Novels reach us in all kinds of ways. This one reached me through a trip out of town and a browse through an unfamiliar bookstore’s bargain shelves. The cover and title are beautiful and, because it was a bargain price, I thought a purchase could not be wrong. This purchase was an unexpected gem.
Hu’ng makes pho the old way. He is called Old Man Hu’ng by his customers. His restaurant is wherever he can find space and avoid the authorities: the footprint of a new hotel pool, the construction site of a shopping mall, the sides of the roads. His customers find him by word of mouth and smell. Two customers, Binh and Tu, are his family through Hu’ng’s connection with Binh’s father, Dao, a revolutionary poet who was betrayed by the revolution for which he called.
Hu’ng’s restaurant is in the marginal spaces of Hanoi and he lives in a similar space, a shantytown around a lake that had been contaminated in the heyday of the Communist regime. He and his neighbor, Lan, once in love, have not spoken in decades. Binh and his wife, Anh, live the quiet lives of North Vietnamese raised in the post-revolution era, but their son, Tu, wants more and, to get it, he has become a tour guide for American tourists, mostly Vietnam War veterans.
They have a comfortable routine that is disrupted by the arrival of a beautiful Viet Kieu woman, Maggie, searching for memories of her artist father, who was broken in a re-education camp. At first, Hu’ng cannot help her, but her arrival sets in motion the return of a flood of memories for Hu’ng and a flood of new dreams for Tu.
Gibb does not romanticize the Communist era, unlike the art Tu guides Maggie to scout in workshops across Hanoi, but Hu’ng’s memories reveal the warmth between people that made the harsh reality of Communist life livable. The beauty of humanity. The bonds between the working-class people surrounding Hu’ng’s pho stand in stark contrast to the naked self-interest of those interacting with the West and prostituting Vietnam’s history and culture for personal gain.
Gibb’s characters are appealing in their flaws, even the minor characters, like Tu’s musician/driver friend, Phu’o’ng, who ends up a minor celebrity through the Westernized television show, Vietnam Idol. Her quiet skill is such that her previous novel, Sweetness in the Belly, is on my “must read” list.