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Epilogue : Le Ly Hayslip's American Life

February 05, 1989|KAREN EVANS | Karen Evans is a San Francisco writer.

PHUNG THI LE LY OF KY LA, Vietnam, is now Le Ly Hayslip of Escondido. The one-time teen-age Viet Cong collaborator is now an American citizen living in a ranch-style house, high atop a hill, surrounded by palm trees and the dry, rolling California landscape. She is worlds away from the rice paddies of war-torn Ky La.

The memories, however, are never far away. Indeed, as Hayslip writes in the forthcoming book "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey From War to Peace," "for a daughter growing up on the Central Coast, there is almost too much to remember."

Now 39, Hayslip has a serene countenance that belies the grueling life she chronicles in her book. Her giggle still sounds girlish; her emotions are close to the surface, and her tears break through as easily as her laughter. Sitting in her living room, wearing a powder-blue suit and a red silk flower in her dark, curly hair, she speaks with a softly impassioned voice. She is a natural storyteller. Words come easily--poetic Buddhist metaphor one minute, American vernacular the next.

Around her, overstuffed sofas and the Encyclopaedia Britannica mix with touches of Oriental decoration--small lacquer and mother-of-pearl plaques on a wall, a straw tea basket on a table. In the dining room, bookshelves have become a family altar. A statue of Buddha, as large as a toddler, sits serenely among incense and pieces of paper bearing the names of her deceased loved ones. The white, late-model Toyota in the carport, and the house--which Hayslip shares with her two youngest sons (her eldest son is away at college)--are the trappings of her new American life; the altar is the bridge to the old.

In a small office off her living room is a computer, at which she dictated her memories to Jimmy, her eldest child. The events came spilling back. "My mind," she says, "was like a computer when you call it to come up."

Her story, polished with the help of co-author Jay Wurts of San Francisco, is about a side of the war not written about before; it is an unflinching account of a peasant family and an entire people caught in the cross fire of a war waged first by the French and the Viet Minh, and then by the Diem regime, the Viet Cong and the Americans. For Hayslip, coming of age was a fight for life itself.

The book is a survivor's tale, and Hayslip was a survivor from the start. She was born in December, 1949, the youngest and smallest of the six children in her family. "Suffocate her!" are the first words of the first chapter of the book. That's what the midwife who delivered her said to her mother. "I weighed only 2 pounds and looked just terrible."

The end of her childhood comes at the end of the excerpt published here. It was 1965, and Hayslip was 15. She had been arrested three times by the Republicans. The Viet Cong suspected that she had become a traitor. She was shunned, condemned to die and then raped. She fled to nearby Da Nang.

In Da Nang, Hayslip found a job as a housekeeper and wandered between the city and Ky La, returning finally to find her family still under suspicion. Eventually, her father petitioned the Viet Cong for a pardon; in return, she and her mother were exiled from Ky La. In November, 1965, they headed for Saigon. Both found jobs as servants for a wealthy family. But when Le Ly became pregnant by her employer, they were out on the streets again. Mother and daughter returned to Da Nang, where Jimmy was born in 1966.

With three mouths to feed, Hayslip ventured into the wartime black market--selling Vietnamese crafts to GIs, buying American products with the cash and selling these, in turn, on the Vietnamese black market. Her "business" lasted a little more than two years, but she became too good at what she was doing. "I realized I had come to worship at the shrine of the street-smart and shrewd, the tough and canny, and not at the altar of my ancestors. I had become my own worst enemy." At one point, she even agreed to one act of prostitution, because the fee, $400, was enough to support her family for a year.

She longed for her village, and she feared for her father. When she sneaked back to visit him, the village she remembered no longer existed; much of it had been leveled by the Americans. She found her father, badly beaten by the Viet Cong, lying in the ruins of her childhood home. As she nursed him, he told her: "Don't make vengeance your god because such gods are satisfied only by human sacrifice. Go back to your little son. Raise him the best way you can. That is the battle you were born to fight."

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