I'm Vietnamese. I speak, write, and read the language. I was born there, I know people who were served in the Vietnam War (hi, dad), I know people who came over to Europe, the US, Australia as boat people. So needless to say, if this book claims to be a book of Vietnamese stories, I'm going to be extra-critical.
This book is a collection of Vietnamese ghost stories. They are the most boring ghosts I have ever read.
Let me clarify something: There are no traditional Vietnamese ghost stories. We have myths, we have legends, based on our kings and queens and traditional religion, but we do not have ghost stories.
Vietnamese culture believes in ghosts and spirits. We pray to our ancestors' souls, we burn incense and offerings to them, but we do not have traditional ghost stories in the sense that the West have urban legends like Bloody Mary. Our ghosts are spirits and lost souls that haunt the odd houses and street corners, told by friends to one another when they think they've seen one, that's all. We do not have a whole lot of named scary monsters and ghosts creatures like in other cultures. Our culture is filled with spirits. They are not to be feared.
This is a book with made up stories set in Vietnam that contains ghosts, it is not a book of Vietnamese ghost stories because there are no such things.
The Premise: A bunch of short stories that are not terrifying nor terribly poignant. They're ok. They're not bad. They didn't move me, and they should have moved me. A ghost girl who appears in an apartment and then goes out with an old white dude who wants a pretty girl on his arm. A teenaged Vietnamese girl who goes back to Vietnam to visit her grandmother to encounter a ghost that sells banh mi? Are you fucking kidding me? This is what the ghost says to the girl.
“How will you be able to live without this in America?” said the sandwich vendor with a teasing edge in her voice as she handed Thuy her second bánh mì.
Thuy lives in Houston. There are 1000000 banh mi shops in Houston. Dude.
I felt like I should have felt something, but the stories are pointless; they're vignettes, and I expected ghost stories. When I read a ghost story, I expect to be scared.
Even the story about the trip of the boat people left me completely uninterested, and I grew up with these stories. The real horrors of the trip are scarier than any ghost could ever be, and the fact that these sorts of stories affect me not at all is pretty sad.
The stories lack a sense of time. I THINK they're set in present-day, but some stories felt like they were dated; there are no years mentioned, there's not much technology or any sort of markers of time, and I found myself very, very lost.
The Inconsistent Use of the Vietnamese Language: If you're not a native Vietnamese speaker, this would likely not bother you. I found the use and sprinkling of Vietnamese words in this book inconsistent. There are some very awkward uses of Vietnamese words from the POV of a native speaker. Technically, it works. Like the use of "con."
“Quiet, con, you asked for my boat story, so now listen to me tell it.”
"Con" means "child," the Vietnamese language works in that you address someone by their relationship and status with that person, for example, the book has a grandmother talking to her grandchild, she calls her "con," that's technically correct, but it just feels really awkward to me, like a French grandma saying "Come here, enfant." It's correct when translated, but it doesn't feel natural. I just don't like the use of certain Vietnamese words. It's just my own personal preference.
Then there's the use of Vietnamese vocabulary in its proper form, that is, accented. Like the word for "papaya," which is đu đủ. First off, this book puts the word together, as đuđủ; this is incorrect. The Vietnamese language is monosyllabic. Then, after using a properly accented word, the author proceeds to use other Vietnamese words and names without proper accent marks. It is jarring to me.
Then there are words that are just wrongly accented altogether. Cây hoa sú should be cây hoa sứ. Yeah, it's nitpicky. I don't care. It's a published book, and if you're going to publish it as a book of Vietnamese-based tales, it should be passable to someone who knows the language inside and out.
More examples: Hanoi the city. It is Hà Nội, because again, the Vietnamese language is monosyllabic. Every syllable is its own word! In the same chapter, certain words aren't properly accented, like names, places, while others are. It drove me fucking nuts! I want consistency!
The Good: Faithful representation of Vietnam, and the people living there. I like the mimutiae, such as the mention of the incomprehensible accents of the people in the Hue region. I love the descriptions of the lesser known places, like the mention of the Cham temple (the native Vietnamese people who live in the hills, largely persecuted by the Vietnamese who traveled down from China and settled in present-day Vietnam) I like the use of the dragon and fairy myths.
Overall: Just a collection of short vignettes about the Vietnamese experience, that happen to contain some ghosts.