This is a transcription of Episode 22 — Vietnam: Divided by War, Bonded by Family”.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Episode 22 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we’re getting curious about Vietnam, but first we have an announcement.
Melissa: We do.
David: We launched a Patreon. It’s live now and you can find it a strongsenseofplace.com/support.
Melissa: If you’re one of the people we’re thinking, What’s a patreon, let me help you out. Patreon is a website for you to encourage us to keep going with the show. You are becoming patrons of our work.
David: You may have noticed that Strong Sense of Place – both the podcast and the site — are advertising free. But it costs money to produce all that stuff. There’s hosting and podcast distribution, mailing list fees and photography and all of that. Right now we’re covering ourselves.
Melissa: There’s also the time it takes us to make this show. Which, to be fair, is pleasant time, but it’s kind of a lot of time.
David: It’s a lot of time. It’s way more time than I thought it would be when we started this project.
Melissa: It’s true. It takes Dave and I about two weeks to produce the hour that you’re listening to and the website and the newsletters that go along with it. So if you support us on Patreon, you’re helping support the time that it takes for us to choose books, read them, do the research on the countries that we explore, write, record and edit this show.
Melissa: So let’s talk about what you get right. If you support us on Patreon at its most basic, you can think of it as a virtual tip jar where you’re just sliding us a couple of bucks every month to keep this show going. And you’ll, of course, earn our never ending gratitude. If you would like to get more involved, you can actually help shape the show a little bit. We will give you more behind-the-scenes details of what we’re doing and what we’re reading. You’ll get the inside dirt on which books we are considering and which ones maybe don’t make the cut — which we would never talk about in public.
Melissa: And you’ll also be invited to give input on destinations and themes and photos and the other stuff that David and I argue about over breakfast.
David: ‘Argue about’ is strong —
Melissa: Discuss passionately, then.
David: If you can’t support us financially right now, we totally understand. It is it’s a tough time. Please keep doing what you’re doing, which is listening to the show and talking to your book-loving friends. But — if you can help — it would mean the world to us. Just a few dollars a month from you would help us keep the show going for another year. And it would mean that Mel and I could sleep better. And for that, we would be eternally grateful.
Melissa: And so that’s it. We made a Patreon. Thank you so much to everyone who encouraged us to take the leap.
David: You can find our Patreon at strongsenseofplace.com/support. Now let’s get curious about Vietnam.
Melissa: And we are once again visiting on the page, a place we have not been to ourselves.
David: And I’m more curious about it now that I have visited it on the page.
Melissa: Same. Darn it. [laughter] This is exactly what I hoped would happen.
David: And now here we are.
Melissa: And now it’s happening with an exploding list of places we have to visit.
David: Exactly. Exactly that.
Melissa: We are not super young, and we don’t have a lot of time to get our butts around the world.
David: That got dark quick. [laugher] Whoa.
Melissa: Well, I guess I’m just saying: Live every day.
David: Yeah, yeah. Carpe diem, everybody.
Melissa: YOLO. I’m pretty sure that’s what the kids are saying. [laughter]
David: Right, because it would sound pretentious if they run around saying ‘carpe diem’ before they dived into the river or whatever.
Melissa: Maybe we should just go on with Vietnam.
David: All right. Let’s talk about Vietnam. Do you want to do the 101?
Melissa: I do. First we’re going to get oriented. Everyone picture the map of the world in your head. Vietnam is in Southeast Asia. It’s a long, narrow strip about the size of California that looks like an S if you look at it from directly overhead.
David: Lot of coastline.
Melissa: A lot of coastline on the South China Sea. Its land borders are China to the north and to the west, Laos and Cambodia. The two primary cities that you’ve probably heard of are Hanoi, which is in the north, and that is also the capital, and in the south, Ho Chi Minh City, which used to be Saigon, and that is the most populous city in Vietnam. I got curious about what percentage of the population lived in the cities because of some things that came up in the books I was reading. In 2019, the population was about 37 percent urban and 63 percent rural.
David: Wow. That’s a lot of people in the country.
Melissa: Yeah. And for comparison, the U.S. is 80 percent urban, 20 percent rural, so it’s flipped.
David: That’s more than I would think would be in the United States — in the cities.
Melissa: I know! Two surprising things there. One little tidbit. Would it surprise you to know that Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam?
David: It would not.
Melissa: However, I thought this was really interesting, even though there was a lengthy French colonial period, French is pretty much gone in Vietnam Under communism, Russian was taught in schools, which we also know was the case here in the Czech Republic. And now English is taught as the second language in schools. About half the population can speak English, and that is mostly in tourist areas.
David: Again, like here in the Czech Republic.
Melissa: Yeah, Vietnam’s history is long and complicated, and we’re going to be talking about it some in the books that we’re discussing today. So I thought I would give a brief summary so that we all have a shared foundation against which to talk about the stories. But this is going to be very brief because there is a lot of ins-and-outs in their history. Having said, I’m going to keep this brief, I am going to start in the second century B.C.
David: Oh, OK. [laughter]
Melissa: There was a Chinese rule. The Chinese came over the border. Their Tyranny lasted for about a thousand years.
David: That’s a long time.
Melissa: Now I’m going to go through things rapid fire. OK, so China. Independence. China again. Then Vietnam was divided into north and south under two different lords. This is around 17th-18th century. Then China came back. Now we fast forward to the mid-1800s and the French showed up. This is where we start getting into what might be familiar territory for some people. There’s a long period of colonisation.
David: French Indochina.
Melissa: Correct. And it is still called the Indochina Peninsula. Colonialism was supposed to be profitable for the French, so Vietnamese workers were exploited and mistreated and had terrible health. Different country, same story. This is not a new scenario for us here on the Strong Sense of Place. But this is when communism starts to seem like a really good idea.
David: Right. The workers should rise up and revolt against their oppressors.
Melissa: And this is where things start to get really messy because we have French colonists. There’s a growing interest in communism. There’s also a slew of Buddhists and Catholics who are not in favor of communism. And then, boom! World War II comes along and the Japanese get thrown into the mix.
Melissa: I’m just glossing over all of that because we would be here for an entire season if we were going to parse all of that. Yes. When WWII ended, Ho Chi Minh, whose name is probably familiar —
David: Because of the city.
Melissa: I’m pretty sure the person came first. [laughing] He was the leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
David: That’d be really weird if he was named after the city!
Melissa: It would be! He was the leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party, and he was also very beloved figure in the country because he helped lead the first revolution against the French.
David: So he was the guy who rose up and said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s rebel against our oppressor and get rid of the French.’
Melissa: I think that our knee jerk reaction is to just immediately associate communist with oppression. And Ho Chi Minh was actually a much beloved person for a lot of people. So, WWII ends. Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam an independent country which led to more fighting. By 1954, so nine years after WWII ended, the communist north and the non-communist south were separated. Again. This is a pattern we keep seeing. Then from 1957 until 1975, there was a long, drawn-out war between the north and the south and countries with vested interests, like the United States and Russia, and our friend China also got involved.
David: Right, because that was the time when there was the Cold War going on and this was a chance for communism to take a stand on one side. Or, if you’re on the other side, you’re worried about something like the domino theory where Vietnam is going to go communism and then everybody else is going to go commie after that. None of which comes to pass.
Melissa: Right. This is what in the United States we call the Vietnam War. But in Vietnam they call the American War.
Melissa: So this leads to decades of fighting and famine and executions and informing on your neighbors and divided loyalties. It is a nightmare scenario for everyone involved, including the Americans who are fighting there. Finally, in 1973, the U.S. left Vietnam.
Melissa: In 1975, the south, which is not communist, surrendered to the north, which was communist. Saigon, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and the next year, the north and south were reunited under a communist regime, which continues to this day. However, in the 1990s, there were economic reforms. So confusingly, it’s a communist country that has a free market and openly trades with the West. And they have full diplomatic relations with the United States now.
Melissa: Vietnam is a fascinating place, and it is stunningly beautiful. Tthe natural beauty is breathtaking. One of the things that that comes up if you Google ‘Vietnam, beautiful,’ one of the things that comes up is Halong Bay, which is this sparkling, translucent, jewel-toned water with limestone kind of towers rising up out of it. It looks like something out of a fantasy novel, but it is real. There are also so many national parks with waterfalls and rain forests. There are gorgeous beaches. There are huge cave systems. If you want to go that route in your exploring and adventures/
David: What about the cities?
Melissa: Yeah, the cities are really interesting because as we know, colonialism can be a problem, but it is often very good for architecture.
Melissa: So there are are wide, tree-lined boulevards and these grand buildings from the French colonial period. There are neon signs and luxury hotels from the modern era because of opening up their economy. And there are neighborhoods full of these older houses that are called tube houses. And they came up in two of my books. So I Googled it. And there are these really distinctive, tall, narrow houses in which multiple generations of one family will live. So often on the bottom, there’s a business and then the families live in the upper four to five stories. And the reason they were built this way is because back in the day, your home was taxed on how wide it was. So they made the width of the house left to right, narrow and grew up. So some of them are as narrow as a just a little bit more than a doorway.
David: So it looks a little Dr. Seuss-y.
Melissa: It really does!
David: Long, tall houses.
Melissa: And they’re called tube houses. I’ll put a photo in show notes. Let’s talk about food. Vietnamese food is so good. And it’s a thing. People are super into it in Vietnam and particularly street food. So Vietnamese food philosophy is based on five elements: spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. The idea being that the ideal dish would find a balance among all of those things. Yes.
Melissa: So if you think about a bowl of pho, for example, it has the hot broth and tender noodles and fresh crisp herbs and fish sauce. There’s usually a little bit of sugar in the broth, which is the sweet. You’ve got the salty with the fish sauce. That’s why when you take a spoonful of pho, it feels like everything is exploding.
David: Yeah, rich, delicious, complicated. And yet somehow homey, too.
Melissa: Super comforting. There’s also a very strong coffee culture. Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee in the world, second to Brazil, and the typical way to drink it in Vietnam is either hot or cold with sweetened condensed milk, which again goes back to their food philosophy because the coffee is bitter and then the sweetened condensed milk is very rich and sweet. There’s also something called egg coffee, which I have not tried, but it sounds like coffee custard almost. You beat egg yolks with milk and sugar and then you add them to the coffee.
Melissa: It’s sort of eggnog-ish. It looks delicious.
David: It sounds good.
Melissa: One more thing I want to mention before we get into two truths and a lie is that I learned through my research that Vietnam is a very gay friendly destination.
David: Is it?
Melissa: Which I thought was great and also a little surprising given that it’s a communist country. There have never been any anti-gay laws, and they have very progressive laws for people with HIV and AIDS, including anti-discrimination and free health care.
David: Right on.
Melissa: I love that socially progressive. I love when we’re researching a place and it blows away my preconceptions.
Melissa: And I’m not sure what I thought about Vietnam before we started learning this much about it, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that a communist country could be so socially progressive. Anyway, all of these things just make me want to go there all the more.
David: Agree. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie.
Melissa: I will do my best.
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is a lie. Mel does not know which one is the lie. Here we go. A number of Vietnam restaurants offer a menu of snake. Some of them feature a pre-dinner cocktail that is made from the still-beating heart of a snake dropped in vodka. Statement two: one of the largest caves in the world is in Vietnam. It’s over three miles long, and it’s large enough to have its own rainforest.
David: Statement three: food critic and TV show host Anthony Bourdain and then-President Barack Obama sat down to have with dinner in a small restaurant in Hanoi in 2016. That’s true,. There are now statues of the men there to mark the event.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really nice. I hope that’s true. Ok, I believe that statement two, about the cave, is true.
David: It is true. One of the one of the world’s largest caves is in Vietnam and maybe the world’s largest. It’s called Hang Son Doong. It was discovered or rediscovered probably by a local man in 1991.
Melissa: Oh, wow. That’s so recent.
David: Well, so he so he was out logging illegally, which is not something I knew people did. He’s a wood pirate.
Melissa: A wood pirate?
David: Yeah. He was a wood pirate. He came across the mouth of a cave and a large river that flows out of it. He didn’t go in because he didn’t have the equipment. He was wise about that and he was far from anything else. This cave is far out in the woods. In 2009, the British Cave Research Association, which is an organization that sounds made up but is not —
Melissa: I was going to say that sounds completely made up.
David: Nope. They exist. They got in touch with him and they asked him if he could get them out there and he did that. It took four tries, four separate trips out to find the cave again. But they found what they were looking for on April 14, 2010.
Melissa: This is amazing.
David: Yeah, the cave is absolutely massive.The main cave. So this is one single space is more than five kilometers long. That’s 3.1 miles. It is 200 meters high. That’s 660 feet and it’s 150 meters wide. For context, that means that you could put 162 American football fields inside of the cave.
Melissa: Wow, that’s so cool.
David: And then the ceiling is three times the height of Niagara Falls or 66 stories. It’s a huge, huge space. The cave has its own rainforest inside of it. It gets light from cracks in the ceilings of the cave. The cave is large enough to have its own cloud system. You can visit Hang Son Doong, but it’ll set you back. There’s one organization in the world that’s allowed to run tours through there. The tour is $3000 apiece and it takes four days. We’ll put a link in show notes. Oh, and the guy who discovered the cave, he’s left his life of crime and is now a cave guide.
Melissa: Good for him.
David: Yeah, and he runs his own sustainable tourism business.
Melissa: That’s really nice. I wonder if he has a parrot on his shoulder.
David: From his days of being a wood pirate?
David: Maybe it should be a woodpecker. [laughter] And a wooden leg. Oh, my God.
Melissa: That leaves us with the snake snake thing, or Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama. I’m going to say there is a statue of Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama.
David: That is a lie.
Melissa: Oh. Did you make that lie up?
David: I did! So in May of 2016, during Obama’s final year in office and at the White House’s request, Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama sat down at a greasy spoon in Hanoi,
Melissa: Which is probably the best way to eat food in Hanoi with Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain.
David: They sat on blue plastic stools and they had bun cha which is a pork noodle dish.
Melissa: I am well acquainted with bun cha, and I love it.
David: Yep. And they had fried spring rolls and a local beer and they talked for about an hour. You can see about 10 minutes of their talk on Bourdain show Parts Unknown. After the show, the owner received offers to buy the table the two men ate at. But he refused. He decided, though, to save the table for posterity. It’s now encased in a plastic cube like you might see at a museum. The table is set like it’s waiting for the two men to come back.
Melissa: Oh, I love that.
David: After Bourdain died in 2013, Obama tweeted a picture of the two of them eating at the table and he wrote, ‘This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food, but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together, to make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.’ You can go to that restaurant today and order an Obama special and have what they ate. We’ll put a link in the show notes.
Melissa: I want to do that immediately. For people who aren’t familiar, bun cha is skinny rice noodles with little pieces of kind of ‘greasy’ is going to sound negative, but it’s not meant to little pieces of very savory, let’s say, pork. And then there’s a bunch of fresh herbs on top and a little bit of lime juice. It’s amazing. And then sometimes they take fried spring rolls and cut them into coins and lay that on top so you can have a bite of noodles and fried spring roll. And it’s amazing.
David: That sounds delicious.
Melissa: Yeah. Vietnamese food is so good. OK, so that leaves us with the snake juice.
David: That is true. There’s a town that’s famous for its snake dinners, according to Atlas Obscura. It’s called Lệ Mật . But apparently it was popular enough that it took off in major cities. There’s a video of Gordon Ramsay having a snake meal in Hanoi, for instance. The theater of this meal is that you pick out a snake and they kill it, possibly in front of you, and then they proceed to make a variety of meals out of it. The first thing they make is the cocktail that contains the snakes still-beating heart.
Melissa: I’m a pretty open-minded eater, but as you were saying that I was shaking my head no.
David: here is no way that seems like a good idea. Further courses might include crisp snake skin and crushed-bone papadums. Yeah, still not hearing it. Unsurprisingly, the people who are selling this meal claims it increases your virility.
Melissa: Of course.
David: It’s very unclear if this is something that would happen if there weren’t tourists there.
Melissa: [silence] [laughter] I just don’t know what to say.
David: Mel is aghast.
Melissa: I mean, I’m an omnivore, and eating any animal could seem barbaric if you described it the right way, but something about picking out the snake and then drinking, it’s still-beating heart seems unnecessarily cruel.
David: Yeah, not into it.
Melissa: Ok, well, we’re done.
David: I’m sad we ended on that note.
Melissa: Yeah, me too. We were just talking about how good bun cha is.
David: But that’s the way that goes. That’s two truths and a lie.
Melissa: Let’s get into the books. My first book is called Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai. This is a YA coming-of-age story set in contemporary Vietnam with some plot threads that reach back, of course, to the war. The war is going to come up a lot today.
David: It is. Speaking from my own books. It rings heavily in both of those.
Melissa: Well, it hasn’t been that long, right? It’s only been since 1975, which is not a long time in world history. timeframe.
David: And it was such a huge deal. Like, I mean, it was the civil war that involved international politics, so endless.
Melissa: So, in Listen, Slowly, our heroine and narrator is a 12-year-old girl. At home, she’s known by the Vietnamese version of her name, which is Mai, but outside of her house when she’s at school with her friends, she’s Mia. And this is an important distinction because she is an all-American California girl. She lives in The O.C. Orange County, and she has been breathlessly waiting for this summer because she’s finally old enough to go to Laguna Beach without her parents. She and her best friend Montana have already bought their bikinis, and they are ready to have the best summer ever.
David: This all sounds great. Then what happens.
Melissa: Then her parents tell her that she is going to Vietnam with her grandmother for the summer. To say that she is unhappy about this development would be a wild understatement. She is pouty miserable.
David: That would be very disappointing at that age.
Melissa: Yes. So I was hooked on this book from the very first page because her voice is so strong. I feel like the author must be really, really in touch with her teenage self, because Mai’s voice perfectly captures that attitude that, you know, girls have when they’re like 12 or 13, where they’re just kind of embarrassed and annoyed by their parents all the time. But at the same time, you’re still young enough to desperately love your parents and look up to them and really want their approval. So Mai is kind of ping-ponging back and forth between both of those emotional extremes as she’s wrapping her head around the idea that she’s going to Vietnam for the summer.
David: Some writers seem just unusually talented at capturing particular phases of life. Young adolescence is certainly one of those voices where it’ll just come back to you.
Melissa: Yeah, I really, really connected with this whole vibe. And Mai feels like Vietnam is her parents heritage, not hers. She is American. So she’s not looking at this as an opportunity to go exploring and see new things. She had her plan and she is angry and disappointed. So as we get to know her and her family, we find out that the reason her grandmother wants to go back to Vietnam is really, really important. Her grandmother, who Mai calls Ba, fled Saigon in 1975 with her seven children during the airlift out of Saigon when it was falling. She brought them all to the United States, and she built a whole life for all of them. But her husband went missing during the war, and she never knew what happened to him. And now a private detective is claiming to have information about where her husband was during the war and what ultimately happened to him.
Melissa: Yes. So Ba, who is an elderly lady, now wants to go back to Vietnam, learn what happened to her husband, and put him and herself to rest.
David: Yeah, that’s a big shift from I’m going to go play at the beach with boys.
Melissa: Yeah. One of the things that I love about YAbooks for a strong sense of place is that I feel like they show us the destination through the eyes of someone who is unjaded and 100-percent in the moment. So, for example, even though Mai has sustained her teenage anger through the entire flight to Vietnam from California, I mean, she is still like, steaming and glaring at her dad and pouting. They’re in the cab from the airport to the hotel and she looks out the window and she sees a water buffalo and she just like bursts with joy and excitement and wonder and the thrill of seeing something with her own eyes that she has never seen before.
Melissa: And I feel like that level of curiosity and discovery is something that really comes through in YA books. Because they’re young people who are not preoccupied with all of the things that adults are preoccupied with.
Melissa: They have a way of being really present and taking in things that are new, I think, that as adults, we don’t necessarily always still have.
David: And switching emotions on a dime s a uniquely teenage gift, as far as I’m concerned.
Melissa: So as Mai is on this adventure with her grandmother, they are in Hanoi and Saigon, and we feel like the visceral thrill of the motorbikes and the markets and how much energy there is in the city. And they go to her grandmother’s old village, and it’s so hot, and there are so many mosquitoes, and it’s humid and everything feels very unfamiliar. And almost everyone she meets is some level of relation to her.
David: Oh, right.
Melissa: So there’s this instant family and community that she’s supposed to be part of but doesn’t really feel part of, but kind of wants to be part of, but still misses her friend Montana and the beach. There’s the jumble of emotions and then there’s all of this visceral input of all of these new experiences. I also really enjoyed the relationship between MAi and her grandmother. It is so sweet. And even when she’s angry at her parents, she’s very loving with Ba, her grandmother. And it’s reciprocal, like Ba loves Mai so much even when she’s being a brat. Her grandmother has this deep understanding of, it seems, why is behaving the way she is and she gives her a lot of rope. At the same time, she’s kind of trying to push me to be the best version of herself and to learn how the Vietnamese culture works and to accept all these relatives and friends in this village that she didn’t know she had. So the two of them are really interesting together. And this little bubble of kindness that they create between the two of them was really wonderful to read.
Melissa: For all of the times I was kind of laughing in the beginning and relating to my kind of complaining about her situation, as I got to the latter half of the book, I was really invested in these characters and it started to really kick me in the feelings because Ba is learning more about what happened to her husband, and I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say they do find out what happened and it is really sad and really, really moving. I feel like if you took this book just on the surface level of the plot, it would sound like an entertaining fish-out-of-water story.
Melissa: And it is a little bit, you know, if you just to that level, it is about Mai going into this unfamiliar environment and kind of bumbling her way through.
Melissa: But it’s really a lot more than that because it’s a really gentle look at the ravages of war and the losses that were suffered by so many people during the decades that Vietnam was at war, basically with itself and the United States. But because it’s written for young people, it’s really delicately handled and woven into the story to be an element of a story instead of being a war novel.
David: So it’s a coming-of-age story that kind of walks into a historical novel.
Melissa: Yes. And it has elements of a mystery because they’re working with this private detective to find out what happened to Ba’s husband. And I feel like that is mildly distracting — trying to solve the mystery as opposed to having to deal with the heavy emotions that are under that mystery. Which is, for me, a really nice way to explore the emotions without getting overwhelmed by them.
David: Also, it seems like a really great way to introduce Vietnam, because that primary character, you’re seeing it through her eyes.
Melissa: 100 percent. There are a lot of travelogue elements to this book which made it really fun. Overall, even though it’s dealing with some serious subject matter, it is a really fun read. And it went very quickly. And the pages turn themselves because I wanted to see what was going to happen to these awesome characters. I also want to say that the author Thanhha Lai is kind of a badass.
David: Oh yeah.
Melissa: She was born in Vietnam and her family fled to Alabama at the end of the war. She went on to earn an MFA from NYU and now she teaches at Parsons New School for Design. Her first novel Inside Out and Back Again is a novel written in verse, and it’s partly based on her experience as a refugee. It’s her first book. It won the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor.
David: Wow. Yes, good for her.
Melissa: So this book is Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai.
David: My first book is The Eaves of HeavenL A Life in Three Wars by Andrew Pham.
Melissa: I was just about to say that’s a really beautiful title until you said the subtitle.
David: Yeah, this is a biography. The subject is the author’s father. The author is Andrew Pham, who wrote this about his father Thong Pham, but it’s written in his father’s voice, so it feels like an autobiography.
David: Yeah, it’s written like fiction. Andrew Pham is a solid writer, and he uses literary tricks to get you involved in the story. Ultimately, and maybe because of Thong’s life, it reads like a historical fantasy that washes up on the shores of 20th-century Vietnam. It starts back in 1892, long time ago, when a Vietnamese war hero is awarded with a huge plot of land in North Vietnam. He becomes a lord with a manor house and thousands of peasants to serve him. He has a line of male heirs and for five generations, each one becomes a little bit more wealthy than the last. Thong Pham, the subject of the book, is in line to inherit all of that.
Melissa: I feel like something bad is going to happen.
David: It doesn’t go well. Instead, he gets nothing. He is to the manor born, but he ends up living a life of poverty and struggle. The amazing thing about this book is that based on what I told you, you might be ready for a tragedy. And it is not that. This is a little bit of A Gentlemen in Moscow. The hero is heroic, but mostly on the inside. He overcomes the obstacles because he’s a good man. The family’s fall starts with the Geneva Accords in 1954.
Melissa: That’s when north and south were divided.
David: Yes, the communists have been given the north half of the country. Thong and his family walk away from their ancestral homeland with one suitcase each. This was the time when the communists were coming basically manor to manor and slaughtering everybody.
Melissa: The land reform, in quotes.
David: They’d drag you out of your house, give you a trial, and then kill everybody. The family eventually moved to Saigon in the south where they stay in what sounds like a horrific hotel. Thong’s father, who defines ‘playboy,’ becomes a hopeless opium addict.
Melissa: Oh, no.
David: Yeah. Eventually, they find their way into a small house right next to a market. It smells like garbage. It’s loud. Dad starts a noodle shop in the front half of the house, but that goes poorly. Here’s the description of that from the book:
Father hired a drunken cook from Haiphong and turned the front room of the house into a noodle shop. Business was poor at the start and worsened continually. Belatedly, h realized that the market was too small, servicing only the local neighborhoods. Father didn’t dare close the shop because street vendors would claim the space in front of our house, blocking our door and making it difficult to sell our house or reopen another business. The street vendors paid gang protection money so it would be impossible to evict them once they settled in. We could do nothing but continue to live in our smelly shack and watch our savings trickle away.
David: Yeah, right. Eventually, Thong finds his way out of that neighborhood. He educates himself. He becomes a teacher. He gets a job.
Melissa: That is amazing.
David: Yes, I know. I know. He meets the woman who would become his wife. His new life works for a while. And then tragedy happens. And that cycle repeats itself at least twice, maybe three times. You see Thong’s rise and fall and you see what happens with his friends and family as fate shifts around for everyone. The story’s told out of order, so non-chronologically. You go flitting across time with Thong. It’s handled really well, again, because the writer is so good at basically taking real life and turning it into something like literature.
Melissa: I love when stories are told that way because it reminds me of what it’s like when you’re sitting with someone over a cocktail or a cup of tea, and you’re just swapping stories about your life. You don’t get it from beginning to end. You get little snapshots and then later you kind of weave them together to understand how they got from that point to this point.
David: And in this case, it works really well. You’ll get a chapter that’s full of sort of brutality and hardship, and then you’ll get a chapter that’s full of love or food or celebration. There is so much great culture in this book. The author was a travel writer and a food writer at one time, and it comes across in the text. There’s a description of why Vietnamese women of a certain age like to blacken their teeth with calcium oxide. There’s a description of how people managed to find a house that’s new to them before street addresses were a thing. There’s a long description of what a festival looked like in the 1800s in Vietnam. It included adding bedrooms to the house to accommodate extra family and ordering 1000 mooncakes from a Chinese bakery in Hanoi. There’s almost a whole chapter on cricket fighting and gambling on cricket fighting, which boys would do to kill time in the summer.
Melissa: I didn’t even know cricket fighting was a thing you could do.
David: You can.
Melissa: Do they wear little robes? Little satin robes?
David: Yeah. And they have little beetles that are like, ‘Get in there and take ‘em apart.’ It’s really awesome. Women feature prominently in Thong’s story. He’s a good man because of his mother and he meets his wife and their relationship is just a joy from the beginning. It’s really nice. I feel like in fiction the writer would have challenged that relationship somehow. But it’s really nice to read about a couple that seems solid. They’re a good pair. They are nice to each other. The whole book.
David: Yeah. I should warn you that there are a lot of gruesome events in the story. Some of them are almost casually described. So you’re never quite sure what you’re getting into. If you’re not prepared to read about the ravages of war or starvation, this is not your book. But if you’re curious about Vietnamese history or culture or if you just want to read a story about a good man trying to find his way back to level, this is a great book. It’s called The Evils of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars by Andrew Pham.
Melissa: That sounds really, really good. I would love to read that book. That sounds like it has enough elements of fiction writing to trick me into reading non-fiction.
David: I think that’s accurate.
Melissa: It also sounds like it would be a good companion to my next book, which is called The Mountain Sing by Que Mai Phan Nguyen. This is a family saga and war novel that covers four generations of a Vietnamese family. So again, that long extended war period. This one is told through the voices of two amazing women: a grandmother named Diệu Lan and her granddaughter, Huong. Diệu Lan has six children. As the story unfolds, we learn what happened to each of them during this period and why. Spoiler: It’s a little rough. This novel is only around 300 pages, but it feels epic because we’re getting the full sweep of Vietnam during the first half of the twentieth century. This novel does exactly what I love about historical fiction. It takes all of those facts and the dates and the political intrigues and makes them feel very personal and very intimate through the lives of these people.
Melissa: And the characters feel like real people. They’re messy and have contradictions and do things that you don’t like, even though you like them as people . Through them we can vicariously experience the fear and uncertainty and the hope that they felt while all of these things were happening. The way the story unfolds, it jumps back and forth in time. But the narrative threads are kind of all swirling around the land reforms of the 1950s, which you also mentioned in your book.
Melissa: So in real life, between 1954 and 1956 in North Vietnam, land was ostensibly being redistributed from the wealthy landlords to the poor and landless peasants. But in reality, not all of the landowners were exploitative scum who were taking advantage of the people around them. But even kind and honest landowners were beaten and killed and had their land and homes stolen from them and given to other people. So the characters in this book were landowners, and they experienced that violence and rioting firsthand. And it has ripples throughout the entire family for years and years.
Melissa: The story also helps us see how easy it was for members of the same family to end up on opposite sides of the war. Almost accidentally, they end up fighting in the north or the south and are suddenly enemies with their neighbors, their old friends, and maybe even their siblings, and not necessarily because they made some line in the sand choice just because circumstances pushed them that way.
David: And it’s a good insight into any civil war, right? People will not necessarily pick up the philosophy of what’s happening, but because they have to or they’re —
Melissa: Starving or trying to stay alive or frightened or on the run. Particularly in this book, after the land reform, some of them just had to take off. And get to somewhere they could be relatively safe —
David: Or unknown.
Melissa: Yes. So this is a war novel. Heads-up if you are a sensitive reader, similarly to your book. There are some very brutal and disturbing events. And they’re not described overly graphically, but they are described vividly and very matter of factly. Which makes it in some ways more palatable and in other ways a little bit more shocking. Having said that, this book is really about forgiveness and reconciliation, especially within the family, but also for their enemies, which I found really interesting and moving.
Melissa: The granddaughter Huong is a very avid reader. It’s great. There are little references to the book she’s reading sprinkled throughout the novel, which made me really connect with her. And at one point she receives a translation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. And she says to her grandmother, ‘Why should I read something from the country that bombed us?’ And she begins to read the book. And she starts to see the similarities between herself and Laura Ingalls because they both live in the country — farmland, frontier, physical dangers. They love their family and suddenly the world seems smaller to her and she feels empathy even in these horrible circumstances. It’s a really, really nice moment in the book, and it’s a big development moment for her as a character to kind of see beyond her immediate circumstances and see her place in the larger world.
Melissa: This is also a story of survival and how this grandmother and mother fights to keep her family together. And they’re not always physically together, but she struggles and pushes to help them stay together, emotionally and spiritually. It reminded me a little bit of the novel Pachinko by Minjin Lee. That is about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan. Yeah, because they’re both sweeping family stories set against these really dramatic political situations. But I found Pachinko to be really, really depressing. I know some people love that novel and it is beautifully written, but for me it felt very bleak. The Mountain Sing is hopeful. This novel is beautiful. The writing is really lyrical. And even when things are devastating to these characters, there’s always this little kernel of belief that they can overcome it, that they can have a future.
David: I think all of these books have a kernel of hope to them, right?
Melissa: And I find that astounding and really affecting. So the events in this novel are fictional, but they were inspired by the author’s family and she said that she wanted this book to be seen as a call for peace and a confirmation of the common humanity of people all around the world, regardless of who they are.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: She’s lovely. I’ll put a video and show notes of her saying those words. She’s just a radiant human. Her story is also pretty amazing. She was born in a small village in North Vietnam in 1973, and then her family migrated to the Mekong Delta, which is in the South when she was six years old. She received a scholarship from the Australian government to study in Australia for four years. She now has a master’s in creative writing. She’s an honorary fellow in writing at Hong Kong Baptist University, and she’s working on a PhD. And while she was doing all of that, she wrote this book, which is her first novel and the first book she’s ever written in English.
Melissa: It was a New York Times editor’s choice selection, the winner of the 2020 Lannan Literary Awards Fellowship, and a best book of twenty in NPR’s Book Concierge. And this is a beautiful book. If you are interested in better understanding kind of the mechanics of what was going on during that war period in Vietnam, but understood through family dynamics, this is the book. It’s called The Mountain Sing by Que Mai Phan Nguyen.
David: My second book is The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui.
Melissa: I like that title too.
David: I know! It’s a graphic novel. Iit’s a non-fiction, multigenerational family saga. I think every non-fiction multigenerational family saga should have the title ‘The best we could do.’ [laughter] Isn’t that the theme for every story?
Melissa: That is a life theme.
David: Yeah, this is the best we could do. Sorry, see what can do with it.
Melissa: I mean, you could say with a different tone. [laughter]
David: This is the best we could do.
Melissa: There you go.
David: And then people could just change the subhead to wherever and whenever they grew up. The best we could do: Milwaukee, 1975.
Melissa: I like it.
David: Yeah, it’d be true. The book starts in a maternity —
Melissa: Oh my gosh. I just want to write a whole series of graphic novels now. No one steal that idea.
David: This book starts in a maternity ward. Thi Bui is giving birth to her son. Her mother’s there, but she’s in the next room. Bui’s mother is clearly struggling a little bit with the birth of her grandson. And as a reader, we’re kind of left to wonder why. And the rest of the book is an answer to that and other questions related to that. Why are Bui’s as parents the way they are and how did that affect Bui? There’s a bit in Brené Brown’s first book The Gifts of Imperfection, and she says parents can’t give their children anything they don’t have, which is one of those rare lines that, for me at least, was both obvious and of revelation.
David: Right. Parents can’t give their children anything they don’t have. If parents aren’t secure, how can they give their children security? If parents aren’t happy, how can they set their children up for happiness? This is a story about a family who escaped Vietnam in a boat. One night they got into a boat they bought with some friends, risked their lives and left to Malaysia with almost nothing. And then they moved to the US, the country that had just finished bombing their country. And the book does a great job of three things. First, it explains what it was like to be a native in the Vietnam War. There are details about that experience that I will not forget, but I won’t spoil them for you. Second, it does a good job of presenting what the US immigrant experience is like. And then finally, it explores the wave that goes through families. If Dad is this way, then his children are likely to be this way. Intergenerational trauma, I think, is what the experts call it. But it’s parents can’t give children anything they don’t have. The story is how we struggles to emotionally connect with her traumatized parents. This is another story that’s told non- chronologically. The structure of the book is that were first introduced her family, but then we follow Bui’s understanding of her own family, starting with her as a little girl.
David: So we sort of know the things a little girl would know about her family. And then the understanding gets more and more mature as we go along until it feels deep. It gets very rich. Things that might have been secrets or might have just been things that were too terrible to talk about often are revealed. An example of that is that in the beginning we’re introduced to the idea that Bui’s mom and dad are divorced but still live very close to each other and see each other regularly. And as we go through the book, we’re told stories that explain why they might choose that relationship. Bui worked on this book for over a decade. She started when she was a graduate student at New York University. She was working on a project about the representation of Vietnamese people in USmedia. She’d never done a graphic novel before she started working on this one. I can tell you that this is not the way that experts recommend that you write a 300-page graphic novel, but it it worked out for her.
Melissa: I love when I hear that someone has spent a decade working on…I find that really inspiring and flabbergasting because I can’t imagine myself having the discipline to commit to a project for a decade. That is really impressive to me.
David: Just continuing to show up. But yeah, she kept going.
Melissa: I love that.
David: Bui talked about how she was, in part, motivated to do this work by Persepolis, which we talked about in the Iran episode. And she talks about how, like that book, she wanted to weave the personal and the political and the historical to try to tell a rich life story. And I think she was successful. This book was one of 2018’s American Book Award winners, and it was an Eisner finalist. It also made Bill Gates top five book list for 2017. If you like, of family sagas or graphic novels or Vietnamese history and culture, it’s definitely worth picking up. It’s called The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui.
Melissa: I realized when I got to my third book that the other two novels I talked about centered around grandmothers and granddaughters.
David: Oh yeah.
Melissa: And this one is about a grandfather figure and a grandson. So this book is called The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb. And although there is a real family in this story, it’s really a celebration of found family and the power of art.
David: Already in.
Melissa: It’s set in Vietnam in 2007 with flashbacks, of course, to the war period. The heart of this story is Old Man Hung. He is a much beloved soup maker. And his pho is legendary.
David: He had the soup dream.
Melissa: He did have the soup dream.
Melissa: The pho, honestly, is really the main character of this novel. His broth, the noodles, the perfectly cooked beef. People depend on his soup to start their day. And there are lovely descriptions of people bringing their own bowls to his soup cart and sitting and slurping their noodles together in the morning.
David: That’s so nice.
Melissa: It’s really sweet. Yeah. But of course, we learn that there is more to Hung than his soup. In 2007, he has a humble cart that he drags around Hanoi. But back in the day he had a soup shop and it was the meeting place for intellectuals, writers, and artists to come together and share their ideas. So he was at the center of a very powerful movement in North Vietnam. We soon learn that his relationship to these dissidents who now are long gone — they’ve been missing or dead for decades. His relationship to them holds the answer to questions that are being asked now in the present of 2007. We also meet his young friend who is like his faux grandson. This kid is in his 20s and he’s a math genius, but he works as a tour guide.
David: So not really his grandchild, but he has the relationship of.
Melissa: Correct. He is the grandson of one of Hung’s dear friends, who is a poet and who was taken to a camp and tortured and assumed dead. We also meet Maggie, who is a Vietnamese-American woman. She’s an art curator, and she has come to Hanoi to find out what happened to her artist father because she and her mother emigrated to the United States and she doesn’t know what happened to her dad.
Melissa: These three characters go on a quest to find out what happened to Maggie’s father. And they each have different motivations for why they’re participating and trying to solve this particular mystery. These three people are people you really want to spend time with. They are complicated, and they are well-meaning. And they are like real people. They make boneheaded decisions. They say stupid things. They doubt themselves, but they’re really, really lovely. And I really enjoyed spending time with them.
Melissa: And the story is really about how when they come together, the three of them — an old man, a young man at the beginning of his life, and a woman who is both inside and outside of the culture — when they come together, they’re able to put all of the pieces of their shared past into a big soup pot, basically.
Melissa: And they’re able to better understand who they are and make peace with the answers to the questions that they find. I have a confession. I was not originally intending to read this book for the show. It was on my list, and I was halfway through another highly-acclaimed novel when that book just kind of petered out for me.
David: That’s the saddest thing in the world.
Melissa: And I was freaking out because I knew we had to record in two days.
David: Deadline is coming.
Melissa: Yes. When I started this book, I couldn’t put it down. It saved the day and it was very riveting. I fell madly in love with the characters, and I needed to know what happened to Maggie’s father. And I needed to understand all that Hung the soup man had been through. That is the highest praise I can give this book. I said early on that the pho is a main character in this story, and I’m sticking by that because there are many beautifully written passages about the power of a bowl of pho. It’s more than a bowl of soup.
Melissa: It’s a representation of everything that’s important to Hung and the Vietnamese culture, dignity, attention to detail, a connection to the past, the importance of community and caring for the people around you. All of these things are simmered into the soup. And they are represented by Hung serving the community and sharing the food he’s made with the people around him. You know, I’m a sucker for a story about found family —
David: And food.
Melissa: And food, and this book is a perfect blend of blood family and found family—
David: And food. [laughter]
Melissa: And the plot really does have everything. And there’s a little bit of mystery. There’s some romance, there’s coming of age stuff. And it all weaves together into a very satisfying ending. I read the three books that I talked about today in the order that I talked about them.
David: Oh, all right.
Melissa: The first one was a travelogue and really fun. The second gave me that full immersion into Vietnam’s history, and this one brought it all together into a story that’s really moving and also really entertaining. I feel like this is a great way to get introduced to Vietnam. So if you are into a reading project, I would recommend these three books in this order.
Melissa: But I will also warn you, you’re going to want to book a trip to Vietnam and you are going to be craving pho the entire time. I love this book and I can’t wait to make a pot of pho in honor of Old Man Hung. That is The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb.
David: Those are five books we love set in Vietnam. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for link and details.Mel, what did you write for this episode?
Melissa: Well, obviously for Food + Fiction, I’m going to include a recipe for pho because I would be remiss as a human being if I didn’t do that. Also, as we mentioned, Vietnam is stunningly beautiful, and I found some amazing Instagram accounts with just the most gorgeous photos that you can use to daydream about when you will visit Vietnam in the future. And I found a really unusual and beautiful, cool modern library that I’ll be sharing photos of. All of that is coming in the next two weeks.
David: Thanks for listening to Strong Sense of Place. If you’ve forgotten in the last 50 minutes, we launched a Patreon. You can find it atYou can find at strongsenseofplace.com/support
David: Now what are we covering in our next show?
Melissa: We’re taking an excursion to the state where I grew up: Pennsylvania.
David: Right on!
Melissa: Making Pennsylvania sexy for readers.
David: Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Tong_stocker.
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