Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Crystal Hall

Crystal has a bachelor's degree in English, a certification in General Studies, and has assisted in teaching both middle and high school English.

''Monkey Bridge,'' by Lan Cao, is a novel narrated by both Mai and her mother, Thanh. Mai is torn between her present world in America and her family's Vietnamese history, which she discovers by reading her mother's journals.

Victory in Defeat

Mai recounts her tumultuous childhood and her family's separation in Vietnam in the midst of the Vietnam War. She also discusses the fears that she faced when immigrating to America, along with the sense of youthful optimism that helped her to create a new life for herself in a world vastly different than her own.


In Monkey Bridge, Lan Cao introduces us to Mai, Thanh, and their family's struggles during the Vietnam War. Mai and Thanh alternately narrate the novel, with the story revolving around the lives of Mai's family, how they were shattered by the effects of war, and how they had to begin anew in America.

Mai was rescued from Saigon as a thirteen-year-old refugee in 1975 and taken to America, where she lived with the family of Colonel Michael MacMahon, an American soldier. Several months later, her mother, Thanh, joins her in Arlington, Virginia, where they make their home in the community of Little Saigon.

When Thanh is hospitalized due to a stroke, Mai forgoes her impatience with Thanh's problems of conforming to American culture for concern. She must now care for her mother while she recovers, as her mother has been paralyzed and can no longer care for herself.

Thanh tells Mai that she was a poor girl adopted by a wealthy landlord and later married to an attractive and learned man. She then moved away from the Mekong Delta's rice fields and onto Saigon Boulevard to a nice home. There, she gave birth to Mai.

Mekong Delta

Thanh's father, Baba Quan, did not show up at their chosen meeting spot to go with Thanh to America to escape the ravages of the Vietnam War. Then Mai discovers the secret letters that her mother has been writing, which reveal a past very different than the one Thanh invented for Mai's peace of mind.

While delving further into Thanh's letters after the healing from her stroke progresses, Mai discovers events that took place prior to Thanh's relocation to America. Baba Quan traded his wife's prostitution services to the wealthy landlord, Uncle Kahn, because Baba could not afford to pay his rent. Uncle Khan's wife was barren, and Baba Quan's wife was impregnated with Thanh by Uncle Kahn.

Thanh is adopted and raised by Kahn and his wife. Once the Vietnam War breaks out, Baba Quan becomes a member of the Vietcong. After his family moves away, Baba Quan, a rebel, remains in Vietnam and continues to fight.

After Thanh has left the hospital and healed enough to become a participant in her community, Mai and her best friend, Bobbie, go to Canada with a plan to call Baba Quan and convince him to come to America. Mai changes her mind when fear of possible deportation back to Vietnam gets the best of her.

Upon the death of Thanh's mother, Thanh, according to Vietnamese custom, is required to return her mother's remains to their village for her funeral. During her return, Baba Quan kills Uncle Kahn, a crime that Thanh witnesses firsthand. Out of fear, Thanh flees, forgetting her mother's body in her haste to find safety.

Thanh, who never emotionally recovered from not giving her mother a proper burial, never becomes accustomed to American life, in spite of her engagement with the other Vietnamese-American residents of Little Saigon.


Through the descriptive use of diverse settings such as Mekong villages, Saigon streets, and shopping centers in Virginia, Lan Cao creates environments that the reader can relate to, visually, culturally, and geographically.

The ways in which Mai and Thanh experienced and dealt with the Vietnam War and its fallout differ due to the fact that Mai was a child during that time and incapable of understanding the war's causes and consequences. Thanh was an adult with a more experienced worldview and was capable of understanding the political and private reasons for the turmoil within their country.

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