The village in Vietnam where Mai and her brother Loc live has been untouched by both the war and the new governement because of its remoteness. That changes soon after the street-wise orphan Kien finds his way there, bringing news of the state of the country after the Americans have left. It is only a matter of time before officials arrive, burning books and demanding that the settlement of six families hand over half of their goods for the good of the New Government. When they decide to detain the headman, Mai and Loc's grandfather, and send him to a "reeducation camp", Mai, Loc, grandfather, and Kien escape on the village's small boat, heading out across the China Sea.
When they reach the coast of Thailand, they are turned away by patrolmen who have been overwhelmed by fleeing "boat people", and find they have nowhere to go. Adrift on the sea, they endure storms, starvation, pirates, and sharks, and barely escape with their lives after stopping on a dangerous island inhabited by depraved "outcasts", once desperate refugees like themselves. The harsh conditions on the boat deplete their strength and spirits, and eventually, grandfather dies, after entrusting his grandchildren to fourteen-year-old Kien. Finally, just when it seems the children can endure no more, they are picked up by an American freighter, whose compassionate sailors vow to sponsor them in the United States.