Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth told the Vietnam War story of a villager who experienced torture as an accused traitor by both sides, as well as rape and prostitution before fleeing with a suicidal husband to San Diego. The film was based on memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, who went on to create the nonprofit East Meets West foundation. Last month, at a screening of Heaven and Earth in Ho Chi Minh City, Hayslip was on hand to take questions from the audience. Photo by Fred Wissink.
How well does the film reflect your books?
It’s true, line by line. When Oliver Stone asked me to help him with the script-writing at his house in Santa Barbara, he asked me, how would I like to see the movie come out? I told him, everything but the Rambo woman, and he laughed about it. And so then every time that he had any new version on his screenplay, he asked me to review it, and I was quite surprised that he copied, line by line, word by word from the book.
Why did you write the books?
In 1970, when I first come to the US, my husband’s family always watch the news and say things like, why Vietnam always fight? Every time American get killed or wounded, they looked at me and said, ‘Oh it’s a shame, shame, you Vietnamese people killed our people.’ And every time a Vietnamese who lived in a house or village died or wounded, they looked at me and said, ‘What a shame, what a shame that you people want to kill one another.’ And all the painful comments that I carried in my heart for many, many years. And every time they said that, I have a note that I wrote in Vietnamese, I said, ‘Yeah you don’t know anything about the war, you don’t know anything about Vietnam. Let me tell you why we had to fight.’
If war had not started in Vietnam, what would your life have been like?
The war teach me a lot, taught me so many different skills. If the war had not come to my village in 1962, I would be an old grandmom and maybe I’d be dead by now … Living in America, I not only tried to survive but also educate myself on freedom of speech and freedom of country I need to learn and force myself to learn.
How has Vietnam changed since you left?
I saw Vietnam from 1986 to now change a lot, it’s progress faster than I imagined, especially in a communist country. It changed in many good ways, now that you can go to school or go to market and buy anything you want, you have plenty of food to eat and all the young generation like you have more than you need and want, much more than your grandparents and parents. All the good things I see, but there’s also the bad things along with it. So many cars but the road is still the same. Many, many schools but short of teachers. The children need a better education, especially in countryside. I also know that there’s a lot of tall buildings, a lot of resources, a lot of golf courses and all those things which is for the westerners. But I don’t know how many Vietnamese play golf and how many Vietnamese can stay in a five-star resort and hotel.
Has there been anyone in the book or movie that has come forth and said, ‘Hey that was me you were talking about?’
No, I have not met anybody that I know back then. However, one MP [military police] that, not beat up my sister Loan but it’s more like an investigation, because whatever happened I don’t know, but when he saw the movie he recognised my sister. And so he came to me and I took him to visit my sister. That’s the only one.
If you could do it again, would you still have left Vietnam?
If my life just like what I saw in 1962 to 1965 in my village, and if become a refugee, on the street, being a maid, being a servant to the rich, I would escape Vietnam. Then and now, if I had to do again, I don’t think I’d do any different.
The movie mentions that your children don’t speak Vietnamese. Do they?
My children, none of them can speak it. My youngest son Alan lived here for eight years, but too many beautiful Vietnamese girls broke his heart many times. And so that December I moved him back to the US and now he works for Oliver Stone on a 10-part documentary.
You had a cameo in Heaven and Earth?
Seven parts, three in which you can see my face. The woman sweeping the house, when the old man yells at her, that’s me. Whenever I would give my opinion, saying, ‘Oliver, you should do this, you should do that,’ he said, ‘You do it.’