Floating. With no lights, cooking, or bathrooms, the ship crawls along the river. Passengers are supposed to severely limit their water intake, but Hà struggles to comply. Mother sighs, and Hà doesn’t blame her. It can’t be easy having a daughter who’s constantly thirsty, and who constantly needs a bathroom. Hà figures other girls must be made of bamboo, so they’re flexible enough to bend and do what they’re told. Mother tells Uncle Son that Hà needs a bathroom, and Hà is allowed to use the commander’s cabin. It’s white, clean, and “worth the embarrassment.”
If the commander is telling people to limit their water intake, it implies that the ship’s stores of fresh water might be low—this ship might not be as safe as Mother hoped it would be. For Hà, though, the real conflict here is that she doesn’t feel like she fits into the mold she’s supposed to. She needs too much and wants too much to be able to think of herself as a good girl who can do exactly as she’s told.
S-l-o-w-l-y. Very slowly, Hà nibbles the final bit of cooked rice from her pack. It’s hard and moldy on the outside, but inside it’s still sweet and chewy. Hà has heard other people chewing, but she’s never seen anyone eating. She can smell sardines, salted eggs, and toasted sesame. But when Hà leans toward the family on the next mat over, Mother shakes her head and sadly pats Hà’s hand.
It’s difficult for Hà to understand why people aren’t sharing whatever provisions they might have. In her mind, it makes sense that everyone should share—that way, nobody will go hungry, and she won’t have to eat moldy rice. But Mother seems to believe this would be impolite, so she stops Hà from asking to share.
Rations. It’s now May 3, and Hà has been at sea for three days. Finally, the ship hits the sea and heads for Thailand. The commander gives the okay for his men to cook and for people to go above deck for a little bit. He says they have enough rations for three weeks, but they should be rescued sooner. Supposedly, ships from all over the world are out looking for them. Three times a day, each passenger gets a clump of rice and a cup of water. When Hà takes her first bite of rice, the taste makes her imagine what ripe papaya tastes like, even though the two foods have nothing to do with each other.
Now that the ship isn’t on the river anymore (and therefore isn’t close to land, where the Communists might be able to take it), the commander can relax some of the rules on the ship. Hà has only been away from home for a couple of days, but already she’s changing dramatically. The fresh rice causing her to think of ripe papaya suggests that Hà is remembering the childish version of herself she left behind in Saigon. At this point, just having fresh food brings up these memories.
Routine. Mother won’t allow children to be idle. After a week at sea, Brother Quang starts teaching English lessons. Hà wishes he’d stick to simple, useful phrases, but when there’s no adult watching, he tells kids that it’s shameful to abandon their country and go where they’ll be the lowest members of society. Brother Vū’s afternoon lessons are better, because he walks kids through kicks and punches. Brother Khôi monitors the bathroom lines; using the bathroom on the ship means hanging one’s bottom over the edge with a blanket for privacy.
Everyone, it seems, is processing the experience of fleeing Saigon, but in very different ways. Brother Quang, for one, is fixating on the shame he feels about leaving. Mother and Brother Vū, on the other hand, seem to be trying to move forward and make do with what they have. Since Hà is so annoyed with Brother Quang, she’d seemingly prefer to take Mother’s approach and not fixate on the past.
Mother insists that when Hà isn’t in class, she stay within eyesight—which makes Hà feel like a baby. Eventually, Mother gives Hà a writing pad and tells her to write small. When writing gets boring, Hà draws over what she’s written. She draws shredded coconut, corn on the cob, fried dough, pineapple wedges, and papaya cubes. Mother smooths Hà’s hair. She understands how painful it is to be stranded on a ship without any yummy snacks.
Hà has very little agency on the ship, which is frustrating for her. She had a lot of freedom at home, and being forced to stay so close to Mother makes her feel infantilized. As Hà draws various snacks, it becomes clear that these foods bring her a lot of comfort. These sweet foods make Hà feel at home—and moreover, these were the sorts of things Hà bought in the market, without anyone knowing. So, drawing these foods is a way to remember the independence she’s lost.
Once Knew. It’s now May 12. With so much water everywhere, Hà starts to think that land is just something she once knew. She also once knew what it was like to nap in a hammock, laugh for no reason, and wear clean pajamas dried in the sun.
Hà had to leave her beloved hammock behind—now, napping in it seems more like a dream than an actual memory. It’s been several weeks at sea now, with no end in sight, and Hà is longing for the carefree innocence she enjoyed back in South Vietnam.
Brother Khôi’s Secret. Nobody can ignore now that Brother Khôi stinks. He insists on wearing a jacket that makes him sweat, and he wraps it around his waist when he has to bathe with a sponge. He clutches the left pocket, which seems to be the smelliest part. Soon, neighbors eight mats away complain. They say that people smell enough in this heat, and they don’t want to also smell something rotten. Finally, Brother Vū forces Brother Khôi’s hand open. In Brother Khôi’s hand is the flat chick, its neck dangling. Brother Khôi screams and kicks as Brother Quang carries him above deck.
Hà wasn’t able to bring her beloved papaya tree with her, but Brother Khôi tried his hardest to bring his chick with him. That Brother Khôi kept his chick for weeks—even though the chick has likely been dead for a while, given the smell—speaks to how traumatizing leaving Saigon was for him. For Brother Khôi, the chick represented his life in Saigon, where he was happy—and now that he’s been found out, he has to give up the idea that not much is going to change.
Last Respects. Hà has now been at sea two weeks. The commander calls everyone above deck to formally lower the South Vietnamese flag, since the country no longer exists. A woman tries to throw herself overboard, insisting she can’t live without her country. Another man stabs his heart with a toothbrush. To Hà, those people’s pain doesn’t seem real next to Brother Khôi’s grief over his lost chick. Hà takes Brother Khôi’s hand and leads him to the back of the ship. There, she opens a white handkerchief to reveal Brother Khôi’s chick in her doll’s arms. Hà ties the bundle and tosses it into the sea. It makes Brother Khôi smile, but Hà misses her doll immediately.
People clearly felt a huge amount of loyalty to South Vietnam—the country was a major part of their identity, and now it’s gone. And though Hà certainly loved her home, it’s difficult for her to grasp exactly how and why these other people are grieving when Brother Khôi’s pain feels so much more accessible to her, as a young child. And Hà demonstrates immense maturity when she helps Brother Khôi gain closure by sacrificing her doll in this sea burial ceremony. Missing her doll instantly, though, suggests that while Hà is capable of this kind of maturity, she’s also not fully ready to grow up.
One Engine. The ship stops in the middle of the night. Mother hugs Hà close and won’t let her go. They’re terrified: it’ll be much worse if the Communists catch them now, than if they’d stayed home in the first place. After a while and a lot of shouting, the ship moves on with one engine. The commander explains that it was risky to take the river, and Thailand is a lot farther away with just one engine. Taking the river meant they escaped the bombs, but they missed rescue ships. Because of this, the commander reduces rations to a half clump of rice morning and night, and one cup of water per day. He warns passengers not to waste strength—there’s no way to know how long they’ll be here.
To take Hà’s narration at face value, things start to go downhill suddenly. But this may reflect that she’s a child who can’t fully comprehend with what’s going on in the wider world—and she’s been busy with Brother Khôi, after all. The ship’s prospects have potentially been poor for some time. For Mother, the ship’s engine stopping is a horrifying reminder of what might happen if her family’s escape attempt isn’t successful: they may all lose their lives if they’re caught.
The Moon. During the day, men and children wander around the deck. But at night, the deck belongs to women. They form lines to take sponge baths and use the bathrooms. Hà always stands with Mother, and every night, Mother points to the moon and observes that it hasn’t changed. She suggests that Father could be looking at the same moon. He might already know that they’ll wait for him. Hà feels guilty—she hasn’t thought of Father once. She doesn’t want to hope that he’ll appear when she doesn’t know where they’ll end up.
Thinking about Father seems to comfort Mother. Imagining him elsewhere, staring at the same moon, helps her feel secure and as though she’s doing the right thing. But for Hà, there are other things that are much more pressing—like surviving more generally, and dealing with her boredom and hunger on the ship. Her father’s memory is important, but in this context, it’s not comforting.
A Kiss. The ship’s horn blows and wakes everyone up. Passengers hear a nearby honk in return, so everyone runs to the deck. There’s a huge American ship nearby, with men in white uniforms waving and smiling. The commander of Hà’s ship is now in his fancy navy uniform, and Hà realizes why she likes him: in uniform, he looks like Father. The commander boards the other ship and greets a man with fiery red hair. Hà had no idea it was possible to have hair that color.
Encountering this ship is Hà’s first encounter with Americans and American culture. Being surprised at the man’s hair color foreshadows that as Hà learns more about the U.S. and other people in the world, she’s going to have a number of surprising experiences. For now, she greets this man with curiosity and wonder—this is still new and exciting.
Passengers clap as the ships draw so close together that they look like they’re kissing. Sailors pass boxes to Hà’s ship. They contain food: fruit, bubbly drinks, and chocolate drops. Then, the American ship tows Hà’s ship with a massive steel rope. The passengers on Hà’s ship begin to celebrate. Suddenly, ramen noodles, dried shrimp, tamarind pods, and lots of real water appear. Mother sighs; why will people only share when they know they’re not going to go hungry anymore? That night, Hà pours fresh water all over her skin. The water tastes sweet, even when it’s soapy.
Once again, Hà’s main focus as the boxes are passed over is describing the food, both American and Vietnamese in this case. The food and the sweet water are what make Hà feel hopeful and happy again. And though she observes Mother’s sigh and makes note of what Mother says, she seems to pass over it without judgment or consideration. The food and her freshwater bath are far more compelling to Hà than thinking about human nature.
Golden Fuzz. When a black dot appears in the distance, Hà and the other passengers are instructed to pack their bags and line up. Groups of 20 board a motorboat and head for the dot. When it’s Hà’s turn, a fuzzy arm reaches out to help her board. Hà touches the fuzz and then plucks a hair. Mother slaps Hà’s hand, and Brother Quang says something fast in another language, but the fuzzy man laughs. The rocking boat means that Mother is too seasick to scold Hà. Hà holds tight to her souvenir hair and smiles.
Hà’s perspective as an immature and somewhat selfish child shines through here: she’s curious about this “fuzzy” man, and his arm hair seems to be right there for the taking, so she plucks a hair without thinking. She does so out of curiosity rather than malice, and fortunately for her, the man seems unconcerned and even amused by her behavior. Hà, this shows, greets new experiences with curiosity rather than prejudgment.
Tent City. Hà and the other passengers are now on an island called Guam. Nobody except Brother Quang can pronounce the island’s name. There were lots of people here before Hà and her family arrived. They all live in tents and sleep on cots. Brother Vū quickly becomes head chef and heats up canned beef and potatoes, which tastes like salty vomit. The only fruit available is canned, and everyone wants more than their allotted cup. Somehow, Brother Vū manages to bring a big can home to use as a hand weight. The family eats fruit out of the can while Hà keeps an eye out for fresh cherries or grapes.
The “salty vomit” food that Hà has to eat in Guam makes the island feel even less like home. And Hà’s tone as she talks about looking for fresh fruit implies that this is a futile search; she’s not going to find any fresh fruit but is perhaps doing it out of habit and to try to find one thing that will make her happier here. Brother Vū, however, seems to find his place quickly as he becomes head chef. His love of cooking allows him to fit in wherever he encounters food that needs to be prepared.
Life in Waiting. Everyone on the island soon falls into a routine. During the day, camp workers teach English. People have evenings to themselves. They show movies outdoors, and Brother Quang translates for viewers. People love watching Clint Eastwood cowboy movies, but if the main cowboy is someone like John Wayne, most people go swimming instead. Girls flock to watch Disney cartoons, and they surround Brother Vū as well. Hà listens to the girls beg Brother Vū to break more wood as she goes to sit with Brother Khôi. He doesn’t speak much anymore, but Hà is happy to sit with him. This routine persists through June and July.
Sitting quietly and keeping Brother Khôi company is another way that Hà demonstrates her growing maturity and her love for her family. She’s happy watching her other brothers find their niches in Guam, but she realizes that Brother Khôi just needs someone to remind him he isn’t alone. Brother Khôi is still recovering from the trauma of leaving Saigon and of losing his chick, so finding community in Guam isn’t possible for him yet.
Nuoc Mam. Whoever sent fish sauce to Guam deserves a kiss. The fish sauce, nuoc mam, makes everything edible. Brother Vū puts it on the beef and potatoes and the food lines snake all the way to the beach. When someone catches a puffy sea creature, Brother Vū slices it up and stews it with seaweed and nuoc mam. People are happy with even just rice covered in fish sauce, and others begin to cook for themselves if they can get a cup. Since Brother Vū hands the fish sauce out in teacups, Hà once takes a gulp of fish sauce thinking it’s tea. Even though her breath smells for days, she doesn’t care.
The fish sauce represents a welcome taste of home not just for Hà, but seemingly for all the Vietnamese refugees currently in Guam. It seems capable of making anything edible—even the “salty vomit” meals of beef and potatoes—by making it taste more like the Vietnamese fare that the refugees are used to. The fact that Hà doesn’t even mind her fishy breath after accidentally drinking it speaks to how homesick she is, as even this seems to remind her of home.
Amethyst Ring. Mother wants to sell the amethyst ring that Father brought her from America, where he trained in the navy, and buy needles, thread, and sandals. Hà has never seen Mother without the ring, and she has to twirl it around Mother’s finger every night in order to fall asleep. Brother Quang refuses to sell it—there’s no point in new shirts or sandals if Mother “loses the / last tangible remnant of love.” Hà doesn’t fully understand what Brother Quang means, but she agrees with him anyway.
Mother wants to be practical: she needs sewing supplies so she can clothe her family, and selling the ring would be an easy way to do this. But selling the ring would create a crisis for her children. Hà has her own rituals that include the ring (spinning it at night), and Brother Quang sees the ring as an essential way for everyone in the family to remember Father and his love for Mother.
Choose. Some people choose to go to France, where many Vietnamese went years ago when North and South divided. Uncle Son encourages Mother to come with him to Canada to be with his sister. Knowing that Uncle Son’s wife won’t like this, Mother insists Canada is too cold. It’s July 4, America’s birthday, and every family has to decide by tonight where they’re going. Just as Mother starts to write “Paris,” a man whispers that she should choose America. There are opportunities, he says, for families with boys able to work. When Mother says her sons need to go to college, the man says America will give the boys scholarships. Mother makes her choice.
France colonized Vietnam in the mid-1800s, and Vietnam split into North and South definitively in 1954. So, because of Vietnam’s history as a French colony, many Vietnamese people immigrated to France at this time. Because of this, France at first seems like a good option for Mother. But this man convinces Mother that life will be better for her family if she chooses to go to the U.S. instead. Mother’s priorities become clear here when she insists that her sons go to college: she wants her children to be educated, and she’ll go wherever will make that possible.
Another Tent City. Hà and her family fly to another tent city in Florida. There, the organizers bring in famous singers from Saigon, but this doesn’t keep people from worrying. In order for a family to leave the camp, an American has to sponsor them. Mother says that a “possible widow” with three sons and a “pouty girl” is just too big of a family for Americans. As Hà watches neighboring families leave for Georgia and South Carolina, Mother grows anxious and Brother Quang picks at his skin. Hà doesn’t mind it here. She finally has long hair, and she’s strong and tanned after running and swimming. Then, Mother discovers that sponsors prefer families who are Christian. She amends the family’s faith on their application, insisting that all belief systems are much the same.
During the weeks that Hà’s family spends in this tent city, Hà has to confront for the first time that her family might not look as perfect to others as it does to her. But she also doesn’t seem to dwell too much on this—the camp in Florida offers her even more opportunities to play, and it’s nice to finally have long hair she’s always dreamed of having. The camp, in other words, gives Hà the freedom she’s craved for some time. By changing the family’s religious designation to Christian, Mother is already beginning to compromise her family’s culture and traditions to look more appealing (and, perhaps, less threatening) to Americans.
Alabama. A man comes to the tent city in early August. He sells cars and wants to train a young man as a mechanic. The man picks Brother Quang, as he’s impressed with Brother Quang’s engineering education. Mother doesn’t care—soon, the entire family is sponsored and will be going to Alabama.
To Mother, not much matters aside from the fact that her family is finally getting to leave the tent city and settle into their new home. She’s ready to begin their new life, not live in the tent city, where they can only wait for someone to decide to help them.
Our Cowboy. To Hà, the sponsor “looks just like / an American should.” He’s tall, with a big belly, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots. He smokes cigars and has a red face. She loves him instantly. She figures he’s kind, loud, and owns a horse.
The sponsor is exciting for Hà, as he seems to confirm that the U.S. is full of loud, big-hearted cowboys. It’s impossible to tell if Hà is correct to assume her sponsor is an actual cowboy since he sells cars; it may be that she’s only seeing what she wants to see.