Such a beautiful afternoon seeing my friend Hoan again. When I first met her 11 years ago at the Tu Du hospital, she was struggling as hard as any Agent Orange victim, born without lower legs and one hand only. Today, she came riding on her own motorbike to meet me at a Saigon cafe.

“When I told the doctors, I wanted my own motorbike, they said “No! How can you drive safely with one hand and no legs?!” But I had seen other disabled people ride a motorbike, so I insisted. Now, I have my artificial legs from Germany. It took me a year to learn to use them with a lot of pain, but they are fine now. I only have problems, when my legs are renewed. Then it takes me another three months to get used to them.”

A decade ago I gave Hoan the best English dictionary, I could find. These days, she speaks fluent English, and a great deal better than my insufficient Vietnamese, even though Hoan acknowledged some improvement on my part. When we first met, Hoan was living at the hospital with 11 other kids in the room.

In those days her big dream was to become a doctor, like her famous stepmother, Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong. “I had to give up my dream. I accepted that you cannot be a doctor with one hand only and no legs.”Instead, Hoan became a software specialist, and now she works at the Tu Du hospital writing code. She moved out from the ward several years ago.

“I have a good salary, and I rented a house with my friends. I also have my own business selling different things. My friends in Australia were so amazed to see how well I can do in business.”

A message for Obama – and Biden

Hoan became famous as a teenager, when she wrote a letter to US president Obama and asked him to help the Agent Orange children in Vietnam. Obama never replied, but Hoan was invited to testify with her stepmother before the US. Congress.

I asked her if she has a message for the new president, Joe Biden.

“Oh yes, and I am willing to travel to the White House and tell him. There are so many victims from poor families, who cannot take of themselves like I can.” My beautiful friend continues to pursue her dreams to help other victims. When I asked her, what her next dream is, she giggled and looked at me with those sparkling eyes: “I want to get married with a good husband, who will work with me to help those in need.”


I presented dr. Phuong with this beautiful portrait from our first encounter in 1984, shot by photographer Ole Johnny Sørensen.

Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong came late for our reunion today. She performed three operations this morning, and the last one was a bit difficult, she told me.  

“But doctor Phuong. At our last reunion 10 years ago you told me you would retire soon!” I said to her.

“I am 78 now, so I only accept complicated cases,” she explained today. 

Since 1969, Dr. Phuong has assisted thousands of Vietnamese women with abnormal pregnancies. Today, I gave her this beautiful portrait of herself by photographer Ole Johnny Soerensen, from my first interview with her in 1984. 

I have never been able to put behind me the unspeakable nightmare she was dealing with: Young pregnant women dying on her day after day in the Tu Du Hospital, because of their exposure to Agent Orange. Two young girls in each bed, and sometimes another two girls on a mattress below the beds. 

These days, the nightmare has become sort of manageable. “We have very advanced equipment now, so we can detect abnormal foetus at a very early stage with a much better chance of saving lives,” Dr. Phuong says.

Over the years, she has taken the agony of the Agent Orange victims to the US congress, often accompanied by her adopted daughter Hoan, who was born with no legs below the knees and one hand only. 

Much has happened since the first time we met. In those days the US government denied all allegations from Dr. Phuong and her colleagues as communist propaganda.  

In the past decade, the US have donated as much as USD 400 million to the clean-up of Agent Orange contaminated sites. And more funds are on the way. 

“We do need more funds,” says Dr. Phuong. “We need support for 2nd and 3rd generation victims. We want to create jobs for victims, who can work in spite of their disabilities. I want to help them to get married as well to have a normal life to the extent possible.”

Let us give it up for Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, a true heroine for us all. 


I was one of a handful of journalists, who found our ways to sneak into Burma to report from the ongoing slaughter, which swept across the country some 30 years ago. What we found our editors barely believed, that’s how bad it was. 

– This morning I received the news that my own government of Denmark is now recommending all Danes to consider leaving Burma, or Myanmar as the Junta renamed this suffering nation. Other countries, like my second home Vietnam, have started evacuating their citizens from Burma. 300 Vietnamese just arrived safely here.

Surely, other foreign governments will do the same.  I am not out this morning to blame governments or the frightened foreigners, who are running away from the killings in Burma. I am writing this, because I have very, very strong fears, what will happen next. Because I have seen it all before. I have seen what Tatmadaw (The killing machine of the Burmese generals) will do, when they operate without any restraint. 

They kill, they kill, they kill – that’s how they deal with dissent, whether it is students, Buddhist monks or just any bystander, who happens to be present.

I was one of a handful of journalists, who found our ways to sneak into Burma to report from the ongoing slaughter, which swept across the country some 30 years ago. What we found our editors barely believed, that’s how bad it was. 

Thousands had fled into the jungle, finding shelter with the Karen insurgents, who had fought the Burmese generals since World War II, or they were in hiding with the Shan guerillas. Other thousands were less fortunate. Here is what a catholic priest told me:

“I plead with President Bush, the UN, all the powers of the world to help us. They are closing the schools, the universities, the churches and the temples. People are disappearing without a trace. They have built new crematoriums next to the prisons. The chimneys are billowing with smoke day and night.”

Sadly, the world largely ignored the cries for help, including my own government. As typical for a young journalist and as pathetic as it might have been, I wrote a very angry op-ed in my newspaper, targeting the Danish Prime Minister Poul Schlüter for his silence on Burma. I doubt that he ever read it. The piece was buried on page 18. 

Some governments did even worse. The Polish arms corporation Polski Zaklady Lotnicze sold 20 heavily armed MI2 helicopters to Tatmadaw. Poland’s own liberation hero, president Lech Walesa did nothing to stop the deal. 

Swedish Bofors delivered state of the art patrol boats to Tatmadaw. The Swedish Prime Minister did not intervene.  

The lethal shopping spree of Tatmadaw was largely financed by the French oil company Total with the full acceptance of the French government. Total got the first foreign oil concessions from Burma in return.

To make matters worse, the Thai general and later Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh let his son put together the infamous ‘blood for teak’-deal, which ensured Thailand a huge amount of precious Burmese teak wood. They paid by forcibly returning Burmese refugees in Thailand to their destiny at the hands of Tatmadaw. 

I remember a disheartening talk in Copenhagen with the late Michael Aris, the husband of Burma’s incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi. He had come to Denmark in an attempt to alert the Danish government to the carnage in Burma, invited by the Danish Burma Committee. No one but the committee bothered to listen to Michael Aris.

I am burdening my friends with all of this, as I see the writings on the wall on an early Tuesday morning in Hanoi. Honestly, the latest news from Burma kept me up much of the night. I am hearing long forgotten Burmese voices, as foreigners are scrambling out of Burma once again. A friend in Rangoon just messaged me a screen shot to show me, how his internet is going down. The Darkness is coming back.

In the short run, I am sure we will see a bit of uproar in the media and elsewhere, as the situation gets worse now in Burma. The generals might be a little cautious, until the world’s attention turns elsewhere due to other calamities.  

I hope I am wrong, but I fear that I am right: Once the darkness engulfs Burma again, the killings will be systematic and on a much larger scale, as we have seen before.

The Tatmadaw will do so, because they know it works. 


How her grandfather’s furniture workshop and years of global encounters have inspired the amazing works of Dutch artist Petra de Vree. In recent years, Vietnam has been her focus.

Petra with a sculpture, inspired the Vietnamese Nypa fruit.

The first thing you would notice in Petra de Vree’s living room is the incredibly beautiful dining table, big enough to accommodate 12 people. The table is in massive wood and looks like it weighs half a ton. She designed it herself during her years in Bolivia.

Petra designed her own dining table during her years in Bolivia.

“The carpenters had a Caoba tree brought directly from the forest, a tree big enough to cut a 14 feet piece of wood,” says Petra. 

The texture and smell of fresh wood in processing has played an important role in her creative efforts since her childhood in a small, pittoresk village in the Netherlands.

“My grandfather was a furniture maker and my father a carpenter, and early on I started making things out of leftovers in their workshop. At the same time, I often went with my father to pick vegetables, getting the feeling of soil in my hands. This led me into the magic of clay.”

Petra does not work with just any clay. She prefers the black clay of her own country.

“When we left for Bangladesh in 2014, I brought 600 kilos of Dutch clay with me, and the remaining clay moved on with us, when we moved to Hanoi in 2017. I still have enough for a year or two.”

Petra’s works from Bangladesh is displayed in her studio.

Petra’s unique clay sculptures has indeed resonated around the world, wherever she has lived and worked as an artist. Her works are clearly inspired by the local scene, be it Ghana, Bolivia, Nepal, Guatemala, Bangladesh or most recently Vietnam. 

Petra’s husband is a biologist and an anthropologist with a long career in Dutch development assistance programmes around the world for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Along their way through the world, she has set up her own space as a professional artist.

Lady of the Lamps

“In Ghana the called me ‘The Lady of the Lamps’, because I started a lamp production in cooperation with the local blacksmith,” says Petra with a grin. 

In Bangladesh, they made this fascination documentary The Beauty of Clay , where you can learn more about her works.

Just a few weeks ago, Petra’s works were exhibited at Hanoi Studio Gallery.  A sculpture, titled ‘Da Song’ (Vietnamese for Living Rock) struck me immediately as perfect addition to my own modest art collection. The asymmetric and rough features are obviously inspired by Halong Bay, topped off with the fine features of a human face.  Inevitably, the ‘Da Song’ moved in with me yesterday, now sharing my magnificent view of the Red River.

Female strength and beauty are recurrent themes in Petra’s works throughout her career:

“Born between two boys I liked the kind of games they were playing, or other things they were doing, so I played with them. But if they gave me a certain roll because of being a girl I felt the injustice of not being a boy.  Deep inside I knew I would be capable to do the same as them or what was expected from them.  Nowadays I like to show with my sculptures the talents of women. It makes me really happy to see the younger female generations, women like Jacinda Ardern and Amanda Gorman, taking their space and being a positive inspiration for girls.”

In Hanoi, Petra has also started her own art courses in her To Ngoc Van studio.  Some 20 students are learning how to cope with the mysteries of ceramics.  From the works, I saw there, including a nicely crafted dragon, it looks like Petra will leave another living legacy behind here, when she and her husband move on to their next destination. 



Sådan lød en af de centrale journalistiske ambitioner, som jeg og andre unge journalister fik venligt, men bestemt terpet ind af vores læremester Jørgen Flindt Pedersen, som døde i dag 80 år gammel.

Det var en meget stor dag, da Jørgen ringede til mig i maj 1988: “Det er en bedrift, at du har skrevet en nuanceret bog om Egon Weidekamp. Vi har lige mistet Lasse Ellegaard. Kunne du ikke tænke dig at træde i hans sted?”

Jeg revnede af stolthed den dag og tilgav Jørgen det fuldt og helt, da jeg senere fandt ud, at vi var hele tre journalister, der blev hyret til i fællesskab at fylde Fyrtårnet Ellegaards journalistiske vandrestøvler ud.

Det blev nogle fantastiske år på Det Fri Aktuelt under Jørgens utrættelige journalistiske indpiskning. Han havde meget svært ved at holde sig til sin egen jobbeskrivelse som Chefredaktør.

Han ville være med selv på de dagsorden-sættende historier. Jeg husker en dag, hvor jorden for alvor var begyndt at brænde under fødderne på finansmanden Klaus Riskær Pedersen, som på et tidspunkt havde arbejdet som researcher for Jørgen i DR. Med Jørgens hjælp fik jeg en interview-aftale med den belejrede Riskær i hans herskabslejlighed dør om dør med Amalienborg. I sidste øjeblik stod Jørgen ved mit skrivebord med et: “Har du noget imod at jeg tager med?”

Min rolle blev i praksis at tage noter og skrive artikel-udkastet, og det blev selvfølgelig et af de bedste interviews jeg nogensinde har haft en aktie i. Et andet typisk Jørgen-øjeblik kom, da han modstræbende bevilgede mig en reportage-rejse for at besøge alle borgerkrigens parter i Cambodia. “Det er en rigtigt godt koncept du har lavet, jeg ville bare ønske det var mig selv, der skulle afsted,” sagde han – og mente det.

Mennesket Jørgen kom jeg for alvor til at mærke, da jeg knækkede sammen efter nogle barske oplevelser i journalistikkens tjeneste og blev sygemeldt. Et par dage senere lå der et håndskrevet brev postkassen. Jørgen fortalte, hvordan han selv var brudt sammen med et angstanfald på Storebæltsfærgen og var bogstaveligt talt blevet samlet op fra gulvet af folketingsmedlem Birte Weiss, som tilfældigvis var med samme færge. “Siden da har jeg altid gået rundt med stesolider i lommen, og det skal man ikke skamme sig over,” skrev han.

Et stærkt vemodigt minde er Jørgens tale ved redaktionschef Rolf Gecklers begravelse. Rolf var ikke fyldt 35, da han tabte kampen mod kræften. Jørgens farvel til Rolf var noget af det mest ubærligt smukke, jeg har hørt.

Vore veje skiltes, da Jørgen blev direktør på TV2, og jeg selv kort efter forlod journalistikken til fordel for Udenrigsministeriet. Der gik næsten 20 år, før vi blev genforenet i Hanoi, hvor han og Birgitte boede hos mig. Jørgen medbragte et eksemplar af sine erindringer ‘Hjerteblod’ med en dedikation, som gjorde mig lige så kisteglad som dengang med Ellegaard. Jeg sidder og bladrer i den nu, mens tårerne triller mere end en anelse.

Under Jørgens første besøg herude arrangerede vi en aften for herboende danskere, hvor Jørgen fortalte om sine oplevelser, da han dækkede Vietnam-krigen for TV-Avisen. Han tryllebandt en fyldt sal inde på Hilton-hotellet. Jeg havde også Jørgen og Birgitte med på min ‘Hanoi History Mystery Tour’, og han kvitterede året efter med en magisk rundvisning i sit elskede Kerteminde.

Det var også ved den lejlighed, at Jørgen kom med forslaget om, at vi sammen skulle lave den ultimative dokumentar om de infame langtids-følger af ‘Agent Orange’, som det amerikanske luftvåben sprøjtede ud over Vietnam. Jørgen havde allerede spottet hovedpersonen: 20-årige Hoan, der var født uden ben og med en arm. Hun havde skrevet til præsident Obama og bedt om hjælp på vegne af hundrede tusinder vietnamesiske ofre. Jørgen havde synopsen i hovedet, og få måneder senere var han og Birgitte tilbage i Hanoi.

Vi diskuterede projektet videre i detaljer, mens han lige lavede en dokumentar-udsendelse om en dansk, pensioneret lærer der knoklede som frivillig på et provinshospital i Bao Loc. På den sidste dag i Hanoi, gav han mig en liste at arbejde videre med. “Vi ses snart igen,” sagde han. Men det gjorde vi ikke. Nogle få måneder senere fik jeg den triste meddelelse om hans slagtilfælde. Endnu tristere er det at vide, at Jørgen nu er helt væk.

Æret være hans minde.


Today I hand over my blog to two distinguished poets, one inspired by the other in a truly moving symbiosis. Take a few moments and listen to Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai and Dan Shea


by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

After the last American soldiers
had left Vietnam
and grass had grown
scars onto bomb craters,
I took some foreign friends to Quảng Trị,
once a fierce battlefield.

I was too young for war
to crawl under my skin
so when I sat with my friends
at a roadside café, sipping tea,
enjoying the now-green landscape,
I didn’t know how to react
when a starkly naked
woman rushed towards us, howling.

Her ribs protruded like the bones
of a fish which had been skinned.
Her breasts swaying like long mướp fruit,
and her womanly hair a black jungle.

I was too young to know
what to say when the woman
shouted for my foreign friends
to return her husband and children to her.

Stunned, we watched her fight against villagers
who snatched her arms and dragged her away from us.
‘She’s been crazy,’ the tea seller said.
‘Her house was bombed.
Her husband and children…
she’s been looking for them ever since.’

My friends bent their heads.
‘But the war was here forty-six years ago,’ I said.
‘Some wounds can never heal.’ The tea seller shrugged.

And here I was, thinking green grass
could heal bomb craters into scars.


by Dan Shea

Inspired by

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai‘s

poem Tears of Quang Tri. 

Green Marine deployed to

Quang Tri Province, Viet Nam 

August – October 1968

occupation machine gunner

The thunder of artillery

was a heartbeat of war

death danced to it’s tune

helicopters kept the rhythm

Mountain Jungles took 

our breath away, a sniper’s

bullet sang, you don’t belong

a marine fell, baptized in blood

Death tapped me on 

my shoulder, I refused 

the dance, a mortar shell

a vibrating cymbal in my head

It was over fifty two years

ago, some scars never heal

war was wrong, I an enemy

we should have been friends.


Today, I am handing over my blog to Viet Thanh Nguyen: “What these particular Vietnamese have done is treasonous , shameful, and stupid. They own this behaviour. And so do those who didn’t march and continue to support Trump.”

By Viet Thanh Nguyễn

Vietnamese Americans flew the South Vietnamese flag at the attempted coup.

Even mainstream conservatives are calling this sedition. Too bad it took the storming of the U.S. Capitol for them to finally realize that Trump has always been a danger to the country, and believes only in himself, not the GOP and certainly not the entire USA.

And some Vietnamese Americans, who fled an authoritarian regime, who have always cast themselves as patriots, are going all-in on aligning themselves with a pro-Trump, cult of personality movement. that is inextricably intertwined with white resentment, white privilege, white supremacy, and apologizing for the Confederacy and defending it.

I am hearing from Vietnamese Americans who are pained by seeing their relatives continue to endorse this. I don’t know what to say to them. We love our relatives, who love us. They are good people. But everyone has to take responsibility at some point for what they believe, what they say, and what they do.

And what these particular Vietnamese have done is treasonous , shameful, and stupid. They own this behaviour. And so do those who didn’t march and continue to support Trump.

Việt Thanh Nguyễn is the best selling author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Sympathizer and several non-fiction works, including The Refugees and Nothing Ever Dies.


WILFRED ER IKKE MERE – min og mange andres ven gennem 40 år, Wilfred Gluud er ikke mere. Få har som ham holdt fast ved sin ungdoms idealer. Det har ikke mindst de fattigste i Vietnam nydt godt af med Wilfreds solide indsats gennem årene bl.a. som utrættelig deltager i indsamlingerne af hospitalsudstyr til Vietnam og uddannelsesprojekterne på provinshospitalet i Bao Loc. Dertil kommer Wilfreds slid år ud og år ind med ene mand at oprette og vedligeholde den globale database med dokumentation for de tragiske langtidsvirkninger af Agent Orange på mennesker og miljø i Vietnam.

Jeg har haft hyppige besøg af Wilfred i Hanoi gennem årene, indtil problemer med bentøjet kom i vejen for hans stædige insisteren på at tage de lokale busser, som ikke just er designet til passagerer af Wilfreds størrelse.

Det er ikke mere end 14 dage siden, at Wilfred og jeg chattede om den legendariske fotograf Thomas Billhardt, hvis Hanoi fotos fra krigsårene netop er blevet udgivet her. Wilfred måtte have et eksemplar til sit bibliotek, og samtidig ville han lige sikre sig, at jeg på den anden side af COVID også hjembragte ‘Hanoi-Opoly’ til ham – han havde hørt at den vietnamesiske chokolade-koncern Marou har produceret en lokal version af Matador-spillet, komplet med chokolade-præmier til vinderne.

Hans sidste ord i den chat var at han indtil videre måtte nøjes med sine yndlings maltbolsjer fra Nørregade. Så måtte jeg jo skaffe ham den ønskede dokumentation for at det var på plads. Desværre nåede Wilfred ikke den runde i Hanoi-Opoly.

Æret være Wilfreds minde.


Ulrik Helweg-Larsen under oprydningen efter tsunamien i januar 2005

Min gamle kollega Ulrik Helweg-Larsen er død, 75 år gammel. Vi arbejdede sammen ved flere lejligheder, bl.a. med forberedelserne af udviklingsminister Helle Degns besøg i Hanoi 1994.

Men det, som jeg først og fremmest husker Ulrik for, er hans overmenneskelige indsats under nødhjælpsarbejdet på Phuket efter Tsunamien ramte i julen 2004. Ulrik ikke alene knoklede nat og dag. Han hankede også op i os andre, når vi var ved at segne.

Ulrik tog det uden at kny, da Udenrigsministeriets topledelse med brutal kynisme lod ham tage skraldet for ledelsens eget svigt hjemme på Asiatisk Plads.

Her er en minderune for Ulrik, hentet fra mine dagbogs-notater den 4. januar 2005:

“Ambassadøren og hans hustru er de sidste tilbage af det oprindelige hold, der nåede frem til Phuket for over en uge siden. Konsulen og ambassadesekretæren er for flere dage siden blevet afløst og sendt hjem for at hvile ud. Det er tydeligt for alle, at Ulriks egen kone, der har deltaget her som frivillig, er meget tæt på at bukke under af søvnmangel og stress. Ulrik selv får da også et klart vink af en af Rigshospitalets udsendte, der nøgternt slår fast, at der er grænser for, hvad selv ambassadører kan holde til.

Stemmen knækker, og det er med tårer i øjenkrogene, at Ulrik takker os for godt samarbejde.

Blandt pressefolkene breder sig en slags sympati for ambassadøren. “Der er noget kaptajn over ham, en af dem der bliver på broen,” siger en af dem anerkendende.

På falderebet overvinder han sig selv en sidste gang og stiller op til et interview med BT. “En uge i helvede,” hedder overskriften lidt senere på dagen.”

Kun et par dage senere var Ulrik tilbage på Phuket igen for selv at tage sig af udviklingsminister Bertel Haarder, der som den iøvrigt eneste danske politiker kom til Thailand for at forhandle en nødhjælpspakke på plads med de lokale thailandske myndigheder.

Den meget lange dag endte i ruinerne af et beach resort, hvor vi nogle dage forinden havde fundet de gennemblødte pas, tilhørende en forsvunden dansk familie.

Det var med modvilje, at Ulrik som det sidste stillede op til en fotografering, bestilt af UMs presseafdeling. Men jeg fik da lov at tage det.

Æret være Ulriks minde.


Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel is a magnificent gift to all of us, but maybe most of all a gift to her own people, celebrating their indomitable spirit.

It is a rare experience to see high expectations being surpassed by reality, but this is what happened during my page turning sit-down this weekend with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel The Mountains Sing.    

For months, my copy has been on the road through COVID era travel restrictions from the US to Denmark, finally to be hand carried by a friend on a diplomatic flight to Hanoi. While waiting, my expectations were fueled by a continues stream of praises by readers around the world on twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

As I sat down in my sofa overlooking Hanoi’s Red River, I was soon catapulted by a time machine straight into the terror of that morning in 1972, when another wave of the infamous US bombings hit Hanoi.

As the sirens scream all over the city, a 12-year old girl, Hương is running for her life with her grandmother to find a vacant shelter – in one of the concrete enforced manholes that had been dug all over Hanoi. Shelter after shelter is already full.      

At the very last moment they find a vacant shelter in front of Hương’s school, only to be half drowned in cascades of sewage water, dust and stones.  

After the sirens had signaled it was safe, Grandma and I emerged, shivering thin leaves. We staggered out to the street. Several buildings had collapsed, their rubble spilling onto our path. We crawled out of piles of debris, coughing. Billowing smoke and twirling dust burned my eyes. 

I clutched Grandma’s hand, watching women kneeling and howling next to dead bodies, whose faces had been concealed by tattered straw mats. The legs of those bodies were jutting towards us. Legs that were mangled, covered with blood. One small leg had a pink shoe dangling. The dead girl could have been my age.

Hanoi’s Khâm Thiên street after the bombings.

Hương and Grandma Diệu Lan play the main roles in Quế Mai’s universe along with three generations of characters in the Trần family, who hails from the northern-central province of Nghệ An. The family is doing well as farmers in the fertile land, until disasters start looming in the horizon, one after another. 

Grandma’s tales

As Grandma Diệu Lan and Hương slowly puts some kind of basic existence together in Hanoi’s ruins, Grandma shares the family history with her granddaughter, always calling her Guava instead of her real name to escape the attention of evil spirits, just like her own father always called her Kitten to guard her during her childhood in Nghệ An.

At first, the tales of Grandma’s childhood are as beautiful and captivating as Vietnamese spring itself in the countryside, where the Trần family enjoys more prosperity and fortune than most.  Grandma’s life is shattered by a horrific act committed by Japanese soldiers who occupied Vietnam during World War II.  

She lost a family member and during the three-day funeral rites, the wailings sounds of her brother’s traditional string instrument, the đàn nhị hang in the air for hours and hours.

Công did not utter a single word during the entire funeral, but when he returned home, he stood in the front yard, the đàn nhị raised high above is head. His scream tore into the night as he shattered the instrument onto the brick floor. His wife, Trinh, and Mrs. Tú gathered the broken pieces, trying to put them back together, but he would never play again.

The next disaster is the great famine descending on Vietnam in 1944, with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese succumbing to starvation. Nghệ An is among the hardest hit provinces in northern Vietnam. 

Grandma tells Guava, how a sound woke her up one night.

It was the faint cries of your mother. A five-year-old then, Ngọc was resting her head on my stomach. Next to her, your uncle Đạt, barely four, lay silent. Your uncle Minh called me. I slowly turned and gazed at him: A hollowed face, dark rings around sunken, yellowish eyes; he was a seven-year-old skeleton. 

Vietnam’s controversial land reform is only one of the disasters,
hitting the Trần family.

Less than a decade later, in 1955, the surviving Trần family members are victimized by the so called ‘Land Reform’, essentially a witch hunt targeting farmers, who have managed to recreate some wealth after the famine years.   

The cruelties of the land reform leave Dieu Lan with a silent contempt. She finds her own ways to survive, leaving her job as a teacher to become an illegal trader in the streets of Hanoi. Her decision leads to a bitter conflict with her youngest son Sáng.

Coping with the casualties

The casualties of war take a heavy toll on the Trần family. Some family members return from the war, injured or deeply traumatised, some don’t. One has a baby heavily deformed because of his exposure to Agent Orange, the dioxin contaminated chemicals, used by the US forces to defoliate the jungles in Vietnam. 

The Mountains Sing is named after the Sơn ca, the little bird known for its beautiful singing in the forests of northern Vietnam.  Guava’s/Hương’s dearest treasure is a wooden Sơn Ca, cut for her by her father in the war zone and brought back to Hanoi by a fellow soldier.  

Maybe the Sơn ca also is there to make us understand that Quế Mai’s novel is more a message of the triumph of the human spirit than misery. 

At the end, The Mountains Sing invites us to the annual prayer ceremony on the day of Grandma’s peaceful departure from Earth. Guava/Hương is burning a copy of her manuscript with Grandma’s tales, knowing that the smoke will transfer her words to Grandma in Heaven.

Wisps of smoke curls upward. And in the twirling ash, I see the Sơn ca moving. It is flapping its wings, craning its neck, calling my Grandma’s songs towards Heaven.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel is a magnificent gift to all of us, but maybe most of all a gift to her own people, celebrating their indomitable spirit. I hope to see the day, when the peoples of Nghệ An and elsewhere in this country will be able to read along with the world beyond Vietnam.