Tag Archives: Vietnam

Vietnamese orphans before and after “Operation Babylift”

Aimee Phan was born in 1977 in Orange County, so had no personal experience/memory of “Operation Babylift,” in which 10,300 infants and children were airlifted from Saigon to the United States before the city fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam. The eight stories in We Should Never Meet, published in 2004 (when the author was 27) are about orphans and their caregivers. Four are set in Vietnam (three before Operation Babylift; the last with two orphans revisiting Saigon and a nearby orphanage and the Vietcong’s Cu Chi tunnels). The other four center on orphans resettled in Phan’s native Orange County, where the heaviest concentration of Vietnamese American live.


Though Phan is not an orphan and was not born in Vietnam, the stories are convincing to me (unlike her, I was adopted, as some of them were) both about the chaos of orphanages in the final stages of the Republic of Vietnam and about the abandonment neuroses of those who had been evacuated and grew up in Orange County (whether in foster care or as adopted children). The white Americans who devoted time and resources to helping the children survive, both in South Vietnam and in the US, may sometimes be clueless, but are seen in the texts as well-intentioned. Bridget, a pediatrician who volunteered to go to a Saigon for two months, leaving behind her own two-year-old and husband in “Bound” is not ineffectual. She clearly saved lives, though just as clearly was delusional about being able to go back and continue her old life and now older family along with a Vietnamese baby boy. The last two stories in the book, “Bound” and “Motherland” end optimistically. The plane filled with orphans on which Bridget leaves makes it out (as one plane did not).

The most anti-American character in the book, Vinh, is also the most despicable, preying on other Vietnamese refugees whom he (and his gang) know do not trust police and are unlikely to seek their aid. For me “Visitors” was the most heartbreaking story in the collection. Vinh feels some regret for what he does, which undoes none of the damage to the refugee family(/ies) he victimizes (also in the title story in which another sympathetic Vietnamese character is attacked).

Kim, another recurring character, has wisely broken up with Vinh, but is relatively nihilistic and envious of Mai, the smart and accomplished girl who had been placed in foster care with Kim and Vinh more than once. Kim was adopted, but returned after a month, whereas Mai was kept by a pair of devoted foster parents, who did not adopt her and were taking in a seven-year old Vietnamese orphan when she went off to college (Emancipation).

The whole is more than the sum of the parts, but less than a sustained novel. There is much more I would like to know about various characters. I wouldn’t say that the stories lack endings (like so many New Yorker stories), but they tend to be somewhat open endings, cutting away from the uncertainties the characters feel and from closure. Each set of stories (those leading to and those leading from Operation Babylift) proceeds in chronological order, but the alternation does not work for me, though I could have read the four orphans in Saigon stories first and then the four adolescent Vietnamese orphans in Orange County ones. Having followed Phan’s ordering of chapters, I don’t know if the grouping would have enhanced coherence, but I think I’d recommend reading the 3rd, 5th, and 7th before reading the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th (mindful that the 8th casts light on where the 7th left off, literally in midair).


(jacket photo of author ca. 2004)


Phan’s first novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, was published in 2012. It juxtaposes escape from and return to Vietnam with immigrant lives (of two families of refugees) in France and California with fractured chronology and two sets of letters as well as the main narration.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Returning to and bicycling across Vietnam

In many ways quite horrifying, Catfish and Mandala is one of the most gripping and moving books I’ve ever read. The book has a number of narrative lines. The author, Andrew X. Pham, bored with his work as an aerospace engineer, sets off to bicycle parts of the Pacific Rim. He starts on the GoldenGate Bridge and goes up the US coast. He flies to Japan and bicycles out of Narita Airport. He flies to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), takes his bike on a train to Hanoi and bicycles back. The perils of these eccentric trips are interesting, but within the realm of travel writing. So is the self-deprecation for such crazy ventures. The book is unlikely to encourage visitors (especially Vietnamese American ones) to Vietnam. And I don’t think I’ll be able to eat catfish in Southeastern Asia again (much as I liked it in Chiang Mai) after reading his description of the exuberance catfish have for scarfing down  fresh human feces.

That the trip shows “You can’t go home again,” because what is left there is unrecognizable&is a fairly standard a finding. The resentment by those who stayed for those who left is particularly acute in Vietnam, but this is a difference of degree, not of kind from other places from which people have left.

What makes this book exceptional is the juxtaposition of Pham’s reflections on his late-1990s bicycling around Vietnam with his memories of fleeing Vietnam in 1977, when he was 10 years of age. An Indonesian ship rescued his family just before their boat sank. They spent a long time in a refugee camp in Indonesia, an almost as disorienting a time sponsored by a church congregation in the American South, and more hard time struggling in San José, California. The family member who did not survive is an older sister who changed sexes in America. But in some sense, the survivors are also casualties, despite some material success.
Pham is obviously very resilient, both physically and emotionally and makes something of great value from painful personal history and difficult travel. He is harder on himself than on anyone else. He has great compassion for the Vietnamese he meets in Vietnam and for his elders among West Coast Vietnamese-Americans. It seems to me that Pham’s journey into the multiple traumas of his family’s experience yields insights of universal significance. His journey across space also provides considerable insight into the modern phenomena of dislocation: able to travel, but nowhere at home, he is regarded as a crazy alien in Vietnam and America (and Japan)… and as Vietnamese by white Americans and as American by Vietnamese.
This beautifully written and painfully self-revealing book deservedly won the 1999 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. It is certain to be one of the classics of diaspora literature. It is hard to imagine a reader who would not learn from the book, and I would not want to meet anyone who is not moved by its emotional force!

(I did not figure out where a mandala occurs in the text; perhaps the whirling bicycle wheels?)



(book’s jacket author photo)

At a Different Light bookstore appearance, clad in standard writer black, Pham said he started writing in 1992, while still an aerospace engineer. His year of bicycle travel cost roughly $4000 (so the Kiriyama $50,000 prize could fund 12 years? He may be resilient, but not that resilient!) He never had any writing classes, just the belief that in America one can be what one wants to be (and he loves America and would fight for America). He acknowledged that healing by confession and introspection is very Western and his parents are very Eastern.

His gay brother Phu said that, although their father is very proud of his author (now winner of a lucrative and prestigious prize), he hasn’t spoken to Andrew since the book washed so much family laundry. In public Phu told him that he doesn’t have any friends anyway, so why should it matter to him(!).

[Pham’s website records: “If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have never written Catfish and Mandala. It brought my parents considerable pain and created a silence between us that lasted four years.” That was followed by collaboration on what became The Eaves of Heaven and translating Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram]

He also said that their mother denied ever having in any way been a brothel keeper (a fairly opaque insinuation in Catfish and Mandala). (I asked Phu if he or any of the other siblings has been to Vietnam. He said no, that although he was interested in visiting, it wasn’t at the top of his list of places to go.)

Andrew said that his two gay brothers had stable relationships and careers, while he and his other straight brother have managed neither.

©1999, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

The third time is not always the charm (alas)

Amazon Crossing picked up Daughters of the River Huong, a 2005 small-press-published novel by Vietnam-born Houston attorney Uyen Nioole Duong (born in 1959) and reprinted it in 2011 followed a few months later by its sequel Mimi And Her Mirror. The protagonist of the first is Simone, the eldest great-grand-daughter of a king of Hue (the River Huong, which runs through the capital of the former kingdom is generally called the Perfume River in English) and his concubine. The second novel takes up the story of the traumatic escape from Saigon in 1975 of the second daughter, Mimi. Both have become very successful attorneys in the US.

I thought that the third volume of the trilogy, also published by Amazon  in 2011,  would move on to the story of Peter/Pi, the youngest child and wondered about Duong’s ability to create a credible male character. “Nam” in Postcards from Nam, however, turns out not to be the youngest child of the family that made it out, but a neighbor boy (a playmate of Pi’s who had a major crush on Mimi and listened reverentially to her piano practicing). Duong ducks the challenge of manufacturing a male consciousness, since the texts that start arriving (postmarked Bangkok: the back cover “Saigon” postmark is multiply wrong… and Duong uses “postdated” where she means “postmarked”) are terse even for postcard texts.


Mimi charged Nam with watching out for her grandmother who was left behind. He was unable to do that and had as hard a time as any of the boat people who made it alive to foreign shores. Mimi mobilizes her connections to find out what happened. Only readers of the previous book will know the parallel in her own fight from Saigon, or how important the grandmother who was left behind was to her.

An interview of the former RVN intelligence officer who ran boatloads of mostly Chinese refugees (payment in gold only) shows Duoing has some talent as a noir/detective writer, but Nam remains a wispy concept rather than a character. Knowing from Mimi And Her Mirror that Mimi revisits Vietnam on business, I find it difficult to believe that she would not stop in Bangkok and arrange a meeting with Nam (away from where he works…)

The book adds nothing to the reader’s understanding of Mimi. It indirectly tells a horror story of the fall of South Vietnam and of infighting and anomie among Vietnamese Americans.

The text is only 89 pages, followed by a ten-page blurb from G. B. A. Nash that quixotically defends the opening elaborate description of Mimi’s apartment/building (the mirror, apparently, was left behind when she sold her house for a loss…) and seems to me superfluous (padding).

©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


A Dissatisfied “Model Minority” (Vietnam-born Attorney) Woman’s Midlife-Crisis and Earlier Traumas

Mimi and Her Mirror is the second of the “Fall of South Vietnam” trilogy written by Uyen Nicole Duong (born in VIetman in 1959) published by Amazon in 2011. The first was Daughters of the River Huong, which combines the story of a Cham concubine of a Viet emperor in the early 20th century with the story of Simone, her great- grand-daughter who bartered her body for exit visas from Saigon in 1975, and her life as a high-paid attorney in New York. Mimi is the Simone’s younger sister, whose airlifting from Saigon in 1975 was complicated (and traumatized) by an attempt to find and gather up her haughty maternal grandmother. After earning a communication/journalism degree from Southern Illinois (as did the author), Mimi went to Harvard Law School, and later picked up an LLM from Harvard and works for a large Houston law firm that is representing a company not unlike Enron that is bribing foreign officials. (The author also has a Harvard LLM but went to law school at the University of Houston and practices law in Houston). Amazon Encore also published a thin third volume, Postcards from Nam.

mimi cover.jpeg

I thought Daughters of the River Huong was uneven with some evocative and engaging writing alternating with some very clunky writing (in scenes set in Vietnam, France, and the US). I could manage the jumping around in time and place, and certainly used to it before taking on Mimi’s first-person narrative. Her imperious maternal grandmother plays an important place in her background and her memory (indeed, haunting Mimi’s American present), but the background in the Hue court is only alluded to here, so the second novel (1) is easier to follow than the first and (2) is richer for those with knowledge from the first one.

Alas, even with that knowledge, Mimi is not as nuanced and developed a character as her forebearers. The living members of her family play minor roles in Mimi and Her Mirror. The big mirror gets second billing for a reason! She gazes at her reflection a lot and muses. For a hotshot lawyer, her analytic skills seem to me to be anorexic. Being uprooted, passing through chaos at the end of the Republic of Vietnam, and making her way through the cold (not just in temperature) US educational and legal system, she recurrently repeats her resume (telling rather than showing her successes) to herself and the reader. She has hot sex with an Anglo lawyer who she learns is a “rice bandit” (Brad not only has a very rich Chinese wife, but has had a sequence of affairs with women of Asian descent and/or origin.)

There is a pretty standard ethical lawyer quandary along with the romantic/sexual confusion. The most riveting part of the book is the last day in Saigon. It has an anti-hero, a very scary villain, and confusion about how Simone has arranged the family’s transit. The Americans in Saigon are not blamed for anything. Mimi realized they were tired and trying to do their best and among the overwhelmed.

At SIU Mimi encounters an older Vietnam refugee whose vocation was to be president of the (extinct) Republic of South Vietnam He doesn’t altogether come off as a character, though Mimi never forgets him and invokes him very frequently in the rest of her memoir (Duong’s novel, that is).

Considering that Duong has experience of law school in general and Harvard Law School in particular, it is odd that her narrative tells a bit about Mimi’s accomplishments without showing anything (this is not the case for being alone at breaks at SIU, but is the case for the “paradise lost”/ Vietnam before the fall portions of the novel.

Duong overuses adverbs, sometimes repeating the same one more than once on a page. (“Incessantly” as a gross exaggeration particularly annoyed me.) The dialogue is hit and miss. Some of the supposedly spoken lines are very wooden and unbelievable, not least that from the ghost of Grandma Que, but also that of Mimi. The book needed a strong editor though an author with a better ear for how people speak would have made the need less glaring. But there would still be repetitions and overwriting to prune.

After a long stasis of middle-age dissatisfaction with the law firm and Brad and repeated memories of the Crazy Man, the ending seems a bit perfunctory—but only a bit. It is not unsatisfying or overly open-ended. (After all, it is only Mimi’s 40th birthday and she can burn bridges without giving up on river-crossings…)


©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray



A sort of Vietnamese Gone with the Wind

Many times while I was reading Houston attorney/novelist Uyen Nicole Huong’s Daughters of the River Huong, I felt like I was reading a (much) shorter and more multi-generational Gone with the Wind. There are tough (however feminine-looking) female survivors in the forefront. Though there is no analog to Rhett Butler, there is an Ashley Wilkes or too, conscientious but defeated. The first is the Nguyen prince who will become king Thuan Thanh. In the years around 1900 the kingdom of Annam with its capital in Hue is a French puppet in what is officially a protectorate but for all practical purposes is a colony. He plucks a boat-paddler from the River Huong (often called the “Perfume River” in English). She is not only a commoner, but is of Cham descent (the Kingdom of Champa ceased to exist in 1692). The “paddle girl” is remade into the Mystique Combine. If she were to bear a son who became crown prince, she could have been designated queen, but what everyone assumed was this son turned out to be female twins, Princess Cinnamon and Princess Ginseng.


The French Resident Superieur, Sylvain Foucault, finds Thuan Thanh both to expensive to maintain and insufficiently pliable, forces him to abdicate and ships him off to exile off the African coast on the island of Reunion. The Mystique Concubine takes the insignia of a queen mother and sets up a silk farm to provide for her daughters, the elderly eunuch who has protected her in court, and the servant who has taught her to read.

The Japanese occupation is largely passed over. Ginseng and a younger brother join the Viet Minh and wars against the re-establishment of French colonialism after World War II, captured, tortured and driven mad by the French.

Cinnamon’s grand-daughter Simone is forced by her parents to leave her grandmother’s palatial villa in Hue for a Saigon apartment. The ten-year-old Simone will get her parents and siblings out of Saigon before it falls to the communists (her grandmother refusing to leave) by marrying an American journalist 15 years her senior, Christopher Sanders (the closest to a Rhett Butler rescuer character in the novel, though far more diffident and who does not fathering a child with Simone).

Simone remains in love with André Foucault, the grandson of the French official who forced her great-grandfather off the throne and otherwise outraged the Mystique Concubine. Though André seeks forgiveness for his grandfather’s deeds (and attitudes), he is weaker than Ashley Wilkes, and succumbs to the seductive underage Simone, generating an immense load of guilt.

Simone borders on being a sexual predator on older men. There is no question that she is the one exercising agency, saving her family via Christopher and wrecking André’s marriage.

Simone eventually returns to Vietnam as a privileged American corporate lawyer and finds out what happened to her beloved grandmother (Cinnamon) and the great aunt she barely knew (Ginseng). She visits places she lived, and may yet rebuild her own Tara (her great-grandmother’s silk farm).

The sex in Uyen Duong’s novel is not much more graphic than that in Margaret Mitchell’s though notably more pederastic (with young women manipulating adult males, Vietnamese, French, and American). There is some remarkably bad writing in both novels, and multiple strong-willed women not merely surviving but prospering in Duong’s. Sometimes I was caught up in the narrative of catastrophes (geopolitical turmoil as it affected the matrilineal line (Cham inheritance, historically, was matrilineal, btw), sometimes I cringed at what these women did and at what happened to some of them.


I guess that, like GWTW, DRH is “chick lit,” though readers of English who are more interested in Vietnamese experience of colonialism (French), neocolonialism (American and Soviet), and civil wars from the perspective of defeated southerners (mostly those who escaped, but eventually there is material on those who were not able to get out) than in materially advantageous interethnic and interracial sexual relationships may also appreciate the book. The love story strikes me as a structural reversal of the diffident and pederastic sexual liaison in Saigon-born Marguerite Duras’s thrice-told tale of an interracial sexual relationship in the French colony of Vietnam (The Sea Wall, The Lover, The North-China Lover).

I’d have preferred the book to have started with the paddle girl rather than the successful attorney, and I guess that my suspension of disbelief as less willful for the parts set longest ago and in the present. I’m not sure I wanted more about the Simone’s parents, though I noticed that there was much less about that generation than about the preceding two and the present(-tense) one.

I am very grateful for the aid of genealogy and dramatis personae listings at the start of the book.

BTW Uyen Duong was 16 when airlifted out of Saigon in 1965 and has emphasized that she is not Simone, though she has experienced the cultural dislocations (and the American legal profession. The next volume of her trilogy, Mimi and Her Mirror, centers on Simone’s younger (by four years) sister Mimi, who also became an attorney in the US.


Unless you’re allergic to graphic novels, I recommend Vietnamerica

I liked the somewhat sardonic voice of the rather nebbish-looking narrator of Vietnamerica, GB Tran, who gave up on teachers and fellow students in South Carolina pronouncing Gia-Bao in a way not painful to his ear. GB was American-born, that is, “second generation” Vietnamese-American, without even childhood memories of Vietnam and wars there.


The graphic memoir he wrote and drew shows him struggling to learn about (never mind understand!) a very complicated history. Unremitting war against foreign armies (Japanese, French, American) and emigration by GB’s parents and older siblings made the Vietnamese life related in flashbacks difficult. The flashback-filled narrative is further complicated by the multiple marriages up the family tree (family trees are shown branching downward on the page) and by a lot of moves within Vietnam, as well as emigrations to France before the unification of Vietnam.under repressive communists.

One of GB’s grandfathers, Do Ty, was a an army physician for the Viet Minh, GB’s father was a teacher in South Vietnam, GB’s father’s younger brother, Vinh, was drafted into the South Vietnamese army, etc.

The characters have varying views in the present about the wars and the regime that followed. The ones who got out, including GB’s parents maintain some nostalgia for a world that no longer exists, some post-traumatic stress disorder from the dangers of the 1960s and 70s in Vietnam. GB portrays himself as having been just fine with his parents’ reticence about telling him about what they and other family members experienced in Vietnam before or after the 1975 fall of Saigon.

The family tree on page 62 is helpful for reminding the reader of who’s who—or some of who’s who in that there are a few important characters not on the family tree.


The drawings are engaging. The number of cells per page ranges from .5 (something extending to the facing page) to 12. My guess is that the mode is 7.

I have read a number of books written by generation 1.5, that is by writers mostly or entirely educated in the US who were born in Southeast Asia and fled as children, mostly with their parents. The parents seem to their children to be inscrutable — or at least very unwilling to talk about their past in any detail — and the narrators struggle to find out what happened and what the survivors felt. (For a female-centered graphic memoir see Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do.)

There is less about growing up markedly different in America in Tran’s book than in some others written by members of the 1.5 generation. Though ego-centered, his book is about his parents’ and grandparents’ generation rather than what he experienced or remembers. What they experienced was very dramatic, and more fraught with danger than growing up in South Carolina was. Perhaps a memoir of what Tran remembers rather than elicits lies ahead. I hope so, though appreciating the need to find out where he came from in sociohistorical terms, not just geographical ones (though a map would have been almost as useful as the family tree is!)

(It’s odd that there are not (or none that I know of) memoirs by the first generation in that many of those who got out in 1975 were fluent in English. Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh (South Wind Changing) is close, having being 18 in 1975 and emigrating after “re-education”) by the communists).

©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Women continuing to have to eat bitterness in postwar Vietnam


A best-seller in the month or so in Vietname before it was banned in 1988, as the preceding two novels by Duong Thu Huong (1947-) had been, Nhng thiên đường mù then became the first Vietnamese novel published in English in the US, as Paradise of the Blind. Though a volunteer who served in the front lines in “the War Against the Americans” for seven year and a volunteer again in defending Vietnam from Chinese invasion in 1979, she was expelled from the Vietnam Communist Party in 1989, imprisoned without trial for seven months in 1991 (and again when Tiu thuyết vô đề was published abroad as Novel without a Name in 1995).


I read Novel without a Name first: it is a gripping autobiographical novel of her war experience. Much of Paradise of the Blind is set in the Soviet Union, the patron of the victorious communist regime in Vietnam. The backstory which looms very large is set in Duong’s native northern Vietnam province, Thai Binh, during the Viet Minh times, when brutal land reform modeled on Mao’s was instituted while the Viet Minh was fighting the re-establishment of French colonialism.

The parents of the novel’s protagonist Hang had a brief time of happiness until Hang’s maternal uncle Chinh returned in 1956. A communist zealot, he forbade his sister (Que) to associate with her husband (Ton) because of his class background (which was peasant with a small landholding, not rentier). A few years later the Special Section for the Rectification of Errors comes to the village and though she was a victim torn from her husband, because she is Chinh’s brother, Que was targeted for revenge.

Que became a street vendor and when her brother pops in again, now a mid-level official, he denounces her as a petty capitalist. It turns out that he is there to take his share of the sale of their parents’ house.

At the time (early 1980s) of the novel, Hang travels across the Soviet Union to Moscow, where her uncle is ill. The ideologue is involved in the black market and needs the help of his niece who is fluent in Russian.

Between the portrayal of corruption in the Homeland of Socialism (the USSR) and in victorious communist Vietnam, it is not surprising that the book was (and remains) banned in Vietnam. The fear and despair of Novel without a Name demystified the triumph of wars against France and the US and is, I think, of more interest to Americans as a view from the other side, where danger was also constant (but without being able to call in any air support) than wheres bitter tale of corruption in two communist states take place.

Duong_Thu_Huong-Ertezoute 2014.jpg

the author is 2014, Creative Commons photo by Ertezou

The stories of those on the winning North Vietnamese side who lived in poverty are even less upbeat than those of the losing (South) Vietnamese side who managed to get out to refugee status (or lengthy “re-education”). Sacrifices and hopes for a free Vietnam, capitalist or communist, were for naught and reading about the sorrows of war and peace is depressing. The mix of true-believer in communism uncle and pragmatic aunt recurs in Uyen Nicole Duong’s family saga (Daughters of the River Huong and Mimi And Her Mirror) and the (amoral?) familialism is also very evident in writings by the children of South Vietnamese émigrés, Andrew Lam, Andrew Pham, and GB Tran. Unlike Duong herself, her protagonist Hang eventually rejects her past (in the accommodations of her mother, uncle, or aunt), which is not to say she is relieved of the burdens of the past, including her laboring in the Soviet Union (I have not mentioned her romance with a sort of Bohemian there…)


As a record of the tumultuous and indirect road to modernity (and the ubiquity of corruption regardless of ruling ideology) the book is valuable, but it is easier to admire than to like. It adds a feminist twist to the genre of “the god that failed” narratives from just before the Soviet Union devolved into a post-ideological thugocracy, a trajectory Vietnam has been following.


©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray