In the Shadow of Green Bamboos by C.L. Hoang

In the Shadow of Green Bamboos (Willow Stream Publishing, 196 pp. $10.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by C.L. Hoang is a delightful collection of a half dozen short stories, all of which contain brief but penetrating glimpses into the lives of a cross section of people, Vietnamese and American, who were affected in significant ways by the American war in Vietnam. Hoang was born in Vietnam and came to the United States in the 1970s. This is his third book; all three deal with the country of Vietnam and the wars that took place there.

The opening story, “In a Land Called Honah-Lee,” involves a chance meeting at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a stuffed toy dragon and a connection made between children in both countries. But then there is fatal anti-aircraft fire and the story becomes one of survivor’s guilt.

By the time I was half-way through the next story, “Flowers in the Sky,” I saw that Hoang’s method of storytelling makes his words come alive, consistently—almost like watching a movie. All of my senses were engaged. This story takes place in Saigon in late 1972 and features a six-year-old boy, a red lantern, a harvest moon, and an exciting parade.

It’s a time when the Americans are withdrawing, the boy’s father is away from home fighting, and his mother’s hair is noticeably turning grey. This is a good example of Hoang’s writing at its best and shows off his ability to tell stories in a very moving manner.

In the title story, a Vietnamese woman living in Washington, D.C., thinks back over almost fifty years of marriage to the American she met in Saigon. Her memories stir up secrets, including one about a “mysterious crying woman.”

The title of the fourth story, “Of Crickets and Dragons,” should be enough to entice you into wanting to read this tale of two young boys killing time in 1968 Saigon.

“When Swallows Return” begins with pleasant memories of college life in the early sixties, including with love poems written on fancy stationery. The war then brings a time of separation that becomes permanent when a plane is shot down. But then, almost fifty years later, a mysterious phone call changes everything.

As I prepared to begin to read the final story, “A Cup of Love,” I wished there were a dozen more in this book. Then this one begins with an older Vietnamese woman saying to her young granddaughter, “Do you want to hear a story?” And the voice in my mind drowned out the voice of the young girl as I may even have said out loud, “Yes, Mr. Hoang, another story, please.”

But what I really want is another book full of stories by C.L. Hoang.

The author’s website is mulberryfieldsforever.com

–Bill McCloud

Once Upon A Mulberry Field by C.L. Hoang

Nothing in the title of Once Upon A Mulberry Field by C.L. Hoang (Willow Stream, 392 pp., $15.95, paper) signals that this is a book dealing with the Vietnam War. Scrutiny of the cover reveals a tiny helicopter silhouetted against a setting sun. In the lower left hand corner, a woman with long black hair clad in a white dress faces away from us. She probably represents the heroine of the novel, the beautiful Vietnamese widow, Lien.

The back cover  tells us: “From the jungles of Vietnam, through the minefields of the heart, Once Upon a Mulberry Field, follows one man’s journey to self-discovery.” This man is Roger Connors, an American.  C.L. Hoang, the author, was born and raised in South Vietnam during the war, and came to the United States in the 1970s. He is an electronics engineer. This is his first novel, and it is a project from his heart.

Roger Connors, “fresh out of medical school,” gets his Air Force commission, and arrives at the 3rd Tac Dispensary at Bien Hoa Air Base as a general medical officer during “the sweltering summer of 1967.” I was at Bien Hoa that summer and it was no more or less sweltering than usual. Connors goes on to tell us that this “unexpected” event “had conspired to drop me here at the heart of a brutal conflict I wanted no part of.”  Few of us did.

This book was a frustrating read for me, but not because it was badly written or that Hoang got the details wrong. In fact, he fully inhabits the American doctor he created as his main character. He also is pitch perfect with details, both about military life and about life in America.

Hoang’s’description of street traffic in 1967 Saigon, for example, is spot on, and his comment that “the uneasy feeling of death is on the lurk” captured the tone of that time and place.

Hoang includes references to Gen. William Westmoreland, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and John Wayne. Bob Hope’s Christmas Show and a visit by LBJ are alluded to, and the short timer calendar is explained. There also is this about American military superiority: “With such superior technology at the disposition of our well-trained and disciplined troops, does anyone doubt we can wrap up this nasty business in a timely fashion?”

C.L. Hoang

 

Antiwar protestors are castigated—something of a trend in the current crop of Vietnam War memoirs and novels. The protestors are said to harass returning troops because the have gone crazy with anger and frustration at the war. The protestors boo and hiss the troops and call them Baby Killers. They hurl rocks, spit on them, and even throw red paint on the hapless returnees.

Which leads to the question: Was our military not able to protect Vietnam veterans from antiwar protestors acting with impunity at our nation’s airports and other public places? I doubt that anything like this happened, but according to this book, all of these things did happen to returning soldiers after they spent a year in Vietnam working toward supporting a “fledgling democracy.”  Is that what we were doing? You could have fooled me.

What also bothered me was that the characters never tell each other what’s on their minds or what’s really going on with them. Assumptions are made, usually the wrong ones given the cultural gap between Roger Connors and the young Vietnamese woman he has fallen in love with.

She is pregnant by him, never tells him, disappears, and leaves him to a life without her—the love of his life—and without their child, too. Does it all work out in the end? Not in my opinion.

If you want to read a tormented love story of star-crossed lovers set in the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive and after, this novel is for you.

The book’s website is http://mulberryfieldsforever.com

—David Willson