One Woman's View of the Vietnam War

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places     by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts

Doubleday, 1989  ....   reviewed 7 August 1994 by David P. Stern


      A remarkable, fascinating autobiography by a Vietnamese woman. Le Ly was a peasant girl in a rice-paddy village near Danang, and she lived precariously throughout the Vietnam war. It is all there--Viet-Cong terror, escape to the city, life on the fringes of the US army, also poverty, temptation, violent death and rape, as well as insights into Vietnam's culture, centering on Buddhist traditions and warm extended families.

      It is strong stuff, made just a bit more palatable by the way Le Ly intertwines two stories--her growing up in Vietnam up to her emigration in 1970 to the US, as a war bride; and her return visit in 1986. It helps to know that the story ended well, that not only did the author survive the war, but so also did most of her family and friends.

      A second book, co-authored with her son Jimmy, covers her life in the US in the intervening period, a life that was far from tranquil. "Child of War, Woman of Peace" is well written and full of unexpected twists, and is well worth reading (you might even read it first, as I did), but it is a different story, as different as America is from Vietnam. A recent film tried to combine both books into a condensed story and failed--maybe because in no way can such a rich and detailed tale be distilled to a movie lasting a mere two hours. Books still hold the edge.

      Through Le Ly's eyes we see how the war appeared to the Vietnamese themselves. If you ever wondered which side the Vietnamese people themselves supported, this book will provide a lot of food for thought, but no pat answers. At times the reader suspects there is much more to the story, that Le Ly chose withhold some details or has subtly softened what she told. With ties and loyalties to both the US and Vietnam, she could not offend the authorities in either place, the more so because of her personal mission of peace, about which the reader learns in the epilogue (and to greater extent, in "Child of War").

      And one senses here how loyalties in Vietnam were split, too. The Viet Cong represented the fight for independence against colonial France and the native pride of a nation, but their indiscriminate terror in the countryside claimed innocent lives and destroyed families and villages. The "republicans" which fought them were corrupt and no strangers to cruelty, either. It is anyone's guess how the Vietnam war may have turned out if America could have found honest and dedicated allies, and if its emissaries had shown better discipline. History gives no second chances, only a few lessons: considering the steep price paid for those lessons, we better pay attention.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 18 January 2002