Vietnamese author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s new novel DUST CHILD is a heartbreaking masterpiece. Her readers will shed their tears and smile their way through this epic page-turner about the living casualties of America’s war in Vietnam.

Honestly, I did not expect Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai to do it to me once again. Less than three years ago I picked up her first novel The Mountains Sing and sat down to read a chapter or two on a Saturday morning in Hanoi. I got so caught up by the opening chapter taking me straight into the infamous Christmas bombings of Hanoi in 1972 that I could not put it down until I finished the last page in the early hours of Sunday morning.

After a few hours of sleep, I sat down again to share my amazement on my blog with these observations on The Mountains Sing. No wonder that this beautiful story has traveled the world since then in 16 different languages.

Yesterday, the exact same thing happened with Dust Child. Again, I could not put it down. Again, I am sitting here after too little sleep to share my experience with others.

Dust Child and The Mountains Sing are similar and different at the same time. Both novels are generation spanning tales of the destructions of war and its countless victims. Both offer their readers a unique insight in Vietnamese history and culture, including Quế Mai’s irresistible sharing of classic Vietnamese proverbs – like ‘Rough seas make good sailors’ and ‘Life is riding high on an elephant, then low on a dog’. 

The differences are harder to pinpoint, but nevertheless very real in their impact on this reader. The Mountains Sing made me smile more often than sending chills down my spine, when confronted by the tragedies of war.

It’s the other way around with Dust Child, named after the thousands of children born during the war by Vietnamese mothers and American fathers. In Vietnamese they are referred to as ‘Dust of Life’.

Here is how they are treated by neighbors in Quế Mai’s words: “Hey you black American with 12 assholes. You lost the war. Why don’t you go fucking home.” The words of a Vietnamese man, while kicking a small kid, born in the very last days of the war. 

The first 300 pages of Dust Child leave you with very little hope for the main characters: The countryside sisters Trang and Quỳnh, who are lured into the seedy girlie bars of wartime Saigon ending up in prostitution, being paid USD 3 for ‘long time services’.

The baby in a tree

We meet the homeless orphan Phong, found 3 days old hanging in a tree in a bag, and for the rest of his life rejected by the post-war community because of his ‘ugly’ black skin and afro-hair, inherited by his American soldier father. Then there is Dan, the all-American college kid, turned into a miserable monster as a helicopter-pilot in the killing zones of the Mekong Delta. Dan returns to Vietnam in search of the love of his youth, with his frustrated wife Linda screaming on the sidelines. 

Somehow, Quế Mai manages to inject beauty and compassion in her heartbreaking story. As a reader, you cannot avoid taking sides with the characters, as they refuse to accept defeat and continue their uphill battles to get a better life.  I shall not disclose here who succeeds, and who never had a chance. Read for yourself, please.

Quế Mai’s novel is fiction, of course, but is based on meticulous research, in which she spent years interviewing former bargirls and Amerasians, desperately trying to connect with their unknown fathers in the US.

Unfortunately, the tale is all too true.

Working as a young journalist in Vietnam in the early 1980’ies, I remember all too well, how real this tragedy unfolded after the war. One scene is forever in my memory for the past 40 years.

It was an early evening in Saigon just before the 8 pm curfew. Out of nowhere a young light-skinned girl grabs my arm, pleading: “Daddy, daddy give me dollar.” Then offering her body for USD 5. There were hundreds like her living on the streets.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s Dust Child deserves a readership, at least as wide as her bestselling The Mountains Sing. 

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: Dust Child. 339 pages. Algonquin books of Chapel Hill.

With the author in Hanoi, 2022

Người Anh Không Tên – The man with no name

Tôi nhìn bức ảnh

Ta gặp nhau 36 năm về trước

Cũng tháng này

Khuôn mặt anh màu đen và trắng

Chiếc áo cũ sờn

Che gió sương

Buốt giá ẩm ướt của đông Hà Nội

Tôi nhớ niềm tự hào khiêm tốn của anh:

Nhớ trận chiến cuối vào buổi sớm

Anh cho tôi xem chiếc bản đồ

Những mũi tên đỏ ghi dấu

Hàng nghìn người lính ngoan cường bước vào cuộc chiến sau cùng

Các anh quá trẻ

Với những ánh mắt quá già

Vì những năm liên miên khói lửa (bom đạn)

Với những tấm thân khô xác 

Vì triền miên các bữa lương khô

Những người con oanh liệt hào hùng

của Nam Định, Thái Bình, Hải Dương, Hoà Bình, Ninh Bình

và vô số nơi khác trên phương bắc

Hàng nghìn người bỏ thây dọc theo đường mòn Hồ Chí Minh

Vẫn nghe tiếng khóc than của một đội quân khác

những người nhà mòn mỏi đi tìm

Những mảnh hồn của các vong linh đi lạc

Rải rác trên mảnh đất tổ tiên

Tôi biết anh ra trận từ năm 14 tuổi

Theo tiếng gọi của người thầy

người đã trở thành một vị tướng giải phóng quê hương

Cả đời anh là những cuộc chiến triền miên không hồi kết

Anh cho tôi

Trái ngọt của vinh quang

Với một nụ cười thật đẹp

Tôi bật khóc

Tôi không tưởng tượng được một anh hùng lại khiêm nhường như anh

Anh không mảy may thể hiện

Những quả đắng thời bình

Mà anh phải chịu

Hay những tranh chấp vô tình giữa chính anh chị em

Chẳng lẽ anh không hề biết

Cuộc đời chứa chất những gì

Những đau thương kiểu khác

Không đổ máu

Nhưng còn đau đớn hơn 

Anh bỏ lại hết

Anh đã lạc mất các chiến hữu, gia đình và bè bạn

Anh dõi theo họ từ xa, từ hàng chục năm rồi

Đắng cay đã trở thành dấu ấn của anh

Để chúng ta đều thấy

Anh đã mất nơi xứ người

Có bình yên, tôi tự hỏi?

Phải chăng

Tôi sẽ sớm gặp lại anh

Một linh hồn lang thang 

Nơi Hà Nội phố

Đi tìm chính tên anh. 

In English:


I look at the photo

Our meeting 36 years ago, this month.

Your face in black and white.

The well worn jacket took the brunt 

of Hanoi’s freezing, humid winter.

I remember your modest pride:

Remembering the final attack in the morning hours

You showed me the map

Red arrrows indicating

How thousands of battle hardened soldiers

entered the enemy’s last stand.

Soldiers so young, their eyes too early aged 

through years of endless combat

Bodies like walking skeletons from years of jungle rations.

The victorius sons and daughters 

of Nam Dinh, Thai Binh, Hai Duong, Hoa Binh, Ninh Binh

and countless other places far up north.

Thousands were left dead along the Ho Chi Minh Trail

still mourned by another army of grieving relatives

looking for the remnants of Wandering Souls

roaming the land of their ancestors

I knew you had gone to war at the age of 14

You answered the call from the school teacher

who had become a famous general to liberate his land

Your entire life was spent in a war without fronts

You shared with me the fruits of victory 

with a smile so beautiful, I almost cried. 

I did not imagine that a war hero could be as modest as you

You gave me no clue of the bitter fruits waiting to poison you in peace time

Not a single hint of merciless struggles among brothers and sisters.

Could it be you did not know what life had in store for you

A different kind of suffering, bloodless and all the more painful

You left it it all behind

You were lost to former comrades, friends and family.

You watched them for decades, from afar.

Bitterness became your trademark for all to see

You passed away in foreign lands

In peace, I wonder?

Or will I meet you soon again

A wandering soul in the streets of Hanoi

Looking for your name.