Christopher McCain-Nguyen was born in Vietnam and came to America as a student in 1966. He settled in the U.S. where he became a successful businessman. His debut novel, The Rains on Tan Son Nhat (469 pp., $16.99, paper; $2.40, Kindle), gestated for 25 years before it was published in 2021. He partially dedicates the book to “all the fighting men of the Republic of South Vietnam” and “members of the U.S. Armed Forces who sacrificed so much in the Vietnam War.”
Main character James Saito lives on a California farm with his wife and daughter from his first wife, Mai, who was left behind in the turmoil of the American evacuation from South Vietnam in 1975. The story flashes back to when Maj. Saito, an intelligence officer, arrives in Saigon in 1966. He meets the beautiful Mai the first day and falls head over heels for her.
Mai was adopted by a doctor who supported the Thieu government. He was not exactly thrilled when an American asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, especially since Mai had been betrothed to Chung, a future doctor. Chung soon leaves to join the National Liberation Front as a doctor. The lives of these three people will be affected by the events in the war from 1967-75—and beyond.
This novel is not based on a true story, although McCain-Nguyen weaves facts (and opinions) about the war into the narrative. It’s a romance novel, but one that also has strong descriptions of the events that led to the fall of South Vietnam.
There are stretches of the book during which the main characters disappear and the book becomes basically a tutorial on the war. There is a good section on the Tet Offensive and a vivid description of the collapse in 1975. The story includes a rare glimpse of VC fighters living in the jungle.
Americans tend to stop reading about the war when it gets to 1973 and the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops, but the war buffets Mai and her friends and family after that. McCain-Nguyen forcefully condemns the U.S. for abandoning South Vietnam and has Chung muse about fighting for the wrong side.
He also explores the role of destiny in life. Mai stays in Saigon because it is her destiny, an Asian concept that puzzles James. Before the flashback kicks in, we learn that James is returning to Vietnam to see Mai before she dies of cancer.
That was the biggest problem I had with the book. I appreciate an author wanting to be creative, but giving away the ending before the love story kicks in was a poor decision. It reduced the suspense. Also, the love triangle provides little tension because Chung is out of the competition early.
Although McCain-Nguyen put his heart and soul into the book and meant for it to enlighten as well as entertain, it is poorly edited and contains spelling and grammar problems. Reading it can be a bit distracting.
If romance novels are not your cup of tea, you might enjoy this book because of its heavy dose of Vietnam War history. Perhaps too much, though, as the novel is long and the characters sometimes get overlooked in the long timeframe.