A young Vietnamese native returns to her motherland looking for answers only to find that the past does not yield its secrets easily.
In the early 1990s, Maia Trieu, a 23-year-old Vietnamese expat, is on a mission to her native country, seemingly charged by the collective diaspora to do one thing: help the Independent Vietnam Coalition contact her great aunt. The expats believe that Maia’s relative, a former military commander, is capable of instigating insurgency in the Central Highlands. While that might be Maia’s primary agenda, one she has even received a grant for, she is also in Vietnam to seek answers: What prompted her mother to stay behind in Vietnam while Maia escaped along with her dad? Who is left of her family who might have the answers and the closure she craves? In this haunting if meandering debut, Maia travels the countryside following the trail of breadcrumbs on the way to her mission: “ ‘Whatever you do,’ the Coalition instructed, ‘be at the foot of the Vong Phu Mountain on the first night of the full moon.’ ” Along the way, Maia attracts a ragtag group of fellow travelers, including an American journalist whose brother served in Vietnam. Lam blends the past with the present, fluidly teasing out strands of narrative, but at times the plot is as hazy as the smoky, incense-filled air in the temples that Maia visits. The meditative novel functions best as travelogue and food diary: “The smell of deep-fried shrimp and mung bean patties from a bánh cuốn stall filled the air. The vendor in a lilac đồ bộ waved customers to her footstools and knee-high tables as she served plates of steamed rice rolls filled with pork mince and wood ear mushrooms, garnished with blanched bean sprouts, fresh mint leaves, and chili fish sauce.” Generous doses of folklore—the tale of Hòn Vộng Phu, a wife who turns into stone waiting for her husband’s return, is a recurring theme here—and poetry add ballast to an otherwise cloudy narrative.
Transportive armchair travel if you’re willing to follow along just for the sights.