Imagining Vietnam

(No.6, Vol.3, July 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

In ‘Imagining Vietnam’ – a collection of eight stories – Elizabeth McLean transports the reader deep into the lives of the people who have been the lifeblood of Vietnam during the key events of the last millennium. She looks beyond historical summaries of past invasions and imperial intrigues, and finds ordinary people whose lives were often dramatically affected by these turbulent events, but who are rarely recognized in literature. She dramatizes the passions of their hearts, the strength of their bodies, and the tenacity of their minds as they tread the paths of their destinies.
Vietnam’s society has long been regulated by the Confucian code of duty, where women live under the rule of their male relatives – fathers, husbands and brothers. In historical accounts of the country, as well as in the literature and folklore, few women make the pages, but in reality they lived and exerted considerable influence, sometimes changing the course of events, by their strength and skills and by their schemes and loves. Ms McLean’s women-whether young girls chafing against duty and the will of their fathers, tough and feisty grandmothers, mothers-in-law who rule the life of their son’s wife, or a young poetess living a royal court far from her family- will be remembered long after the stories have been read.
But it is not only the women who the author brings to life; men are equally well-portrayed. The anguish of the young Portuguese Jesuit priest, struggling to proselytize in a hostile land, and the loneliness of his trader friend are clearly felt. A simple soldier is filled with pride and patriotism as he serves his country and his general by thrusting sharpened tree trunks into the Bach Dang riverbed to snare the Mongol ships; with his lungs about to burst, ‘he swung his body around, pointed the dagger in his mouth upwards, and pushed off the river floor, his good leg and his bad leg kicking furiously. He loved every moment of his singular challenge.’ Colonial Saigon of the 1930s is pictured through the eyes of a French adventurer and his relationship with a woman who dreamed of making her fortune as a plantation owner on the Cambodian coast.

Elizabeth McLean spent six years living in Hanoi while lecturing at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. During this time, she was an avid researcher in both French and English of Vietnam’s history and culture, and a keen observer of the people, their customs, way of life and, especially, their wide variety of food. She gleaned an incisive insight of Vietnam by travelling extensively through the country, on every occasion questioning and seeking to understand the customs and Vietnamese way of life, both in the cities and the countryside. The observations that she made are what turn the characters and her stories into reality.
Much has been written about Vietnam, mainly focusing on facets of the American War or the legends of the country’s heroes. ‘Imaging Vietnam’ takes a different approach. Through fiction, we meet an emperor who would sooner write poetry than lead an army; women who will step out of the traditional mold to marry foreigners, and the temptations of the lonely wife of an aspiring Mandarin. The final story is set in today’s Vietnam and, while drawing vivid pictures of a barber’s pavement salon, a country girl staring mesmerized at bright red painted toenails and the antics of children who attend an international school, the story delves deeply into the conflict between the traditional Vietnam and the modern westward- looking country of television and movie screen. Here, ‘Interstate 405 was a road to Heaven – brand new silver-grey, and without any Vietnamese potholes’ and Ngan Hoa is driving along it ‘behind the wheel of her own silver Buick.’
Elizabeth McLean’s writing is flowing, descriptive and lyrical, as well as being highly polished. The historical background is always accurate but never overshadowing– it is the lightest of frames for the stories of the people who lived within it. What the reader will remember long after closing the book are the images: preparing frogs and eels for the family evening meal; the elaborate and painful procedure to bring beauty to a young girl by blackening her teeth with lacquer; the tension of the Mongol battle and the strength of the general.
While in Vietnam, Ms McLean wrote numerous cultural articles, book and art reviews for English language publications. She also compiled an anthology of stories from Canadian writers, which was published in Vietnamese by The Women’s Publishing House of Hanoi in 2011.

‘Imagining Vietnam’, which won the Impress Prize for New Writers in 2011, was published in 2012 by Impress Books UK (ISBN 978-1-907605-33-8). It is available through Amazon UK (http://www.amazon.co.uk/) and The Book
Depository (
For more details of availability in Vietnam, visit the author’s website:

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