DANANG, Vietnam — Le Ly Hayslip took on the French and American armies as a child in Ky La, a small farming village where she was born outside of Da Nang in central Vietnam.
She married an American contractor during the Vietnam War, then made it in the United States after he died.
Le Ly conquered the publishing world with her best-seller “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places,” and she worked with Oliver Stone on the movie based on that book, “Heaven and Earth.”
She has survived the bureaucratic intricacies of founding and operating in the NGO (non-governmental organization) world in the United States and Vietnam.
However, with the expansion and development going on today in Vietnam, local landowners like Le Ly are in the position of being pushed aside for the so-called larger good.
Ex GIs from the Plattsburgh area — Corky Reinhart, Neil Tallon, Pete Conroy and me — along with Mark Conroy from Danang, accompanied Le Ly for a visit to her ancestral home.
She just recently returned from the United States, where she was awarded the Ryan C. Crocker Global Citizen of the Year award.
“They’ve already pushed a large highway through the rice fields in back of my village, and now they’re trying to take my front yard for a road expansion at our home farm here,” Le Ly told us.
“Looks just like the Northway when it pushed through our farm in Beekmantown,” Pete said.
“Looks just like they did to (Scomotion Creek) during the early urban renewal on North Margaret Street in Plattsburgh,” Tallon observed.
‘IT WAS TERRIBLE’
The trail from Le Ly’s house to the rice fields out back was a major infiltration route into the village for the opposition in both the French and the American wars.
Both armies used her family’s small house as an outpost for small detachments of troops during their respective wars.
The French burned it when they left in 1954, but it was rebuilt.
“Every morning when we got up, we didn’t know if we’d survive the day,” Le Ly said.
“Every night when we went to bed, we didn’t know if we’d wake up in the morning — it was terrible. We were caught in the middle.”
Village houses there had their own bunker to hide in when troops came or there was bombing in the area.
They were defensive in nature but could be construed as offensive by GIs whose main mission was to stay alive.
“We weren’t told anything about them officially,” said First Cavalry Division veteran Pete Conroy. “Our previous knowledge was from soldiers who were here earlier in the war, and they said to be suspicious of everything.
“It might be a spider hole with a sniper waiting inside.”
This did not bode well for the villagers.
Le Ly recalls getting on well with the soldiers during washups at the well and at cookouts on campfires in the backyard.
But when the soldiers went on patrol and stepped on mines, suffering severe casualties, the mood changed rapidly.
Medivacs flew out the dead and wounded, but then gunships and fresh troops arrived with guns blazing. Vietcong insurgents were killed, but so were many innocent villagers.
“I can’t imagine living here for all those years under those conditions,” mused Corky Reinhart, a retired professor who has taught Vietnam War history at various colleges and universities, including SUNY Plattsburgh.
“These poor people.”
Le Ly left her village for Saigon with her mother in 1964 because both the U.S. troops and the Vietcong wanted to shoot her.
She was 14 years old at the time. Her older sister Hai Ngai, who today is 92, has lived in this house throughout both wars and still does.
She suffers mental trauma to this day from the experiences of those years.
During the Vietnam War, John W. Conroy served a 15-month tour with the U.S. Army in Bien Hoa, just north of Saigon. More recently, he has traveled with Army soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and shared his inside perspectives of the war with Press-Republican readers.
RETURN TO VIETNAM
This is the final column of a short series by John W. Conroy as he and three other veterans from the Plattsburgh area tour Vietnam.