Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars

Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars

Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars is the extraordinary part-life story of author Andrew X. Pham’s Vietnamese father, Thong Van Pham.

Browse titles by subject matter
Subscribe to the Mekong Review
Travelfish.org are big fans of the Mekong Review. If you’d like to read intelligent and thoughtful material about the region, please consider subscribing. We do.

Told in the father’s voice, it has the feel of an autobiography, and it straddles a tumultuous and fascinating period of Vietnam’s modern history, from French colonialism through Japanese occupation and then the American War; from the end of “feudalism” till the birth of Vietnam’s modern era.

Structurally, the multiple award-winning, 2009-published book switches between Thong’s early childhood during the French colonial period when he lives on his wealthy family’s country estate and then Hanoi, and his young adulthood, after he has fled to Saigon with his family as war with the north looms and he’s drafted into the army. We found this a little discombobulating, given the history of Vietnam is already thick with confusing alliances, and we felt that there was no good reason for it. We would have preferred a linear treatment as it was all so interesting, so we would have been compelled to continue reading without the interwoven teaser of the future.

That aside, Eaves of Heaven is an engrossing tale that poetically traverses multiple themes with ease: the futility of war; the intricacies of relationships between both family and friends; loyalty and trust; and the importance of place in forming identity.

Westerners often tend to view Vietnamese history purely through the prism of the American War there, but that war was simply one deadly upheaval that followed many others, including the brutal French colonial era, which saw Thong captured, chained and forced to act as a translator, and the even more brutal Japanese occupation, which led to a Great Famine that killed some one million Vietnamese. Thong lived through this all. At the end of the book he considers leaving Vietnam as a refugee by sea, and we are not privy to finding out what happens next. But an earlier book by the author, the also award-winning Catfish and Mandala (as yet we haven’t reviewed, but you can find it here), is about his own emigration to the United States, so we suspect the tale is picked up there.

We found ourselves highlighting half the book as we read. Some of the more memorable or revealing passages included Thong describing speaking in French to an interviewer because it was “more egalitarian than Viet… Generations of Vietnamese students spent lifetimes in classrooms speaking, writing, reading, and breathing French texts. So it did not seem ironic to me that we sat there, two North Vietnamese exiles in a dark and greasy noodle shop on the edge of Saigon, conversing in French when neither one of us had ever set foot in France.”

Thong poignantly describes the impact of endless war on average Vietnamese: “I thought of Aunt Thao’s husband, my cousin Quyen, Uncle Ti, my adopted brother Vi, my best friend Hoi, and my schoolmates from my village. Every person I knew had brothers, sons, cousins, or uncles on opposite sides of both wars: first the French, then the American. It was a conflict between brothers. No matter which side won, the family lost.”

More superficially, Thong makes interesting comparisons between Hanoi and Saigon, as it was then known, in the 1950s: “Every sidewalk was teeming with kiosk-diners filled with shirtless men drinking. People ate right on the street, their backs to the thrumming traffic, their heads swimming in engine exhaust. It was a sobering sight because in Hanoi only the expensive restaurants and bistros put tables on the sidewalks.” The historical descriptions of Phan Thiet, Da Lat and Rach Gia are also intriguing if you’ve been there in more recent times.

We loved the occasional evocative descriptions of food, an important constant in Vietnamese life no matter whether the backdrop is war or peace. Consider Thong’s description of cha ca, “a northern delicacy we were unlikely to encounter in the South. A waiter brought us two platters of raw sea bass filleted paper-thin and heaps of fresh lettuce, vegetables, pickles, cucumbers, and herbs. The cook followed with a sizzling pan of turmeric and garlic oil. He cooked the fish by pouring the hot oil directly on it… We chopsticked pieces of fish onto sesame crackers and topped them with basil, cilantro, lettuce, purple herbs, and a dab of an ash-coloured sauce made with fermented fish, fish sauce, chili, lime, and garlic. We quenched ourselves with litres of icy beer.” Hungry?

Given the current political climate, and given that if one does not learn from history one is condemned to repeat it, one perhaps instructive thing that struck us was how quickly the fortunes of Thong’s family changed: “In Hanoi, even our servants had better living quarters. It seemed amazing to me, the distance we had fallen within the span of five short years, from living like princes to eking out a living in a mud hole serving noodles.”

Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars is a modern part-history of Vietnam easily accessed thanks to its framing within a compelling biography. If you’re heading to Vietnam, we’d recommend including this in your top three books to read, along with The Sorrow of War and The Sympathizer. (For those with even more time on their hands, we’d be sure to squeeze in A Bright Shining Lie, as well.) You’ll come away with a grand overview of Vietnam’s recent history from the perspective of someone who has lived it.

Buy online: Amazon | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble |



108 results found

Burma (Myanmar)

Burmese Days
Burmese Days

By George Orwell

Finding George Orwell
Finding George Orwell

By Emma Larkin

Miss Burma
Miss Burma

By Charmaine Craig

The Glass Palace
The Glass Palace

By Amitav Ghosh

The Trouser People
The Trouser People

By Andrew Marshall

Cambodia

Dogs at the Perimeter
Dogs at the Perimeter

By Madeleine Thien

Holiday in Cambodia
Holiday in Cambodia

By Laura Jean McKay

Hun Sen’s Cambodia
Hun Sen’s Cambodia

By Sebastian Strangio

Hunters in the Dark
Hunters in the Dark

By Lawrence Osborne

King Norodom's Head
King Norodom's Head

By Steven W. Boswell

River of Time
River of Time

By Jon Swain

The Gate
The Gate

By Francoise Bizot

Indonesia

A House in Bali
A House in Bali

By Colin McPhee

Beauty is a Wound
Beauty is a Wound

By Eka Kurniawan

Black Water
Black Water

By Louise Doughty

Home
Home

By Leila S. Chudori

In the Time of Madness
In the Time of Madness

By Richard Lloyd Parry

Indonesia Etc.
Indonesia Etc.

By Elizabeth Pisani

On the Java Ridge
On the Java Ridge

By Jock Serong

Ring of Fire
Ring of Fire

By Lawrence Blair

The Malay Archipelago
The Malay Archipelago

By Alfred Russel Wallace

The Rainbow Troops
The Rainbow Troops

By Andrea Hirata

The Year of Living Dangerously
The Year of Living Dangerously

By Christopher J. Koch

This Earth of Mankind
This Earth of Mankind

By Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Under the Volcano
Under the Volcano

By Cameron Forbes

Laos

Malaysia

Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians

By Kevin Kwan

From Third World to First
From Third World to First

By Lee Kuan Yew

If I Could Tell You
If I Could Tell You

By Jing-Jing Lee

In Transit: An Anthology
In Transit: An Anthology

By Zhang Ruihe and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Sarong Party Girls
Sarong Party Girls

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Singapore Noir
Singapore Noir

By Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan

State of Emergency
State of Emergency

By Jeremy Tiang

Sugarbread
Sugarbread

By Balli Kaur Jaswal

The Tower
The Tower

By Isa Kamari (translated by Alfian Sa'at)

Thailand

A Tiger in Eden
A Tiger in Eden

By Chris Flynn

Bangkok Found
Bangkok Found

By Alex Kerr

Hothouse Flower
Hothouse Flower

By Lucinda Riley

Jasmine Nights
Jasmine Nights

By S.P. Somtow

Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind
Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

By Carol Hollinger

Many Lives
Many Lives

By M.R Kukrit Pramoj

Sightseeing
Sightseeing

By Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Thai Street Food
Thai Street Food

By David Thompson

The Beach
The Beach

By Alex Garland

The Drinking Food of Thailand
The Drinking Food of Thailand

By Andy Ricker with JJ Goode

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

By Richard Flanagan

The Sad Part Was
The Sad Part Was

By Prabda Yoon

The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

By Philip Cornwel-Smith

Vietnam

Bright Shining Lie
Bright Shining Lie

By Neil Sheehan

Destination Saigon
Destination Saigon

By Walter Mason

Dragon Apparent
Dragon Apparent

By Norman Lewis

Fishing for Tigers
Fishing for Tigers

By Emily Maguire

The Lover
The Lover

By Marguerite Duras

The Quiet American
The Quiet American

By Graham Greene

The Refugees
The Refugees

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sorrow of War
The Sorrow of War

By Bao Ninh

The Sympathizer
The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried

By Tim O’Brien

When the War Was Over
When the War Was Over

By Elizabeth Becker

General