Mandarins, Merchants, and Revolutionaries: My Vietnamese Family

By Van Mai Elliott, Duong | Humanities, November/December 1999 | Go to article overview

Mandarins, Merchants, and Revolutionaries: My Vietnamese Family


Van Mai Elliott, Duong, Humanities


Growing up in Hanoi, Haiphong, and Saigon, I loved listening to the stories told by my parents and other relatives about their parents and grandparents. I found these tales fascinating- some funny, some tragic-but although I knew that they spoke of family continuity, values, and Vietnamese traditions, they did not, at first, coalesce in my mind into a narrative larger than the individual parts. It was when I was in my late teens that I began to see how these anecdotes merged into a wholea tale that reflected, in miniature, the history of Vietnam in the modern era. Still later, I began to see the common threads that ran through the lives of my great-grandfather, grandfather, parents, and siblings: the struggle to adapt and survive in the face of upheavals that more than once turned their world upside down, and the attempt to make the right choices for their families, for themselves, and for their country, often in very confusing circumstances. Someday, I told myself, I would write that story.

My new book, The Sacred Willow, is based on dozens of interviews that I conducted with my relatives over the years, on family records, on archive documents, on research done on-site in Vietnam, and on information from existing works in English, French, and Vietnamese. It traces the social, cultural, and political events that have shaped the men and women of our family over four generations-the scholars and mandarins, the silk merchants, the military officers, and the revolutionaries-who were witnesses as well as participants at key moments. These events, beginning in the late nineteenth century, include the French conquest of Vietnam, the war against French colonial rule, the brief years of peace, the socialist transformation of the north, the resumption of fighting in the south with American involvement until the communist victory in 1975, the evacuation of refugees from Saigon, and the effect of the communist victory on my relatives who remained in Vietnam. The Sacred Willow is also my story, from my childhood in northern Vietnam to my adolescence in Saigon, my student days in the United States, my meeting and falling in love with my American husband, my life and work in South Vietnam during some of the fiercest years of the war in the 1960s, and my evolution from hawk to dove.

I have chosen to tell my family's story in a scope and depth that, as far as I know, have not been attempted by a narrative work written by a Vietnamese in English. I believe that this provides a continuity that allows readers to see events unfold from the beginning and follow their impact on my family until the final resolution of the conflict and its aftermath. My purpose is to show Vietnam in all its complexities at peace and at war, good and bad, traditional and transformed. …

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