Very well written look at modern Vietnamese history told through the life of one man in Hanoi, introduced in the first line
Old Man Hu’ng makes the best phở in the city and has done so for decades.
He did from the shop left to him by his uncle when the French were in power, continued to do so after Uncle Ho and the communists forced him into the streets to sell from a push cart, did through the US bombings of December 1972, and still does today, when a young Vietnamese American woman named Maggie comes in search of news of her father. He was a member of an artists and writers’ group, the Beauty of Humanity Movement, that met in Old Man Hu’ng’s phở shop in the 1950s. The group was disbanded by Uncle Ho’s communist party and either murdered or sent away to re-education camps, some never to be heard of again.
There is a lot going on here, just for starters history from the Vietnamese side, a side we here in America seldom see
The war was a long time ago, well before Tu was born, and besides, in his opinion, an opinion shared with most of his friends, everything great was invented in the United States. Blue jeans, for example. And Nikes and Tommy Hilfiger. And MTV and Nintendo and the Internet. And furthermore, the Vietnamese beat the Americans; they don’t go around boasting about it, but it’s true. It wasn’t like the Chinese, crushing the Vietnamese for a thousand years, or the French, who tortured and killed for decades, making the Vietnamese slaves in their own country and taking every decision out of their hands.
There is an exercise in perspective for you. A war that consumed my entire generation and still echoes in politics today is barely a blip on Vietnam’s historical radar.
There is low key humor, productive of smiles if not guffaws
He taps his temple with his pen, commending himself for his memorization skills. A communist education has its benefits.
and there is continual, clear-eyed observation of the vast, sometimes seemingly insuperable cultural differences between East and West
Tu’s father is once again being a gentleman, laying his Windbreaker down on the ground for Maggie. Oh, thank you. Are you sure? That’s so kind of you. What about you?–too much fuss and too many thank-yous, just like a typical American.
Even if you didn’t like the story you’d finish the book with a burning (see what I did there) desire to learn to make phở yourself
The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that phở was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from plows and into bifteck and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire, as Hu’ng’s uncle Chien explained to him long ago.
The ending is a little too good to be true, but as Old Man Hu’ng says himself
Hu’ng has his moments of wondering whether this is the afterlife or the present life. But then he asks himself, Does it matter?“
And maybe it doesn’t. Maybe after all the shit they’ve been through, after all the time they’ve spent crushed beneath some Chinese or French or US or their own Communist boot, they deserve a shot at a happy ending. At least Gibb thinks so, and I’m okay with that, too. Recommended.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.