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.…

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…

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…

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…

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…

Backyard Chicken

Expensive Chickens

My daughter has a job babysitting chickens for our neighbors when they’re on vacation. A side benefit is fresh eggs. Last time most of the chickens were molting, so she said they were crabby. They didn’t want her to pick them up. Only the one chicken that wasn’t molting was laying eggs. She gets paid quite…