Sunday, September 8, 2019

Best Books to Read When You Travel to Vietnam

Best Books to Read When You Travel to Vietnam

I was lucky enough to travel to Vietnam with 17 high school students and two teaching partners recently.  We traveled to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) from June 21st through the 23rd, 2019 as part of a larger trip to SE Asia. We also visited Cambodia and Thailand.  It was Amazing with a capital A.  

I absolutely loved Vietnam. It is beautiful and busy and bursting with energy and Saigon never sleeps. In June the weather is extremely hot with a humidity level of boiling.  My favorite place was probably our day on the Mekong river. It was so lovely.  I also really loved the Rickshaw ride through the city. It was crazy and probably dangerous but I loved it!  We ate authentic Pho and of course tried the Egg Coffee and both were so good. The food is so good!

When I travel I make it a practice to read a book or two about the people and places I'm visiting. Books help me learn so much about the history and culture of a particular place.

I've read two books on this list to prepare myself for Vietnam.
Catfish and Mandala
The Best We Could Do
Both books were so informative.
I own copies of the last two books on the list and plan to read them soon.  I hope this list is a good resource for you.

Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam
by Andrew X. Pham  

Catfish and Mandala is the story of an American odyssey—a solo bicycle voyage around the Pacific Rim to Vietnam—made by a young Vietnamese-American man in pursuit of both his adopted homeland and his forsaken fatherland. 

Andrew X. Pham was born in Vietnam and raised in California. His father had been a POW of the Vietcong; his family came to America as "boat people." Following the suicide of his sister, Pham quit his job, sold all of his possessions, and embarked on a year-long bicycle journey that took him through the Mexican desert, around a thousand-mile loop from Narita to Kyoto in Japan; and, after five months and 2,357 miles, to Saigon, where he finds "nothing familiar in the bombed-out darkness." In Vietnam, he's taken for Japanese or Korean by his countrymen, except, of course, by his relatives, who doubt that as a Vietnamese he has the stamina to complete his journey ("Only Westerners can do it"); and in the United States he's considered anything but American. A vibrant, picaresque memoir written with narrative flair and an eye-opening sense of adventure, Catfish and Mandala is an unforgettable search for cultural identity-  Goodreads

I absolutely loved this book and I learned so much about Vietnam. I highly recommend it.

The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars by Andrew X Pham

From the award-winning author of Catfish and Mandala comes a son's searing memoir of his Vietnamese father's experiences over the course of three wars. - Goodreads

I haven't read this one but I think I will since I loved Pham's first book Catfish and Mandala. We learned a little about his dad's experience during the Vietnam war and after in his first book.  You should read this if you are visiting Vietnam and want to learn more about the war from the Vietnamese point of view.  I'm definitely adding it to my To Be Read book pile.

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir Paperback by Thi Bui

An intimate and poignant graphic novel portraying one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam from debut author Thi Bui.

This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.

At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.

In what Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it,” The Best We Could Do brings to life Thi Bui’s journey of understanding, and provides inspiration to all of those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.
 - Goodreads

I always read books about places I'm visiting as I like to learn about the history and culture of the people and places I'm going to meet and visit during my travels. This graphic novel is awesome. It is a biography of Thi Bui's family experience in Vietnam during the war and how they escaped South Vietnam on a boat. She also talks about their experience coming to America after the war and how they adjusted to life in the U.S. amid discrimination and dealing with the aftermath of the trauma they experienced. Thi Bui artwork is phenomenal and beautiful. I highly recommend this book.

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

At the age of twenty-four, Dang Thuy Tram volunteered to serve as a doctor in a National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) battlefield hospital in the Quang Ngai Province. Two years later she was killed by American forces not far from where she worked. Written between 1968 and 1970, her diary speaks poignantly of her devotion to family and friends, the horrors of war, her yearning for her high school sweetheart, and her struggle to prove her loyalty to her country. At times raw, at times lyrical and youthfully sentimental, her voice transcends cultures to speak of her dignity and compassion and of her challenges in the face of the war’s ceaseless fury.

The American officer who discovered the diary soon after Dr. Tram’s death was under standing orders to destroy all documents without military value. As he was about to toss it into the flames, his Vietnamese translator said to him, “Don’t burn this one. . . . It has fire in it already.” Against regulations, the officer preserved the diary and kept it for thirty-five years. In the spring of 2005, a copy made its way to Dr. Tram’s elderly mother in Hanoi. The diary was soon published in Vietnam, causing a national sensation. Never before had there been such a vivid and personal account of the long ordeal that had consumed the nation’s previous generations.

Translated by Andrew X. Pham and with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winner Frances FitzGerald, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is an extraordinary document that narrates one woman’s personal and political struggles. Above all, it is a story of hope in the most dire of circumstances—told from the perspective of our historic enemy but universal in its power to celebrate and mourn the fragility of human life.
 - Goodreads

I read this book in 2012 and it offers the reader from the Western world a view of the war from the other side of the conflict.  While some parts of the book are maybe lost in translation, much of it will give you a new perspective.  Throughout the memoir, there is death and destruction. Dr. Tram faces death daily as people she loves are shot and captured and her patients die of incurable wounds. Her depression is evident as she misses her family and her high school sweetheart. Life happens during war and Thuy shows how she survives every day when bombs are dropping around her. Powerful. 

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

In the final days of a falling Saigon, The Lotus Eaters unfolds the story of three remarkable photographers brought together under the impossible umbrella of war: Helen Adams, a once-naïve ingénue whose ambition conflicts with her desire over the course of the fighting; Linh, the mysterious Vietnamese man who loves her, but is torn between conflicting loyalties to his homeland and his heart; and Sam Darrow, a man addicted to the narcotic of violence, to his intoxicating affair with Helen and to the ever-increasing danger of his job. All three become transformed by the conflict they have risked everything to record.

In this much-heralded debut, Tatjana Soli creates a searing portrait of three souls trapped by their impossible passions, contrasting the wrenching horror of combat and the treachery of obsession with the redemptive power of love. - Goodreads

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today. -Goodreads

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

I'll leave you with two photos from my trip.

Downtown Saigon.
We were walking to find a delicious cup of Egg Coffee.
Of course, I walked down the middle of the street to get this shot and was dodging motorcycles but this side street wasn't too busy.

This was our last thing to do before heading to the airport.

A view of the Mekong River and our boat. We stopped at a shop to try coconut candy and Cobra snake infused rice wine.
I loved this day on the river.
I bought a lot of souvenirs here.

I hope you get to Vietnam someday even if it's just through a good book.

 Follow me on Instagram at Booksnob24, you can view more of my travel photos there.