Although she was only 5 when, with her family, she was evacuated from Saigon, Mong-Lan thinks the events of war and suffering in her early life traumatized her. Thirty years later, critics find in her poetry "the tectonic force of history, beauty and despair." Poetry, giving release to her emotions, is only one of Mong-Lan's disciplines. She is acclaimed also as a writer, painter and photographer, and a dancer of the tango. Primarily, she is a teacher.

Mong-Lan's parents were both medical doctors who after leaving their home in Vietnam re-established themselves in practice in America. "As a child I moved around a lot, so it seems natural to have continued to do so," Mong-Lan said.

She always wanted to paint and began in childhood. The writing of poetry came later. "And I always wanted to teach," she said. "That was my calling, and I still think it is."