The narrator, Le Ly, is the youngest of six children born to peasant farmers in Ka Ly, a town on the central coast of Vietnam. She has a close relationship with her parents, who teach her valuable lessons she carries through her life. From her father, Trong, she learns important Buddhist philosophies that help her make sense of the war; from her mother, Huyen, she learns the love and bonds of family.
Villagers of Ka Ly fight for both sides of the war. Le Ly’s own brothers are split between North and South, and many families change sides during the war. By day, the village is under the rule of the Republicans, and at night, under that of the Viet Cong. At first, the Viet Cong’s motives for war correspond more closely to the villagers own beliefs and values then those of the South, and consequently, the villagers, including Le Ly, help the Viet Cong. However, Le Ly soon learns the severity of the Viet Cong when she is raped and exiled from the village. Her mother joins her, and they leave to find work in Saigon, while her father remains there to tend to the land of their ancestors.
The bustling city of Saigon is overwhelming and intimidating to Le Ly and her mother. They eventually find employment from a wealthy businessman, Anh, and his family. Le Ly is a governess to his children and a personal maid to his sickly wife; Huyen is a second housekeeper. Le Ly falls in love with Anh and soon becomes pregnant with his child. When she discovers her pregnancy, Le Ly and her mother are thrown out of the house. She returns to Danang, homeless, unemployed, and pregnant. The pregnancy is hard for Le Ly because she lives with her sister Lan and Lan’s abusive American boyfriends. When he hears about his daughter’s unwed pregnancy, Trong disowns her, but after her son Huang’s birth, Trong forgives his beloved daughter. After the birth of her son, Le Ly supports her family by selling souvenirs on the black market. She also secretly visits and cares for her father, who remains in the village. In spite of Le Ly’s diligent care, Trong becomes inconsolably disillusioned with the war. He also grows depressed because he is separated from his family. He commits suicide by drinking acid.
Through her positive dealings with Americans—her relationship with her first husband, Ed, and her subsequent boyfriends—and negative experience with the Viet Cong, Le Ly’s opinion of “the enemy” changes. After her father’s death, Le Ly is no longer confused about where her loyalty should lie. She decides that she will leave Vietnam as soon as possible. Over the next few years, Le Ly works at a hospital and at GI bars. She has many American boyfriends: Red, a nerdy Navy medic who changes her appearance; Jimmy, a Chinese-American civilian contractor becomes a violent drunk; Paul, a U.S. Air Force officer; and Ed Monroe, an elderly civilian contractor. Ed, lonely for companionship, asks Le Ly to marry him. Taken with his kindness and the opportunity to leave Vietnam for the United States, Le Ly accepts. After months of preparation and the birth of her second son, Le Ly leaves her homeland, unsure if she will ever return.
In the 1980s, the Communist Party of Vietnam starts to allow Viet Ku—Vietnamese expatriates—to return to the country. Le Ly is anxious about returning and wary of how her family will receive her. When she arrives in Saigon, Anh greets her warmly. Together they travel to Danang for the reunion with her family. Le Ly realizes that she has returned to a country controlled by fear, more so than when she left. She also realizes that she may be putting her family in danger by returning.
Le Ly is most anxious about her reunion with her eldest brother, Bon Ngh, and her mother. Bon Ngh left for Hanoi when Le Ly was only five, so he is like a stranger to her. He is very suspicious of her motivations for returning and suspects that she is a spy. Over the next few days of her visit, Le Ly slowly convinces her brother that she has returned only to see her family and that she is eager to mend the wounds of the war. Huyen is also cold toward Le Ly at first but gradually warms up to her. During their time together, Huyen shares many stories with Le Ly and gladly accepts all of her gifts.
Le Ly speaks to her brother about setting up a medical center and improving the relationship between the government and the Viet Ku and the rest of the world. She exposes her family to the important lessons that she learned. From her teaching, Huyen mends the strained relationship with her daughter and reunites the whole family. After a tearful goodbye to her mother and sisters, Le Ly leaves Danang with a renewed desire to help her country. On the flight back to Saigon, she catches a glimmer of Ka Ly out the window.