Lượng’s mother holding a rose red bellfruit she split open. The spongy flesh inside holds seeds.

Bellfruit

  “Well, they’re not really plums,” my husband, Lượng, said about the fruit that grew on the trees in the back of his house in the Mekong Delta. When he got to America, another Vietnamese immigrant had called them “plums,” and Lượng didn’t know any other English name. An Internet search on their Vietnamese name, “mận“, brought up…

At the Citadel in Hue

Heritage Travel

Fun to see our family’s trip to Vietnam in this article on heritage travel: “Luong La’s family fled the communist regime in Vietnam in 1979. Now a father of three living in Santa Barbara, California, he and his wife decided they wanted to spend one of their family vacations bringing the kids back to his…

18th century Japanese drawing of people capturing fireflies

Asian Cha | Flickering Little Lights

My creative nonfiction piece “Flickering Little Lights” appears in the September 2015 issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Cha is an award-winning English online literary journal based in Hong Kong. “Fireflies are called flickering lights (đom đóm) in Vietnamese. As a child in the Mekong Delta, my husband saw them darting around the …” Read the rest here.…

The ladies room in a Little Saigon restaurant has fresh flowers and is stocked with personal grooming items like razors, facial wipes, deodorant, and make-up.

Eyelash Fighting

The restroom in the restaurant we stopped at in Little Saigon had everything you might need, including fresh roses and false eyelashes. I took a photo to show my husband. The multipack of false eyelashes hanging in a clear bag on the wall reminded him that a Vietnamese phrase for flirting is đá lông nheo…

Montecito Journal | Life in the Mekong Delta

Erin Graffy de Garcia reviewed Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands in her “State Street Spin” column in the Montecito Journal. Here are some excerpts: “…an exquisitely researched and finely tuned memoir…” “Michelle has an uncanny gift for seeing the world right through the eyes of a bright kid….Her narrative never tries to ‘sound’ like a child, she…

A package of wrapped dried salted pitted plums and an unwrapped one.

Chinese Medicine Balls

When I see the blue and white wrappers peeking out from the basket behind the rice cooker, I think it might be some Chinese White Rabbit candy. Not that my husband buys milk candy. He sees me looking. “That’s what medicine balls are like,” he says. Medicine balls like the ones the Chinese doctor used…

River Patrol Boat stops a small Vietnamese boat. River patrol boat on the Mekong Delta. Photo from the U.S. Navy All Hands magazine July 1969.

Patrol Boat Stop on the Mekong River

(This excerpt from Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands is a first-place winner in the Southern California Genealogical Society’s 2014 GENEii Family History Writing Awards and appears in the 2015 Summer edition of The Searcher) After dinner, Má decides who’s coming to the countryside in the morning. I try to go whenever I can. I’d rather swim and fish all day…

Fruit from a mangrove apple (cheap tree).

What Is a Cheap Tree?

Ever since my husband first started telling me the stories of his childhood in Vietnam, he talked about cheap trees. When his family flees to Ship Island (Cồn Tàu) after the Tết Offensive: “Má points to an island in front of us that’s surrounded by cheap trees. The trees look like they’re growing out of the…

Michelle Robin La and Luong La hold the Santa Barbara News-Press featuring Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands.

Santa-Barbara News-Press|Finally free

The Santa Barbara News-Press Books section featured Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands in “Finally free: New book details Santa Barbara man’s childhood in Vietnam during and after the war” on 17 April 2015. Alternately hopeful and sometimes heartbreaking, Michelle Robin La’s comprehensive 487-page debut is based on her husband’s childhood in his native country during and after the Vietnam War.…

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Thanks to Chris Galvin Nguyen for nominating me for the “Very Inspiring Blogger Award.” The award is a way for bloggers to share other websites they admire. I’m honored to be thought of by Chris who writes about living in Vietnam and shares her incredible photography on her blog. Here are the guidelines for accepting the award and nominating…

South Vietnam Stamps

A Short History of South Vietnam Through Stamps

When I was looking through old photo albums for pictures of my husband’s family in Vietnam, I found a collection of stamps. I could tell from the yellow flag with three red stripes on them that the stamps were from South Vietnam. Most were stuck on a piece of black cardboard, but some where placed…

Street Crossing Saigon

Crossing the Street in Saigon

The first step takes courage. Mopeds and motorcycles stream by in a blur of petroleum fumes, honking and beeping. Trucks and cars surge past. The light turns red, but no one stops. The streets pour together in a snarl. Ahead, my husband holds onto our son and older daughter—motorcyclists gush around them like they’re rocks in…

Cattle

Onomatopoeia — Animal Sounds in Vietnamese

When I took Spanish, I was startled to learn that a knock on the door was toc toc and dogs barked guau guau. How could sounds be different in another language? Weren’t onomatopoeia supposed to represent how we actually heard them? But once I accepted that everything sounds different in another language I was enchanted. Upon meeting…

The Monkey King (Tề Thiên)

5 Interesting Facts

Here are 5 interesting facts about Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands: A Boy from the Mekong Delta. 1. The islands in the Mekong Delta where my husband grew up are Ship Island (Cồn Tàu) and New Dragon Island (Tân Long). Next door was Phoenix Island where the Coconut Monk had his elaborate pagoda. 2. He watched Bonanza…

MyDesk2

My Writing Process — Recreating the Past on a Page

As a nonfiction writer, my process is different from most. While other writers wait for their muse to show up, I already have a story. I just have to get it down, and I can’t make things up. Thanks to Charlotte Ashlock for inviting me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour where writers describe how they work. You can…

A relative painting the carved in letters of Grandfather's first grave.

Don’t Trust Gravestones

I thought a date carved in granite would be right, but my husband said the date of his grandfather’s death on the gravestone was wrong. “I remember it was a hot day in 1972,” Luong said even though the grave lists Grandfather’s death as 14 January 1971. “You can’t be sure,” he said. “It could have…

Boat in a stream on Cồn Tàu (Ship Island) in the Mekong Delta.

Unconditional Surrender (30 April 1975)

On the 29th of April 1975, helicopters evacuated people from the roof of the U.S. Embassy before the fall of Saigon. Twelve-year-old Luong La stood on a dock on the bank of the Mekong River and watched the entire Navy go out to the ocean that day. Here’s his story of the days leading to South…

Dangling Squash

Dangling Squash

Mướp squash grew over the water coconut leaf roof of the hut my husband’s family fled to during the Tết Offensive. Because he was small enough not to crash through the leaf roof, Lượng could sit up among the mướp squash watching the U.S. planes and helicopters retaliate by attacking a Việt Cộng base in…

Fermented Soybeans

Vietnamese Names: Mr. Six Soybean and the Gecko

I wouldn’t have thought Mr. Fermented Soybean to be a common name, but two of my husband’s neighbors were called this. At one point both of the Mr. Fermented Soybeans or someone in their families probably made or sold the dish that earned them this nickname. Both neighbors are in my book, so to make…

Celebrating Tết with lì xì

Red Envelopes

Whenever I say Chinese New Year, my husband corrects me: “It’s Vietnamese New Year.” Lunar New Year is the same day as Chinese New Year, usually the second new moon of the year, but it’s Vietnamese New Year or Tết to us. To celebrate the Lunar New Year is to ăn Tết—literally to eat the…

Slicing young banana trunks for salad.

Eating Banana Plant Trunks

When we went to visit my in-laws for Christmas, they showed me a young banana trunk that they planned to make salad with. My husband’s aunt sliced it into tissue—thin pieces using a knife he made. I have eaten banana flower many times before—my husband often puts it in Vietnamese sour soup—but I don’t remember…

Rambutans or chôm chôms in Vietnamese.

Steal Steal Fruit

Rambutans—Their Vietnamese name, chôm chôm, means “pointy” for the soft spines covering them. My husband says chôm also means steal. Growing up he thought the name meant “steal steal.” “Steal steal” is the perfect name because that’s how good they taste.

A family altar honoring ancestors.

Grandfather’s Death

I touch Grandfather’s arm. He still feels warm. I look for him to make the slightest motion to show his soul is around. There’s nothing. Two men place the coffin on sawhorses so that Grandfather’s head points west. The dead always face the setting sun. The date the monks said would be best for burying…