The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

by Thi Bui

Thi Bui was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States as a child in 1978. Based largely on oral history from family members, she has written and illustrated their story, telling the history of Vietnam from 1943-1978 along the way. It is an engaging story presented in the style of a graphic novel.

“For my parents, already fully formed in another time and place to which they could never go back, home became the holding pen for the frustrations and unexorcised demons that had nowhere to go in America’s Finest City… In the dark apartment in San Diego, I grew up with the terrified boy who became my father.”

“To understand how my father became the way he was, I had to learn what happened to him as a little boy. It took a long time to learn the right questions to ask.”

The meat of this book is the story of the author’s parents and grandparents in Vietnam and Cambodia from the time of French colonial rule to the Fall of Saigon when communists took control. Shortly after, the family made a risky escape by boat to a refugee camp in Malaysia. From there they immigrated to the United States. The author’s mother and father come from very different backgrounds, adding richer historical context to the story.

“I was surprised to learn that Eddie Abrams, the American photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for that famous picture, didn’t think he deserved it. Like my father, he knew the context of the shooting, and that it was absent from the photograph itself. Regretting the damage that his photograph did to the general, Adams located him in America. The former general, like my parents and so many immigrants, was in a state fallen from grace—working behind the counter in a pizzeria in Virginia. ‘Saigon Execution’ is credited with turning popular opinion in America against the war. I think a lot of Americans forget that, for the Vietnamese, the war continued whether America was involved or not.”

The Fall of Saigon: “There is no single story of that day, April 30, 1975. In Việt Nam today, among the victors, it’s called Liberation Day. Overseas, among ex-pats like my parents, it is remembered as The Day We Lost our Country.”

“We were now boat people—five among hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into neighboring countries seeking asylum. A refugee camp  is a bottleneck of people seeking a new home. In March of 1978 at Pulau Besar, there were already three thousand people in the camp.”

“The refugee camp was also a place where many people reinvented themselves. Some people met each other in camp and listed themselves on paper as married couples. Some even adopted children traveling alone so they could be resettled together”

“Daily life was not easy. Water came out of the ditches dug by previous residents and had to be boiled before drinking. Wood for boiling and cooking had to be gathered from the dwindling forest surrounding the camp. There were no proper toilets. Bô’ would take us a little farther out each day to relieve ourselves and bring back firewood. Yet we were among the lucky ones. Our stay there was only a few months.”

”On the other side of the world, Má’s older sister Đào and her husband acted as our U.S. sponsors and processed all our paperwork quickly.”

“Má found us our own apartment as quickly as possible. We received food stamps and assistance for families with children at first but we got off welfare as soon as Má could support us with her job. On $3.35 an hour and countless sacrifices, little by little, my parents built their bubble around us—our home in America. They taught us to be respectful, to take care of one another, and to do well in school. Those were the intended lessons. The unintentional ones came from their unexorcised demons and from the habits they formed over so many years of trying to survive.”

“This—not any particular piece of Vietnamese culture—is my inheritance: the inexplicable need and extraordinary ability to RUN when the shit hits the fan. My refugee Reflex.”

“Travis and I moved to California in 2006 to raise our son near family—trading the life we had built and loved in New York for a notion I had in my head of becoming closer to my parents as an adult. I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but I recognize what it is NOT, and I now understand—proximity and closeness are not the same.”

“But when I look at my son, now ten years old, I don’t see war and loss or even Travis and me. I see a new life, bound with mine quite by coincidence, and I think maybe he can be free.”

This book is both clearly written and beautifully illustrated.  More importantly it offers Americans another perspective on the Vietnam War, beyond the military casualties, anti-war protests, and difficulty of American soldiers reassimilating. It also offers an insider’s perspective of the challenges of refugees building a new life.


Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do an Illustrated Memoir. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2017. Buy from Amazon.com