Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Truc Mai House and Le Ly's 'Heaven and Earth'

Our last day in Saigon. We depart late tonight for Tokyo, where we have a three hour stopover, during which time I have great hopes of enjoying some authentic Japanese sushi. Nothing like wasabi at 3:00 am to cure jet lag! Then there's an exciting 13-hour flight to New York City with six hours wait until our connection back to Toronto. With little more than topsiders, jeans and a summer jacket, we intend on avoiding our inevitable return to real-life a wee bit longer, and grabbing a cab into Manhattan to enjoy a leisurely lunch at Balthazar, our favourite NYC fin-de-siecle french brasserie in SOHO. A bowl of their delicious hot bubbling onion soup, some steak-frites and a glass of wine, and we'll be ready to head back to Toronto. After almost a month away in south-east Asia, we've had some unique experiences, some of which are intangible, like the music of Truc Mai House and the writing of Le Ly Hayslip's autobiography 'When Heaven and Earth Changed Places'

Tru Mai House is home to a charming Vietnamese couple, musicians Tuyet Mai and Dinh Linh, who perform traditional Vietnamese music from their small home in central Saigon. Dedicated to preserving and promoting the art of traditional folk music, the couple perform on a great variety of classic time honoured instruments, like the hauntingly beautiful Dan Bau, a single-string monochord zither made from bamboo that used to be played by blind men who were particularly sensitive to musical notes, and were thus able to create highly sentimental and beautiful sounds that were supposed to have made all the village women weep. If one sound had to be chosen to evoke Vietnam, it has to be the sound of the Dan Bau, a traditional instrument of purely Vietnamese origin. 

Then there's the Dan Da, an ancient traditional Vietnamese lithophone, kind of like a xylophone, made of 11 chiseled stones of different shapes and sizes in order of their different tone levels, which are struck with a small wooden hammer. It has a beautiful relaxing sound much like water rippling through a stream. Given that the heritage of Vietnam's traditional folk music came from simple people living in small mountain villages or rural hamlets, it's no wonder that the music they created was inspired by the sounds of nature. Hearing Tuyet Mai and Dinh Linh sing and perform traditional Vietnamese folk music on their private collection of age-old instruments in their own home, was a unique experience and left us with a melodic sense of Vietnam's culture as it might have been hundreds of years ago.

Then there's the heartbreaking reality of Vietnam's culture as it was 40 years ago, as told by Le Ly Hayslip, the award-winning author of two memoirs chronicling her extraordinary life in Vietnam and America: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace. When our wonderful Hoi An guide, Mein, suggested that I read Le Ly's book, I was glad she did. It has been my constant companion as I've traveled through Vietnam and has given me a better understanding of Vietnam's history during the French occupation, the American War and the Viet Cong, all from the perspective of a young girl growing up in a small village. 

It is said that in war heaven and earth change places not once, but many times. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is the haunting memoir of a girl on the verge of womanhood in a world turned upside down. The youngest of six children in a close-knit Buddhist family, Le Ly Hayslip was twelve years old when U.S. helicopters langed in Ky La, her tiny village in central Vietnam. As the government and Viet Cong troops fought in and around Ky La, both sides recruited children as spies and saboteurs. Le Ly was one of those children.
Before the age of sixteen, Le Ly had suffered near-starvation, imprisonment, torture, rape, and the deaths of beloved family members—but miraculously held fast to her faith in humanity. And almost twenty years after her escape to America, she was drawn inexorably back to the devastated country and family she left behind. Memories of this joyous reunion are interwoven with the brutal war years, offering a poignant picture of Vietnam, then and now, and of a courageous woman who experienced the true horror of the Vietnam War—and survived to tell her unforgettable story.

A survivor of the Vietnam war, Le Ly has been the victim of all the horrors of that conflict, both reported and unreported, for most of her life. Although she has every right to be bitter, she has chosen to forgive her enemies and move forward to help others rebuild their shattered lives — making a difference in the United States and in her homeland.

Returning to her homeland in 1986, she established the East Meets West Foundation to help people who had no jobs, no medical care, and especially the children with no reasonable expectation of improving their lot without some outside help. Le Ly also wanted to help heal the wounds of war between America and Vietnam.