Vietnam – a journey by book

 

Vietnam is at a truly fascinating stage of development, with one foot steeped in ancient traditions and the other vigorously embracing 21st century modernity. Diverse influences have shaped its character, manifested in the Confucian temples and French colonial architecture. The war of the late 20th century is also still in evidence in the cities and countryside.  For an understanding of this remarkable country, there are some great books that shed light on its complex history and culture. Whether you are looking for an insight into the culture or a potted history of the war with America, the books below are a very good place to start.

Tra Que Village

Vietnam: A History
by Stanley Karnow

Considered by many to be the most balanced and informative Western account of the American-Vietnam war, Karnow’s book is imbued with on-the-ground experience and knowledge gleaned from innumerable interviews with people from the higher echelons of government as well as those lower down the power chain – journalists, soldiers and ordinary workers. His tone is restrained and compassionate, as he sheds light on the political circumstances which led to war, and the way in which the war itself was so catastrophically mishandled by those in power.

Shadows and Wind
by Robert Templer

Templer’s book, first published in 1999, is a fascinating examination of modern-day Vietnam – post war, post famine, and under the thumb of an uncompromising communist regime. Vietnam has changed a great deal since Shadows and Wind was published, yet the book remains an invaluable and surprisingly fresh analysis of Vietnam’s modern complexities.

Earth and Water: Encounters in Vietnam
by Edith Shillue

Edith Shillue arrived in Vietnam in 1993, fresh off the plane from America. She travelled to the country with little prior knowledge to take up a lecturing post in English and American history, but what she discovered was a complex and beautiful place that captured her heart. Living amongst the Vietnamese both in the city and the rural north, Shillue became acquainted with the culture and language, and her memoir is an atmospheric journey of discovery containing observations on travel, teaching, and the trials and tribulations of expat life.

Vietnamese lake view

Novel Without a Name
by Duong Thu Huong

More than a writer, Duong Thu Huong is a political dissident and outspoken critic of the Vietnamese government – particularly its culture of censorship. As a result, she herself has been censored and even imprisoned, with all of her novels now banned in Vietnam due to their ‘political undertones’.  Novel Without a Name, her sixth work, reveals the horrific realities of the Vietnam War through the eyes of once passionate bo doi – ‘soldier of the people’ – Quan; disillusioned after ten years of conflict and struggle, and haunted by his own memories, he embarks on the arduous and dangerous journey back to his village, travelling through the war-torn jungles of his once peaceful country.

Paradise of the Blind
by Duong Thu Huong

Received with great critical acclaim outside Vietnam, yet still banned in the country itself, Paradise of the Blind is the story of Hang, a young Vietnamese woman living in Russia, who is called to Moscow to visit her uncle. The long journey to the capital summons a flood of memories for Hang, as she reflects on her family’s past and a childhood spent under Vietnam’s brutal Communist regime. Covering issues such as the struggle for individuality, poverty, the suffering of women under Confucianist ideology, and both the positive and negative aspects of Vietnamese culture, Duong’s novel looks at Vietnam from an insider’s perspective.

Melissa Matthews is Director of Operations at Red Savannah.

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Comments (5)

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  1. I have always wanted to go to Vietnam, the amazing culture and the great variety of tasty food is something that I love.

  2. Long says:

    Hi Paul,

    I suggest more in the list:

    Quiet American
    by Graham Greene
    About America’s role in the Vietnam conflict, and how it was perceived by the rest of the world

    Catfish and Mandala
    by Andrew X. Pham (Vietnamese)
    A Two-wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. A seemingly lost man in his early twenties, an embarks on a 4000 mile bike ride from his home in California, up the west coast and across the Pacific and finally ending in his hometown in Vietnam….

    The sorrow of War
    by Bao Ninh (Vietnamese)
    It tells the story of a soldier who is collecting dead bodies after a battle and then begins to think about his past. The novel won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

  3. Tina says:

    What great suggestions for books to understand location! Such a mix of culture and history in Vietnam that can sometimes be hard to assimilate. But books can certain help make sense of the country.

    The first novel I ever read on a trip to Vietnam was indeed The Quiet American, which is a classic in its own right. On a subsequent trip I read The Trader of Saigon by Lucy Cruickshanks which was wonderful for evoking locale; and The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb (a story in part set around Pho).

  4. Andrew says:

    I just saw found this article and am glad I visited it. Another book to put on this list is Lotusland (by David Joiner), which I think came out in late January. It’s one of only a few novels I’ve found that is set in contemporary Vietnam. As someone who has lived in HCMC and traveled a few times to Hanoi, I found it authentic. It really captures expatriate life in HCMC and Hanoi. It’s also beautifully written. Like some of the books listed above, it’s a nice change from all the war stories I see on bookshelves all the time.

  5. Lisa Jones says:

    Vietnam is a wonderful place for a vacation, there are lots of attractions and the locales are very friendly. I was in Vietnam once two years ago, and it was incredible.

 
 
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