The Best We Could Do Characters

The main characters in The Best We Could Do are Thi Bui, Ma and Bo, and Lan, Bich, and Tam.

  • Thi Bui is a Vietnamese American cartoonist and the author of the memoir. In the book, she tells her family's story and reflects on the birth of her son.
  • Ma and Bo are Thi's parents. They came from very different backgrounds and met at a teacher's college in Vietnam. After the war, they fled to the United States with their children.
  • Lan, Bich, and Tam are Thi's siblings. Lan and Bich are her older sisters, and Tam, who was born in a refugee camp, is her younger brother.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on January 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Best We Could Do Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Best We Could Do gives a detailed history of author Thi Bui’s family and how they left Vietnam. All of the central characters are either members of Thi's family or connected with them in some way.

Thi Bui

Thi Bui, a Vietnamese American teacher, writer, and artist, is the author and narrator. At the beginning of the memoir, she gives birth to her first child. Thi chronicles her family’s history in an attempt to connect with her parents and siblings and to help free her son from the weight of inherited trauma.


Thi refers to her mother and father as Ma and Bo throughout the book. Ma grew up in the remote city of Nha Trang in southern Vietnam, where she lived a privileged life with her wealthy family under French occupation. As a girl, smart, beautiful Ma was upset by the negative portrayals of rich girls in storybooks. She attended French schools but developed a sense of pride in Vietnamese culture on her own. Ma graduated from teacher’s college alongside Bo and sold her valuables when they were forced to flee after the war. While Ma has always been a supportive figure, she has also been somewhat distant, expressing her love for her children largely through cooking. During the birth of Thi’s son, Ma becomes overwhelmed and runs out of the hospital room, inspiring Thi to try to strengthen their relationship.

Ma’s Family

Ma’s parents were well-off under French colonial rule and were able to send her to French schools. Ma remembers her mother being distant with her and treating the family’s servants harshly. Her father was much more outwardly loving, though at one point he suffered a nervous breakdown due to the pressures of his job. Ma’s brother, Ha, was in prison. Due to their cooperation with the French, Ma’s family fell under suspicion from the communist regime.


Bo was raised by his grandparents in conflict-ridden northern Vietnam. His father was abusive and left to join the Viet Minh after driving Bo’s mother away. Bo’s difficult childhood contributed to his unpredictable moods later in life, and Thi remembers having been afraid of him when she was young and he was a stay-at-home father. Eventually, Bo was able to leave northern Vietnam to enroll in French schools and study at the same teacher’s college as Ma, where the two of them met and fell in love. Bo witnessed frightening things in Vietnam, including the execution of political prisoners, and was nearly executed himself at one point. Although he was excited by the idea of Vietnamese independence as a teenager, a visit to his father in the Viet Minh made him fearful of what would happen to the country under a communist regime.

Bo’s Family

Bo’s father was a violent man who beat Bo’s mother, was unfaithful to her, and eventually threw her out of the house. Bo’s mother snuck food to Bo and took care of him when he was sick, but after Bo’s father drove her away, she moved to China with a soldier, raising three more children there. After Bo’s father left to join the Viet Minh, Bo was raised by his paternal grandparents, who, due to their cooperation with French colonial rule, were threatened by the influx of revolutionary forces to their village. Like Bo’s father, Bo’s grandfather had been unfaithful to his wife, and he took in Bo in an attempt to make up with her. Bo’s grandmother made sure Bo was fed even when food was scarce.

Lan, Bich, and Tam

Lan and Bich are Thi’s older sisters, both of whom were born in Vietnam. Lan, the eldest sister, lived with a boyfriend before marriage, and Bich once had a secret boyfriend. These things caused quite a stir in Thi’s family. Tam, their younger brother, was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia—Ma had been pregnant with him when they left Vietnam. As a child, he was so fearful that he sometimes hid in closets. Ma and Bo also had two other daughters, Giang Quyen and Thao, who died in infancy.

Bui’s Aunt and Uncle

When the family first immigrated to the US, they went to Chicago, Illinois, to stay with Ma’s sister, her husband, and their five children (and family dog). Ma’s sister was the family’s sponsor, and she and her family helped the Buis make the difficult adjustment to life in the US. The Buis eventually moved to California in search of warmer weather, prompting Ma’s sister to tell them they were being ungrateful.


Travis is Thi’s husband and the father of her new son. When Thi asks to hear Ma’s stories, Ma feels more comfortable addressing herself to Travis while Thi listens in.

Thi’s Son

After a difficult period of labor, Thi gives birth to her and Travis’s first child, a son, at the beginning of the book. Thi writes of the immense love she feels for her child and her hope that by writing her memoir, she can help to free him from some of the weight of the trauma her family has endured. It is her son’s birth and the realization that she is now both parent and child that inspires Thi to connect more deeply with her family by telling their stories.