“This outfit is traditional. I never get to wear it,” Le Ly Hayslip said, adjusting her floral embroidered áo dài (dress) and purple shawl for a photograph. A slight woman whose voice rings beautifully with the sounds of her homeland, Hayslip was preparing to return to the reception being held in her honor.
The World Affairs Council of Greater Hampton Roads with Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker presented Hayslip with the Fifth Annual Ryan C. Crocker Global Citizen of the Year Award at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Va. on Feb. 13.
Named after Career Ambassador Crocker, the award recognizes individuals who have displayed outstanding acts of personal sacrifice and public service.
Born in Danag, Vietnam, Hayslip is a refugee turned American Citizen who fought for the Viet Cong alongside some of her family members. She is also a humanitarian and the author of “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places,” a look at the Vietnam War from the perspective of a Vietnamese teenager.
Hayslip has given her life to the education and health of her people, both in and out of country, with establishments like the East/West Foundation, which provides education and health services to people in Asia, and the Global Village Foundation, which focuses on the education and self-empowerment of the Vietnamese. She also serves as a counselor for American Vietnam veterans seeking emotional healing from the horrific war.
Crocker was honored to present her with the award, saying, “I feel that honorees like Ms. Hayslip are far more worthy of this distinction than I am. There is hardly a persona alive who has experienced more personal sacrifice.
Rather than react with bitterness and animosity, she came to the US and immediately established a foundation to help those of her countrymen who were still suffering with health services, with education and with humanitarian assistance.”
Hayslip describes her life as a poor villager saying that during the day Republican troops would visit telling the villagers to fight alongside them for freedom. The Viet Cong came to do the same at night. The villagers, who were mostly illiterate, uneducated and confused about the cause and issues of the war, went along with whichever troops were there at the time.
By the age of 15, Hayslip had been arrested several times and tortured for collaborating with the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong had begun to suspect her of being a traitor and her father petitioned for her and her mother to be moved from Danag to Saigon for protection.
In Saigon she became pregnant at 16; a situation severely looked down upon in Vietnamese culture. She was a single mother working as a cocktail waitress when she met her first husband and entered into a marriage of survival instead of love.
At 20-years-old and with a third grade education, she emigrated from her war-torn Vietnam to the United States in 1970 with her husband and two children. Shortly after, Hayslip was widowed for the first time, leaving her a single mother in a world that she describes as “mars” in comparison to her homeland.
“I struggled a lot. Most of my jobs when I come to the US after I became a widow were house cleaning to raise my three sons as a single mother. I was jobless and skill-less, with no background of education. It was very hard.” Hayslip said.
She would not be able to see or speak to her family in Vietnam for 16 years. In those years, she was widowed twice and raised three biological children and seventeen Vietnamese refugee foster children.
Hayslip was eventually allowed to return to Vietnam to reunite with her surviving mother and siblings. Although she felt culturally shocked and lost upon her return, viewing her homeland through a new perspective as a Viet-American citizen, raising her children in America. She was heartbroken to find that her country hadn’t changed much over the years. What bothered her most was the state of the education system.
“The school system just cannot help the children. When I returned to Vietnam, the children there were no different than when I was young.” Hayslip said. “How can I turn my back and walk away and not help the children? The children are the future of Vietnam, or any country…They need to have some form of education.”
Moved by the plight of Vietnamese children, Hayslip has helped set up schools and libraries as well as train teachers in modern methods. She has also taken many American Vietnam veterans back to Vietnam to begin the healing process by witnessing the forgiveness and respect that the Vietnamese have for them. She believes that through a relationship and help from America, Vietnam’s educational and health facilities can improve and American can heal from the war.
“It is very moving for me and very touching for someone to acknowledge what I have done. I found a way to bring America and Vietnam together. Not for myself so much, but for humanity and the family of mankind. You fought. You won. You lost. You shake hands and you start all over again in new stages,” Hayslip said.
“Looking back at a quarter of a century that I’ve given my life to work for humanity, and to serve the community of Vietnam there and here, or wherever is needed, we can see that the only thing we have is each other. The only thing we can give and contribute is to give one another what you have with a smile and enjoy the moment of life.”
By Adrienne Mayfield