the war, and she decided that the Americans offered the best options for the future. After a string of relationships with American soldiers, Le Ly meets Ed Munro, whose kindness convinced her to abandon her war-torn home in favor of the United States. “For me to trust myselfto an American, that man must be such an extraordinary person. In Ed Munro, who was completely unlike the other men I had met in my life, perhaps Ihad discovered such a man” (Hayslip, 345). Thus, Hayslip addresses an important effect of the war, the displacement of native Vietnamese and their acceptance of American values.
The Vietnam that Hayslip describes in When Heaven and Earth Changed Places was home to a tradition-bound society, defined by ancient gender roles and a Buddhist religious grounding. As such, ancestor worship and an abiding respect for the past provided the basis for life among the villages of South Vietnam. This is the lifestyle that the Viet Cong pledged to preserve, the past that they promised to defend in the face of Western religious and cultural encroachment. However, the brutality of the Viet Cong soldiers served to widen the split between North and South Vietnamese, driving people like Le Ly into the arms of the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. And yet the Western orientation of the Republic’s forces caused a kind of cultural schizophrenia among the villagers, particularly in the most remote locations where local beliefs and practices were most deeply entrenched. The war was a profoundly transformational experience for the Vietnamese, yet the ancient socio-cultural system of which Le Ly writes has proved, like family ties, to be remarkably resilient.
Le Ly’s first-person account of the war’s social impact makes When Heaven and Earth Changed Places a unique historical account, quite different from the more conventional approaches to the Vietnam War. Few histories offer such a personal account of the changes that the war caused in Le Ly’s country. It is as though she has made herself and her experiences a proxy, or microcosm, for what took place in her country during and after the war. It is likewise interesting to read a Vietnamese account that, though critical of both sides, comes down on the side of the Americans in spite of the misguided foreign policy that sent American forces to participate in the demolition of Le Ly’s world.
The war had a significant effect on Hayslip’s understanding of history. She grew up believing that westerners were bent on destruction and on subjugating the Vietnamese. “We learned that, like the French, men of another race called Americans wanted to enslave us” Hayslip writes, explaining the indoctrination her people received from the Viet Cong (42). Vietnam had long been a colony of France, so Le Ly and her people were predisposed to believe that western nations had aggressive motives in Southeast Asia. Thus, when war came to her country, Le Ly had no problem believing that Americans were similarly motivated. However, as time passed and she became familiar with American G.I.s, her feelings changed. Her personal experiences at the hands of the Viet Cong were horrific. Their tactics made it clear that it was they who sought to enslave and destroy. “Girls were expected to gather wild fruit and firewood and sell it in the market to earn money for Viet Cong clothing, medicine, cigarettes” and anything that would aid their cause (Hayslip, 71). Worse, she was raped and forced to leave her village. By the end of her story, she had come to understand that history does not always play out along clearly delineated lines.
Hayslip’s book could well have a similar effect on an American who has viewed the Vietnam War through the same kind of prism. One of the benefits of reading such a personal account exposes one to other perspectives. Americans often consider the native Vietnamese to have been regarded as treacherous underlings of the Viet Cong rather than innocent people caught up in a vicious civil conflict. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places led me to understand that Le Ly and her people were helpless victims during the war, not calculating pawns of the Viet Cong. In other words, Hayslip’s book humanized and personalized the Vietnamese people for me.
It is in this light that I would recommend When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, not only as an important literary work but as a memoir that humanizes a conflict that has been misunderstood by many, particularly in the United States. Americans have too often been prone to see people brought under Communist rule as willing agents rather than victims. Hayslip has written a painfully honest account that holds the promise of healing to her own people; for Americans, it is an important look at history from the “other side,” a badly neglected viewpoint that stands to benefit Americans in many ways, not the least of which is to engender a broader understanding of other cultures. It is the business of great literature to expand the reader’s consciousness in such ways – When Heaven and Earth Changed Places achieves that admirable and important goal.
Hayslip, L.L. and Wurts, J. (1989). When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese
Woman’s Journey from War to Peace. New York: Doubleday.