When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is the autobiography of Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese woman who came of age during the Vietnam War. Hayslip's journey took her from war-torn Vietnam to America and then back to the land of her birth over a decade after the war's end. She endured unimaginable hardships during her time in the war, serving as a lookout for Vietcong forces and facing harsh reprisals from the South Vietnamese. The book dwells on the horrors of war and the price paid by innocent bystanders.
The story began during Hayslip's childhood in a small village in central Vietnam, named Ky La. Her village was along the fault line between the north and south of Vietnam, with shifting allegiances in the village leading to constant tension. She and her friends worked as lookout for the northern Vietcong. The South Vietnamese learned of her work, arrested and tortured her. After Hayslip was released from prison, however, the Vietcong no longer trusted her and sentenced her to death. At the age of fourteen, two soldiers threatened to kill her in the forest. Once they arrived, both men decided to rape her instead.
She fled to Da Nang where she worked as a maid, a black-market vendor, a waitress, a hospital worker and even a prostitute. While working for a wealthy Vietnamese family with her mother in Saigon, Hayslip had a few sexual encounters with the landlord, Anh, and discovered she was pregnant. She gave birth to a baby son at the age of fifteen. Several years later, she married an American contractor named Ed Munro and gave birth to another son. Hayslip left for San Diego, California in 1970, shortly after her 20th birthday.
Hayslip's entire family was torn apart by the war: one brother fled to Hanoi, and did not see his family again for 20 years. Another brother was killed by a land mine. The Vietcong pressured her father to force Hayslip to become a saboteur. Rather than give into the pressure, he committed suicide.
The memoir alternates between her childhood in Vietnam, and her return in 1986, to visit the friends and family she had not seen for so long. In Vietnam she was reunited with the father of her first child, her sisters, brother, and her mother. Her family was afraid to be seen with her because the tensions from the war were still present. Her memoir concludes with a plea for an end to the enmity between the Vietnamese and Americans.