The novel begins in 1994 with the decision of Dr. Han Thieu, who is terminally ill with cancer, to secretly take her own life. She does this in the belief that it will spare her family the impact of her drawn-out death. The chapter alludes to the main characters in the novel and to the traumas that her family has already undergone. Her daughter Minh Chau is one of the three protagonists in the novel.
The novel then goes back to April 1975 when the communist forces in Cambodia and South Vietnam take power. The lives of the eight-year-old Vietnamese-Chinese boy, Quan Phoc, in Phnom Penh and of Han Thieu?s three-year-old daughter Minh Chau in Saigon change radically when the two cities fall to the Communists. The Khmer Rouge send Quan?s family to a collective farm in the distant countryside. Quan?s father is worked and starved to death and his mother is brutally raped to death. Quan and his sister, Hue, survive the farm thanks to Quan?s ability to endear himself to the Khmer Rouge guards. Minh Chau?s family attempts unsuccessfully to flee Saigon. Her father, a South Vietnamese army officer is sent to a re-education camp and the rest of the family is imprisoned.
Quan and sister are liberated from the farm when the Vietnamese army invades Cambodia in 1978. Traveling down the Mekong River, they try to escape Indochina by sea. Near death, they are rescued by a boat of Vietnamese refugees heading to Malaysia.
After Dr. Han Thieu saves the life of a senior Communist official, the Thieu family are also given a chance to escape by sea. During the voyage, five-year-old Minh Chau is faced with the moral dilemma of saving her sister, An, from death, at the expense of the life of a neighbour and friend. This leaves her emotionally scarred. In Pulau Bidong camp in Malaysia, the Thieu family adopts Quan and Hue, and Quan is assigned the role to protect the girls in the family. When Quan is forced to kill Dahan, a drunken Malaysian camp guard, in order to save Minh Chau and his sister Hue, his chances for re-settlement in Canada with the Thieu family are dashed. The Thieu family go to Quebec City with the hope that the Canadian authorities will later accept Quan despite the killing of the guard. The Pulau Bidong chapters are marked by touching anecdotes of interaction between the camp?s children, the mystery of Chinese traditional medicine and swift action scenes as Quan defends the young girls from Dahan.
In Canada, Mathieu Hibou, a soft-spoken university student from New Carlisle, Quebec is asked by his cousin, Marie-Christine, who was a friend of Han Thieu in Saigon, to help the Thieu family integrate into Canadian society. Mathieu devotes himself to the family and helps Han re-certify as a doctor in Canada. The Quebec chapters are a series of humourous anecdotes about the discovery by Minh Chau and An of their new country. It is also a touching exposé about the hardships and success of Boat People in Canada.