Vietnam Reading List & Book Reviews

First published April 2020 | Written by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | READING LIST | RELATED POSTS

Although I can’t claim to be any kind of authority on either Vietnamese literature or books about Vietnam in general, what reading I have done has greatly enhanced my experience and understanding of the country. Over the years I’ve been living and travelling here, I’ve hugely enjoyed reading about Vietnam, and, in the process, accumulated a modest library of Vietnam-related literature. On this page, I’ve compiled a categorized reading list of over 50 books about Vietnam, ranging from Vietnamese authors and poets in translation to travel writing, journalism, history, politics, biography and much more. I’ve written a personal review of each book in the list and, where possible, included links to Amazon.com to purchase a hard copy or e-book version of the reading material.

Vietnam Reading List & Book Reviews

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VIETNAM READING LIST & BOOK REVIEWS


The books in the following reading list are organized into 7 categories (see below). However, many books technically belong in two or more categories. In these cases, I’ve simply chosen to put the book into the category I most associate it with. There’s no rating system and, within each category, book titles are not listed in any particular order: if they’re on this list, they are, by definition, recommended and worth reading. There are over 50 books in this list, and I’ve written a personal review of each one. I’m not a literary critic and all reviews are entirely subjective. There’s a much wider potential reading list for Vietnam, and I will continue to add to this list when I have time. You’re also welcome to suggest further reading in the comments section at the bottom of this post. Where possible, I’ve included links to Amazon.com to purchase a hard copy of the book, e-book, or audible version.

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: I never receive payment for anything I write: all my content is free & independent. If you use the Amazon.com links on this page to purchase a book, audio-book, or e-book, I make a small commission. All my earnings go back into this website. Thank you.

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Vietnam Reading List & Book Reviews

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VIETNAMESE AUTHORS & POETS IN TRANSLATION

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NOVELS & FICTION

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TRAVEL, FOOD, EXPATRIATE LIFE & TRAVEL GUIDES

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HISTORY, BIOGRAPHY, WAR, JOURNALISM & POLITICS

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NATURE, CULTURE & THE ENVIRONMENT

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WEBSITES, MAGAZINES & BLOGS

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OTHER BOOKS I LOVE (NOT VIETNAMRELATED)

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VIETNAMESE AUTHORS & POETS IN TRANSLATION


Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 196266

  • Author: Thich Nhat Hanh (translated by Mobi Warren)
  • First published: 1967
  • Published by: Riverhead Books
  • Subjects & Style: poetic, meditative, Buddhism, exile, war, nature, mindfulness 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, is probably one of the most famous and influential religious figures alive today. Born in 1926, Thich Nhat Hanh taught at universities in the United States in the 1960s before returning to his native Vietnam, only to be forced into exile for his outspoken but peaceful views about the ongoing religious, political and military conflicts that were consuming his nation. Thich Nhat Hanh became an internationally known religious figure through numerous books and teachings on Buddhism, particularly mindfulness. He founded a revered Buddhist retreat in France, called Plum Village, and, in 2018, returned to Vietnam at age 91 to live out the rest of his days. ‘Fragrant Palm Leaves’ is a collection of Thich Nhat Hanh’s journals from 1962-66, during which time he was teaching at Princeton and Colombia universities in the U.S, gaining a reputation as a peace activist and earning the respect and friendship of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. The journals are beautifully written, with poetic flourishes, honest observations, and assertions of Buddhist values and practices. For me, the most eloquent and interesting passages of the journals are Thich Nhat Hanh’s nostalgic descriptions of ‘Phương Bối’, a Buddhist retreat he founded with his friends in the mountains and forests of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, which he lovingly and longingly describes, and which you can still visit today. Indeed, the title ‘Fragrant Palm Leaves’ is a translation of phương bối, which in turn is a reference to the leaves of the talipot palm tree on which the first Buddhist teachings were written. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram:

  • Author: Dang Thuy Tram 
  • First published: 2005 (translated edition: 2007)
  • Published by/translated by: Broadway Books/Andrew X. Pham
  • Subjects & Style: translated personal diaries of a Vietnamese battlefield nurse 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A Vietnamese battlefield surgeon in the central province of Quang Ngai, Dang Thuy Tram wrote a personal diary during the last years of the 1960s. Working for the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front (known to most in the West as the Viet Cong), Tram lived in the jungles of the midlands, between the coast and the mountains. Her diaries chronicle periods of heavy fighting, heavy casualties, heavy rain, determination and doubt, as she struggles to deal with the war and keep faith in the ideology she’s fighting for. Tram was shot dead by a US patrol in June, 1970. Her diaries were found by US personnel and ordered destroyed. However, the order was disobeyed and the diaries remained, untranslated and unpublished, in the possession of a U.S intelligence specialist for 35 years, until finally published in Vietnamese in 2005, and in English in 2007. The diaries were a sensation in Vietnam, but also sensitive because of Tram’s wavering faith in the Vietnamese revolution and the principles of Communism it espoused. Dang Thuy Tram’s diary is poignant, personal, enlightening and sad, as one knows her fate. The English translation is by Andrew X. Pham, a writer whose other work is also listed on this page. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Last Night I Dreamed of Peace by Dang Thuy Tram

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Two Cakes Fit for a King: Folktales from Vietnam:

  • Author: Nguyen Nguyet Cam 
  • First published: 2003
  • Published by: University of Hawaii Press
  • Subjects & Style: accessible & readable translations of fables & folktales from Vietnam 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Dozens of traditional folktales are widely known among Vietnamese. As with myths, fables, and fairy tales in any culture, many Vietnamese folktales are proto-scientific explanations of natural phenomena, such as why and when it rains, or stories relating to cultural identity, such as how the Lunar New Year is celebrated , or fictionalized descriptions of national historical events, such as the birth of the nation, or lessons in morality, such as how and who to love. In Two Cakes Fit for a King, ten folktales are translated into English for the general reader by Nguyen Nguyet Cam and Dana Sachs. The collection is very readable for all ages and makes a good companion for travellers interested in Vietnamese cultural identity. Cam is a Vietnamese instructor at Berkeley University, and Sachs has written several books on Vietnam ever since she lived in Hanoi in the 1990s. (Sach’s ‘House of Dream Street’ is also reviewed in this reading list.) The tales are short and dense, sometimes with an easily discernible moral or meaning, but other times impressively complex or paradoxical. The imagery – fruits, trees, flowers – and the natural phenomena – floods, mountains, monsoons – are exotic and evocative, and the characters – farmers, fishermen, giants, kings – are everything you want and expect from great fairy tales. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Two Cakes Fit for a King, Folktales from Vietnam

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The General Retires/Crossing the River:

  • Author: Nguyen Huy Thiep (translated by Greg Lockhart) 
  • First published: 1993/2002
  • Published by: Oxford University Press / Curbstone Books
  • Subjects & Style: short fiction from the 1980s on life, love, family & society in post-war rural & urban Vietnam 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Both of these books are collections of short stories written by Nguyen Huy Thiep, mostly in the 1980s, translated into English by Greg Lockhart (some stories are featured in both volumes). Many of the short fictions were published in the years following Đổi Mới (a policy of economic reform and opening begun in 1986), which briefly led to a flourishing of realism in Vietnamese literature, before ultimately being reigned in after the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989-91. The stories are very readable, and, as with all good short stories, deceptively simple. The prose is stark, spare and direct, which I find gives the stories a sort of solidity and timelessness. Many of the stories are set in the decade following the war (1975-85), which was a bleak period for much of the country, as it struggled to come to terms with the death, destruction, division and poverty that the previous three decades of fighting had caused. A kind of pent-up anguish appears to lie beneath many of the characters: there’s a sadness and hollowness to the situations; a sense of emptiness and weariness to relationships. Nguyen Huy Thiep became known as one of the first writers to depict the war and post-war years without the familiar heroic rhetoric, and as such his work was the subject of much debate. Nonetheless, Nguyen Huy Thiep is considered one of the most important Vietnamese writers alive today. The first time I read these short stories I enjoyed following the narratives, but they didn’t mean much to me. However, the second time, after I’d been living in Vietnam for some years, I found them to be rich in social commentary, criticism, and literary references. Therefore, perhaps these two volumes will be most rewarding for readers with some prior knowledge or acquaintance with Vietnamese culture, history and literature. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Crossing the River, Short Stories by Nguyen Huy Thiep

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The Sorrow of War:

  • Author: Bao Ninh (translated by Phan Thanh Hao) 
  • First published: 1991
  • Published by: Riverhead Books
  • Subjects & Style: autofiction of the ‘Vietnam War’ from the perspective of a North Vietnamese soldier, poetic, dream-like prose 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Drawing upon the author’s own experiences as a soldier fighting for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (‘the North’) against the American-backed Republic of Vietnam (‘the South’), The Sorrow of War is probably the most widely known book about the war by a Vietnamese writer. Bao Ninh was a teenager when, in 1969, he joined the fighting with the 500-strong Glorious 27th Youth Brigade; by the end of the war, in 1975, he was one of only 10 who survived. The Sorrow of War is an extraordinary book on many levels. For most Western readers, like myself, it’s likely to be the first book you read about the ‘Vietnam War’ written from the perspective of a North Vietnamese soldier. Yes, they were heroic and courageous, but they were also terrified, brutal and cruel, just as any group of soldiers can or will be during combat, no matter what the cause or the country they’re fighting for. The narrative shifts between time periods: flashbacks to the protagonist’s (Kien’s) youth, scenes of intense fighting during the war years, periods of melancholy in a forlorn, post-war Hanoi, and the present-day searching for MIAs in the ‘Jungle of Screaming Souls’. The time-shifts are abrupt and unpredictable: glimpses of the past that flit by as you turn the pages of the novel, creating a dream-like quality. The prose is poetic and full of imagery, but heavy with nostalgia, loss, and tragedy. The story is dense and overwhelming – there’s hardly time to catch breath between scenes: heavy fighting and casualties, young love on leafy Hanoi streets, the uncovering of the remains of fallen soldiers on a sodden former battlefield, a troop train derailed in the North Vietnamese countryside. These are the things that make the book remarkable, but they might also be the things that make it difficult to read and follow for some people. I found that, like listening to a Bob Dylan record, if I stuck to it and trusted the author, it eventually worked and made sense. And I loved it. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh

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Novel Without a Name:

  • Author: Duong Thu Huong (translated by Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson) 
  • First published: 1991
  • Published by: Penguin Books
  • Subjects & Style: war & disillusionment from the perspective of a North Vietnamese soldier, loss of innocence & youth, social comment, lyrical prose 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Duong Thu Huong, one of the best-known Vietnamese writers outside of her native land, is a veteran of the ‘Vietnam War’ whose books provoked the Communist government to expel her from the party and ban her novels from publication. She gained a reputation abroad, however, through translations into English and French, among other languages. Novel Without a Name follows Quan, a North Vietnamese soldier in his late twenties, as he struggles to cope with a growing sense of disillusionment with the war he’s been fighting for a decade. His faith in his country and his comrades wanes as he observes what war has made of them all. Quan finds solace in memory and nostalgia for his youth and innocence, which he is then given an opportunity to revisit when he returns home from the fighting, only to find that memory is sweeter than reality, and that many of those figures from his youth are now victims of war or have moved on. Duong Thu Huong’s writing is lyrical and sad: the voice of Vietnam’s ‘lost generation’, who went to war filled with patriotic fervour, but ended up paying with their lives, limbs, and loss of their youth. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Novel Without A Name by Duong Thu Huong

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An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems:

  • Translated by: Huynh Sanh Thong 
  • First published: 1996
  • Published by: Yale University Press
  • Subjects & Style: hundreds of translated poems by scores of Vietnamese poets over the last millennium, including scholarly introduction & footnotes 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Featuring over three hundred poems composed by over a hundred Vietnamese poets encompassing a thousand years of Vietnamese poetry, this anthology, translated into English by Huynh Sanh Thong, is an impressive achievement and a fascinating read for anyone with a particular interest in poetry and the poetic tradition in Vietnam . The anthology includes a dense introduction to Vietnamese poetry, including explanations of rhythm, metre, and the traditional and contemporary role of poetry in Vietnamese culture. There are equally dense and informative footnotes to each poem throughout the collection, many of which contain fascinating insights into ancient Vietnamese literature, culture and society. The poems are organized into historical periods and themes, such as Vietnam and China, the Buddhist tradition, love, war and conflict. The translated poems are very readable: the imagery is exotic but the themes are common to any culture. All of Vietnam’s major poets are featured, but so too are some more obscure ones. Personally, I prefer to dip into this anthology, rather than to read it cover to cover, and it’s perhaps not for the reader with a general interest in Vietnam: more for those with a specific interest in Vietnamese literature. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems by Huynh Sanh Thong

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The Tale of Kieu (Kim Vân Kiều)

  • Author: Nguyen Du (translated by Huynh Sanh Thong) 
  • First published: 1820
  • Published by: Yale University Press
  • Subjects & Style: epic poem, tragic love story highlighting fundamental conflicts in Vietnamese culture 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Considered the defining work of Vietnamese literature, the epic poem Kim Vân Kiều or Truyện Kiều (‘The Tale of Kieu’) was first published in 1820. The masterpiece of poet and mandarin, Nguyen Du (1765-1820), ‘The Tale of Kieu’ was originally written in chữ nôn, an ancient form of Vietnamese script that used Chinese characters to represent the Sino-Vietnamese language. Indeed, ‘The Tale of Kieu’ was based upon an earlier Chinese novel by an anonymous 17th century writer. There are several English translations available, but the most readable is, in my opinion, by Huynh Sanh Thong, who spent much of his life translating Vietnamese poetry into English (see above). He manages the impossibly complex task of translating Vietnamese verse into a language with very few similarities in rhythm, grammar, and tone with as much sympathy for the reader as possible. His translation also includes footnotes on style, meaning and historical context, as well as the text in Vietnamese (fascinating if you’re a student of the language). ‘The Tale of Kieu’ is a tragic story of a young woman (Kieu) who falls in love with a young man, but chooses loyalty to her family over the pursuit of her own romantic desires. Kieu accepts a marriage to an older man in order to save her family, but she is ultimately treated as little more than a prostitute. The conflict between filial piety and individual desire is still at the heart of many Vietnamese people’s lives today, especially for the younger generation who are growing up in an increasingly consumerist, individualist culture, which is challenging the traditional Confucian ideals of loyalty to one’s family above all else. ‘The Tale of Kieu’ is still widely known, widely read, and its meaning still debated. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Tale of Kieu (Kim Van Kieu)

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The Stars, The Earth, The River: 

  • Author: Le Minh Khue (translated by Bac Hoai Tran & Dana Sachs) 
  • First published: 1997
  • Published by: Curbstone Press
  • Subjects & Style: collection of short stories set is war-time & post-war Vietnam, spare prose style 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A collection of short stories set during the war and post-war periods, ‘The Stars, The Earth, The River’ is very accessible to the general reader, thanks partly to the author’s direct, spare, and simple prose. Le Minh Khue fought for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (‘The North’) in the Youth Volunteers Brigade, and later worked as a war journalist. Despite the romantic-sounding title of this collection, Khue’s stories focus on the hardships of war and the irreconcilable reality of its aftermath, when the heroism, idealism and community spirit of the wartime effort appeared to lose sway to greed, revenge and self-satisfaction in peacetime. Although it’s a long time since I last read these short stories, I remember their vividness, clarity and directness, and I remember them being easy to read. Needless to say, Le Minh Khue is one of Vietnam’s most respected living writers. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Stars, The Earth, The River by Le Minh Khue

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Paradise of the Blind: 

  • Author: Duong Thu Huong (translated by Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson) 
  • First published: 1988
  • Published by: William Morrow
  • Subjects & Style: role of women, family, corruption & traditional values vs individualism in post-war Vietnam, eloquent prose & shifting narrative 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Another of Duong Thu Huong’s novels banned in Vietnam but translated and published abroad, ‘Paradise of the Blind’ follows Hang, a Vietnamese woman living in 1980s Hanoi. Through a clever, but sometimes disorientating, narrative device, Hang’s story is told via flashbacks to her youth while on a long journey from Vietnam to Moscow to visit her sick uncle. The book deals with many significant cultural, social, political and personal conflicts that, although the novel was first published in 1988, are still very much relevant today, especially for young Vietnamese women. Among the themes are personal happiness vs familial loyalty, a strong Confucian value that has deep roots in Vietnamese culture, but increasingly clashes with modern concepts of individualism, particularly in urban areas. Another legacy of Confucianism, the role of women is a major subject of the book. Through her characters, Duong Thu Huong explores these themes critically, but sees value in them even as she recognizes their destructiveness. ‘Paradise of the Blind’ was one of the first Vietnamese books in translation that I ever read, and I remember being struck by how much attention was given to food and dining, both of which are significant expressions of Vietnamese culture and identity. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong

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NOVELS & FICTION


On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous:

  • Author: Ocean Vuong 
  • First published: 2019
  • Published by: Penguin & Jonathan Cape
  • Subjects & Style: poetic, descriptive, autofiction, coming-of-age, immigration, homosexuality 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A swirling and eye-opening piece of autofiction by award-winning Vietnamese-American poet, Ocean Vuong, ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ is an intricate and delicate narrative about a boy’s (and, subsequently, young man’s) life, family, love, and sexuality in the northeastern United States. Growing up and coming of age as a Vietnamese-American in Connecticut is only part of the story: other tentacles of the narrative stretch across the Pacific to the rice fields of war-torn Vietnam, where snatches of the boy’s mother’s and grandmother’s life add deep background to his present in the U.S. The book highlights the trauma of immigration – especially for those who’ve already lived half their lives in their country of origin: how it rips apart families, disrupts relationships, and uproots individuals from their familiar culture, stranding them in a new and unfamiliar one. There are several tragic and poignant vignettes illustrating this, such as the role reversal of a son teaching his mother how to read English (her native tongue being Vietnamese). But it’s not only the narrative which makes Ocean Vuong’s debut novel compelling: it’s also the language and style. Even if you didn’t know the author was a poet, you’d have guessed it by the end of the first chapter. The precise use of simile, metaphor, and juxtaposition, the rhythm of the prose and the vividness of descriptions – rawness and beauty in equal parts. Vuong appears almost to paint the scenes on the page. While reading, I had an image of the book as a canvas onto which Vuong splashed, flicked and threw the words to create a lively, emotional, complex and colourful work. There were some lulls in the narrative, and at times the tone felt sentimental (as does the title). But, overall, I felt the book was fresh, colourful, experimental and new. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

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The Sympathizer:

  • Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen 
  • First published: 2015
  • Published by: Grove Press
  • Subjects & Style: espionage, immigration, politics, war, American & Vietnamese culture 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A complex, clever and intricate spy novel, ‘The Sympathizer’ weaves a taut narrative about a Vietnamese double agent whose loyalties, values, and morals are tested and questioned time and again, both in his own country and in the United States, where much of the story unfolds as he lives among the ‘enemy’, sent there undercover as a refugee to continue his espionage work, even after his side in the war in Vietnam has liberated the south and taken Saigon. The scale and ambition of the narrative is extraordinary, and that such a complicated story is told so fluently and with such control is extremely impressive. Dozens of rich themes run throughout the work. Viet Thanh Nguyen, yet another successful Vietnamese-American author, provides thought-provoking insights into war, race, patriotism, immigration, ideology, American culture, and Vietnamese history and character. ‘The Sympathizer’ is well-written, well-paced (especially considering the size and scope of the novel), and an excellent book to get your teeth into either before travelling to Vietnam or in-country. If you’re going to be taking long train journeys or planning to spend a lot of time on the beach, ‘The Sympathizer’ is great company. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Beauty of Humanity Movement:

  • Author: Camilla Gibb 
  • First published: 2010
  • Published by: Penguin Books
  • Subjects & Style: a plot-driven, character-based novel set in 21st century Vietnam, drawing on a host of historical events & present-day issues  
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Set in contemporary Vietnam, ‘The Beauty of Humanity Movement’ is a fictional narrative of a Vietnamese-American woman’s journey back to Vietnam in search of clues about her father, who was a dissident artist but got separated from his wife and daughter during the fighting. The protagonist, Maggie, unravels the story of her father’s past by befriending an old man, Hung, who runs a noodle soup stall in Hanoi, and a young, enterprising male tour guide, Tu. These two characters represent the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Vietnam: its tumultuous past, during which the Vietnamese were subject to French colonial rule, carpet bombing, wars, and famine, and its more optimistic (materially, at least) present and future as a rapidly growing economy, among many other significant cultural and social changes. Author, Camilla Gibb, weaves the stories of each character, the events of past and present, and the shifts in cultural values, expectations, and issues– all of which are highly complex – into a balanced, informative, and engaging narrative. The book is well-written, plot-driven, and fun to read. However, ‘The Beauty of Humanity Movement’ does occasionally feel a bit contrived: almost as though the author had a timeline of important events in the past 100 years of Vietnamese history and hung a narrative on them, whilst peppering the story with interesting facts about Vietnam for good measure. Not that this, in itself, isn’t an impressive achievement: it just feels a little bit forced at times. Nevertheless, I found ‘The Beauty of Humanity Movement’ an enjoyable, fun, fact-filled read. In particular, this is a good book to read a week or two before travelling to Vietnam, because it’s an engaging narrative that’s easy to read, while also being a good primer on Vietnamese history and culture. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

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The Quiet American:

  • Author: Graham Greene 
  • First published: 1955
  • Published by: Penguin Books
  • Subjects & Style: a novel set during the last days of French Indochina amidst growing U.S involvement in Vietnam, taut plot, insightful, prescient, engaging characters, beautifully written  
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: In the early 1950s, the French are losing their war against the Viet Minh for control of Vietnam. Fowler, a cynical British correspondent living in Saigon with his much younger Vietnamese lover, Phuong, reports for The Times on the deteriorating situation in Indochina. Into his life walks Pyle, a young, idealistic American who, unbeknownst to Fowler at first, is an undercover CIA agent whose mission is to find and support a ‘Third Force’: an alternative to both the colonial French and the Communist Viet Minh for control of the country. Pyle and Fowler form a friendship. But the two men’s ideas on the future of Vietnam and the role of foreign involvement increasingly come into conflict, exacerbated by their mutual love of Phuong. Ultimately, all three characters are forced to make decisions that have consequences beyond their personal relationships.

Graham Greene is one of my favourite authors, and I’ve read ‘The Quiet American’ many times. It’s dense, taut, and short: like a Greek tragedy, everything in it is essential. I enjoy the juxtaposition of characters and their clashes of opinion and approaches to life, love, and war. Greene’s prose, which includes many evocative descriptions of Vietnam’s cities and countryside, is graceful and eloquent, but always down-to-earth. Many of the themes of the book are common to Greene’s other works: he offers insights into war – the specific conflict of the book (the Franco-Viet Minh War) and the future conflict of the ‘American-Vietnam War’ (which Greene prophesizes with disturbing accuracy) – love and romance, age and youth, friendships and relationships, the complexities of politics, foreign policy and foreign intervention, fate, will, god and religion. The book was written in the early 1950s, while Greene was living and working in Saigon as a war correspondent. It was written before the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, and well over a decade before U.S troops landed in Danang. But Greene saw all this coming and laid it out in ‘The Quiet American’. In recent years, the book has received criticism for the perceived flimsiness of the only female character in the novel, Phuong, who is seen by some as nothing more than a silent pawn moving between older, Western, male characters. No doubt there is some truth in this, but I’m not entirely convinced. Indeed, the more I read ‘The Quiet American’, the more I think that Phuong is, in fact, the main character and the driver of the narrative. What’s more, I think there’s a possibility that Phuong is, perhaps, a metaphor for Vietnam. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Quiet American by Graham Greene

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FOOD, TRAVEL, EXPATRIATE LIFE & TRAVEL GUIDES


Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table

  • Author: Graham Holliday 
  • First published: 2015
  • Published by: Anthony Bourdain/Ecco
  • Subjects & Style: entertaining food journalism, street food, culinary history, blogging 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: The ‘original’ foreign Vietnam food blogger, Graham Holliday started charting his exploration of Vietnamese street food online via the blog Noodle Pie. With witty (and mouthwatering) descriptions, photographs, and meticulous archiving of posts, Graham Holliday built up a veritable library of entertaining food blogs. Noodle Pie engaged an audience of foodies and travellers, among them Anthony Bourdain, who freely admitted to mining Noodle Pie to create his street food itinerary for his shows. Indeed, Bourdain was so impressed by the blog (as he was by Vietnam and its culinary scene in general), that he backed Holliday to write a book about street food in Vietnam. The result is ‘Eating Viet Nam’. In the book, Holliday utilizes his engaging, informal, and humorous blogging style to create a fascinating and honest account of his time in Vietnam. The focus, of course, is street food, and the book is hugely successful in communicating the boundless pleasures of street eating in Vietnam: the colours, flavours, variety, availability, informality, and the sheer fun of Vietnamese street food. But Holliday goes further: he introduces us to the people behind the street food – the cooks, the suppliers, the farmers, the families – and the history of particular dishes. Eating Viet Nam is a great read for anyone interested in food, culinary history, or for those unsure about the cleanliness or quality of street food: this book will give you the confidence to dive right in. Holliday ends with a timely warning: that future generations may not have access to the street food that he, and Bourdain, and myself, and so many others have had the privilege to experience, as domestic and international chains take over, recipes and techniques are forgotten, and attitudes to street dining change. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Eating Viet Nam by Graham Holliday

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A Cooks Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal

  • Author: Anthony Bourdain 
  • First published: 2001
  • Published by: Bloomsbury Press
  • Subjects & Style: fast-paced, Gonzoesque, personal travelogue & food diary, written accompaniment to T.V show 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A written accompaniment to Anthony Bourdain’s first venture into TV, ‘A Cook’s Tour’ is an account of the places, people, food, and experiences that he and his crew encountered while filming the show’s various episodes across the globe. Although only a few chapters focus on Vietnam (including the introduction), Bourdain’s love for the country – its culture, people, history and, of course, food – shines through, and his quick-witted, Gonzoesque, harsh-but-sensitive prose and general attitude to life, travel, and food is very engaging and entertaining. Of course, Anthony Bourdain is best-known as a TV personality, host, and chef, but he and some of his closest friends (according to interviews I’ve seen) regarded him first and foremost as a writer. There’s a crackle and pace to Bourdain’s prose and storytelling: he rarely gets bogged down, doesn’t linger unnecessarily, and consciously avoids pomposity. Try to get a copy of A ‘Cook’s Tour’ just for the Vietnam chapters, because Bourdain always got Vietnam in a way that most other ‘celebrity’ visitors never have. It’s a shame, however, that Bourdain could never leave ‘The War’ out it, either in his shows or his books. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain

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Catfish and Mandala:

  • Author: Andrew X. Pham 
  • First published: 1999
  • Published by: Picador
  • Subjects & Style: memoir, travelogue, autobiography, vivid, Dylanesque imagery, beautiful prose 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Born in Vietnam but brought up in the United States, Andrew X. Pham returns to his country of birth on a bicycle in his late twenties. ‘Catfish and Mandala’ is a beautifully written account of several threads in the author’s life: his formative years in Saigon and Phan Thiet, including his family’s perilous escape from Vietnam by boat in the 1970s; his adolescence as an Asian in America and the complex struggles his family faced adapting to life on a new continent and in a new culture; and his travels on two wheels along the Pacific Rim, culminating in his trans-Vietnam adventure in the late 1990s. The book is impressive and hugely rewarding on many levels: Pham has a real feel for language, particularly in descriptions of people and places, using imagery and metaphor to create beautiful and lucid portraits of characters and landscapes, among other things. There’s a poetic, Dylanesque quality to the writing. The narrative structure, which shifts between time periods in the author’s life, is so poised and balanced that it almost gains a physical form. And the story itself is engaging and thought-provoking, dealing with many fascinating themes, such as memory vs reality, familial piety vs individual pursuit, Vietnamese vs Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese). The only ‘problem’ I have with ‘Catfish and Mandala’ is that the author has a generally negative experience of travelling in Vietnam. This is largely because of Pham’s position as a Việt kiều, which is a fascinating theme of the book, but could end up colouring a visitor’s expectations of Vietnam and the Vietnamese. Therefore, I would recommend reading ‘Catfish and Mandala’ after you’ve spent at least a few days in-country; but not before you travel. Either way, I consider Pham an extraordinary writer on Vietnam, which is confirmed by his prequel to this book, ‘The Eaves of Heaven’, which is also reviewed in this reading list. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham

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The House on Dream Street:

  • Author: Dana Sachs 
  • First published: 2000
  • Published by: Algonquin Books
  • Subjects & Style: memoir of American expatriate woman in Hanoi in the early 1990s 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: At around 30 years of age, Dana Sachs went to live in Hanoi. In the early 1990s, Vietnam was still in the initial stages of issuing tourist and work visas to American citizens post-1975. Sachs lived with a local Hanoian family, learnt Vietnamese, and taught English in the capital. This might sound like a familiar story for any modern-day expatriate living in Vietnam, but in the early years of the last decade of the 20th century, life in Hanoi for an expat was very different, and so was the city itself. In ‘The House on Dream Street’, Sachs writes of her life and experiences in Vietnam with sensitivity, honesty, compassion, and clearly a lot of love for the country and its people. The book remains a vivid portrait of Hanoi and its citizens on the cusp of huge changes – economic, social, and cultural – that were the result of market reforms which plugged Vietnam into the global economy. ‘The House on Dream Street’ makes fascinating reading for any Vietnam expat, such as myself, but also for any traveller interested in understanding just how dramatic the changes that Hanoi and the rest of the country have undergone in the past generation really are. But perhaps most interestingly of all, Sachs is a female expat: an American woman living in Vietnam. So many expatriate memoirs are written by men; it’s refreshing to read the expat experience from a female perspective. Sachs, who lived a proactive expat life (rather than living in a bubble of Western food, condos, coffee chains, and convenience stores, as many expats do today), immersed herself in the country: its food, language, history, literature, spiritual practices, love, and sex. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The House on Dream Street by Dana Sachs

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Lonely Planet & Rough Guide to Vietnam:

  • Author: various (see each edition) 
  • First published: new editions every couple of years
  • Published by: Lonely Planet & Rough Guides
  • Subjects & Style: informative, well organized, easy to read guides to travel destinations across the nation 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: If you’ve traveled a lot, chances are you’ve relied on the advice and information in either the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide at some point during your trips. Although their influence and circulation is now diminishing (thanks to online resources, such as blogs, forums, and crowdsourcing apps), these two giants of the guide book world are still worth having in your suitcase (or on your e-reader). However, I’ve encountered a fair amount of travellers who tend to look down on these guidebooks, saying they’re lightweight, or full of sponsored content, or lazily researched, or not for real travellers. But, in my experience, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide are still indispensable when it comes to travelling to a new or unfamiliar destination. Primarily, they give an excellent overview of the country: places to visit, ways to get around, food, drink, culture, history. They are very well-organized, thought-out, and easy to use.

Lonely Planet, in particular, is full of priceless information: don’t book room No.11 at this hotel, watch your head on the door at this bar, arrive before 7.45am at this temple. There’s also humour and a personal touch to the writing style at Lonely Planet. But, with Rough Guide, the style is often more literary, fluid, and sweeping. I can read sections of the Rough Guide simply for fun: a vicarious trip through a particular region of Vietnam. What’s more, these guides are written by human beings – not algorithms – who care about travel and have actually experienced the places they write about; not by a lazy millennial typing keywords into Google to create a Vietnam Top-10 list from his bedroom in Birmingham. For practical information, these guidebooks are great. But, by no means should they be your only source of travel information. Rather, guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Rough Guide should be used in conjunction with all the other information that we are now lucky enough to have available to us. There is, of course, the big issue of ‘static’ printed content: guidebooks are often researched at least a year before publication, which means, by the time you read them, some information will already have changed and be out of date, especially in a country like Vietnam with such rapid economic growth. It seems strange to me that Lonely Planet and Rough Guide haven’t moved online and become ‘live’, editable sources of travel information, much like a blog. [You can buy these books on Amazon.com]

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Lonely Planet Vietnam

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A Dragon Apparent:

  • Author: Norman Lewis 
  • First published: 1951
  • Published by: Eland Publishing
  • Subjects & Style: a journey through ‘Indochina’ during the last years of French colonial rule, eloquent, descriptive prose, cultural observations 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: First published in 1951, just three years before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu signalled the end of colonial rule in Vietnam, ‘A Dragon Apparent’ is a beautifully written account of Norman Lewis’ journey through what was then known as ‘Indochina’. The writing is wonderful and the descriptions of people, places, and customs are vivid and live, with the freshness of an on-the-spot sketch. Indeed, Lewis notes, while wandering the streets of Saigon’s Chinatown (Cho Lon), that he must write feverishly during his first days in-country, for that is when everything is new and one’s observations are most acute. If you’ve lived in or visited any of the places described in the book (Saigon, Dalat, the mountains of the Central Highlands, Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat, for example), then Lewis’ experiences of them, now over 70 years ago and then on the cusp of major changes brought on by the exit of the French and the arrival of the Americans and ‘the war’, are fascinating. This was a time when the population of Vietnam was well under 20 million (now, it’s close to 100 million), a time when tigers prowled the streets of Dalat at night, a time when ‘hill tribes’ living in the mountains and jungles sustained themselves by hunting, a time when Vietnam still had, nominally at least, a sitting emperor. And yet, this is a time that’s still within living memory: the parents of many millennials were children at the time Lewis published ‘A Dragon Apparent’. But this was also a time of implicit prejudice, cultural arrogance, and superiority (not that these things don’t still exist today, of course). However, there are times when Lewis appears to look down on the people and customs he’s observing, and many readers may feel offended by such instances. One scene, for example, has Lewis belittling the quality of the famous Vietnamese condiment, fish sauce (nước mắm), which he now considers himself (after just weeks of experience in Vietnam) as something of a connoisseur. But these cases are few and should be viewed within the context of the time they were written. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis

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The Great Railway Bazaar:

  • Author: Paul Theroux 
  • First published: 1975
  • Published by: Houghton Mifflin
  • Subjects & Style: engaging account of travelling by rail from London to Tokyo & back, including train travel in war-time Vietnam 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A classic of travel literature, Paul Theroux’ account of his four-month journey by rail from London to Tokyo and back, includes all of the most romantic, evocatively-named train routes in Europe and Asia: the Orient Express, Delhi Mail, Khyber Pass Local, Mandalay Express, Trans-Siberian Express. However, Theroux also stopped in Vietnam to ride what was left (after many years of war) of the rail service there. The year was 1973. The Paris Peace Accords had recently been signed, bringing an end to direct American military involvement in Vietnam. But the war between north and south was still raging, and a major target, for both sides, had always been the railway line, which was repeatedly bombed, sabotaged, and put together again, as it was a vital means of transportation for troops and supplies. However, even as the rail line was constantly under threat, and even as the war was far from over, the South Vietnamese government were keen to show Theroux what Vietnam had to offer the train travel enthusiast. And so, Theroux was allowed to travel by rail on two specific sections (sections that hadn’t been blown-up and were therefore deemed ‘safe’) of what used to be known, during French colonial times, as the Trans-Indochinois, but is known today as the Reunification Express, connecting Saigon and Hanoi. The first section Theroux was allowed to ride was the line from Saigon heading northeast to Bien Hoa, which in Theroux’ time, as today, was something of an urban-industrial sprawl: fascinating, but certainly not beautiful. But the second section open to Theroux was the line between Hue and Danang, in Central Vietnam. Still considered to be the most scenic stretch of the entire length of the Saigon to Hanoi railway, Theroux, who’d already travelled across Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent by train, was amazed by what he saw from his carriage:

‘Of all the places the railway had taken me since London, this was the loveliest……Beyond the leaping jade plates of the sea was an overhang of cliffs and the sight of a valley so large it contained sun, smoke, rain and cloud – all at once……I had been unprepared for this beauty; it surprised and humbled me……Who has mentioned the simple fact that the heights of Vietnam are places of unimaginable grandeur?’ [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

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Exploring Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Author: Tim Doling 
  • First published: 2014
  • Published by: The Gioi Publishers
  • Subjects & Style: annotated & illustrated guide to fascinating, do-it-yourself historical walking tours in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Written by Tim Doling, one of the foremost foreign historians of Vietnamese history and culture, ‘Exploring Ho Chi Minh City’ is a collection of do-it-yourself walking tours throughout the city. (*An updated and expanded edition of this book is available called ‘Exploring Saigon-Cho Lon: Vanishing Heritage of Ho Chi Minh City’.) Tim Doling’s breadth and depth of knowledge of the city’s history – especially its architectural heritage – make him the ideal person to guide you through the streets of Ho Chi Minh. The book includes annotated maps, illustrations, and detailed descriptions for each walking tour, with fascinating historical background. Doling’s prose is measured and clear, meaning that even if you don’t plan on following any of the walks, the book is still highly satisfying to read and offers many  insights into Vietnam’s largest city. The walking tours cover a lot of ground – from the well-trodden city centre to its far less-visited outer suburbs. At every turn, Doling points out buildings you never would have known were there, museums you wouldn’t have thought to visit, and the sites of historical events you’d never have known had taken place. ‘Exploring Ho Chi Minh City’ is a unique and indispensable guide for anyone interested in the history or architecture of the southern hub. Just remember to bring sunscreen, a hat, and a raincoat (depending on the time of year) with you on the walks, because many of them take hours to complete. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Exploring Ho Chi Minh City by Tim Doling

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HISTORY, BIOGRAPHY, WAR, JOURNALISM & POLITICS


The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

  • Author: Bill Hayton 
  • First published: 2014
  • Published by: Yale University Press
  • Subjects & Style: in-depth journalism, historical analysis, politics, future predictions 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A brilliant example of in-depth, painstakingly researched journalism on a complex subject, Bill Hayton’s ‘The South China Sea’ is a very readable and engaging account of an important issue for Southeast Asia. The disputed islands in the South China Sea (known as the East Sea to Vietnamese) are a potential flashpoint for the region. Two groups of tiny, scattered islets lie in the waters off Vietnam’s east coast. Many of these atolls are claimed by both Vietnam and China, among other Southeast Asian nations. Although the islands themselves are of little value, the shipping lanes they lie in the path of are among the busiest in the world, and of huge strategic importance to China, Vietnam, other regional countries and, indeed, the United States, as the rise of China threatens the latter’s naval superiority in the Western Pacific. Rich fisheries and potential gas and oil reserves further increase the value of controlling these seemingly insignificant specks in the ocean. Since the end of the Second World War, tensions have been rising and claims made more vocal as ownership and control of the islands becomes a matter of national pride for all countries involved. Conflict over the islands has already claimed lives; skirmishes are not uncommon; and national anger quickly erupts whenever an incident occurs. Bill Hayton’s book goes very deep into the complex history of the islands and the conflicting (oftentimes confusing) claims of competing countries. Detailed yet readable, fascinating yet alarming, Hayton’s style and storytelling make the book essential reading for anyone with an interest in the past, present, and future of Southeast Asia and the ongoing struggle for power between China and the United States in the Western Pacific. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The South China Sea by Bill Hayton

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Ho Chi Minh: A Life

  • Author: William J. Duiker 
  • First published: 2000
  • Published by: Hyperion
  • Subjects & Style: meticulously detailed biography, 20th century politics & history 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: This is an extraordinarily detailed and meticulously researched biography of one the most important figures in Vietnamese history, and, indeed, of the 2oth century as a whole. Scholarly but very readable, William J. Duiker’s account of Ho Chi Minh’s life is much more than a biography: it encompasses many of the main events of 20th century history, from the profiteering of colonialism to its eventual demise, the rise of America and the Soviet Union, through both world wars, the Cold War, and the ‘Vietnam War’. All of this is necessary in order to understand the motivations of Ho Chi Minh and the historical context, political, and social conditions that formed his experiences, ideas, ideals, and actions as he grew up and came of age under French colonial rule, then spent his adult life fighting for national independence. It’s a long and well-told story of a remarkable man and a remarkable life. If you only read one book in English about the man known affectionately as Uncle Ho, make it this one. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Ho Chi Minh, A Life by William J. Duiker

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Hello, Shadowlands:

  • Author: Patrick Winn 
  • First published: 2018
  • Published by: Icon Books
  • Subjects & Style: thoroughly researched, highly readable journalism, criminal underbelly, society, politics in Southeast Asia 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Based in Bangkok, Patrick Winn is an American journalist whose work focuses largely on the criminal underbelly of the region, namely organized crime in Southeast Asia. In ‘Hello, Shadowlands’ – whose secondary title is ‘Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia’ –  Winn explores six threads of the criminal underworld, taking him from the back-roads of rural Vietnam to the drug dens of the remote mountains of northern Myanmar to the streets of Manila. Although all six chapters are exceptionally well-researched, engaging, and highly illuminating (especially with regard to Myanmar and the West’s apparently massive miss-reading of the political situation there under Aung San Suu Kyi), it is the final chapter, ‘Swamp Grounds’, which most interests me and which prompted me to buy the book in the first place. Here, Winn does what almost no other foreign journalist, commentator, activist or media influencer can: he talks at length and in-depth about the consumption, trade, history, and culture of dog meat in Vietnam with objective clarity, not letting emotion muddy his research, writing, and conclusions. Focusing on one of a string of notorious vigilante dog-thief murders in Vietnam, Winn dives into the complex, fascinating, and hugely controversial subject of the human consumption of dog meat. In the last decade, this has become such a sensitive issue in Vietnam and abroad (particularly in the West) that it’s almost impossible to discuss the subject in any format. Indeed, in Vietnamese news reports about dog meat, customers at dog meat restaurants must have their faces blurred for fear of reprisals. Patrick Winn deals with the subject head-on, which is brave, commendable, and extremely interesting. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Hello, Shadowlands by Patrick Winn

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Dispatches:

  • Author: Michael Herr 
  • First published: 1977
  • Published by: Vintage
  • Subjects & Style: fast paced journo-fiction of American experience of the ‘Vietnam War’ 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: One of the first books to be written about the American experience in the ‘Vietnam War’, Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches’ was published in 1977, just two years after the ‘fall’ of Saigon. Herr was a war correspondent for Esquire magazine in the late 1960s, during the height of U.S involvement in the conflict. In ‘Dispatches’, Herr draws upon his experiences in Vietnam to create a vivid, terrifying, tense, and gripping portrait of life for Americans (from correspondents to soldiers to non-military personnel) in Vietnam. This might sound like well-trodden ground, but, just like ‘Apocalypse Now’ in the genre of Vietnam War movies, ‘Dispatches’ was not only one of the first such books about the war, it remains one of the best: I can’t think of another book by an American about the American experience in the ‘Vietnam War’ that carries the same weight and impact as ‘Dispatches’. The writing is direct, spare, immediate, and urgent; the tempo is breathless; the characters are real, scared, and fragile; the places are hot, humid, and wet; and the insights, which are dropped throughout the narrative, are profound and sobering. From the very first paragraph, ‘Dispatches’ has an irresistible momentum. This is a book with all the best elements of American journalism. And yet, ‘Dispatches’ is, according to Herr, part fiction: a narrative based upon the author’s real life experiences, but not a straightforward memoir of Herr’s time in Vietnam. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Dispatches by Michael Herr

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The Eaves of Heaven:

  • Author: Andrew X. Pham 
  • First published: 2008
  • Published by: Harmony Books
  • Subjects & Style: biography of the author’s father, spanning decades of war & upheaval in Vietnam, beautiful prose & masterful narrative control 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A beautifully realized biography of the author’s father, ‘The Eaves of Heaven’ follows Thong Van Pham from his childhood in northern Vietnam as the son of wealthy landowners, to his adolescence, marriage, professional, and family life in war-time Saigon. Covering four of the most unsettled and dangerous decades in Vietnam’s history, Thong Van Pham and his family endure three wars: the Japanese occupation of Vietnam in the 1940s, the Franco-Vietnam War from 1946-1954, and the ‘Vietnam War’ in the 1960s and 1970s. During these decades, Pham’s family are forced to leave their homes, jobs, lives, and loves behind on several occasions and start anew in unfamiliar circumstances. Astonishing as it seems, this was a not an uncommon experience for many Vietnamese who were born in the same decade as Pham. But, ‘The Eaves of Heaven’ is much more than just another book about the many conflicts in twentieth century Vietnam. Thanks to Andrew X. Pham’s beautiful prose and masterful narrative control (as showcased in his first book, Catfish and Mandala, which, chronologically, is the sequel to the events in ‘Eaves of Heaven’), this is a book that can be enjoyed and appreciated on many levels, by a wide audience. The writing is descriptive, poetic, full of life and light and smells; the story is told with controlled pace and rhythm, jumping from past to present, from one decade to another, from urban to rural, from war time to peace time. For the general reader, the narrative and writing style alone is enough to make the book hugely rewarding; and for the reader with special interest in Vietnam, the insights into Vietnamese culture, personality, and history, and the subtleties of the war – such as who was fighting on which side and why – are enlightening and, in many cases, very surprising. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham

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Vietnam: Rising Dragon

  • Author: Bill Hayton 
  • First published: 2010
  • Published by: Yale University Press
  • Subjects & Style: broad analysis of contemporary Vietnam by former BBC Vietnam correspondent, journalism, politics, history, culture, economics, society 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A former BBC Vietnam correspondent, Bill Hayton draws upon his impressive knowledge of the country (as well as his personal experience living in the country) to deliver one of the most all-encompassing, engaging, and readable books about contemporary Vietnam in the English language to date. Covering a broad range of fascinating subjects and issues – from Vietnam’s imperial history to its complex relationship with China, from the rise of capitalism and entrepreneurship to the importance of giant SOEs (state-owned enterprises), from the agricultural economy of the past to the gleaming, commerce-driven cities of the present – Hayton paints a picture of modern Vietnam that should be familiar to any expatriate living there today, but also highly illuminating to any traveller who has more than a passing interest in the country. The style is journalistic and the research is thorough and academic, but the book reads well and moves on at a satisfying pace. Hayton’s prose is accessible and his voice is familiar and human. This is not a stuffy or esoteric work: ‘Rising Dragon’ makes good reading for anyone interested in Vietnam today. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Vietnam, Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton

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The Sacred Willow:

  • Author: Duong Van Mai Elliott 
  • First published: 1999
  • Published by: Oxford University Press
  • Subjects & Style: four generations of the author’s family, spanning a century of political, social, cultural & military unrest in Vietnam, eloquent prose, absorbing narrative 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Telling the story of four generations of her own family history, Duong Van Mai Elliott’s ‘Sacred Willow’ is a sprawling saga of conflicting loyalties, loves, ideologies, and cultural values spanning most of the twentieth century in Vietnam. Her great-grandfather was a mandarin to the imperial court, her father was a respected government official in Hanoi under French colonial rule, her sister joined the Viet Minh as they fled the northern cities for the jungles and mountains to conduct an eight year guerrilla war against the French, and Mai herself, having grown up in Vietnam, was educated and married in the United States, before returning to Saigon in the 1960s, in what was then South Vietnam, to conduct research for the RAND Corporation (which is also where Daniel Ellsberg was working when he leaked the Pentagon Papers, in 1971). The story is told chronologically, so you get a real sense of the scope of time and events that Mai’s family, and indeed Vietnam, has endured over the past hundred years. Mai’s style is eloquent and her observations are acute: there are countless fascinating comments on, for example, the differences between the north and the south of Vietnam – the dialects, the weather, the food, the foliage, the personality – and the agonizing choices faced by families and individuals during the political tides of the century – who to work for, who to support, who to fight for, where to move, when to flee. These were the decisions that often tore families apart, and they were rarely black and white, but rather full of paradox and overlapping loyalties. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott

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Vietnam: A New History

  • Author: Christopher Goscha 
  • First published: 2016
  • Published by: Basic Books
  • Subjects & Style: comprehensive history of Vietnam from antiquity to the present-day, well-written, suitable for the general reader 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Although, at nearly 600 pages long, this new history of Vietnam is a veritable tome, Christopher Goscha’s easy and pleasant style makes it suitable for the general reader. However, the density of information and detail (which must be the result of extremely heavy research) mean that perhaps this history shouldn’t be your first introduction to Vietnam’s long and fascinating past. Covering two thousand years of the landmass we know today as ‘Vietnam’, Goscha’s history challenges your preconceptions of this country, even from the introduction. Personally, I found the early chapters, focusing on Vietnam’s Red River Delta region in the late centuries BC and the succeeding period under Chinese rule, particularly interesting, because it’s rarely dealt with at length in other histories. And so too, in Goscha’s history, the majority of the book concentrates on pre-colonial, colonial, revolutionary, and post-war Vietnam – in other words, the relatively ‘recent’ past. If you have a genuine interest in the history of Vietnam, Goscha’s ‘New History’ seems, to me, to be essential reading. It took me a long time to read, but I found it comprehensive, well-structured, and enlightening. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Vietnam, A New History by Christopher Goscha

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The Girl in the Picture:

  • Author: Denise Chong 
  • First published: 1999
  • Published by: Penguin Books
  • Subjects & Style: biography of Kim Phuc, the 9-year-old girl caught in a napalm attack whose image came to define the ‘Vietnam War’  
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Nine-year-old Kim Phuc runs, naked, burned, and screaming towards the camera, black clouds of napalm billowing in the distance, flanked by other terrified children, pressman with photography equipment, and soldiers carrying rifles. Taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press on 8 June, 1972, this photograph became one of the defining images of the ‘Vietnam War’. It was a picture that helped turn the tide of public opinion in the U.S against the war and won Nick the Pulitzer Prize and World Press Photo of the Year. But, more importantly, the image changed the life of Kim Phuc, who became known as ‘napalm girl’ or ‘the girl in the picture’. Denise Chong’s biography of Kim Phuc is fascinating and haunting: from her childhood in the village of Trang Bang (in the countryside west of Saigon) to the ‘friendly fire’ incident by South Vietnamese planes which left her scarred for life; from the extraordinary events that unfolded post-picture (including her struggles with excruciating burns) to life as a propaganda poster girl in Communist Vietnam; from her studies in Cuba to her subsequent defection to Canada, where she lives with her family to this day. An absorbing but, at times, harrowing read. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Girl in the Picture by Denis Chong

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Understanding Vietnam:

  • Author: Neil L. Jamieson 
  • First published: 1993
  • Published by: University of California Press
  • Subjects & Style: fascinating review of Vietnamese people & culture versus the Western perception of it, illustrated with an array of excerpts from Vietnamese art & literature
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: This is one of the first books I can remember reading about Vietnamese people and culture. It remains unique in that Jamieson draws upon his immense knowledge and experience of the country – its people, history, language, and artistic output – in order to illustrate his points with quotes, snippets and excerpts from Vietnamese books, interviews, speeches, newspaper articles, plays and folk tales, novels and poems, cartoons and essays. This bewildering scope of source material sets it apart from other accounts of Vietnamese history and culture, which, although also drawing on vast archives of information, are generally presented in a more conventional manner. ‘Understanding Vietnam’ is a fairly academic study of Vietnamese culture, but it’s also very readable and accessible, in part precisely because the sources are there to speak for themselves. Jamieson has decades of experience of Vietnam, and his aim with this book is to bridge the enormous gulf between the reality of Vietnam and how it is perceived by the West. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Understanding Vietnam by Neil L. Jamieson

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Shadows and Wind:

  • Author: Robert Templer 
  • First published: 1998
  • Published by: Penguin Books
  • Subjects & Style: excellent journalism exploring Vietnam at the turn of the millennium  
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: An in-depth analysis of Vietnam at the turn of the millennium, ‘Shadows and Wind’ is engaging, well-written, well-researched, high-quality journalism. Although now more than 20 years old, I still think Robert Templer’s exploration of an emerging Vietnam is worth reading today. Templer lived and worked in Vietnam for years, and his book is based on hundreds of interviews, interactions, and background reading. ‘Shadows and Wind’ touches on Vietnam’s history, but is more concerned with its present and future. Many of the major issues at the turn of the millennium – integrating capitalism into a Communist state, dealing with a widening wealth gap, moving from a rural, agrarian economy to an urban, industrial one, and endemic corruption – are still the ones that the nation and its people are dealing with today. But, of course, many things have changed since the book was first published, in 1998. Therefore, it’s worth balancing ‘Shadows and Wind’ with a more recent analysis of modern Vietnam, such as Bill Hayton’s ‘Rising Dragon’ (2010). [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Shadows and Wind by Robert Templer

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Việt Nam: A Long History

  • Author: Nguyen Khac Vien 
  • First published: 1976
  • Published by: The Gioi Publishers
  • Subjects & Style: comprehensive history of Vietnam from the stone age to reunification, emphasis of socialist revolution, at times difficult to follow
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A comprehensive telling of the last few millennia, ‘Việt Nam: A Long History’ is a good book to have on your shelf if you have a particular interest in Vietnam’s past. This is because, unlike all of the other history books listed on this page, this one is written by a Vietnamese historian who was a Communist Party member. History is, supposedly, written by the victors, and yet most the books that we, in the West, consume about Vietnam’s history and, in particular, the ‘Vietnam War’, are written by the ‘losers’. It’s fascinating, then, to read a history, not just of the ‘Vietnam War’ but of the entire century of foreign involvement and conflict in Vietnam (not to mention thousands of years prior to that), which is written by one of the victors: in this case, Nguyen Khac Vien, a Communist Party member, both in France (where he lived for several decades) and in Vietnam where he worked as an editor and pediatrician. It is challenging and eye-opening to be confronted with a version of history of a period that, perhaps, you thought you were familiar with, only to find there’s a completely different interpretation available. As you read through the ‘Long History’, you may find it jarring, and you may think it transparent in its effort to see all previous events in Vietnam’s history as an inevitable build-up to the socialist revolution of the 20th century, but it should also make it obvious that no history (including the ones you’ve been reading all you life) is objective. Originally published in 1976, just after Reunification, Nguyen Khac Vien’s ‘Long History’ is a good companion to have when visiting historical sites in Vietnam: thumb through the index (it’s a large book) and find page references to wherever you are. However, it’s not always that easy to read: sometimes the prose is awkward and the presentation of events appears muddled, but this may be a fault of the translation. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Vietnam A Long History by Nguyen Khac Vien

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NATURE, CULTURE & THE ENVIRONMENT


Vietnam: A Natural History

  • Author: Jane Sterling, Maud Hurley, Duc Minh 
  • First published: 2006
  • Published by: Yale University Press
  • Subjects & Style: academic but informal, nature, environment, flora, fauna 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Exploring the geography, geology, flora, and fauna of the entire country, ‘Vietnam: A Natural History’ provides a good foundation for nature enthusiasts. Vietnam boasts extraordinary biodiversity, and its climate and geography are much more complex than most people would imagine. I found the chapters about the early natural history particularly fascinating. Details, such as the Hoang Lien Son Range, in northwest Vietnam, being the southeastern-most extent of the same clash of continents that formed the Himalayas, stay in my mind whenever I travel to that region. But, sadly, much of the information in this book, published in 2006, is now out of date, particularly when it comes to the numbers of rare wildlife, such as the Javan Rhino, Asiatic Elephant, Indochinese Tiger, and Asian Black Bear; many of these magnificent animals having either been wiped out completely or their numbers much, much lower than at the time of publication. However, the book is still a good companion guide to have at hand whenever one of those questions come up like, ‘What’s that strange flower over there?’ or ‘Is that a volcanic crater in the distance?’ or ‘What’s the longest river in Vietnam?’. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Vietnam A Natural History

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Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture:

  • Author: Huu Ngoc 
  • First published: 2004
  • Published by: The Gioi Publishers
  • Subjects & Style: monumental collection of short essays on myriad aspects of Vietnamese culture 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A monumental collection of short essays, articles, vignettes, and folk tales from Vietnamese culture, Huu Ngoc’s tome (over 1,100 pages) is a treasure trove of information. Easy to dip into (but not easy to carry around), ‘Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture’ enlightens the reader on myriad aspects of Vietnam, from the natural world to the mythic past, from frogs and flowers to ghosts, spirits, and ancestors. There are countless nuggets of information in this enormous book, which is the product of a man – now over 100-years-old – who has spent his life studying about, fighting for, and communicating his country and its culture to the rest of the world. Huu Ngoc’s passion, scholarly background, and playful, excited character all come through in the many mini-episodes of ‘Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture’. It’s a beautiful book to have on a table in your house: always there to pick up for five minutes of fascinating reading. However, it would be nice if there were an e-book version available in order to, literally, lighten the load. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture by Huu Ngoc

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Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind & Spirit

  • Author: Nguyen Van Huy & others 
  • First published: 2003
  • Published by: University of California Press
  • Subjects & Style: collection of interesting essays on various aspects of Vietnamese life & culture, all characterized by a ‘journey’
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A collection of interesting essays on many different aspects of Vietnamese life and culture, ‘Journeys of Body, Mind and Spirit’ was originally published as an illustrated companion to a major exhibition on Vietnam, produced by the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography and the American Museum of of Natural History. The essays, all of which include colour photographs of Vietnam, offer insights into subjects as diverse as Confucianism, the afterlife, wet markets, Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups, pottery, and marriage. In fact, many of the essays in this collection deal with fairly esoteric (but fascinating) aspects of Vietnamese culture that aren’t often covered in other books. All of the essays, which are authored by several different contributors, are characterized by a ‘journey’, whether physical, spiritual or social. It’s an interesting and original concept, and I found that these essays broadened my thinking on Vietnamese culture. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Vietnam Journeys of Body, Mind and Spirit

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Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction

  • Author: Damien Keown 
  • First published: 1996
  • Published by: Oxford University Press
  • Subjects & Style: succinct overview of Buddhism, including history, theory, practices & evolution
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Although Vietnam has no state religion, Buddhism plays a large role in many people’s lives. Along with Confucianism, ancestor worship, animism, Taoism and, to a lesser extent, Christianity, Buddhist teachings and practices are deeply ingrained in Vietnamese culture. In fact, they are so deep that many Vietnamese people don’t identify these practices as ‘Buddhist’ at all. Like Christianity in the West, Buddhism in Vietnam has such deep roots that it has become inextricable from ‘normal’, secular life. Buddhist values and practices are everywhere in Vietnam, and it’s only once you start reading about Buddhism that you begin to see them. Damien Keown’s ‘Very Short Introduction’ was, for me, a good way into a subject that both interests and confuses me. Perhaps most relevant to Vietnam, are the two main branches of Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. The former is considered to be a more austere, ‘serious’, and conservative form of Buddhism, whereas the latter is more informal and open. Vietnam, unlike its neighboring Southeast Asian nations, adopted the latter. There’s a lot of fascinating information in this ‘Very Short Introduction’, and reading it will, at the very least, give you some context when visiting a Buddhist temple, pagoda or shrine during your trip to Vietnam. But, if you stay longer in the country, this book may provide insight into the way many Vietnamese people live their lives, not least their attitudes toward the past. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Buddhism A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown

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Tropical Plants, Flowers, Fruits & Vegetables: Handy Pocket Guides

  • Authors: Elisabeth Chan, William Warren, Wendy Hutton 
  • First published: 2003 & 2004
  • Published by: Periplus Editions
  • Subjects & Style: annotated & illustrated pocket guides to tropical flora, fruits & vegetables
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: As you travel through the Vietnamese countryside (and even in the cities), you’ll come across dozens of spectacular tropical plants, flowers, and trees. And, in the markets (and on your plate), you’ll notice many strange and exotic-looking fruits and vegetables. If, like me, you don’t originally hail from a tropical country, finding out the names of all this exotica can be difficult, confusing and, at times, frustrating. The first time, for example, that you see a dragon fruit in a market, or a giant banyan tree in a forest, how do you identify it? This was how I felt before I found the ‘Handy Pocket Guides’ to Tropical Flowers, Plants, Fruits, and Vegetables. All four books are, indeed, pocket-sized, and each one is nicely presented and easy to use: a colour illustration on one side of the page, and a brief but illuminating description on the other. The blurb for each item also includes translations in several Asian languages. Sadly, however, none of the books include the Vietnamese translations of any of the flowers, fruits, and vegetables, but I’ve written my own Guide to Vietnam’s Flora which does include the Vietnamese names. Having any of these ‘Handy Pocket Guides’ with you on a trip to Vietnam (or any other tropical country, for that matter) is really rewarding. You don’t have to be a botanist to get a thrill from identifying a flower in a garden, a tree in a forest, or a fruit or vegetable in a market. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Handy Pocket Guide to Tropical Plants

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Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction

  • Author: Daniel K. Gardner 
  • First published: 2014
  • Published by: Oxford University Press
  • Subjects & Style: accessible explanation of the core principles, philosophies & codes of conduct expounded by Confucius
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: For more than two thousand years, Confucianism has played a large role in Vietnamese life: from family values to education, from social life to ways of governance, from the man on the street to the mandarin in the palace. In Vietnam today, Confucianism is rarely referred to explicitly (except in history books), and yet its influence can be seen in almost every aspect of life. Filial piety, gender roles, attitudes to authority, ruling and social hierarchy are all central to Confucianism. As with Buddhism, once you start learning about Confucianism, you’ll start to see it everywhere and begin to understand its influence in Vietnam. However, unlike Buddhism, the general concepts, values, and principles of Confucianism are largely unknown to most people in the West, because it’s never been popularized like Buddhism has. I still know very little about Confucianism, but I found this ‘Very Short Introduction’ to be accessible and enlightening, and, at the very least, it made me more aware of a fundamental aspect of Vietnamese life and culture that was previously relatively unknown to me. Confucianism is everywhere in Vietnam but, much like Christian values, rituals, and traditions in many Western cultures, it’s buried deep beneath two thousand years of history. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Confucianism A Very Short Introduction by Daniel K. Gardner

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WEBSITES, MAGAZINES & BLOGS


Mekong Review:

  • Editor: Minh Bui Jones 
  • Founded: 2015
  • Published by: Mekong Review
  • Subjects & Style: literary & academic journalism & opinion on politics, art, culture, current events in Southeast Asia 
  • Available in print & online: www.MekongReview.com

REVIEW: Founded just a few years ago, ‘Mekong Review’ is a quarterly print and online literary magazine featuring journalism, essays, reviews, opinion, and interviews about politics, arts, history, culture, and current events in Southeast Asia and beyond. An independent publication, founded in Cambodia in 2015 by Minh Bui Jones, the ‘Mekong Review’ pulls no punches when it comes to regional issues and politics – something that’s both difficult and dangerous to do, especially with regards to Vietnam. In some cases, it seems astonishingly brave and admirable (or foolhardy, perhaps) to pursue and publish such pieces (very few regional newspapers and magazines dare to do so). Indeed, ‘Mekong Review’ has had to (and continues to) overcome serious troubles with authorities, financing, and distribution. Articles are written by a range of contributors: some are regular writers for the ‘Mekong Review’, but many are one-time contributors, offering their specialist knowledge and in-dept analysis of a particular subject for just one issue. As a regional magazine, only a small percentage of articles concern Vietnam: the ones that do are very good, but I wish there were more. Many articles are available for free online, but for full access there’s a subscription fee. However, if you have a genuine and deep interest in Southeast Asia, a subscription to ‘Mekong Review’ is essential. A print edition (beautifully presented) is also available at limited outlets throughout the region, but, in Vietnam, at least, it’s difficult to find because, due to its often controversial content, regular bookshops won’t sell it. [You can read free articles & subscribe to ‘Mekong Review’ on their website: www.MekongReview.com]

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Mekong Review homepage

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Historic Vietnam:

  • Author: Tim Doling 
  • Founded: 2013
  • Published by: WordPress, online, independent
  • Subjects & Style: accessible academic articles on Vietnamese history & culture, focus on French colonial, Nguyen Dynasty & railways 
  • Available online: www.HistoricVietnam.com

REVIEW: One of the foremost foreign authorities on Vietnamese history and culture, Tim Doling has spent three decades of his life in Vietnam. He’s the author of many books about the country, but with ‘Historic Vietnam’ – a free, online archive of Doling’s essays and articles – he gives the casual audience an easy, highly readable, and visual way into his specialist subjects, which include the French colonial period (1858-1954), the Nguyen Imperial Dynasty (1802-1945), and all things rail-related from the 19th century to the present day, as well as much more besides. Doling’s knowledge of his subjects and his access to a multitude of sources, combined with his balanced, controlled prose, make reading the enormous library of articles on ‘Historic Vietnam’ a pleasurable, stimulating, illuminating, and exciting experience. Read a few posts from the archives and you’ll be hooked. The images, too – many of which are sepia-toned and over a century old, often compared with colour photographs of the same location in the present-day – make the reader want to get out there and see it for themselves. It’s a real treat to have this treasure trove – the fruits of years of study and work – available for free, for everyone. [You can read Tim Doling’s ‘Historic Vietnam’ online at: www.HistoricVietnam.com]

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Historic Vietnam homepage

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Saigoneer:

  • Founders: Brian Letwin & Alberto Prieto 
  • Chief editor: Michael Tatarski
  • First published: 2013
  • Subjects & Style: mostly short-form articles on news, culture, food, arts, history & events in Saigon & beyond 
  • Website: www.Saigoneer.com

REVIEW: Founded in 2013 by two expatriates living in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), ‘Saigoneer’ is a free and reliable online news, culture, and events magazine with new content daily. Featuring mostly short-form articles, ‘Saigoneer’s’ content keeps you up-to-date with the city’s developments: from new infrastructure projects to art exhibitions, from the arrival of foreign dignitaries to the demolition of heritage buildings. Editor-in-chief, Mike Tatarski, does an excellent job (including contributing solid pieces of journalism about the environment, trade, foreign relations, and current affairs), as do the other staff writers, who cover a multitude of subjects, including a popular food review section, called ‘hẻm gems’. Every now and then, ‘Saigoneer’ producers a long-form essay focusing on in-dept analysis of one particular aspect of Vietnamese history or culture. I especially enjoy these pieces, including outstanding research and writing from Paul Christiansen on subjects such as whale worship and the history of rice wine. ‘Saigoneer’ also produces a weekly podcast. [You can read all of Saigoneer’s content for free online at: www.Saigoneer.com]

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Saigoneer Homepage

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Rusty Compass:

  • Author: Mark Bowyer 
  • Founded: 2009
  • Published by: Six Degrees Asia
  • Subjects & Style: independent online travel guide, no sponsored content, food, drink, hotel & destination reviews, historical & cultural features 
  • Website: www.RustyCompass.com

REVIEW: An independent online travel guide, ‘Rusty Compass’ focuses mainly on Vietnam, but also includes guides to Cambodia and Laos. Founder, Mark Bowyer, who has lived and travelled in Vietnam since the early 1990s, is the sole content creator for the site, which includes hundreds of posts, articles, guides, and reviews to almost every corner of Vietnam. There’s no sponsored content: everything on the site is researched, written, photographed, and financed by Mark. Many of the guides and articles on ‘Rusty Compass’ have a focus on history and culture, which is something you don’t often get from other popular travel blogs out there. In particular, ‘Rusty Compass’ has a good variety of food and drink listings and reviews for major cities and tourist destinations, such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, and Hanoi. Mark also regularly posts short, eye-catching videos which showcase Vietnam’s verdant landscapes and frenetic urban centres. Mark, himself, features in both the video and written content, giving the site a genuine personality and human warmth: a far cry from the ‘must-see Vietnam bucket lists’ compiled by algorithms crawling the web. In a time of increasingly mundane ‘top-10’ blog posts, sponsored or untrustworthy content, and just plain lazy, badly researched (if researched at all) online travel guides, Mark’s efforts at ‘Rusty Compass’ stand out all the more, and should be treasured as such. [You can read all ‘Rusty Compass’ content for free online at: www.RustyCompass.com]

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Rusty Compass homepage

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Travelfish Vietnam:

  • Founders: Stuart McDonald & Samantha Brown 
  • Founded: 2004
  • Subjects & Style: independent online travel guide & forum to Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, some content free to read, some paywalled 
  • Website: www.Travelfish.org

REVIEW: Another of the increasingly rare, truly independent online travel guides, ‘Travelfish’ was founded by long-time Southeast Asia travellers and residents, Stuart McDonald and Samantha Brown, in 2004. Covering most of Southeast Asia (including significant coverage of Vietnam), ‘Travelfish’ features hundreds of practical guides to destinations around the region, as well as a useful travellers’ forum. There’s no sponsored content whatsoever, and very little advertising. As a result, some ‘Travelfish’ content is paywalled: readers must subscribe for a fee in order to access the site’s full archive of information. However, many of the guides are still free to read to a certain extent: at least long enough for readers to get a feel for the site, and thus make an informed decision about whether to pay the subscriber fee or not. ‘Travelfish’ guides to Vietnam include many of the most popular attractions, but also some of the more obscure, less-visited destinations. The guides read nicely, the voice has genuine personality, and the research is all real: each place – temples, hotels, national parks, noodle soup vendors – is visited in person, photographed, then written up. This is opposed to simply researching a destination online, regurgitating the information, and inserting stock images, which, sadly, is the extent of many so-called ‘online travel guides’ today. Not so with ‘Travelfish’. [You can read & subscribe to Travelfish online at: www.Travelfish.org]

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Travelfish Vietnam homepage

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OTHER BOOKS I LOVE


The Sun Also Rises:

  • Author: Ernest Hemingway 
  • First published: 1926
  • Published by: Scribner’s
  • Subjects & Style: expatriate life & love in 1920s Paris & Spain, precise, economical prose 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: Hemingway’s first novel, published in 1926, ‘The Sun Also Rises’ is the story of a group of young expatriates living in Paris. They travel to Spain to watch the running of the bulls and the fiesta at Pamplona, all the while bickering, backstabbing, and fighting over the attentions of a beautiful, promiscuous young woman. Hemingway’s prose is famously spare, and yet he manages to evoke a powerful sense of place and time: the bustling cafe culture on the sidewalks of Paris; fishing in the clear-flowing rivers of the Pyrenees; the commotion of the streets during the fiesta and running of the bulls in Spain. This depiction of travel and expatriate life in Europe between the two world wars has always appealed to me, and this was the life that Hemingway himself lived in the 1920s. The antagonistic friendships between the men in the story and their common interest in their glamorous female companion, Brett, is also a reflection of the author’s own lifestyle and love life at that time. This was the ‘Lost Generation’, the young men and women who came of age during the First World War, some of whom settled in post-war Paris, taking advantage of its low cost of living in order to work on creative projects, while using it as a base from which to explore the culture and landscape of France, Spain, Italy, and other parts of Europe. (Much like ‘digital nomad’ hotspots today, such as Chiang Mai, Lisbon, Budapest, and Danang.)

Through the precision and economy of his prose, Hemingway’s words gain a permanence: as if they were chiseled into rock. Like most of Hemingway’s work, ‘The Sun Also Rises’ haunts me. However, I find it difficult to explain why. There’s just something there. In amongst the scenes of chattering cafe life in Paris, the blood-soaked sand of Spanish bullrings, the fresh air and empty hotels of the French mountains, the teeming streets and alcohol of the Fiesta San Fermín, the love and the lust, the rivalries and the machismo, there’s something else going on: something which Hemingway knows but doesn’t tell. And this, I think, is a conscious effort on Hemingway’s part, because he used to talk about how a great writer could leave things out, and that the greater the writer, the more he could leave out, but the reader would still know it was there. This technique became known as the ‘Iceberg Theory’, and it’s present even in Hemingway’s first novel, published when he was 27 years of age. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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The China Trilogy: River Town, Oracle Bones, Country Driving

  • Author: Peter Hessler 
  • First published: 2001, 2006, 2010
  • Published by: Harper Perennial
  • Subjects & Style: China, modernity, history, exceptional journalism & storytelling 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: I first came across Peter Hessler while reading an old copy of the New Yorker magazine on a coffee table in a hotel in Saigon. In it was an article by Hessler about life in a village in the countryside outside Beijing. I thought it was some of the best, long-form journalism I’d ever read: direct but descriptive, informative but atmospheric, objective but creative, clever but unpretentious, and always with a human warmth and a genuine connection to the people in the article. I found out that the article was, in fact, an extract from Hessler’s second book on China, ‘Oracle Bones’ (2006). I proceeded to read his debut book first, ‘River Town’ (2001), then ‘Oracle Bones’, then, when it was published in 2010, the final book in Hessler’s China trilogy, ‘Country Driving’.

‘River Town’, which describes Hessler’s first two years in China as an English teacher for the United States Peace Corps in Fuling, a city on the Yangtze River in Sichuan Province, has, to a certain extent, a personal relevance to me, having myself moved to Asia to teach English. Many of Hessler’s experiences teaching and living in Fuling, especially during his first year, are familiar to me from my early years teaching English in Saigon. ‘River Town’ includes dozens of portraits of Hessler’s students, all of whom were growing up in a rapidly changing China. The story is told chronologically, but the chapters flit between subjects: teaching experiences, life in Fuling, trips to the countryside, historical background. There are many fascinating themes in the book – far too many to go into here – but what struck me most when I first read ‘River Town’ was Hessler’s talent as a writer: the immense control of his prose, his ability to tell a story and to engage the reader, his observations and eye for detail (and humour), his knowledge, patience and genuine interest in China’s present and past, and his connection to the people in the story – the students, the farmers, the noodle soup vendors. These qualities continue through the next two books in the trilogy. ‘Oracle Bones’, an astonishingly complex story covering continents, millennia, royal dynasties, ethnic divisions, and class barriers, is the most impressive piece of journalism I’ve ever read. The final book, ‘Country Driving’, is a classic road trip across China. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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River Town by Peter Hessler

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As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning:

  • Author: Laurie Lee 
  • First published: 1969
  • Published by: Andre Deutsch
  • Subjects & Style: memoir of a young man’s travels in Spain on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, poetic, descriptive, evocative 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: In 1934, at the age of 19, Laurie Lee left his home in the Cotswolds and travelled on foot to London to find work. A year later, he boarded a ship to Spain and spent a year walking across the country, paying his way by busking with his violin. ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ is a memoir, written 30 years later, of Laurie Lee’s travels in his youth. Lee has a wonderful feel for language: he was a poet, and the lyricism with which he describes his journey through Spain – the stone farmhouses where he sleeps in the hay, the sun-drenched hills of the Sierra Morena, the white fishing villages of the Andalusian coast, the beautiful, black-eyed women of the countryside – is so evocative and alluring that, when I first read it, at age 19, I travelled to Spain three years in a row, during my degree in London, to find and experience Laurie Lee’s Spain for myself (which, of course, I didn’t).

‘As I Walked Out….’ (as the title is often abbreviated) has sweetness and melancholy in equal measure: Lee is writing in the late 1960s (in his middle age) about his youth in the 1930s, so there’s a nostalgic tone running through the book. Another reason for the wistful tone of this memoir is that Lee experienced Spain on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936-39 and was to transform the country, as well as render it relatively off the traveller’s map until the 1960s and 1970s. The Spain that Lee experienced was the last glimmer of a country before three years of civil strife and executions, the onset of the Second World World, and nearly 40 years under the dictatorship of General Franco. Indeed, Lee’s travels in Spain were haunted by the spectre of approaching conflict, and he was eventually forced to evacuate aboard a British naval vessel before war broke out. Lee, in fact, bravely returned to Spain in the midst of the Civil War, in 1937, walking across the Pyrenees in order to find and offer his assistance to his Spanish friends whose acquaintance he’d made on his previous journey (see Laurie Lee’s ‘A Moment of War’). For me, Laurie Lee’s language alone is reason enough to love this book, but it’s also an inspiring memoir for anyone who loves to travel: Lee is an independent, solo traveller; he eats local food, practices local customs, learns the language, earns his way across Spain, and engages in the country – its people, politics, and culture. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

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Oedipus Rex:

  • Author: Sophocles (translated by Robert Fagles) 
  • First performed: 429BC
  • Performed at: Theatre of Dionysus, Athens, Attica, Greece
  • Subjects & Style: short, taut, ancient Greek play, the downfall of King Oedipus, free will vs predestination 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: First performed 2,449 years ago, at the Theatre of Dionysus beneath the imposing rock face of the Acropolis in Athens, Oedipus Rex is, in my opinion, the finest Greek Tragedy that has come down to us from antiquity. I assume many readers are already familiar with the story of the central character, King Oedipus, but for those who aren’t, I won’t reveal it here as it’s one of the greatest plots in theatre and the impact of seeing or reading the play for the first time, without knowledge of the storyline, would be an extraordinary experience that I don’t wish to rob anyone of. Aside from the cleverness of the plot, what’s so impressive about ‘Oedipus Rex’ is how well it’s told: it takes Sophocles just a handful of characters, in just over an hour of performance (or a couple hours of reading) to unravel the tale of Oedipus. The play is taut and short: nothing is wasted – each word of every line from every character is essential to the play. As a result, there’s weight and significance in every moment of dialogue: double meanings, dramatic irony, prophesy. Of course, ‘Oedipus Rex’ was originally written in the ancient Greek language, and much will have necessarily been lost in the translation to English, but even so, there’s richness in the language, including some lyrical passages, eloquent speeches, and tragic aphorisms.

The main reason the play has lasted through the centuries is the enduring relevance of its themes, such as will and self-determination versus fate and predestination: do we have free will and are we in control of our lives – do our actions determine our future – or are we powerless to change the course of events that has already been set in motion and will come to completion no matter what we do or how we act. The influence of Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex’ is immense: in art, literature, philosophy, psychology. Each time I read it, I feel I can recognize the germ of other great works of art. Shakespeare, in particular, was influenced by Sophocles and Greek Tragedy in general. Indeed, some scenes and speeches in ‘Oedipus Rex’ may seem familiar to you if you’re read or seen any of Shakespeare’s plays. If you can, try to see a performance of the play or listen to a radio version. But, if not, reading ‘Oedipus Rex’ is equally rewarding and fairly easy and accessible. In fact, I prefer reading the play than watching a live performance, as it gives me more time to appreciate the dimensions and complexities of the play. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

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A Shropshire Lad:

  • Author: A. E. Housman 
  • First published: 1896
  • Published by: various editions available
  • Subjects & Style: collection of shapely, highly readable poems set in the English countryside, nature, nostalgia, life, love & loss 
  • Available from: Amazon.com


REVIEW: A collection of 63 perfectly formed poems, easily accessible to all readers thanks to their rhythm and rhyme, ‘A Shropshire Lad’ was first published in 1896 and has been continuously reprinted ever since. The poems are set in the English county of Shropshire, near the Welsh border, where I’ve spent a lot of time with my family and friends since age 11. The poems are pastoral, often full of longing and nostalgia: pining for lost love, youth, departed friends, soldiers killed in foreign lands. Mortality and the inevitability of time passing are major themes, but so too is the joy of life: football, cricket, friendship, farming, walking, landscape, weather, and the natural world. The poems are also a love letter to Shropshire. Having known it, to some extent, for much of my life, I can attest to the beauty and allure of this corner of the U.K. But Housman hardly knew the county at all. Indeed, he’d already written many of the poems in the collection before he’d even visited Shropshire. And yet, many of the places mentioned in the poems – Clee Hill, The Wrekin, Clunton, Clunbury, Clungunford, and Clun – are real Shropshire landmarks and villages that you can visit today. For Housman, who was born and grew up in the neighbouring county of Worcestershire, Shropshire was a magical place that was always just over the horizon, across the hills to the west: it represented new frontiers, exploration, travel, the unknown, and the promise of something different.

I picked up a tiny, red, hardback copy of ‘A Shropshire Lad’, printed around the time of the First World World, in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye (not far from Shropshire) when I was in my early twenties. Housman, who found it difficult to find a publisher, provided much of the funding for the book himself, and subsequently published small, pocket-sized editions in order to keep costs down and to make it affordable to a wider audience. But these ‘mini-editions’ also served another purpose: they accompanied the men who went to fight in the trenches of Europe between 1914-1918. Thus, my little, red, hardback edition may have an interesting history. I immediately felt an affinity with the poems in ‘A Shropshire Lad’: I related to their nostalgia and the feelings of melancholy they expressed in relation to time and existence. But I was also attracted by the depictions of nature, landscape, and the spirit of carpe diem that runs parallel to the theme of the transience of life. I memorized several of Housman’s poems and I regularly recite them (to myself) when the mood or moment takes me. [You can buy this book on Amazon.com]

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A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman

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