The Mountains Sing


By Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

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The International Bestseller
New York Times Editors’ Choice Selection
Winner of the 2020 Lannan Literary Awards Fellowship

"[An] absorbing, stirring novel . . . that, in more than one sense, remedies history." —The New York Times Book Review

“A triumph, a novelistic rendition of one of the most difficult times in Vietnamese history . . . Vast in scope and intimate in its telling . . . Moving and riveting.” —VIET THANH NGUYEN, author of The Sympathizer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore apart not just her beloved country, but also her family.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.

The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel in English.


This book is a work of fiction.
Though major historical events are real, the names, characters, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

The Trần Family Tree

The Tallest Mountains

Hà Nội, 2012

My grandmother used to tell me that when our ancestors die, they don't just disappear, they continue to watch over us. And now, I feel her watching me as I light a match, setting fire to three sticks of incense. On the ancestral altar, behind the wooden bell and plates of steaming food, my grandma's eyes glow as an orange-blue flame springs up, consuming the incense. I shake the incense to put out the fire. As it smolders, curtains of smoke and fragrance spiral toward Heaven, calling spirits of the dead to return.

"Bà ơi," I whisper, raising the incense above my head. Through the mist veiling the border between our two worlds, she smiles at me.

"I miss you, Grandma."

A breeze gusts through the open window, holding my face like Grandma's hands once did.

"Hương, my beloved granddaughter." The trees outside my window rustle her words. "I'm here with you, always."

I set the incense into the bowl in front of Grandma's portrait. Her gentle features radiate in the incense's perfume. I stare at the scars on her neck.

"Remember what I said, Darling?" Her voice murmurs on the restless branches. "The challenges faced by Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountains. If you stand too close, you won't be able to see their peaks. Once you step away from the currents of life, you will have the full view. . . ."

Red on the White Grains

Hà Nội, 1972–1973

Grandma is holding my hand as we walk to school. The sun is a large egg yolk peeking through a row of tin-roofed houses. The sky is as blue as my mother's favorite shirt. I wonder where my mother is. Has she found my father?

I clutch my jacket's collar as the wind rips through the air, swirling up a dust cloud. Grandma bends, putting her handkerchief against my nose. My school bag dangles on her arm as she cups her palm against her face.

We resume walking as soon as the dust settles. I strain my ears but hear no bird. I search, but there isn't a single flower along our path. No grass around us, just piles of broken bricks and twisted metal.

"Guava, be careful." Grandma pulls me away from a bomb crater. She calls me by my nickname to guard me from evil spirits she believes hover above the earth, looking for beautiful children to kidnap. She said that my real name, Hương, which means "fragrance," would attract them.

"When you come home today, you'll get our favorite food, Guava," Grandma tells me.

"Phở noodle soup?" Happiness makes me skip a step.

"Yes. . . . The bomb raids have stopped me from cooking. But it's been quiet, so let's celebrate."

Before I can answer, a siren shatters our moments of peace. A female voice blares from a loudspeaker tethered to a tree: "Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. One hundred kilometers away."

"Ôi trời đất ơi!" Grandma cries for Heaven and Earth. She runs, pulling me along. Streams of people pour out of their homes, like ants from broken nests. Far away, from the top of the Hà Nội Opera House, sirens wail.

"Over there." Grandma rushes toward a bomb shelter dug into the roadside. She pulls up the heavy concrete lid.

"No room," a voice shouts out from down below. Inside the round pit just big enough for one person, a man half kneels, half stands. Muddy water rises to his chest.

Grandma hurries to close the lid. She pulls me toward another shelter.

"Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Sixty kilometers away. Armed forces get ready to fight back." The female voice becomes more urgent. The sirens are deafening.

Shelter after shelter is full. People dart in front of us like birds with broken wings, abandoning bicycles, carts, shoulder bags. A small girl stands alone, screaming for her parents.

"Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Thirty kilometers away."

Clumsy with fear, I trip and fall.

Grandma pulls me up. She throws my school bag to the roadside, bending down for me to jump onto her back. She runs, her hands wrapping around my legs.

Thundering noise approaches. Explosions ring from afar. I hold on to Grandma's shoulders with sweaty hands, burying my face in her body.

"Attention citizens! Attention citizens! More American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. One hundred kilometers away."

"Run to the school. They won't bomb the school," Grandma shouts to a group of women lugging young children in their arms and on their backs. At fifty-two years of age, Grandma is strong. She dashes past the women, catching up with those ahead of us. Bounced up and down, I press my face against her long, black hair that smells like my mother's. As long as I can inhale her scent, I will be safe.

"Hương, run with me." Grandma has squatted down in front of my school, panting. She pulls me into the schoolyard. Next to a classroom, she flings herself down a vacant shelter. As I slide down next to her, water rises to my waist, gripping me with icy hands. It's so cold. The beginning of winter.

Grandma reaches up, closing the lid. She hugs me, the drum of her heart throbbing through my blood. I thank Buddha for the gift of this shelter, large enough to fit us both. I fear for my parents on the battlefields. When will they come back? Have they seen Uncle Đạt, Uncle Thuận, and Uncle Sáng?

Explosions draw closer. The ground swings, as if it were a hammock. I press my palms against my ears. Water shoots up, drenching my face and hair, blurring my eyesight. Dust and stones rain through a small crack onto my head. Sounds of antiaircraft fire. Hà Nội is fighting back. More explosions. Sirens. Cries. An intense burning stench.

Grandma brings her hands together in front of her chest. "Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật, Nam Mô Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát." Torrents of prayers to Buddha pour from her lips. I close my eyes, imitating her.

The bombs continue to roar. A minute of silence follows. A sharp screeching noise. I cringe. A powerful explosion hurls Grandma and me against the shelter's lid. Pain darkens my eyes.

I land feet-first on Grandma's stomach. Her eyes are closed, her hands a budding lotus flower in front of her chest. She prays as the thundering noise disappears and people's cries rise into the air.

"Grandma, I'm scared."

Her lips are blue, trembling from the cold. "I know, Guava. . . . I'm scared, too."

"Grandma, if they bomb the school, will . . . will this shelter collapse?"

She struggles against the confined space, pulling me into her arms. "I don't know, Darling."

"If it does, will we die, Grandma?"

She hugs me tight. "Guava, if they bomb this school, our shelter might collapse on us, but we'll only die if Buddha lets us die."

We didn't perish that day, in November 1972. After the sirens had signaled that it was safe, Grandma and I emerged, shivering thin leaves. We staggered out to the street. Several buildings had collapsed, their rubble spilling onto our path. We crawled over piles of debris, coughing. Billowing smoke and twirling dust burned my eyes.

I clutched Grandma's hand, watching women kneeling and howling next to dead bodies, whose faces had been concealed by tattered straw mats. The legs of those bodies were jutting toward us. Legs that were mangled, covered with blood. One small leg had a pink shoe dangling. The dead girl could have been my age.

Drenched, muddy, Grandma pulled me along, walking faster and faster, passing scattered body parts, passing houses that had crumbled.

Under the bàng tree, though, our house stood in glorious, incongruous sunlight. It had miraculously escaped damage. I broke away from Grandma, rushing ahead to hug the front door.

Grandma hurried to help me change and tucked me into bed. "Stay home, Guava. Jump down if the planes come." She pointed toward our bomb shelter, which my father had dug into the earthen floor next to the bedroom entrance. The shelter was large enough to hold us both, and it was dry. I felt better hiding here, under the watchful eyes of my ancestors, whose presence radiated from the family altar, perched on top of our bookshelf.

"But . . . where're you going, Grandma?" I asked.

"To my school, to see if my students need help." She pulled our thick blanket to my chin.

"Grandma, but it's not safe. . . ."

"It's just two blocks away, Guava. I'll run home as soon as I hear the siren. Promise to stay here?"

I nodded.

Grandma had headed for the door, but she returned to my bed, her hand warming my face. "Promise you won't wander outside?"

"Cháu hứa." I smiled to assure her. She'd never allowed me to go anywhere alone, even during the months absent of bombs. She'd always been afraid that I'd get lost somehow. Was it true, I wondered, what my aunt and uncles had said, about Grandma being overprotective of me because terrible things had happened to her children?

As the door closed behind her, I got up, fetching my notebook. I dipped the tip of my pen into the ink bottle. "Beloved Mother and Father," I wrote, in a new letter to my parents, wondering whether my words would ever reach them. They were moving with their troops and had no fixed addresses.

I was rereading Bạch Tuyết và bảy chú lùn, immersed in the magical world of Snow White and her friends, the Seven Dwarfs, when Grandma came home, my school bag hanging off her arm. Her hands were bleeding, injured from trying to rescue people trapped under rubble. She pulled me into her bosom and held me tight.

That night, I crawled under our blanket, listening to Grandma's prayers and her wooden bell's rhythmic chime. She prayed for Buddha and Heaven to help end the war. She prayed for the safe return of my parents and uncles. I closed my eyes, joining Grandma in her prayer. Were my parents alive? Did they miss me as much as I missed them?

We wanted to stay home, but urgent announcements from public broadcasts ordered all citizens to evacuate Hà Nội. Grandma was to lead her students and their families to a remote place in the mountains where she'd continue her classes.

"Grandma, where're we going?" I asked.

"To Hòa Bình Village. The bombs won't be able to find us there, Guava."

I wondered who'd chosen such a lovely name for a village. Hòa Bình were the words carried on the wings of doves painted on the classroom walls at my school. Hòa Bình bore the blue color in my dream—the color of my parents returning home. Hòa Bình meant something simple, intangible, yet most valuable to us: Peace.

"Is the village far, Grandma? How will we get there?"

"On foot. It's only forty-one kilometers. Together we can manage, don't you think?"

"How about food? What will we eat?"

"Oh don't you worry. Farmers there will feed us what they have. In times of crisis, people are kind." Grandma smiled. "How about helping me pack?"

As we prepared for our trip, Grandma's voice rose up beside me in song. She had a splendid voice, as did my mother. They used to make up silly songs, singing and laughing. Oh how I missed those happy moments. Now, as Grandma sang, vast rice fields opened their green arms to receive me, storks lifted me up on their wings, rivers rolled me away on their currents.

Grandma spread out her traveling cloth. She piled our clothes in the middle, adding my notebook, pen, ink bottle, and her teaching materials. She placed her prayer bell on top, then tied the opposite corners of the cloth together, turning it into a carrying bag to be wrapped around her shoulder. On her other shoulder hung a long bamboo pipe filled with uncooked rice. She had already packed up my school bag with water and food for the road.

"How long will we be away, Grandma?"

"I'm not sure. Perhaps a couple of weeks?"

I stood next to the bookshelf, my hands running over the books' spines. Vietnamese fairytales, Russian fairytales, Nguyễn Kiên's Daughter of the Bird Seller, Treasure Island from a foreign author whose name I can't pronounce.

Grandma laughed, looking at the pile of books in my hands. "We can't bring so many, Guava. Pick one. We'll borrow some more when we get there."

"But do farmers read books, Grandma?"

"My parents were farmers, remember? They had all the books you could imagine."

I went through the bookshelf again and decided on Đoàn Giỏi's novel, The Southern Land and Forests. Perhaps my mother had arrived in miền Nam, that southern land, where she met my father. I had to know more about their destination—cut away from us by the French and now occupied by the Americans.

Grandma glued a note onto the front door, which told my parents and uncles that in case they returned, they could find us in Hòa Bình. I touched the front door before our departure. Through my fingertips, I felt my parents' and uncles' laughter. Now, looking back over the years, I still wonder what I would have brought along if I had known what would happen to us. Perhaps the black-and-white picture of my parents on their wedding day. But I also know that on the verge of death, there is no time for nostalgia.

At Grandma's school, we joined the throng of teachers, students, and their families, several with bicycles piled high with luggage, and walked, merging into the mass of people moving away from Hà Nội. Everyone wore dark clothes, and metal parts of vehicles were covered up to avoid reflection from the sun, for fear of attracting bombers. Nobody talked. I could only hear footsteps and the occasional cries of babies. Terror and worry carved lines into people's faces.

I was twelve years old when we started that forty-one-kilometer walk. The journey was difficult, but Grandma's hand warmed mine when the wind whipped its bitter cold against us. So that I wouldn't be hungry, Grandma handed me her food, pretending she was already full. She sang countless songs to calm my fears. When I was tired, Grandma carried me on her back, her long hair cupping my face. She bundled me into her jacket when it drizzled. Blood and blisters covered her feet as we finally got to Hòa Bình Village, nestled in a valley and surrounded by mountains.

We stayed with two elderly farmers—Mr. and Mrs. Tùng—who let Grandma and me sleep on the floor of their living room; there was no other space in their small home. On our first day at Hòa Bình, Grandma found a worn path that zigzagged up the closest mountain and into a cave. Some villagers had chosen the cave as their bomb shelter; Grandma decided we must join them. Even though Mr. Tùng said the Americans would never bomb the village, Grandma and I spent the next day practicing climbing up and down the path, so many times that my legs felt like they had been hammered.

"Guava, we must be able to get up here, even during the night and without any light," Grandma said, standing inside the cave, puffing and panting. "And promise to never leave my side, promise?"

I watched butterflies fluttering around the entrance. I longed to explore. I'd seen the village's kids bathe naked in a pond, ride water buffaloes through muddy fields, and climb trees to reach for bird nests. I wanted to ask Grandma to let me join them, but she was looking at me with such worried eyes that I nodded.

As we settled into our temporary home, Grandma gave Mrs. Tùng our rice and some money, and we helped prepare the meals, picking vegetables from the garden, cleaning the dishes. "Ah, you're such a help," Mrs. Tùng told me, and I felt myself growing a little taller. Her home was different, but in a way, it was so much like mine in Hà Nội, with its windows sealed with black paper, to prevent American bombers from seeing any sign of our life at night.

Grandma looked graceful as she taught in the village temple's yard, her students squatting on the dirt floor, their faces bright. Her lesson wouldn't end until she'd finished teaching them one of her songs.

"The war might destroy our houses, but it can't extinguish our spirit," Grandma said. Her students and I burst into singing, so loud that our voices broke, and we sounded just like those frogs who joined us from nearby rice fields.

The Southern Land and Forests, set in 1945, had a fascinating beginning. Before my eyes, the South appeared so lush, the people happy and generous. They ate snakes and deer, hunted crocrodiles, and gathered honey in dense mangrove forests. I underlined complicated words and exotic Southern terms, and Grandma explained them whenever she had time. I cried with An, who lost his parents as they ran away from the cruel French soldiers. I wondered why foreign armies kept invading our country. First it was the Chinese, the Mongolians, the French, the Japanese, and now the American imperialists.

As I escaped on an imaginary journey into the South, the bombs fell onto Hà Nội—the heart of our North. Whether it was day or night, at the clanging of a gong, Grandma would clutch my hand, pulling me toward the mountain. It took thirty minutes to climb, and I was never allowed to rest. By the time we reached the cave, gigantic metal birds would be thundering past us. I held on to Grandma, feeling thankful for the cave, yet hating it at the same time: from here I would watch my city being engulfed in flames.

A week after our arrival, an American airplane was shot and its pilot managed to fly his burning plane toward Hòa Bình. He ejected with a parachute. Other planes strafed and rocketed the area as they attempted to rescue him. Much later, we emerged from the mountain cave to see torn body parts strewn along winding village roads. Grandma covered my eyes as we arrived under a row of trees where human guts hung from the branches.

We passed the collapsed village temple. Sounds of a commotion rushed toward us, followed by a group of people who ushered a white man forward. Dressed in a dirty, green overall, the man had his hands tied behind his back. His head was bent low, but he was still taller than everyone around him. Blood ran down his face, and his blond hair was splattered with mud. Three Vietnamese soldiers walked behind him, their long guns pointed at the white man's back. On the right arm of the man's uniform the red, white, and blue of a small American flag burned my eyes.

"Giết thằng phi công Mỹ. Giết nó đi, giết nó!" someone suddenly shouted.

"Kill him! Kill that bastard American pilot," the crowd roared in agreement.

I clenched my fists. This man had bombed my city. The aggression of his country had torn my parents away from me.

"My whole family is dead because of you. Die!" a woman screamed, launching a rock at the American. I blinked as the rock thumped him in the chest.

"Order!" one of the soldiers shouted. Grandma and several others rushed to the sobbing woman, took her into their arms, and led her away.

"Justice will be served, Brothers and Sisters," the soldier told the crowd. "Please, we have to bring him to Hà Nội."

I watched the pilot as he walked past me. He didn't make a sound when the rock hit him; he just bent his head lower. I wasn't sure, but I thought I saw some tears trickling down his face, mixing with his blood. As the crowd followed him, shouting and screaming, I shuddered, wondering what would happen to my parents if they faced their enemy.

To chase away fear, I buried myself in my book, which took me closer to my parents. I inhaled the scent of mangrove forests, sniffing the breeze from rivers crowded with fish and turtles. Food seemed to be abundant in the South. Such food would help my parents survive if they made it to their destination. But would the South still be this lush even with the American Army there? It seemed to destroy everything in its path.

Approaching the last pages, I held my breath. I wanted An to find his parents, but instead he joined the Việt Minh guerrillas to fight against the French. I told him not to, but he had already jumped into a sampan, rowing away, disappearing into the white space that expanded after the novel's last word.

"An should have tried harder to search for his parents," I told Grandma, pushing the book away.

"Well, in times of war, people are patriotic, ready to sacrifice their lives and their families for the common cause." She looked up from my torn shirt, which she was mending.

"You sound just like my teachers." I recalled the many lessons I'd learned about children considered heroes for blowing themselves up with bombs to kill French or American soldiers.

"Want to know what I really think?" Grandma leaned toward me. "I don't believe in violence. None of us has the right to take away the life of another human being."

Toward the middle of December, whispers circulated that it was now safe to return home, that the American President Nixon would take a rest from the war to enjoy his Christmas holiday of peace and goodwill. People left their hiding places, flocking down to the roads that led them back to our capital city. Those who could afford it hired buffalo or cow carts or shared a truck. Those without money would walk the entire way.

We didn't join them. Grandma asked her students and their families to stay put. Buddha must have told her so. On December 18, 1972, we watched from inside the mountain cave as our city turned into a fireball.

Unlike the previous attacks, the bombings didn't cease. They continued throughout the next day and night. On the third day, Grandma and several adults ventured out to get food and water. It took Grandma so long to come back, and she brought Mr. and Mrs. Tùng with her. As Mrs. Tùng moaned about her knees, Mr. Tùng told us that the Americans were using their most powerful weapon on Hà Nội: B-52 bombers.

"They said they want to bomb us back to the Stone Age," he told us, gritting his teeth. "We won't let them."

Hà Nội burned and bombs fell for twelve days and nights. When the bombings finally stopped, it was so silent, I could hear bees buzzing on tree branches. And like those hard-working bees, Grandma returned to her class and the villagers to their fields.

A week later, a group of soldiers arrived. Standing on the temple's remaining steps, a soldier had a smile stretching wide across his gaunt face. "We've defeated those evil bombers!" He pumped his fist. "Our defense troops shot down eighty-one enemy airplanes, thirty-four of them B-52 bombers."

Cheers erupted around me. It was now safe for us to go home. People hugged each other, crying and laughing.

"I'll never forget your kindness," Grandma told our hosts. "Một miếng khi đói bằng một gói khi no." One bite when starving equals one bundle when full.

"Lá lành đùm lá rách," Mrs. Tùng replied. Intact leaves safeguard ripped leaves. "You're welcome to stay with us at any time." She clutched Grandma's hand.

I smiled, enchanted whenever proverbs were embedded in conversations. Grandma had told me proverbs were the essence of our ancestors' wisdom, passed orally from one generation to the next, even before our written language existed.

Our hearts bursting with hope, we walked many hours to return to Hà Nội.

I had expected victory but destruction hit my eyes everywhere I looked. A large part of my beautiful city had been reduced to rubble. Bombs had been dropped onto Khâm Thiên—my street—and on the nearby Bạch Mai Hospital where my mother had worked, killing many people. Later, I would go back to class, empty of my fifteen friends.

And our house! It was gone. Our bàng tree lay sprawled across the rubble. Grandma sank to her knees. Howls escaped from deep inside her, piercing through the stench of rotting bodies, merging into a wailing sea of sorrow.

I cried with Grandma as we pushed away broken bricks and slabs of concrete. Our fingers bled as we searched for anything salvageable. We found several of my books, two of Grandma's textbooks, and some scattered rice. Grandma picked up each grain as if it were a jewel. That night in my schoolyard, we huddled against the wind with people who had also lost their homes to cook our shared meal of rice mixed with dirt and stained with blood.

Watching Grandma then, nobody could imagine that she was once considered cành vàng lá ngọc—a jade leaf on a branch of gold.

Three months earlier, as my mother got ready to go to the battlefield, she told me Grandma had been born into one of the richest families in Nghệ An Province.

"She's been through great hardships and is the toughest woman I know. Stay close to her and you'll be all right," my mother said, packing her clothes into a green knapsack. Trained as a doctor, she had volunteered to go south, to look for my father, who'd traveled deep into the jungles with his troops and hadn't sent back any news for the past four years. "I'll find him and bring him back to you," she told me, and I believed her, for she'd always achieved whatever she set out to do. Yet Grandma said it was an impossible task. She tried to stop my mother from going, to no avail.

As my mother left, Heaven cried his farewell in big drops of rain. My mother poked her face out of a departing truck, shouting, "Hương ơi, mẹ yêu con!" It was the first time she said she loved me, and I feared it'd be the last. The rain swept across us and swallowed her up into its swirling mouth.

That night and for the next many nights, to dry my tears, Grandma opened the door of her childhood to me. Her stories scooped me up and delivered me to the hilltop of Nghệ An where I could fill my lungs with the fragrance of rice fields, sink my eyes into the Lam River, and become a green dot on the Trường Sơn mountain range. In her stories, I tasted the sweetness of sim berries on my tongue, felt grasshoppers kicking in my hands, and slept in a hammock under a sky woven by shimmering stars.


  • Winner of the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award
    Runner-up of the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize
    Winner of the 2021 International Book Awards (Literary Fiction and Multicultural Fiction categories)
    Winner of the Blogger's Book Prize 2021

    NB Magazine's Book of the Year
    Winner of the Blogger's Book Prize 2021

    Finalist of the Audie 2021 Best Audiobook of the Year Award
    Winner of BookBrowse's Best Debut Award for 2020
    A Best Book of 2020: NPR's Book Concierge * PopMatters * Washington Independent Review of Books Real Simple The Buzz MagazineShe Reads  * NB Magazine​ BookBrowse Paperback Paris Writer's Bone * Global Atlanta

    A Best Book of the Month/Season: The New York Times * The Washington Post * O, The Oprah Magazine * USA TodayReal Simple * Amazon PopSugar * Book Riot * Paperback Paris * She Reads We Are Bookish

    A Most-Anticipated Book of the Year: The New York Times * The Washington Post * PopSugar * The Millions * Library Journal * Lit Hub * The Week * She Reads

    A Book Riot Best Book for Book Clubs

    "A luminous, complex family narrative . . . The Mountains Sing affirms the individual's right to think, read, and act according to a code of intuitive civility, borne out of Vietnam's fertile and compassionate cultural heritage."
    "A Vietnamese poet conjures history and fate in a luminous tale that resonates across generations as one family grapples with the psychic residue of war."
    O, The Oprah Magazine

    “A sweeping story that positions Vietnamese life within the ​rich and luminous history of national epics like The Tale of Kiều and The Iliad. Expansive in scope and feeling, The Mountains Sing is a feat of hope, an unflinchingly felt inquiry into the past, with the courageous storytelling of the present.”
    Ocean Vuong, author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

    "This multigenerational tale chronicles the Trần family as a Vietnamese woman visits Hanoi and reflects on the life lessons shared by her late grandmother."
    USA Today, "Five Books Not to Miss"

    The Mountains Sing is an epic account of Việt Nam’s painful 20th century history, both vast in scope and intimate in its telling. Through the travails of one family, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai brings us close to the horrors of famine, war, and class struggle. But in this moving and riveting novel, she also shows us a postwar Việt Nam, a country of hope and renewal, home to a people who have never given up.”
    Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Sympathizer

    "A mesmerizing, devastating, searing and utterly authentic and deeply human novel. Cannot recommend highly enough!"
    Lynn Novick, co-director of The Vietnam War documentary
    "Lyrical, wrenching, sometimes painful to read, but ultimately glorious in affirming the resilience of the human spirit. In these traumatic times in which we are facing hard times as a global community as well as a nation, it is life-affirming to be reminded that many in our human family have endured difficult histories before and come through with kindness, kindredness, love, hope, and wonderful novels that will make your heart—as well as the mountains—sing!"
    —Julia Alvarez, bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and Afterlife

    “The author and poet, known in her native Vietnam as Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’, tells a comprehensive multigenerational tale, beginning in 1920s Vietnam and continuing through modern wartime. However, the larger history takes a back seat to family dynamics, demonstrating how different generations weather the burdens of conflict.”
    The Washington Post, "Ten Books to Read in March"
    “Good literature frees us from being trapped in our own skins by allowing us to identify with characters and see the world through their eyes. Reading this novel, I was moved by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s beautiful, even poetic, depictions of enduring courage. I came away with a deeper understanding of the war in which I fought.”
    Karl Marlantes, bestselling author of Matterhorn, What It’s Like to Go to War,and Deep River

    "Lyrical and at once heart-wrenching and hopeful."
    NPR's Book Concierge

    "A beautiful evocation of a lost world."
    —Christian Kiefer, The Paris Review

    “[A] panoramic epic . . . Like the work of Duong Thu Huong, who deserves the Nobel one day, this book brings to life a crucial part of Vietnamese history from within. You heart will not leave this book untouched.”
    Literary Hub

    "Stunning . . . Filled with vivid characters and evocative depictions of the Vietnamese landscapes, both urban and rural . . . There’s an important Vietnam War history lesson embedded here, as well, one that is not often available to American readers."
    —The Vietnam Veterans of America Book Review 

    "Nguyễn writes of Vietnamese history with such understanding and humanity that one can easily argue for The Mountains Sing’s status as the great Vietnamese novel of our time."
    “Epic in scope, and a celebration of the human spirit, The Mountains Sing is a story you won't soon forget.”
    “This poetic novel illustrates how their sacrifices ripple through [a] family.”
    Real Simple

    The Mountains Sing is a multigenerational epic about a family torn apart by war and the efforts of its various members to survive. It is also the missing narrative of the American War in Vietnam . . . Nguyen’s poetic descriptions and deep affection for her characters allow the reader to feel for the Tran family’s many vicissitudes.”
    —The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

    "[The] writing is gorgeous and vivid. As you read, you smell the cooking pots and incense around the characters, you run with them, hide with them, feel the searing pain in their bare feet, mourn with them, feel their fury at being attacked and witness the trauma that is etched into their civilian lives as one lash follows another.”
    —The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    “An historical novel that portrays Vietnamese strength in the face of adversity . . . I came away at the end of the book with a new appreciation for the courage and resourcefulness of the Vietnamese.” 
    —The Washington Independent Review of Books

    "Steeped in the storytelling traditions of Vietnam, The Mountains Sing is decadent and heart wrenching, equal parts lush and vibrant in its unfamiliar setting, and just as persistently unrelenting in its depiction of decades worth of war and conflict."
    The Nerd Daily

    “A sweeping tale of one family's shifting fortunes in Vietnam across half a century . . . Invitingly and gracefully told . . . A richly imagined story of severed bonds amid conflict.”
    Kirkus Reviews, starred review

    “[A] lyrical, sweeping debut novel . . .Nguyễn brilliantly explores the boundary between what a writer shares with the world and what remains between family. This brilliant, unsparing love letter to Vietnam will move readers.”
    Publishers Weekly, starred review

    "An engrossing story of family, adversity, war, loss, and triumph . . . Recalling Min Jin Lee and Lisa See, Nguyen displays a lush and captivating storyteller’s gift as she effortlessly transports readers to another world, leaving them wishing for more." 
    Library Journal, starred review

    "Balances the unrelenting devastation of war with redemptive moments of surprising humanity."

    "Quế Mai has spoken for generations outside of Vietnam, millions upon millions of people bombed out, put underground, forced to flee and desperate to live."

    "This is a love letter, told honestly and poignantly, to the Vietnamese people, an homage to their dedication to remembrance,  during and after a painful time."
    The Arts Fuse
    "A stunning work of historical fiction that lays bare history long forgotten."
    Paperback Paris

    "Beautiful, heartbreaking and utterly essential."
    Saigoneer Bookshelf

    “Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s sweeping tale proves on every page that despite war-time tragedies and numbing ugliness, the human desire to forgive and thrive soars as high as the mountains. An essential read for Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans searching to understand their grandparents and parents who lived through the war in Việt Nam.”
    Thanhhà Lai, National Book Award-winning author of Inside Out Back Again and Butterfly Yellow
    “Quế Mai tells the story of the war that tore apart Việt Nam, and of the generation lost to the war, by braiding around it two beautiful strands told by the older and younger generations of a family. This book is an act of love, compassion, and ultimately healing, and very much needed by all who survived the war.”
    Thi Bui, author of The Best We Could Do
    “Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has written a wonderful, intricate story of the lives of a Vietnamese family trying to make it through generations of war. The Mountains Sing is a beautiful story of the simple challenge of keeping a family together and the courage of perseverance. It is told with the sureness of a master storyteller with a poet's spirit. A large and complicated story, marvelous to read.”
    Larry Heinemann, author of Paco's Story, winner of the National Book Award
    “A story of loss and sorrow, of longing for peace and normalcy, and—above all—of the triumph of hope over despair, told in the authentic voices of a resilient and resourceful grandmother and her granddaughter.”
    Mai Elliott, Pulitzer-Prize finalist and author of The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family 
    “Over the last two decades we have been gifted with works by Vietnamese writers who have brought us into the consciousness of those that Americans saw only as backdrops for their own stories. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai not only adds to that rich body of work, she daringly transcends it.”
    Wayne Karlin, author of Wandering Souls, winner of the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award
    “In The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has found a true and clear voice in English that is rich and compelling the way only those who come to English as a second language can sometimes manage.”
    Bruce Weigl, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of the bestselling memoir The Circle of Hanh
”A poignant and vivid portrayal of a brutal slice of Vietnamese history from a perspective that is so rarely heard abroad: that of the Vietnamese themselves. We are starkly reminded of how those wars – and wars everywhere – wash over and drown both the guilty and innocent alike.”
    Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe

    “The structure is clever, the writing often evocative, the characters convincing and very touching and the whole narrative deeply engaging. And this is a first novel! Impressive.”
    Sara Maitland, author of Daughter of Jerusalem, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award

    “Deep human bonds of family, place, and memory are written of in ways that are often heartbreaking, but show the strength and persistence of those ties. This is a book that glows with spirit and those larger life forces that include love. I look forward to the day I can put this book in readers' hands.” 
    Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle


On Sale
Mar 16, 2021
Page Count
368 pages
Algonquin Books

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

About the Author

Born and raised in Việt Nam, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is the author of The Mountains Sing, runner-up for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Best Debut Award, the 2021 International Book Awards, the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship for Fiction. She has published twelve books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and has received some of the top literary prizes in Việt Nam. Her writing has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in major publications, including the New York Times. She has a PhD in creative writing from Lancaster University. She is an advocate for the rights of disadvantaged groups in Việt Nam and has founded several scholarship programs, and she was named by Forbes Vietnam as one of twenty inspiring women of 2021. For more information, visit:

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