Having been a Viet Cong spy, a servant, a black marketer, a teenage single mother, and an expatriate, Le Ly is, above all, a survivor. She does whatever necessary to survive through the war and its atrocities. In this way, she is an embodiment of her country: forced by war into extreme and unusual circumstances, she perseveres in any way she can. The war has left her with a mix of traditions and thoughts; she values her father’s Buddhism, as well as his emphasis on family, but she has left her ancestral home for a better life abroad. On her return to Vietnam, she quenches her homesickness for Vietnamese food but continues to dress in Western style. This combination of East and West in Le Ly is representative of how the war altered many people, displacing their values and changing their perspectives.
In addition to being representative of the generation affected by the war, Le Ly is also a messenger of peace. Throughout her memoir, Le Ly conveys the most important lessons she has learned from the war: forgiveness is the way to mend the hurt that was inflicted on all sides involved in the war, family is the most important thing in life, and all sides, the Vietnamese and the Western world, need to work together to bring life and hope back into her homeland. She wants these lessons to be a prescriptive to all of those affected by and hurt from the war. Le Ly returns to Vietnam in part to help mend what the war had destroyed in her country and in her family. Her memoirs are an extension of this healing journey, administering peace as an antidote to war and forgiveness as an antidote to hate.
Huyen, Le Ly’s mother, represents the Vietnamese peasantry, closely adhering to its traditions and social code. Throughout her life, she works hard raising her family and caring for their land. She embraces the Viet Cong, even after her own near-execution and subsequent exile. When Le Ly returns from the United States, she is greeted rather coldly by her mother, who gradually accepts her again, as Vietnam gradually re-embraces the West. Huyen remains suspicious of Le Ly and her Western ways, and Huyen chooses to sleep on the floor at the hotel and generally to continue her traditional peasant way of life. Yet she does not reject Le Ly and what she has come to stand for; in fact, she eagerly accepts gifts from Le Ly on numerous occasions. Huyen is centered between the two ideological poles of her children—a Communist official son and an Americanized daughter. She still believes in the idea of a Communist and independent Vietnam but eagerly accepts the benefits of the Western world. Most Vietnamese, like Huyen, remain somewhere in the middle.
Huyen also represents the Vietnamese people in her slow but eventual ability to learn to forgive. From Le Ly, Huyen is reminded of the healing power and goodness of forgiveness, and is thus able to forgive her daughter, Ba, which reunites the family one last time. In a broader sense, Le Ly aims to convey this lesson to the Vietnamese in general. Through forgiveness, healing and much-needed reunification are possible.
A kind and gentle man and devout Buddhist, Trong is a stable and spiritual presence in Le Ly’s life. Trong represents the disappearing Vietnamese culture based on the importance of family, land, and peace. In this tradition, he imparts three important lessons on Le Ly. First, he advises his daughter that the best way in which she can fight and be a woman warrior is by being a mother and creating her own family. Second, he teachers her that war is the enemy—not a particular side or ideology. Throughout the atrocities, Trong continues to try to believe in the goodness of his fellow man. Men do terrible things because of the terrible situation of war. Third is the power of forgiveness. His philosophy on war enables Le Ly to forgive those who have wronged her because of the war. Although he advocates the power of forgiveness, Trong ultimately is not as strong as his daughter. Unable to cope with the war and its ramifications on the Vietnamese way of life, Trong kills himself. His suicide is symbolic of the larger death of the traditional way of life of the Vietnamese people, destroyed by war and the modern ideologies of capitalism and communism. Yet, the important parts of this tradition survive in Le Ly, and in turn to all the people she is able to reach through her book.
A wealthy businessman with a large household, Anh represents the capitalist class in Vietnam; the change in him represents the change in this class due to the war. Although Anh was not initially as affected by the war as the peasant villagers, the war finally bankrupted him, and the Communists repossessed his home and business. After the war, he divorced his wife and remarried, changing from an elegant and expensive wife to a more communist and proletariat one. Le Ly returns to Saigon to find him no longer living in a palatial estate but in an impoverished neighborhood, no longer owning his own business, but working for a government factory. Although Anh never fully embraces Communism, he accepts it and lives with it, but like Le Ly, he does what he needs to do in order to survive.
The relationship between Anh and Le Ly is also symbolic of the relationship between Vietnam and the United States. Starting as a dangerous yet passionate affair, they grew apart, yet they are always connected by what they share: their son and their common suffering from the war. Over the years, their relationship changes from lovers to siblings. Just as all those involved—Anh and Le Ly, Americans and Vietnamese, businessmen, and village girls—are forever connected by common experience, so are the two countries as siblings of war.