to Read on the Road: Novels Set in Vietnam

I’m not fond of war movies or books 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.

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent LamThis 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 

by Graham Greene.Novel about Vietnam: The Quiet American by Graham GreeneIt is said that Greene got the idea for this book when sitting next to an American aid worker after covering part of the French War as a war correspondent.

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.

Novel about Vietnam: Paradise of the BlindI bought this book in Vietnam on my first trip there in 2003, even though it has been supposedly banned in the country for its ugly portrait of the communism.

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.novel about Vietnam by Camilla GibbA 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.

More on our December 2013 trip to Vietnam.

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3 responses to “to Read on the Road: Novels Set in Vietnam

    • From Chris Galvin: Good list. There are some excellent memoirs set in Viet Nam too.
      The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam by Dana Sachs (2000, Algonquin Books)
      Kim Fay’s “Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam” is a culinary memoir of sorts that includes some recipes. (Global Directions/Things Asian Press, 2010)
      Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew X. Pham (Picador, 2000)
      And then there’s the lyrical novel “Ru” by Kim Thuy (2009), fiction but based loosely on her own experiences of leaving VN and adapting to life in Quebec. Highly recommended.
      One of these days, my own Viet Nam memoir will see publication, hopefully! Still in the query stage

  1. Good list. There are some excellent memoirs set in Viet Nam too.
    The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam by Dana Sachs (2000, Algonquin Books)
    Kim Fay’s “Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam” is a culinary memoir of sorts that includes some recipes. (Global Directions/Things Asian Press, 2010)
    Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew X. Pham (Picador, 2000)
    And then there’s the lyrical novel “Ru” by Kim Thuy (2009), fiction but based loosely on her own experiences of leaving VN and adapting to life in Quebec. Highly recommended.
    One of these days, my own Viet Nam memoir will see publication, hopefully! Still in the query stage. 🙂

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