I loved this book, so full of feeling and emotion - but the Kindle version has formatting problems and all the Vietnamese words appear huge in comparison to the remaining script. As this includes all the names, the problem occurs several times on most pages. This has resulted in several Amazon.com reviewers rating the book as 1 or 2 stars where it should definitely be up in the top rankings.
The main character, Old Man Hung, is a master at the art of making Pho, the local Vietnamese soup that is so popular for breakfast. Once he had a shop, but all this has been taken away by the authorites over the years and now he scrapes together a living as an itinerrant Pho seller, setting up shop in a different spot each day, still evading the authorites.
His home now is in a poverty stricken wasteland by a muddy lake, where he holds together a community of down and outs living in rotting shacks. Once, however, he ran a Pho cafe, a central meeting point for many of the art community who discussed poetry and tried to express opinions against the regime. Needless to say they were all eventually arrested, tortured, murdered. Only Hung remains with his failing memories, trying to scratch a living.
Hung's only 'family' are Binh and his son Tu. Hung knew Binh's father, Dao, a prominent figure amongst the artists, the only person who treated Hung as an intelligent person and drew him into the artists' fold. Hung preserves his memory and is, in turn, watched over by Binh and Tu.
Into this fascinating mix comes Maggie, a Vietnamese who escaped as a child, with her mother, in the last of the evacuation planes to America. Her artist father never made it and she has returned to Hanoi to try and trace memories of him that might linger amongst artistic circles. As a Vietnamese American she is known as Viet Kieu, a foreigner with Vietnamese features, but still a foreigner.
The interactions between these four people and the history wrapped up in their stories is beautifully evoked by Ms Gibb. The feel of modern day Hanoi, with its mix of expensive hotels and tourists, alongside extreme poverty, is tangible.
I enjoyed Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb, but this was even better - I didn't want to put this book down. I had other books I should have been reading but this one kept pushing itself forward. One of the best books I've read for a long time.