I’m not fond of war so none of the books I chose to read in Vietnam were about the Vietnamese War except as a backdrop.
Instead the books focussed on life in a world of instability, whether the instability was caused by the French invaders, the Communist government or the American war machine.
The Headmaster’s Wager
by Vincent Lam.
This novel has a ton of ‘sense of place’, something I really value in a novel when I’m travelling. The book starts as the ‘Vietnamese War’ (or the ‘American War’ as the Vietnamese call it) is just beginning.
The Headmaster is a man who bribes, womanizes, and gambles his way through this unsettling time, totalling ignoring the dangers of his actions until his son is threatened by the Vietnamese authorities.
Even so, he continues to behave badly and I had a devil to getting through it, finding myself wanting to scream at the headmaster, ‘you bloody idiot, smarten up!’
My friend told me the book was on her Book Club Group list one month, and most people had the same reaction as me and couldn’t finish it. She did however make it through and loved it; she has also been to Vietnam.
The Quiet American
There were two movies made from this book, one in 1958 and the other in 2002. The first one was an American propanda version, and toned down the anti-war sentiment of this novel. The second one, with Michael Caine as the star, was pretty true to the novel.
When we were in Hoi An, an expat Australian living there with his Vietnamese wife and her family showed us around their home, including the back where the brothel, ‘the House of Five Hundred Girls’, was filmed. This particular book was purchased in Vietnam.
Paradise of the Blind
by Duong Thu Huong.
At the time I felt that, although communism often doesn’t work, in the case of Vietnam it appeared to be beneficial to the people. This book tells otherwise, a story of corruption in the government, and the sacrifice of the women, especially on the part of the writer’s mother and aunt who ultimately did not survive the regime.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement
by Camilla Gibb.A young Americanized woman returns to Vietnam, her country of origin, to search for clues to her father’s disappearance. In Hanoi she meets an old man who makes the best ‘pho’ in the city, and he and two young customers guide the woman through contemporary Vietnam on a search for the past.