The narrator describes himself to the Commandant, who has imprisoned him at a detention camp in North Vietnam, as “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” The narrator is both a captain in the South Vietnamese Army and a spy for the North Vietnamese, acting under the instruction of Man, one of his “blood brothers.”
The narrator recalls the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Claude, the narrator’s mentor and a CIA agent, arranges for the General and Madame, a politically powerful South Vietnamese couple, to escape from Saigon with their immediate and extended family. The narrator puts together a list of select staff members who will also be allowed to board this plane, which will include the narrator’s other “blood brother” Bon, Bon’s wife, Linh, and their son, Duc. The U.S. government prepares C-130 planes for the escape. However, an attack on the airfield, which may have come either from the Viet Cong or from disgruntled South Vietnamese soldiers, destroys the plane. The surviving refugees flee toward another plane, originally intended for active-duty U.S. military. During the sprint, the narrator notices that Bon and his family have fallen behind. When he turns around to look for them, he sees that Bon is sitting on the ground, cradling the bodies of his wife and son. The narrator hurries Bon onto the waiting plane, which first lands in Guam, and later at Camp Pendleton in San Diego.
The narrator, the General, Madame, and Bon settle in Los Angeles. With the help of his former professor at Occidental College, Avery Wright Hammer, the narrator secures a job working for the Department Chair of the college’s Department of Oriental Studies. There, the narrator reacquaints himself with American racism and the fetishization of Asian people. He also meets the secretary of the department, Ms. Sofia Mori, and they become lovers. The narrator occasionally works for the General, too, though not for pay, as a chauffeur. At a wedding between the daughter of a Vietnamese marine colonel and the son of the vice president of the Saigon branch of Bank of America, the narrator sees the General and Madame’s eldest child, Lan, who goes by Lana, for the first time since she was a girl. Lana left Vietnam to attend the University of California, Berkeley. When the narrator reunites with her, she’s living in Brentwood and working at an art gallery, while also pursuing a singing career. Though the narrator thinks that she has talent in addition to being very attractive, Lana’s parents are scandalized by her onstage persona, which they believe will ruin her chances for marriage. The narrator also reunites with his old college chum, Sonny, who edits a Vietnamese-language newspaper.
The General opens a liquor store a year after his arrival, where he employs Bon. Meanwhile, Madame opens a pho restaurant. Though she never bothered to cook in her home country, due to the plenitude of servants, her relatively modest life in the United States requires her to do more household chores, in which she discovers her talent for cooking. Funds earned at the liquor store and the restaurant, along with those from the General’s charitable organization, the Benevolent Fraternity of Former Soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam, help to fund a guerrilla army that plans to take back control of Vietnam from the Communists. At the wedding, the narrator also encounters the Congressman, an anti-Communist Republican representative of Orange County, who later organizes a meeting at a country club with other Western sympathizers of the South Vietnamese plight, including the narrator’s idol, Dr. Richard Hedd.
The General uses his contacts in California and in South Vietnam to continue fighting a war against the Viet Cong and its sympathizers. One day, during a private discussion in the storeroom of his liquor store, he tells the narrator that he suspects that there’s a spy among them. To distract attention from himself as the mole, the narrator offers the name of the crapulent major. Initially, the General doesn’t believe this, but his distaste for the major’s being both fat and Chinese sways him to think that the major is a sleeper agent. Bon agrees to kill the major. He and the narrator, who quickly regrets identifying the likable man as a spy, await the major at his apartment complex. They know that he’ll soon be returning from the gas station, where he works as an attendant. It is the Fourth of July when the narrator presents the major with a bag of gifts that he obtained that day in Chinatown. Then, Bon walks up from behind the major and shoots him in the head.
The narrator leaves California soon after the major’s killing, which Bon labels as an “assassination,” to go to the Philippines to work on a film entitled The Hamlet. The Congressman has recommended him to the film’s director, the Auteur, as a script consultant. The narrator’s purpose is to ensure that there are Vietnamese characters in the film and that they are depicted fairly. Instead, he clashes with the Auteur and is later nearly killed in the film’s makeshift cemetery, during an explosion that has been written into the script. The narrator releases the film studio from any liabilities, in exchange for ten thousand dollars.
When he returns to Los Angeles, the narrator gives half of the money to the crapulent major’s widow. Also during his return, he discovers that Sonny is now in a relationship with Sofia, and that the couple is in love. Sonny presents a problem to the General, however, due to his leftist politics and his articles, which encourage the refugee community to put the war behind them. When the narrator expresses his wish to return to Vietnam with Bon, who has agreed to join the General’s guerrilla army, the General says that the narrator can go if he is willing to kill Sonny. Though the narrator knows that Man doesn’t want him to return to Vietnam, he insists on going to save Bon’s life. Therefore, the narrator accepts the General’s challenge to kill Sonny, shooting his old friend five times during a visit to his apartment.
The narrator departs for Bangkok, Thailand, where he and Bon reunite with Claude at the airport. While in Bangkok, the narrator sees The Hamlet at a local theater. He notices that his name has been excluded from the credits. Bon hates the film, alleging that it failed to represent their people properly. The narrator counters that, if he wasn’t for him, no Vietnamese characters would have been included at all. From Thailand, the narrator and Bon go to Laos and nearly make it across the border into Vietnam when they are captured by the Communists after an attack on their camp. The pair are kept in a detention camp for over a year. Under the orders of the Commandant, the narrator is forced to write his confession. He also endures various forms of torture to help him answer the question put forth by the Commissar of the camp, “What is more precious than independence and freedom?” The narrator struggles to answer the question. He also comes to terms with the fact that his captor, the Commissar, is also his old friend, Man, whose face has been burned beyond recognition by napalm. When the narrator realizes that the answer to his question is “nothing,” meaning that all that exists for certain is nothingness, the Commissar and the Commandant agree to release him and Bon from the camp. The men are briefly sent back to Saigon. From there, they are ferried across the Mekong River and sent out of the country on a fishing trawler that holds one hundred and fifty people. The vessel is cramped and suffocating. The narrator realizes that he may not survive the trip. However, if he does, he will abandon any cause that is unrelated to the only one that he now believes to matter—his will to live.