By Le Ly Hayslip
I have lied to you since November. I completely forgot to add this to my list of books over December – and have in fact hit the big 50. I only remembered when I went through my screenshots to find a quote from Refuge, and saw some from this book instead. A few days before I visited Vietnam, I wanted to find a book by a Vietnamese woman. Not necessarily about the War, but just by a woman from the country, preferably a Vietnamese to English book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you search “vietnamese women books” or the like, you find a lot of books about the war, and a lot more by men about women as they suffered in the war. The woman who wrote this book was Vietnamese and left for the U.S. in her early 20s, but I’ve put both down as country because the book focuses on her life in Vietnam. However, she’s very proud of being American, and I think her experiences made her grateful to Americans in Vietnam as well – this is a memoir, and so these are her experiences. Like I will say about Persepolis later, it’s hard to critique someone’s life. After all, it’s just what they lived. But I am equally critical of their biases as written into their books as I hope I would be if I were to meet and speak to them.
The book’s full title is When Heaven and Earth Change Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey From War to Peace. It follows her childhood in a village in central Vietnam, which had presumed allegiance to the South (where the Americans were based) but in fact supported the North (where the Vietcong was mainly). She has a difficult time navigating the two sides, and the book details the hurt both sides caused. The book alternates between flashbacks to her childhood and the war, and present day, when she returns to Vietnam after many years living and raising her family in the U.S., with a final plea for Americans and Vietnamese people to make peace.
Given that I read this right before and during my trip, it was incredible to read about things in here (e.g., the tunnels that the Vietcong used to travel between places) and then visit them at the same time. Rarely do we get the experience to have such opportune synchronicity between the knowledge we learn on paper and that we learn in real life, so it was quite special for me. When she details the things she did, the way the Vietcong operated, their tricks and evasions, it was just very rich detail, the sort you can only get from lived experiences. In that vein, the pain she suffers, the brutality experienced by men and women, it is so clearly something she remembers viscerally, and she writes it that way too. There were a few moments I had to set it down because it was so absolutely disgusting. When I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, it was odd to see that some of this terrible reality was translated into facts and statistics up on boards too – they were both important in different ways.
Like I said, I do think her positive experiences with American troops and then with the country itself lent itself to a different perspective than many other Vietnamese people might have had, and still have. I think her final call that people should just come to peace – that everyone suffered – well, I’ll never think that’s completely fair. Of course both sides suffered. But one side was in their country, trying to defend their land and lives, and the other side came in from a completely foreign place for their own agendas. People did suffer on both sides (and she captures the different cruelties both sides inflicted so well) but I just don’t think it’s fair to equate it, which is what I think she was doing by the end.
Nonetheless, it was a great book for that trip and that time in my life. Having had this experience, I’ll definitely try to align what I’m reading (because I read on every trip – buses, evenings, etc.) to the place I’m in. So maybe when you visit next year, we can find a book about Singapore, and learn more together as we go around!