1949 - , Viet Nam
Occupation: Human rights activist
Awards: Le Ly Hayslip is an award-winning author of two memoirs chronicling her extraordinary life in Vietnam and America: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace.
Le Ly Hayslip is an award-winning author of two memoirs chronicling her extraordinary life in Vietnam and America: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace. These books served as the basis for the 1993 Oliver Stone film Heaven and Earth. She is also the chair of the East Meets West Foundation, a humanitarian organization that describes its goals as "improv[ing] the general health, welfare, and socioeconomic condition of the people of Vietnam, and ... provid[ing] a solid base for the self-sufficiency of our programs, as well as the individuals they serve."
Phung Thi Le Ly was born in 1949 to a devout Buddhist family in the small farming village of Ky La (now called Xa Hoa Qui), near Danang in Central Vietnam. She was the youngest of six children, and as an infant was very sickly and not expected to live long. She was born under French colonial rule which was being subverted by a guerrilla war of independence fought by Ho Chi Minh and his soldiers, known as the Viet Cong. The rebels had widespread support among the peasants at the time, and as a child Le Ly worked as a lookout for them. Along with many of her fellow villagers, she collaborated with them in small ways, such as digging their tunnels. The colonial armies of the French, and later, the Americans, knew of the villagers' collaboration with the Viet Cong, and so persecuted them viciously, often making the children fill in the Viet Cong tunnels. This the Viet Cong perceived as betrayal, and they would often kill the villagers who were simply obeying the orders of the colonial armies.
It was in this nonsensical hell of war-torn Vietnam that Le Ly grew up. By the time she was fifteen, she had been subjected to incredible cruelty by the French and the Americans, she had served as a lookout for the Viet Cong, she had been arrested and tortured by the South Vietnamese police, and then had been sentenced to death by the Viet Cong, who accused her of collaboration. When she was taken into the jungle by two Viet Cong soldiers to be executed, they instead raped the young girl and then set her free.
After her release by the Viet Cong, Le Ly and her mother fled their village, first for Danang and then Saigon, where they found work as domestic help in the house of a wealthy Vietnamese businessman. Here Le Ly found an unbelievably easy existence compared to all that had led up to it. Eventually, though, the still very young girl was seduced by the master of the house and became pregnant with his child. When the mistress of the house found out, Le Ly and her mother were both forced to leave.
Le Ly returned to Danang to have the child. She struggled for several years to survive in both Danang and Saigon, two cities that were essentially occupied by the American army. To earn a living, Le Ly became a souvenir hustler, black market dealer, and even drug courier. She worked for a while as a nurse's assistant in a Saigon hospital and began dating Americans. She had several disastrous, heartbreaking affairs before meeting and marrying an American civilian contractor named Ed Munro in 1969, a man more than twice her age, by whom she had another son. In 1970 she came to America to join her husband. In 1973 he died of emphysema, leaving Le Ly a widow at age thirty-four.
In 1974 Le Ly married Dennis Hayslip. The American war in Vietnam was then beginning to wind down, leading up to the complete American evacuation of Saigon in 1975. Vietnam was left in chaos, with no real government in place. Le Ly worried about the relatives she had left behind, especially her mother and sister. Her sister, Lan, had two Amerasian children, and so would likely be killed by the Viet Cong as a collaborator. In 1975, Dennis left for Vietnam to rescue Le Ly's relatives. Remarkably, he was able to find her sister and her children and bring back to America.
Le Ly's second marriage, however, had never been a happy one. Dennis was a heavy drinker, clinically depressed, and full of rage. The couple had one child, Le Ly's third, and in 1982 during bitter divorce proceedings, Dennis was found dead in a parked van outside a school building. He had established a trust fund, however, that left Le Ly with some money, and he had insurance that paid off the mortgage of the house. With this money, Le Ly began a series of investments in real estate, the stock market, and small businesses that would eventually make her quite well off.
Also at this time Le Ly began work on her memoirs of growing up in Vietnam, the book that would become When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. She took notes for years, and her son James helped her with typing and her English. In late 1987, the book was sold and Le Ly founded her nonprofit organization, East Meets West. She also resolved to return once again to her home country. As she said in Child of War, Woman of Peace. "I wanted desperately to complete some unfinished business: to return to my home village of Ky La--to burn incense at my father's shrine and sleep in the house he had built with his own two hands."
As president of East Meets West, Le Ly has worked tirelessly to improve understanding between the two cultures her life has straddled and to improve the lives of Vietnamese in Vietnam. East Meets West strives to provide quality health care, educational services, vocational training, and rehabilitation to the Vietnamese. In the years since its founding, East Meets West has established several important facilities in Vietnam. The medical center, located on China Beach just outside of Danang, offers primary health care to more than one hundred patients a day. The foundation's mobile medical outreach program brings mobile health units to remote areas of Vietnam where medical services are not readily available. The facial reconstruction project provides facial prosthetic replacements for disabled persons and trains Vietnamese technicians in their construction. The Compassion School offers educational services for poor children, and the Displaced Children's Center provides a home, health care, and education for one hundred orphaned and abandoned children.
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places was published in 1989 to excellent reviews. The Los Angeles Times published excerpts in its Sunday magazine, drawing unprecedented reader response. It was also reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. The second installment in her memoirs, Child of War, Woman of Peace, was published in 1993. Publisher's Weekly declared, "Alternately shocking and inspiring, this ... is a drama-packed fairy tale cum horror story, filled with cutting observations about American and Vietnamese victims of war."
In the epilogue to When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, Le Ly offers her American readers a challenge: "Most of you who read this book have not lived my kind of life. By the grace of destiny or luck or god, you do not know how hard it is to survive; although now you have some idea ... Right now, though, there are millions of other poor people around the world--girls, boys, men, and women--who live their lives the way I did in order to survive. Like me, they did not ask for the wars that swallowed them. They ask only for peace--the freedom to love and live a full life--and nothing more. I ask only that you open your heart and mind to them, as you have opened it to me by reading this book, and do not think that our story is over."