The Mountains Sing

One of my most anticipated books of last year was The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. I was happy to get it as a gift last Christmas (special thanks to my mom!), and since May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, now felt like the perfect time to read it. This lyrical work of historical fiction is set in Việt Nam, spanning most of the twentieth century as multiple generations are affected by war.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
GenreHistorical Fiction
SettingViệt Nam
Number of Pages342
Format I ReadHardcover
Original Publication DateMarch 17, 2020

Official Summary

The International Bestseller
New York Times Editors’ Choice Selection

A Winner of the 2020 Lannan Literary Awards Fellowship
A Best Book of 2020: NPR’s Book Concierge PopMatters Washington Independent Review of Books Real Simple The Buzz Magazine * NB Magazine​ BookBrowse Paperback Paris Writer’s Bone * Global Atlanta
“[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 BanyanThe 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.


The Mountains Sing is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. The language is lyrical and inspiring, even as it dives into tragedy after tragedy. This is a book that will certainly make you cry and feel deeply affected, and yet the powerful language makes you want to keep reading, knowing there will be a glimmer of hope by the end.

This novel follows multiple generations of a family in Việt Nam, jumping back and forth between two timelines. One is told from Diệu Lan’s perspective from the 1930s through the 1960s; the other follows her granddaughter, Hương, as a broken family finds its way back together.

Diệu Lan’s chapters start off when she’s young and has a bright future ahead of her. But before long, she experiences loss and strife at the hands of war and famine. Some years are good, and she has joys in her life: a good husband, the birth of six children, eventually several grandchildren. But there are years when loved ones die, when she must struggle to survive without food or shelter, and when family rifts arise due to perceived mistakes made.

In the 1970s, Hương is piecing together her family history. What happened to her parents, aunts, and uncles? Could those missing and presumed dead ever be found? What is the lasting effect of war, whether physically or mentally? How can this family finally mend? Hương and her grandmother Diệu Lan must lean on each other, and their strength may be what is needed for their other family members to heal, too.

The Mountains Sing is a richly layered book with so many excellent characters. Between them, they face a lot of hardship, and it can be a painful read. But the beautiful writing and shadow of hope keeps the book light, fast-paced, and ultimately heartwarming.

Final Thoughts

The Mountains Sing is one of my favorite reads, not only this year, but overall. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is an incredible writer, and I will absolutely be reading more from her. This is her first book to be written in English, but she has also written several novels, poetry collections, and works of nonfiction in Vietnamese. Look out for more of my reviews of her books soon.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

About the Author

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai - by Tapu Javeri F

Credit: Tapu Javeri

Born and raised in Việt Nam, Dr. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (pronounced ŋwiən fα:n kwe mai) is the author of the international best-seller The Mountains Sing, which won multiple literary awards including the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, the 2020 BookBrowse Best Debut Award and runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She has published twelve books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in Vietnamese and English. Her writing has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in major publications including The New York Times. Her new novel, Dust Child has been selected as a best book of 2023 by Reader’s Digest, a best Book of March/Spring 2023 by the Los Angeles Times, Amazon, Library Journal, the Chicago Review of Books, Ms. Magazine, BookPage, and Apple Books. It has also been voted by booksellers around the U.S. as an Indie Next Great Read. She is an executive producer of “Intersections,” a documentary series about Amerasians, directed by Kirk Kellerhals, which recently won Best Inspirational Film Award at the 2022 Cannes World Film Festival. Quế Mai has a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. She was named by Forbes Vietnam as one of 20 inspiring women of 2021. 

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