LE LY HAYSLIP, OLIVER STONE AND VIETNAM-LAND
by K. L. Billingsley
from the San Diego Union Tribune(February 27, 1994)
At this year's Academy Awards, there were no prizes for Oliver
Stone's epic, "Heaven and Earth," which audiences avoided in
droves. This may indicate that the American public has had its
fill of pop culture's dreary demonology and flagellation over
Vietnam. On the other hand, unalloyed praise for the movie's
sources suggests that, among the nation's idea-elite, myths about
Vietnam remain alive and well.
Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese and former resident of San Diego and
now of San Francisco, is the author of two books: the 1989 "When
Heaven and Earth Changed Places" and the 1992 "Child of War,
Woman of Peace." These volumes were the basis for Stone's films
and enjoyed a worshipful reception, especially the first.
"This is the book for those who want to know what the war was
like," said Frances Fitzgerald, author of "Fire in the Lake." "
A wonderful, wondrous book by a remarkable woman," said Amy Tan,
author of "The Joy Luck Club." The New York Times called
Hayslip's first book a work of "unflinching honesty."
The Washington Post said that "No one who reads it will ever be
able to think about the Vietnam war in quite the same way again."
Moreover, "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" became a History
Book Club Selection and a Book of the Month alternative. Similar
acclaim greeted "Child of War, Woman of Peace," described as a
"rich memoir," brimming with "sharp, honest, lively words" by
Cosmopolitan. [When the Los Angeles Times ran a very favorable
review of the book that included a single passing complaint about
Hayslip's lack of specificity -- of dates of certain events -- T. T. Nhu,
a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and an outspoken friend
of the current Vietnamese governmental regime, wrote to the paper
that she found the review "criminally misleading"].
This was all high praise for books with scant literary merit.
The first book was not only turgid and confusing, but also
revealed a very strange attitude toward the truth. "The
same facts were there for everyone to see," writes Hayslip , "and
truth, in this war, was whatever you wanted to make it." That
confession should have put critical skepticism on full alert.
From age 12 to 15, Hayslip writes, "I loved, labored and fought
steadfastly for the Viet Cong against American and South
Vietnamese soldiers." But after two Viet Cong raped
her, she fled to Saigon and Da Nang and became a street hustler
.(Later Hayslip told a Washington Post reporter that she should
thank the Viet Cong for raping her, since, had they not done
that, "there would be no movie.")
After living with a succession of American soldiers, she married
a civilian contractor, Ed Munro, in her description a "wheezing
old giant" who was old enough to be her father, and moved to San
Diego. Munro died in 1973, and three years later Hayslip married
Dennis Hayslip, who died in 1982. Money and investments from
these marriages left her, by her own account, a millionaire. A
new-age enthusiast, Hayslip also claims to be a psychic and a
In 1986 Hayslip visited Vietnam to see her family. That year
Amnesty International estimated the socialist republic of Vietnam
still held 7000 people taken into custody in 1975-76 and held
without trial. The time many of these had spend in "re-education
camps" Amnesty wrote, "already exceeded the prison sentences
that might have been imposed."
Freedom House still ranks Vietnam among the world's 20 most
repressive regimes and there have been recent reports of
Buddhists burning themselves to death in public protests. But
this is not the profile that emerges from Hayslip. Her books
include no criticism of the Vietnamese government, in which her
brother Bon Nghe has served, in her account, as a "responsible
Asked in a recent interview if the Vietnamese regime has done
anything since 1975 with which she disagrees, Hayslip responds:
"I disagree with many hotels, many new cars, many big buildings.
I want to see a school, health care. I care about the people of
Apparently she does not mind if her people lack all the rights
and freedoms she now enjoys in the West as long as they have
schools and health care.
When asked why she does not talk about the re-education camps,
Hayslip says, "I would talk about them if I had any information,
but I don't." However in 1986 Hayslip told the San Diego Tribune
that her brother-in-law had returned from a re-education camp
unharmed. So she did know about the camps, after all. Hayslip
also had to know about the atrocities at Hue, where the
communists executed several thousand(3,000 is the accepted figure
by historians) people, because she let slip that "one of my
foster children's best friends, in fact, had lost his parents in
this massacre." Asked about the massacre, she says, "some say it
was set up by the South Vietnamese or the Americans. I still
Hayslip is sometimes asked why she didn't write about the boat
people, stark victims of oppression and among the most destitute
refugees of our time. In the second book she replies: "I didn't
write about the boat people because I didn't come over on a
Such glib indifference is one reason why many Vietnamese in
America will have nothing to do with Hayslip and sometimes take
to the streets in protest of her appearances. They believe that
Hayslip has cut a deal with the Vietnamese dictatorship in which
they let her visit(she has made 16 trips to Vietnam since 1986
and was able to bring her mother and sister here for the opening
of her movie) and establish her medical clinic. Her critics
believe in return for such cooperation, she has maintained
silence on Vietnamese human-rights violations and lobbied for the
lifting of the US embargo.
Author David Chanoff, once slated to co-write Hayslip's book,
says that such charges against Hayslip "have some validity" and
Hayslips co-author Jay Wurts concedes that she "avoids stepping
on the toes" of the communist regime. Over 50,000 Americans died
to keep South Vietnam free from that regime. At no times does
Hayslip show any gratitude for their sacrifice.
Hayslip does, however, ask for understanding from those who once
considered her an enemy. Yet her second book includes this
confession from Cliff Perry, who claims to have been an American
soldier with special duties: "I wound up killing a lot of
people, Ly...sometimes three or four a night, and occasionally as
many as 20. Mostly we used knives, because we didn't want to
make noise. We'd slit their throats like chickens and leave them
to die in the jungle. But that wasn't the worst of it .
Sometimes we'd torture the target first--not to get information,
but just because we hated those bastards so much." Parry says he
got so good at his deadly work that "I was reassigned to the CIA"
which was then into "drugs, gun-running, white slavery, you name
For Hayslip this assassin was "in one person, the whole war."
Then, amazingly, the author admits that Cliff Parry was "a
professional swindler, a pathological liar and a con man," and
that she doesn't know if he was ever in Vietnam. But the
obviously bogus passage stayed in the book, thus conveniently
reinforcing popular culture's most dog eared stereotype about
Vietnam: the American GI as a racist, homicidal rape machine and
a hopeless pawn of an imperialist government. That is also the
view of Oliver Stone, whose "Heaven and Earth" takes all the
faults of Hayslip's many lovers and crams them into the walking
atrocity story named Steve Butler.
In Stone's film version, an American officer supervises Hayslip's
torture at the hands of the South Vietnamese. Asked about this,
Hayslip says she was not aware of an American present. When
South Vietnamese soldiers pour honey on women prisoners and
leave them to the ants, the honey comes from a can that says "A
Gift from the People of the United States." Hayslip doesn't know
about this subtle touch either.
"What Stone really wants is to reach out to the presumptively
guilty American audience, slap the popcorn from our piggy mouths
and make us suck that rag," said the Union-Tribune's David
Elliott. "Stone," added Elliott, "is a crank crusader on a
self-scripted mission for History. He needs a wooden soap box in
a park, surrounded by drunks--not a huge multiplex podium,
propped by pious reviews. "
Hayslip's admirer Frances Fitzgerald has written that many of
Fidel Castro's foreign supporters "performed a kind of surgery on
their critical faculties." It seems clear that the critics,
including Fitzgerald, have wielded the scalpel again in this
case. The tragedy is that, in so doing, they missed the real
The 1973 US pullout led to the massive 1975 invasion by the
Stalinist North, which led over a million Vietnamese to flee the
brutal regime in any leaky vessel they could find. Countless
thousands perished from starvation, drowning, disease, or at the
hands of vicious Thai pirates. But many refugees prevailed
against great odds and international indifference, particularly
from those who believed that a US pullout would lead to peace.
The stories of these brave people are far more dramatic and
compelling than that of the unreliable Le Ly Hayslip who by
comparison travelled first class. But unfortunately, these
stories also suffer from a fatal marketing problem. They
explode the myths held by the sixties alumni who now dominate the
dream factories and the prestige press.
That is why Le Ly Hayslip's story received such acclaim and a
lucrative film deal. That is why the boat people's stories
remain unpublished and unfilmed, a silent testimony to the
staying power of Vietnam mythology.
From the San Diego Union Tribune.