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Vietnamese Writing History Essay

In 1967, Le Ly Hayslip, then known as Phung Thi Le Ly, was a teenager living and working in Da Nang. A peasant girl who had survived war and rape in her rural village, she had migrated to Da Nang to escape persecution from both Vietnamese Communists and anti-Communists. In 1972 she married an American and moved to the United States, and in 1989 she would publish her powerful autobiographical account of being caught between two sides, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.” In 2017, it remains perhaps the only first-person book in English about the experiences of Vietnamese villagers caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War. In her life and work, Ms. Hayslip embodies my broad definition of what it means to be Vietnamese, an identity that includes those in Vietnam or in the diaspora, as well as those who write in Vietnamese or in other languages, in this case English.

I came across her book as a college student at Berkeley in the early 1990s. It moved me deeply, not only because it was a compelling memoir, but also because it was one of the few books in English by a Vietnamese writer. (Co-written, in her case, with Jay Wurts.) Searching for my own history as a Vietnamese refugee brought to the United States by an American war in my country of origin, I had not found much available to me in English, either in the original or in translation. The overwhelming amount of American writing about the war was by Americans, and it was, not surprisingly, about Americans.

There were a few exceptions. Tran Van Dinh was a former diplomat from the South, the Republic of Vietnam, who stayed in America and wrote two novels dealing with the Vietnam War, “No Passenger on the River” (1965) and “Blue Dragon, White Tiger” (1983). As a precocious child who read everything I could about the war, I came across the latter in the public library of San Jose, Calif., my hometown, and was puzzled by its anomalousness. Even then I knew that it was rare to find Vietnamese writers in the United States speaking about this war, or to hear any Vietnamese voices at all in mainstream America.

Immersed in the stories, feelings and memories of the Vietnamese refugee community in which I grew up, I was determined to tell some of those stories, for I knew that Americans as a whole knew very little about them. Only a small cadre of Americans believed that it was necessary and urgent to learn more about Vietnamese voices and experiences, without which a more complete American understanding of the Vietnam War would never happen. American ignorance of Vietnamese history, culture and politics helped draw the United States into a war and a country that it did not comprehend. This pattern of ignorance arguably continues today, both in terms of what Americans continue to ignore about Vietnam and what Americans refuse to know about the Middle East. Literature plays an important role as a corrective to this ignorance.

Thinking back to Tran Van Dinh, I wonder if he was lonely as the only Vietnamese novelist in America of his time. Now we have no shortage of Vietnamese Americans writing in English, as well as translations of Vietnamese-language literature into English. But a lack of knowledge that this literature even exists continues. For most Americans and the world, “Vietnam” means the “Vietnam War,” and the Vietnam War means the American war, with novels written by American men about American soldiers. While their experiences are important, they are hardly representative of the Vietnam War, much less Vietnam.

As the writer Le Thi Diem Thuy and so many others have said, time and again, Vietnam is a country, not a war. One need only read the short story collection “The General Retires,” by the masterful Nguyen Huy Thiep, to understand this. His stories reveal the complexities of postwar life in a disillusioned Vietnam, struggling to rebuild itself and to reconcile the hypocrisies and failures of Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese state with the noble wartime rhetoric of the Communist Party. At the same time, war defined a generation, and its consequences have shaped the generation after, as Ms. Thuy reveals in “The Gangster We Are All Looking For.”

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It’s easy to forget now, 40 years after the Fall of Saigon and freshly removed from the prospect of Iraq and Afghanistan lapsing into “another Vietnam,” that there was a time when many believed that escalation in Vietnam was the right thing to do. Among the prominent voices who felt that way were the editors of TIME who, 50 years ago today, on May 14, 1965, published an influential essay backing the President’s decision to step up the ground campaign in Asia. It was, the headline proclaimed, “The Right War at the Right Time”:

Anticipating counterarguments, the essay swatted away objections. An American offensive wouldn’t be interfering with a civil war because Communism was a worldwide issue. South Vietnam’s continued fighting was indication that they wanted help. Once Communism was entrenched, it was nearly impossible to get rid of. A Communist Vietnam would seek to dominate the region. There was no evidence that U.S. involvement would draw in China or Russia. Events in Asia did matter to American interests. And, finally, there was no value in negotiating with Communists. All in all, the essay concluded, the critics of the war had no ground on which to stand.

The magazine would later change its perspective. In recent conversations about the war, former TIME Saigon bureau chief Peter Ross Range said that he sensed a shift after the Tet Offensive in 1968. “We were all news reporters, but I think there was a shared attitude, a widely shared attitude especially among younger correspondents like me, that the war was not a good thing,” he said. “It was never discussed openly at the magazine but if you read the magazine over time, over the last year before I went, you would get very much the same feeling.”

Years later, after the end of the Cold War, another TIME essay revisited the idea, positing that though the Cold War may have been the right war, Vietnam was the wrong battle—and, the piece concluded, the consequences of that wrong decision would continue to be felt for many years to come.

Read the full 1965 essay, here in the TIME Vault: The Right War at the Right Time