One of the things I like to do before visiting any destination is to compile lists of novels or memoirs set in that place. The pre-trip reading of a few titles provides texture to my experience of the destination, and an understanding of some of the more personal stories of those who live (or lived) there.
This is the first of an occasional series where I provide a list of novels or memoirs set in a few of my favourite destinations.
Books I’ve read from my pre-trip list of novels and memoirs set in Vietnam:
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
This is Graham Greene’s classic 1955 novel which explores concepts of love, innocence and morality in Vietnam. Set in the early 1950s, Alden Pyle, the “Quiet American” is a brash young idealist sent by the US to Saigon in a time where the occupying French Army is struggling against the Vietminh guerrillas. The purpose of his mission is quite mysterious and never fully explained. The novel is narrated by a cynical Saigon-based British reporter, Fowler who watches, reluctant to become involved, as Pyle’s well-intentioned policies cause havoc, until eventually, he too is drawn into the quagmire. This novel was originally published in 1955/1956, and through the story we see the dangers, pitfalls (but seeming inevitability) of post-colonial involvement by Western powers in the South East Asian region, played out against the backdrop of the fall of French imperialism and the rise of American Far Eastern foreign policy imperatives.
Fishing for Tigers by Emily Maguire
The main character in this novel is 35 year old Mischa, who has left an abusive husband in California and has been living and working in Hanoi for the previous six years. In Vietnam, she finds worthwhile work and enjoys the life of a single expatriate. But then, one of her expatriate friends introduces her to his visiting 18 year old son, an attractive Vietnamese-Australian boy, who resents both his father and Australia for having ‘stolen’ his Vietnamese identity. The two start a romantic involvement which threatens friendships and reputations. This novel provides an interesting contemporary perspective on the lives and roles of members of the expatriate community in a city still recovering from a long war.
Le Colonial by Kien Nguyen
This is in the style of an ‘epic’ novel, and covers an interesting time period in South East Asian history. Three French missionaries travel to the divided Kingdom of Annam (the south China region that came to be known as Vietnam) in 1774. Their ideals and ambitions are severely tested when they discover that the area already has a sophisticated culture. Political instability and natural elements combine to create a very dark and quite violent story. This is a richly detailed novel, drawing on the author’s comprehensive knowledge of the period.
Victorine by Catherine Texier
A young married French school teacher in the the 1890s falls in love with a customs officer, then abandons her husband and two small children in France to go with her lover to Indochina. While this is a work of fiction, it is inspired by the fact that the author’s great-grandmother did run off abandoning her family. Texier originally intended the book to be a memoir of the real Victorine Texier, but with insufficient evidence to fill in the gaps, she was unable to solve the mystery of how could Victorine leave her children, where she went, and why. Family legend suggested she had gone to the French Colony of Indochine (now Vietnam) and that there was a man involved. As Texier’s research progressed, the intended memoir morphed into a novel; one which gives a great sense of that time frame in French Indochina – a colony which was surviving on the opium tax.
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
An intense and vivid novel set during the Vietnam War, with the main character an American female photo-journalist. It is an interesting exploration of the role and motivations of war photographers, set against a complex love story and the horrors of the Vietnam War. It begins as the North Vietnamese army is about to sweep into Saigon in 1975. As the protagonist and her Vietnamese lover race to leave the city, the story reflects back through the events of their previous twelve years.
The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do
Although most of this memoir is set in Australia, I think it is still worthy of inclusion in this list. Well-know Australian TV identity and comedian, Anh Do escaped from war-torn Vietnam with his family in an overcrowded boat, encountering pirates, overcoming hunger and thirst and battling disease en route. It’s an excellent light read dealing with heavy subject matter. Despite Anh Do’s background as a comedian, the humour is not overdone, instead it is a heartfelt tale of one family’s refugee experience. The classic quote? “There are only two times. Now and too late.”
Other books on the list:
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip
Saigon by Anthony Grey
The Man from Saigon: A Novel by Marti Leimbach
Novel without a Name by Duong Thu Huong
Dragon House by John Shors
Daughters of the River Huong by Uyen Nicole Duong
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bao Ninh
The Thirteenth Valley by John M DelVecchio
The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen
Have you read any of these books? Or have you read others set in Vietnam to add to this list?
The links are to versions of each book available at www.bookdepository.com. These are affiliate links.
This post is linked to the #SundayTraveler series hosted by Chasing the Donkey.