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THE OTHER SIDE : A Vietnam War Memoir

February 05, 1989|LE LY HAYSLIP and JAY WURTS | This is adapted from "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey From War to Peace" by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts, copyright 1989, which will be published in May by Doubleday.

For the first 12 years of my life, I was a peasant girl in Ky La, now called Xa Hoa Qui, a small village near Da Nang in Central Vietnam. My name was Phung Thi Le Ly, but I was called Bay Ly because I was the sixth-born--bay means six.

My father taught me to love God, my family, our traditions and the people we could not see: our ancestors. He taught me that to sacrifice oneself for freedom was a very high honor. From my love of my ancestors and my native soil, he said, I must never retreat.

From my mother, I learned humility and the strength of virtue. I learned that it was o disgrace to work like an animal on our farm, provided I did not complain. "Would you be less than our ox," she asked, "who works to feed us without grumbling?" She also taught me that there was no love beyond faithful love and that ,in my love for my future husband, my ancestors and my native soil, I must always remain steadfast.

for the next three years of my life, I loved, labored and fought steadfastly for the Viet Cong against American and South Vietnamese soldiers.

I WAS 13 THE FIRST time I saw a Viet Cong fighter up close. It was 1963, and I was in our kitchen. It was just about dark and I happened to gaze out the window at the house next door, which belonged to Manh, my teacher. While I watched, a half-dozen strangers scampered into the house and shouted, "Nobody move!" Manh's house was often used by villagers for gambling, and at first I thought it was Republican soldiers on a gambling raid. Then Manh was led out, at gunpoint, with his hands atop his head.

I could hear his familiar voice: "But--I don't know what you're talking about!" and "Why? Who told you that?" As I leaned out the window to get a better view, I saw one of the strangers standing just outside. He wore black garments, like everyone else, and a conical sun hat, even though it was already dark. His sandals were made from old tires, and his weapon had a queer, curved ammunition clip that jutted down from the stock like a banana. He was so close to me that I was afraid to run away or even duck for fear that he would see or hear me.

Suddenly, one of the strangers barked an order in an odd, clipped accent (I found out later that this was how everyone talked in the North), and two of his comrades prodded Manh to the edge of the road. I could hear him begging for his life when two rifle shots cut him short. Then the strangers ran a Viet Cong flag up the pole that stood outside our schoolhouse. "Anyone who touches that flag will get the same thing as that traitor!" their leader shouted.

The guard by my window glanced over and gave me a wink. He knew I had been there all the time, and he knew I had learned the lesson he had come to teach. He followed his troop into the night.

"Manh was Catholic," my father said later. "And a follower of President Diem. He talked too much about how Buddhists were ruining the country."

"But we're Buddhists, Father! He never said bad things about us!"

"No," my father explained, "but what he said endangered others--and some of those people lost their lives. I am sorry for Manh and his wife and children. But Manh's own careless words got him into trouble. We'll give him a decent burial, but you remember what you've seen--especially when you think about talking to the soldiers."

The next day, Republicans brought steel girders and cement and barbed wire to Ky La. They cut down the Viet Cong flag and told the farmers to build defenses around the village. Ditches from the French occupation, now overgrown with weeds, were made deeper, and bamboo trees were cut down to make spikes and watchtowers. As soon as the sun went down, the Republicans set up ambushes around the village and waited for the dogs to bark--a sure sign of intruders.

But nothing happened. After awhile, the Republican troops pulled out and left us in the hands of the Popular Force, the Dan De --local villagers who had been given small arms and a little training in how to use them. Because the war seemed to leave with the soldiers, the PF officials declared peace, and we villagers, despite Ky La's new necklace of stakes and barbed wire, tried very hard to believe them.

A few nights later, the Viet Cong cadre and many of the villagers piled onto a huge bonfire everything the Republicans had given us to defend the village. "On this night," the cadre leader told us, "Ky La was saved." He gestured to the black-uniformed troops around the fire. "We are the soldiers of liberation! We are here to fight for our land and our country. Help us stop the foreign aggression, and you will have peace. Help us win, and you will keep your property and everything else you love. Ky La is our village now--and yours. We have given it back to you."

Another soldier ran yet another Viet Cong flag up the pole. And as the troop left, the leader turned and told us:"Down the road you will find two traitors. I trust they are the last we will see in Ky La. We must leave now, but you will see us again."

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