The narrator. Le Ly is a Vietnamese peasant who grows up on the central coast of Vietnam. She leaves Vietnam in 1970 for the United States with her American husband and two children. In 1986, she returns to Vietnam for the first time to visit her family. The memoir recounts important events of her childhood and adolescence in Vietnam and her experiences on her return journey.
The mother of six children, including Le Ly. Huyen teaches Le Ly about her duties as a woman in Vietnamese society. Beautiful and hard-working, Huyen marries Trong because they are in love. She is expelled from the village by the Viet Cong and moves with Le Ly to Saigon and Danang. When her daughter returns to Vietnam in 1986, Huyen is the embodiment of the resilient strength of her homeland.
Le Ly’s father, with whom she shares a special bond. Trong works as a subsistence rice farmer and is also a devout Buddhist. When all of his children and his wife are forced to leave the village, he remains at their home to tend to their ancestral shrine. Lonely and depressed without his family and broken by war, he commits suicide by drinking acid. His Buddhist philosophies about the nature of war and forgiveness govern Le Ly throughout her life.
Le Ly’s eldest sister. Hai’s husband leaves to fight with the Viet Cong early in their marriage and is never seen again. She lives in Saigon with her daughter Tinh until her father’s death, when she returns to the family home to tend to the land and the family shrine.
Huyen and Phong’s second daughter. After Ba’s husband leaves for the North, his cousin Chin, a local Republican official, bullies her into marrying him. Ba hoards all of the gifts that Le Ly sends from the United States, causing a rift with the rest of the family. She is accepted back only after Le Ly convinces her mother of the importance of forgiveness.
Le Ly’s eldest brother. Bon Nghe is Huyen’s favorite child. He spends the duration of the war fighting with the Viet Cong and becomes a Communist Party official after the war. He later settles with his wife and son in Danang. Bon Nghe has the greatest number of reservations about Le Ly’s return visit to Vietnam, but after discussing her intentions, they are able to find a common ground.
The fourth child in the family. Lan moves to Danang, where she works in bars as a tea girl and has many American boyfriends. Le Ly lives with her while pregnant with her first child, and Lan treats her poorly until Le Ly saves her from a boyfriend’s drunken attack. Lan immigrates to the United States after Le Ly does.
The second youngest child. Sau Ban is artistic and caring, and he is Le Ly’s closest friend and playmate when they are young. Soon after his marriage, he is drafted into the Republican forces, despite numerous attempts to join the Viet Cong. After months of no contact with his family, he is presumed dead, although Le Ly never gives up hope of finding him.
Hai’s husband. Bac Lac goes to Hanoi at the beginning of the war and never returns.
Daughter of Hai and Bac Lac, Tinh is Le Ly’s niece. Tinh warmly accepts her into her home for her homecoming.
Tinh’s husband. Bien is a kind man who helps Le Ly reunite with her family in Danang.
A wealthy businessman for whom Le Ly and her mother work in Saigon. Anh and Le Ly fall in love and have a child. He keeps in touch with her after her move to the United States and acts as her guide when she returns to Vietnam. His relationship with Le Ly is one of deep, familial love, and he seems to regret not being more of a part of her life.
Read an in-depth analysis of Anh.
Anh’s first wife. Lien is wealthy but in very poor health. Le Ly acts as her personal maid but Lien throws Le Ly out when she discovers that Le Ly is carrying Anh’s child.
Anh’s second wife. Yen warmly welcomes Le Ly to their home when she returns to Saigon.
Le Ly’s oldest son, fathered by Anh. Jimmy is raised by his grandmother while Le Ly works in the souvenir trade business in Danang. When Le Ly returns to Vietnam, Jimmy is attending college. Jimmy and his brothers do not want their mother to return to her homeland.
Le Ly’s middle child, fathered by Ed Monroe. Tommy is born in Danang a few months before Le Ly leaves for the United States.
Le Ly’s youngest child. Alan is born in the United States. Being the youngest of the brothers, Alan is the most worried about his mother’s journey to Vietnam.
The Norwegian in the UN employ. Per helps Le Ly by giving her information and support on her way from the Philippines to Vietnam on her return journey.
A relative of Le Ly’s family. Uncle Luc lives in Ka Ly and is an original supporter of the Viet Cong. He helps Le Ly and her family out of trouble many times.
Huyen’s aunt, who helps raise her after Huyen’s parents dies. Thu dies during a French-led bomb attack.
A member of the local Viet Cong. Loi tortures and rapes Le Ly instead of killing her as he had been instructed.
A member of the local Viet Cong. Mau also tortures and rapes Le Ly.
Le Ly’s first American boyfriend. Red is a nerdy medical technician in the hospital where Le Ly works. He convinces Le Ly to change her peasant appearance into a sexier city one, quit her job, and work as a dancer in a club. However, after discovering that the club is topless, Le Ly walks out on Red and his job offer.
A half-Chinese, half-Irish-American civilian contractor who dates and lives with Le Ly. An angry and abusive drunk, Jimmy is removed from Saigon after Le Ly places a complaint with the local MPs.
The Air force officer who dates and lives with Le Ly. Paul is a Texan, and he and Le Ly share similar views about the importance of land and family. He leaves without notice and is reassigned to the United States.
A GI who works on one of the bases. Mike is friendly toward Le Ly. One day, he pimps her to two GIs for $400.
An older American who approaches Le Ly, looking for companionship. Ed is sweet and caring and asks Le Ly to marry him and accompany him to the United States. They emigrate shortly thereafter.
A black-market profiteer whom Le Ly pays to get her birth certificate and other papers in order to leave the country.
A wealthy man from Bai Gian. Cou Loi is a family friend. After the attacks on his village, Cou Loi and his family are made homeless beggars. Cou Loi is representative of many who lost everything in the war.
Cou Loi’s daughter and Le Ly’s friend. Thien is tortured incessantly by the Viet Cong and eventually disappears.
A Ka Ly village girl who is one of the first to go to Saigon and report back on the wonders of the city. Bich teaches Le Ly about make-up, high heels, and electricity.
Sau Ban’s wife. Nham and Sau Ban are married shortly before Sau Ban is forced into the Republican guard. When he is presumed dead, she returns to her family. Nham is representative of many young Vietnamese women left without husbands due to the war.
The chauffeur during Le Ly’s state-sponsored tour of the countryside. At first he is reserved toward Le Ly, but eventually he opens up and shares his real thoughts on the situation in Vietnam.