Le Ly Hayslip (C), born as Phung Thi Le Ly, at the screening of Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth in Ho Chi Minh City on December 7
A Vietnamese survivor of the Vietnam War with every right to be bitter has instead devoted the rest of her life to healing the wounds of war in the US and her homelandIt was the first time that Heaven and Earth had been shown in Ho Chi Minh City, after five times in Hanoi.
Nearly a hundred people attended the southern screening at the US Consulate General’s American Center on December 7. When Oliver Stone’s 142-minute film ended, tears mingled with the applause.
The award-winning director’s film, made in 1993, is based on Le Ly Hayslip’s autobiographical bestsellers “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places” and “Child of War and Woman of Peace.”
The film follows Vietnamese village girl Phung Thi Le Ly’s peaceful childhood, wartime hardship and subsequent turbulence of her extraordinary life since then.
The sixth-born child of a farming family in Hoa Van District, Quang Nam Province becomes in turn a single mother, a drug courier, an occasional prostitute and finally, the wife of a US marine.
When Ly moves to America with her husband, she realizes the gulf that exists between the two nations who were enemies at that time and perhaps, for years afterwards.
The appearance of the 65-year-old Le Ly Hayslip after the screening excited the entire audience even though it was not her first return to Vietnam.
“I have seen this film several times, and it always makes me cry. My family, especially my father, went through exactly the same plight as the female protagonist’s family did"
"But my father, as well as many people in his generation, had no chance to speak out of the pain,” Minh Chau, an English teacher living in Ho Chi Minh City, told Ly and Vietweek in a voice choked with emotion.
“This is the first time that I have seen this film. And it moves me. I think I will find her book to read,” said Sai Gon Tiep Thi newspaper reporter Tram Anh.
“Let me tell you why we must fight”
Ly, looking younger than her years with her pixie hair and elegant in her ao dai, started the talking in both Vietnamese and English.
Her Vietnamese, in the accent of her native Quang Nam Province, astonished many listeners as she remains fluent in her mother tongue despite years of living abroad.
In 1986, Ly came back to war-weary Vietnam for the first time. A year later, she founded the East Meets West Foundation, a non-governmental charity organization, to campaign for the US government to lift the embargo on Vietnam, among other aims.
East Meets West’s first project was carried out in Ky La, the village of Ly’s birth, in the same year.
“I moved to America in 1970, when it was still a traumatic period of war. The local people there blamed my Vietnam for igniting the fierce war, which took away their husbands and sons"
"I realized that I had to do something, to make them understand about the war, at least from a victim’s perspective like mine. Two books, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places” and “Child of War and Woman of Peace,” were released in 1989 and 1993 and serve that purpose,” Ly said.
At the time of their release, Ly had no way of knowing that the books would change her life irrevocably.
“I had the opportunity to escape from the war. And helping my people, as well as my country, is just natural instinct. I speak for the many Vietnamese people who might have undergone worse wartime experiences than I did,” Ly said
“However, the biggest success of the books, along with my effort to connect the nations, is bringing Vietnamese and American to sit down and open a thoughtful and peaceful dialogue,” she added.
When US film director Oliver Stone gave her his screenplay, adapted from her autobiography, she was really surprised.
"It was “line by line” highlighted with interesting fictional facts.
“Steve Butler, the American marine in the film (played by Tommy Lee Jones) was an invention combining my four husbands and lovers. Hiep Thi Le (incarnating Le Ly) was born in Quang Nam, my homeland, before she moved to America"
“The Chinese actress Joan Chen (who plays the protagonist’s mother in the film) replaced the Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh, who had been given the role initially but fell short of Stone’s requirements. She spent weeks staying with my mother in Ky La and she really did play the part well,” Ly recalled.
Ly then pointed out that she had seven cameo roles in the movie.
“Whenever I told Stone ‘oh, I think we should have this character or this detail’, he replied ‘okay, do it yourself’. And that was it,” she said with a laugh.
The famous humanitarian
Stone’s film was not accepted by either side for years owing to the heavy grudge born by many Vietnamese and Americans toward the war and each other, according to Ly.
“I do not want to tell of only good or bad things, just relate what happened. I strive to restore peace in the minds of many warriors who have grieved for too long. I chant some Vietnamese folk verses I learned in childhood, and sometimes it can ease their pain,” said Ly, and recited some of her hometown’s folk song.
In 1999, one year after Ly quit East Meets West Foundation, when she had already convinced American billionaire Chuck Feeney to support it for a decade, Ly founded the Global Village Foundation.
Ly’s second organization is based in Hoi An on the central coast and focuses on sustainable community development projects at the grassroots level in Vietnam like improving rural infrastructure, and dental health and education, building massage centers staffed by blind people, and creating mobile libraries in rural areas.
She has been showered with honors for her work, such as the “Pride of America” award from the Carnegie Corporation in New York in 2005 and four Emmy nominations in 2007 for the documentary From War to Peace and Beyond, which examines Ly’s quest for peace.
In December, Ly returned to Vietnam to host symposiums for teachers and report on the three-year Mobile Library Project and Reading Animation Workshops.
In her sixties, Ly still races back and forth between the two nations to fulfill her mission, which has also drawn her three sons’ interest.
“Unfortunately none of them can speak Vietnamese, although they have helped me a lot in my charity projects. Now all of them have their own families and careers, I just do the job on my own,” Ly said.
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By Kim (The story can be found in the December 14th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)