With its colourful and troubled recent history, Vietnam is a country that holds great appeal and allure to many. There is an incredible wealth of literature about the French and American Wars in Vietnam of the 20th century, and for many this was the event that put Vietnam on the map and has defined it ever since. Sadly there is little in the way of English language books on the earlier history of the country - as any visitor will quickly notice, this is a rich and complex culture that has far deeper and more intricate pattern than those imposed by a generation of war.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
It would be an injustice not to include Greene in a reading list for Vietnam. A strong dissident to American Imperialism, The Quiet American questions the growing involvement on America in Vietnam, told through the eyes of a British journalist covering the French War in Vietnam. In many ways Greene’s skeptical stance predicted the events and outcome of the Vietnam/American War, through the character of Pyle, so besotted by notions of American exceptionalism that he cannot see the harm being done to the Vietnamese people.
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
Perhaps one of the better-known novels of the Vietnam/American War, Matterhorn draws on the author’s experiences as a Marine in Vietnam. The novel presents an “unflinching” account of the lives of the Marines who fought in the war on behalf of America. It follows the exploits of Waino Mellas, a recent college grad and his companions in Bravo Company, most of whom were teenagers. The title of the novel refers to the code name for a live fire base constructed by Bravo Company, and their subsequent abandonment and then attempts to regain it.
The Last Photograph by Emma Chapman
This novel explores the devastating and long lasting impacts of war and loss on a young man who heads to Vietnam to make his name as a photographer at the start of the Vietnam War. Moving between the past and the present the novel tells of both the comradery and rivalry amongst the journalists and photographers who congregated in the country, of the hold that the majestic and war torn country has over them all, and the difficulties they face when they return home to family who have no comprehension of their experiences, and a country that feels dry and empty by comparison. Part family drama, part coming of age adventure, and part historical fiction, this is a page turner that you will not be able to put down.
The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh
This fictional account offers a rare take on the events of the Vietnam/American War through the eyes of a North Vietnamese army veteran. The author fought in the war as part of a ‘youth brigade’, of 500 members on 10 survived, the raw honesty and intensity of his novel lead it to be initially banned by the government, but it later became a best seller. Through the fictional character of Kien, Bao Ninh explores his struggle to come to terms with shattered dreams and the tragic loss of innocence that was the fate of so many on both sides of the line, and gives voice to a generation of Vietnamese damaged by the years of war.
Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong
This novel tells the tale of three womens’ struggle for survival during Vietnam’s land reforms of the 1950’s. The character Hang is forced to leave her village first for the slums of Hanoi, and then as a export worker to the Soviet Union, the story is told in part through flashback and contemplation of her mother’s eternal sacrifice and her aunts deep rooted bitterness at the situation in which they lived. Duonh Thu Huonh was a communist party member who fought against the Americans in the War, but became disillusioned by the regime. She was expelled by the party, spent time in jail, and her books are banned in Vietnam.
Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayon
This is perhaps one of the better attempts at understanding contemporary Vietnam’s position on the world stage. The author was a reported in the country until he was expelled for reporting on dissidents, and this book offers an unflinching and at times critical examination of the negative effects on war veterans due to the government policy of “official forgetting”, the onslaught of corruption and environmental damages caused by the influx of capitalism since the country was opened up in the 1980’s, and the tight controls still imposed on daily life by the government.