It is 1975 in Saigon, Vietnam. It is the year marking the end of the Vietnam War. A young woman runs after a train slowing around a bend. She barely makes it—but someone helps her up. She has a bag with her, full of goods that she walks up and down the aisles of the train selling. This is the work she does to support her family.
At the end of the Vietnam war, Saigon, like much of the country, is devastated. Many people live in poverty. Given the hardship that her family—like many Vietnamese—evidently faces, the young woman must work to help her family make ends meet.
Just as the young woman begins her work, guards arrive and she sits down quickly, hiding her goods, which she is not allowed to sell because she doesn’t have a permit from the authorities. One of the guards stops by her, and commands her to lift up her trousers so he can check whether she’s hiding anything. The girl thinks she is about to get caught.
The arrival of the guards, and the young woman’s fear of them, point to the oppressive circumstances under which Vietnamese lived under communist rule following the Vietnam War. This is a heavily policed society, one in which this young woman can’t even sell goods on the train without official authorization.
However, a voice interrupts from the back. A thin twenty-one-year-old man scolds the guard, telling him that this is no way to treat a young woman. The woman immediately falls in love with him—he’s saved her. The guard moves on. The next day, she meets the boy in the same carriage of the 4:30 train. They meet two more times on the train. Six months later, they are married, and less than a year later, Anh—their son—is born.
The boy’s interruption of the guard marks a bold and courageous move on his part, given that the guard, as a state official, could have easily punished him for his insolence. This courageous act—in response to the harassment of the girl— leads to the beginning of a love affair that brings forth Anh, the author of the memoir.
Anh’s mother had seven brothers and sisters. Her two eldest brothers, who served as paratroopers alongside Australian and American troops, were condemned to communist re-education camps after the end of the Vietnam War. Uncle Thanh, a gentle, quiet man, almost died in the re-education camp, where he was forced to undertake hard labor. Suffering from malaria, he was operated on by the savage camp doctor without anesthesia, and then assumed to be dead—until he was discovered knocking in the coffin in which he had been placed for burial.
Uncle Thanh’s terrible experiences in the re-education camp point to the brutality of the communist government that came to power at the end of the Vietnam war. The re-education camps were essentially concentration camps in which opponents of the communists were punished. As such, Uncle Thanh’s near-death experience points to the extreme oppression to which the communists subjected their opponents.
Uncle Huy also escaped death by a hair’s breadth during the war. While in the army, he had missed a boat he was assigned to catch because of a late night out drinking with his friends. The next morning, as he watched the boat leave without him, it suddenly exploded before his eyes. In Australia, he went on to become a Jesuit priest.
Uncle Huy’s near-death experience alludes to the capriciousness, and the violence, of the Vietnam War. Huy survives the war by mere chance, thanks to missing his boat. Hundreds of thousands of others were not so lucky.
Anh’s father grew up in extreme poverty with his large family. In spite of her poverty, his mother (Anh’s grandmother), who lost four children, adopted two more to raise along with her eight surviving children. The children were referred to by the number of their birth order. Anh’s father Tam was known as Four, among his other siblings, One, Two, Three, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine. Anh’s grandmother supported all the children on the meager earnings of her husband’s wages, who was a soldier with the army. The family was so poor that they ate mostly rice.
The poverty in which Anh’s father grows up points to the dire circumstances under which many Vietnamese lived during the Vietnam War. With the country under siege, poverty and hardship were rife, making it very difficult for families—particularly large ones such as Anh’s—to survive on anything beyond the most basic necessities. The presence of adopted children amongst the brothers also points to the fact that many children lost their parents during the war.
After his marriage to Anh’s mother, Anh’s father Tam rescues his brothers-in-law Thanh and Huy from the communist re-education camp to which they have been condemned, and he does so in a daring fashion. He has a friend whose uncle is a high-ranking official in the communist government. When the uncle is away, Tam has his friend steal the official’s uniform, which Tam then puts on. He marches into the re-education camp and demands the release of Thanh and Huy. The camp guards, believing him to be a high-ranking official, comply with his order, and release the two men to him.
Tam’s daring rescue of his brothers-in-law reflects some of his most charismatic and admirable qualities—his courage and bravery. It also reflects how seriously members of Anh’s family take their responsibility towards family members, whether distant or near relations. Here, Tam risks himself to save his wife’s brothers, because he is connected to them through his marriage. It is a feat that could have well cost him his freedom, or even his life.