From left, Jenny Ai Trinh Thai, Le Ly Hayslip, Oliver Stone and Alan Vo Ford at the Asian World Film Festival.

’Heaven and Earth’ Turns 30

Though it's long been under-appreciated, Oliver Stone's version of Le Ly Hayslip's story is finally being celebrated for its portrayal of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian perspective

From left, Jenny Ai Trinh Thai, Le Ly Hayslip, Oliver Stone and Alan Vo Ford at the Asian World Film Festival.

Courtesy of Le Ly Hayslip

Words by Thuc Nguyen

You don’t have to look back too many years to see how far Asian representation has come in film. At Asia Society Southern California’s 13th Annual Entertainment Summit and Gala Awards last month, director Daniel Kwan said, “Joy Luck Club crawled so Crazy Rich Asians could walk…and Everything Everywhere All At Once could run.” But generally omitted from this type of retrospection has been Heaven and Earth, a 1993 film about the life of Vietnamese refugee Le Ly Hayslip, starring Vietnamese American actress Hiep Thi Le. It’s the third point in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War trilogy, along with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.

Five years ago, the 25th Anniversary of The Joy Luck Club (also released in 1993) was celebrated. But when Hayslip had asked for help with a 25th Anniversary screening for Heaven and Earth, she was not given the same attention from Asians in entertainment groups. As Ali Wong (who is half Chinese American and half Vietnamese American) joked about in her 2016 comedy special Baby Cobra, there are the “fancy Asians,” aka East Asians, and then there are “jungle Asians,” aka Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians. This thought form is very telling of how the greater world treats Vietnamese diaspora women, despite Heaven and Earth being arguably as pioneering as The Joy Luck Club when it comes to Asian American representation.

Finally, this month Heaven and Earth returns to the big screen for the Asian World Film Festival. These last five years have changed a lot, and the greater representation and awareness has been meaningful, for East and Southeast Asians alike.

AWFF has been ultra inclusive of all kinds of Asian and Asian diaspora film projects. Director Georges Chamchoum acknowledges the importance of Heaven and Earth for its historical perspective, and shared, too, that he loves rooting for the underdog. “Other festivals do not want to take any risks. Our tagline says it all: ‘We champion, recognize and unite through cinema!’ AWFF came about out of frustration and disappointment with the Hollywood Oscars. For several years now, I have discovered that the members of the Academy love to stay in their comfort zone, thus lesser known Asian movies are being sacrificed on the altar of the ‘comfort zone.’”

Many of the scenes in Heaven and Earth may make viewers “uncomfortable,” and that’s the job of art, including cinema. In an interview with Hayslip, I spoke with her about her life’s journey from Vietnamese farm-girl to internationally published author, whose life story is at the center of a big budget Hollywood movie. Hayslip called in from Vietnam, where she’s organizing for flood victims as part of the Global Village Foundation, the air organization she founded and runs. The scene in Vietnam is a far cry from the bright lights and red carpets of Hollywood.

Thuc Doan Nguyen: How did you decide to write the books (When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace) that would become the movie Heaven and Earth?

Le Ly Hayslip: In 1970, when I first came to the U.S. and stayed with my husband Munro's family in San Diego, most family members were U.S. Navy personnel, and seeing the U.S. war in Vietnam was a different point of view than that of my husband and I. We came from Vietnam and witnessed the horrible war, bringing so much suffering to human beings—children and women died and were wounded every day—but to them, all that was on the Vietnamese, communists, and Viet Cong, and the Americans were there as good guys, trying to stop all that and help Vietnamese people. But, I didn’t know how to explain the war in the Vietnamese villagers’ eyes and tell them how we feel about the American or the French being there.

So I started to take down notes of their comments. I had no words to answer their questions but I just suppressed my feelings and wrote down my answers in broken and “funny” English for myself. The books had been on my mind since I landed in California in the 1970s, but it took over 20 years before they became reality. You have no idea how hard I worked and how many teardrops were on those pages of the two books. I still cry when I read them today.

Hiep Thi Le as Le Ly Hayslip in “Heaven and Earth.”

Courtesy of Warner Brothers

TDN: What was your road to publishing like at that time?

LLH: After my son, Jimmy, helped me put it on the computer, I started sending it out to different people and publishing houses, but almost all the replies were rejection notes. Mostly people responded with things like: “We don’t publish stories of our enemy's side,” or “You are not our ally.” I think I got about 22 rejections before I got a book deal that worked for me.

TDN: How were the books received then?

LLH: I had no idea how the book would be received by the readers. My soul feels good when I write down these stories. We were Vietnamese and the war was on our motherland, but our people are voiceless, faceless and powerless—why? Every outsider has voiced their opinion about our people and country, but where are the Vietnamese?

This is the first time the Vietnamese have names and faces, but only a few people recognize them as full humans. These were mostly those veterans who served in Vietnam who either love us or hate us. Still, the books had a hard time being noticed in American markets. But after Oliver Stone's decision to make the movie, the books had their own life and voice, not about them or us, right or wrong, good or bad, but about the healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation between the people and the two countries, bringing compassion towards the Vietnamese by giving back, returning and rebuilding our motherland. At first, people had yet to catch on, but when the movie came out, and universities and colleges used the books in their classrooms, international sales went to many countries and this is when people began to read my stories more widely.

TDN: How did you find out that Oliver Stone wanted to adapt the books?

LLH: Oliver Stone was reading the Sunday Los Angeles Times Magazine, where they covered my book and this caught his eye. Oliver directed Born on the Fourth of July, about the life of our friend, Ron Kovic. One day, Robert (Bob) Kline, who was producing a documentary, interviewed Oliver about Born on the Fourth July. After they finished the interview, Bob asks Oliver, “Do you still have a need to make Vietnam War movies? Yes, there is one more about this Vietnamese gal I just read about in the Sunday LA Times Magazine—about her book...I have a copy in my car,” Bob said.

Oliver took my book with him, reading it on set and then while on a plane trip. When he landed, he called Bob and told him that “I will direct this film, and you can be a producer.” So, Oliver’s film agent contacted my book agent, and the rest is history.

TDN: Were you part of the adaptation process?

Le Ly Hayslip (left) and Oliver Stone at the screening of “Heaven and Earth” at the Asian World Film Festival.

Grant Terzakis

LLH: Oliver and I met in person. I went to his house in Santa Barbara one weekend to talk about the screenplay and movie, but I was shy and didn’t say much until Oliver asked, “What do you want to see with your life story being told in a movie?” “Everything, but not like The Doors or like Rambo,” I answered. Oliver laughed and said, “This is a different kind of movie, but I must finish my other two movies before yours.” He was talking about JFK and Ron Kovic’s.

At the same time, my son, Tom, was already working for Oliver. He finished The Doors and worked on JFK, and pre-production on Heaven and Earth. So, Tom, got me involved from beginning to end. I had many roles and wore many different hats. Oliver was happy I could work beside him every day on and off the set for two years. We are still very good friends.

TDN: You were there for the filming of the movie—what was your favorite part?

LLH: I so much enjoyed working in the rice paddies with 50 Thai people who helped me to set up the village. After that, I helped take care of the pigs, water buffalos, ducks, and chickens like I used to do when I was growing up. We had over 100 Vietnamese villagers brought in from northern Thailand to be extras who were living in the village as villagers. So, the whole rice paddies under this beautiful mountain now become a Ky La village duplicate. The setting is where I grew up. Hiep Thi Le (who plays me), Oliver, and I enjoy getting our feet wet in the mud, working side by side with the local Thai and Vietnamese extras. We had fun!

Hiep Thi Le (front, center) on the set of “Heaven and Earth, with other cast members.

Courtesy of Le Ly Hayslip

TDN: How did it feel for you to see your life story being made into a movie?

LLH: To be honest, I was there on set every single day for many months, from start to finish, and from nothing to being two hours on the big screen all over the world—that is something everyone wishes to experience. However, I was too busy to enjoy and acknowledge the big accomplishment I had created. Regardless, the books had been written, and the movie was made, and I am very satisfied with the life I live and get to lead.

TDN: How did you feel about The Joy Luck Club that also came out in 1993?

LLH: Joy Luck Club is also an excellent story to share—a different but still an Asian family, culture, and family story. I know Amy Tan because we have the same book agent, Sandra Dijkstra. So, it was good that we both had our books made into movies.

TDN: How do you feel about the representation of Vietnamese American women since Heaven and Earth?

LLH: This is just one woman’s story, but she represents some of the young girls who grew up in the countryside like her—war came, so they either ran away to the city and became bar girls or stayed and fought with the Viet Cong and died. My life story does not speak for those who are well-educated and who were wealthy from the cities. So, I cannot say how other women see the movie. But as for me, at the very least, I give some voice to and show some faces of poor and uneducated farmers and women who wanted peace but are in the middle of a terrible war. I wish and hope many more women share their stories from all walks of life so the world knows more about Vietnamese women and how we were able to fight in the wars and can survive it all from Hai Ba Trung (Two Trung Women aka the women warriors called the Trung Sisters from Vietnamese history) to now.

Hiep Thi Le in “Heaven and Earth.”

Courtesy of Warner Brothers

TDN: What do you hope for the future of Vietnamese American women in movies?

LLH: Stand up, be strong spiritually and intellectually, and become more creative and honest within society, no matter where one lives or what kind of life they have. Please don’t waste time on something they cannot take with them when they die, but knowledge about life, leaving their wisdom to the young and giving back to the motherlands of their ancestors’ births.

Back in America, Hayslip is a consulting producer for the upcoming feature film about Vietnamese American women called Scent of the Delta. She’s also working on a documentary project about Vietnamese women on both sides of the Vietnam War (of which I am helping with translations).

Hiep Thi Le (left) and Le Ly Hayslip on the set of “Heaven and Earth.”

Courtesy of Le Ly Hayslip

Fast forward a couple weeks from our in-depth talk. It’s a warm Sunday evening, when all kinds of people gather for a reception and sold-out screening of the film Heaven and Earth in sun-soaked Marina del Rey in West Los Angeles. Breezes roll into the reception and screening venues from the Pacific Ocean that connects Los Angeles to Vietnam. Director Oliver Stone is there, as well as cast and crew members from the film. Vietnamese American actor and singer Tai Thai croons Elvis Presley covers for the crowd at the VIP reception before the film begins.

Thai plays Le Ly’s son, Jimmy (at age 20), in Heaven and Earth, and is excited to be part of the 30th anniversary kick off events. He had to audition in person five times before landing his role. After the screening, Thai says, “We just finished watching the movie with everyone. Heaven and Earth shows the new generations how much suffering our people went through during the war and how blessed we are today. We have come a long way. I’m so thrilled to see what’s coming next! I believe if you want to see more material with Vietnamese storylines then, you have to make it happen.”

Published on November 16, 2022

Words by Thuc Nguyen

Thuc Doan Nguyen is a former child boat person refugee who was sponsored to the small town of Kinston, North Carolina. She grew up there, in Raleigh, NC and in rural Southern Maryland. She’s lived in Europe and has an Irish passport, as well as an American one. Thuc is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. She's a writer and essayist for publications like Vogue, Esquire, The Daily Beast, VICE, Refinery29, Southern Living, PBS and now JoySauce, among others. She loves dogs and college basketball. You can find out more about her work at