One of my favourite parts of blogging is receiving amazing book recommendations from readers all over the world ❤ For instance, I found out about The Mountains Sing from Carl from The Pine-Scented Chronicles – he recommended this book as answer to a discussion post about why we should read stories about cultures that are different from our own (see post here).

The Mountains Sing in a nutshell

The book tells the multigenerational story of the Trần family from Vietnam over more than a century. Part of the story is told through the eyes of the grandmother – Diệu Lan (born in 1920) – and part of the story is told through the eyes of the granddaughter – Hương (born in 1960).

Their stories illustrate how families from Vietnam were impacted by the ongoing political events (reforms, wars), and how each woman experienced the difficulties of living in turbulent times.

According to the author, Grandma Diệu Lan is a purely imagined character, “the grandmother I always wished for”. In contrast, Hương is inspired by the personal experiences of the author – “embodies my own experiences growing up in Vietnam” (Quế Mai, book club kit).

The book next to the lovely illustration by Madalina Andronic

Overall impression

I loved reading this book! It was an immersion into the Vietnamese culture and history, a beautifully narrated story sprinkled with Vietnamese sayings and words. Apart from being a very captivating story, it is also super educative, especially if you are not aware of the historical happenings from Vietnam.

As a fun fact, while reading the book I was thinking that it’s such a well-done translation … only to find afterwards that the book was written in English. The Mountains Sing is the first book written in English by Quế Mai.

Women power

For me, The Mountains Sing is mostly a story about the incredible power of women – especially Diệu Lan, the grandmother, who seems to find a way to surpass even the most challenging situations she encounters. Famine, poverty, war – you name it, this woman can handle it!

In some way, The Mountains Sing reminded me of The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (my review). Both stories illustrate examples of strong women who move mountains to protect their families (The Mountains Sing) or their nations (The Shadow King).

Oh, the war …

War is a big theme of The Mountains Sing – namely the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975. But that should not be a surprise – Quế Mai studied the long-lasting impact of wars, working with veterans and war victims.

When we think of the war, what usually comes to mind is violence, brutality, death. But there are also some “hidden” consequences that last long after the war ended – post-traumatic disorders of soldiers and other people who were on the battlefront (e.g. doctors), fertility issues caused by poisonous substances used by the enemy, and many others. I would say that these “hidden” consequences are mainly illustrated in The Mountains Sing.


The Mountains Sing is one of the best books I read this year! It is an amazing story about fighting and surviving, love and family, war and its long-lasting impact. Definitely a must-read book!

What books about other cultures did you read lately?

‘Till next time … happy reading!


PS: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai will publish a second book in English – Dust Child – also set in Vietnam. Looking so much forward to reading it as well!

6 thoughts on “The history of a Vietnamese family over a stormy century: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (book review)

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