What Books We Are Reading about Vietnam

This is a book of poetry that goes from at least 1000 years ago to the near-present. Joe is in the Museum of Ethnography bookstore in Hanoi. The ancient poetry is in Chinese characters, the more recent in the romanized script of contemporary Vietnamese.

Fat book of poetry

We did not buy this book; it’s too heavy to carry around. I am posting this picture to suggest something about Vietnamese literature.

We found a real bookstore in Hanoi, by the way, down near the Museum of History. Called Savina or something like that. One floor of what look like textbooks. Second floor has a whole big section of English language books about Vietnam. We bought four or five that we hadn’t seen elsewhere. A few nights later, walking through that area on our way to the Opera House, we encountered a night market of books along a whole street. Some had stalls out on the street, some were regular shops with metal doors that run up and down. Lights were on and young people were standing over tables of books, reading just like in the US. This was along the north side of the Post Office, parallel to the big street where Savina is.

I am adding to this post as we read more books.

Nguyen Huy Thiep, The General Retires, 2003 (?), Curbstone Press in Willimantic, CT and distributed by ARTBOOK in Vietnam, http://www.artbook.com.vn.  These are short stories, some of the sharpest, clearest, most deftly written I have ever seen. The characters are people in the Vietnam of the 1960’s through the 1990’s, both village and city people (and people who go back and forth). There are some stories that go back into early kings and dynasties,but they connect to people in the present. YOu can almost picture the whole country by closing your eyes and thinking about these stories. The translation is excellent, as far as I can tell. I would use this book in a literature class (but that’s true of some of the others, as well.)

Dec 17:  Le Luu, A Time Far Past, University of Massachusetts Press 1997m first published as Thoi Xa Vang in 1986.  This is a real novel, the story of a whole life of a person who feels as real as any character you’ve ever met. It starts in 1954 when the main character, Sai, is ten years old and forced to marry a girl several years older. His married life and therefore his private life is interfered with by first his family and then by his comrades and the Party, which rejects him because of his wife’s family. Throughout this he’s really in love with another woman who eventually marries someone else. The war is the backdrop but the personal life of Sai is the main story. The book is dark but also beautiful.

Mandaley Perkins, Hanoi Adieu, 2012, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi. A detailed memoir of the son of a French military officer posted in Indochina. This is a view through French eyes of the whole colonial experience fro the 1930’s through Dien Bien Phu. It’s a street-by-street, face-by-face picture of life in the city at that time.  The main character (who was the author’s stepfather) loves Hanoi, feels as if he belongs there, and stays despite the war going on around him. This should be read in tandem with General Giap’s book Unforgettable Days.

Vu Trong Phung, Dumb Luck, University of Michigan 2002. This book was first published as a newspaper serial in Hanoi in the 1930s. It reads like a comic book. It mostly satirizes the behavior of the Vietnamese middle class trying to be French. It does so with rough expertise. The main character is a grinning, indefatigable clown named Re-Haired Xuan. The introduction is nearly 30 pages long and gives a glimpse into the particular space created by the change of political regime in France (the Popular Front, where Communists, Socialists and others joined together and took over the government, for a while) that allowed some open political, artistic and  intellectual life in the colonies. Sitting reading this book I can hardly believe my eyes. Combine this with the Mandaley Perkins book for a multi-dimensional picture.

From here on, this post must have been written in early October.

books as decor in coffee shop

This is a Trung Nguyen coffee shop in District 3, where I went with Clover, the woman who translated for me in the first teaching methods seminar. More books on display here than in most bookstores. 

There are not a lot of big bookstores in this part of Vietnam, as far as we can tell. The closest one to TDTU is at the Lotte Mart shopping center. It is one room about the size of Pegasus on Solano Ave in Berkeley (not huge) and has mostly school writing materials, notebooks, art materials and toys, with one quarter of the space for books and a couple of shelves for books in English, most of which are paperbacks like Game of Thrones and Fifty Shades of Gray. On a few occasions we did see some real Vietnamese books there. We bought Madame Binh’s book there, as well as the Duong Thuy book. There is not a separate bookstore a the University.

At a bookstore in District 1, HCMC, we got Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and the Vo Thi Sau book. It was a narrow-fronted three-story building but a lot of the space was for ethnic handicraft souvenirs.

A place to get good books is at tourist destinations such as in the gift shops in the big imperial court sites in Hue. While this isn’t the obvious place to try to sell books, especially serious history books, they definitely reached us this way. At Emperor Le Duc’s summer palace and tomb Joe saw General Giap’s book, the Dang book on ethnic minorities, and the excellent Vietnam: A Long History, by Nguyen Kach Vien. In terms of American dollars they are not expensive, but in terms of dong, they are expensive. The Nguyen Kach Vien book cost 500,000 dong.

I bought the Denise Chong book about Kim Phuc from a vendor who came into a restaurant in District 1, in the tourist district. She was carrying around a shrink-wrapped tower of knock-offs. I paid 300, 000 dong for that plus a copy of Gone Girl, poorly Xeroxed.

Then Joe and Hollis and Leanna went for a walk south and east past Vivo City (a huge expensive all-inside-a-big-shiny-box shopping mall) into what’s called Koreatown, where all the Korean managers live, apparently. This is definitely a higher-rent area than where we are. It has sidewalks, for example. There are lots of restaurants, phone stores, travel agencies, etc etc. And a bookstore. Joe came home with 5 books. He says that there were a lot of airport-type self-help business books in Korean in the store.

Here is our collection so far:

Bao Ninh. 1998. The Sorrow of War. English translation copyright Martin Secker and Warburg. London, UK: Random House Vintage. This is a real war novel, said to be the All Quiet on the Western Front of Vietnam. The book begins with the narrator, one of the only survivors of his company, out in the jungle in a truck searching for remains of fallen soldiers, which he wraps and piles in the back of the truck. From then it flashes back to the first days and then the climax of the war. There is a long, difficult love affair interrupted by the war. The section in which the North Vietnamese troops are leaving to go south on the train, and the narrator and h is girlfriend miss his train and they decide to catch another train to try to catch up, both of them – what does she think she doing?- is intense. There is another memorable section in which the narrator hides while three giant American soldiers, “athletes” – huge guys, loaded with weapons – search for him with a giant Alsatian dog. The book itself was banned for a while. At the end, the narrator fades in and out as if he is becoming another person.

Binh, Madame. 2015. Friends, Family, Country. HCMC: The Gioi Publishers. This is a very clearly written, well-produced book that reads like a real story of a person’s real life. She hits a wonderful tone of one-on-one “here is what you need to know about my life” as she remembers it both as part of her own family and on the international stage. I loved it. As a young girl under the French, her job was organizing flash demonstrations in Saigon. She got identified by the French police, caught and tortured. She went North after 1954 and eventually became the representative of the Provisional Revolutionary Government at the Paris Peace Talks. Every person in the book is elaborately footnoted in case you don’t know who was who. When you read about these people in other books, you can find out who they are by looking at the footnotes in Madam Binh’s book. It also has great pictures, some in color. The Gioi Publishers must be some kind of official publisher; they do a good job.

Later, we read that only 1000 copies of this were printed in English and they ran out. Joe bought two more copies when he saw them in a different bookstores.

Chan, Anita, Editor. 2011. Labour in Vietnam. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.  We bought this in the US. Good articles on strikes, corporate social responsibility, labor protests. Good chapter on comparison of strikes in China and Vietnam.

Chong, Denise. 1999- 2001. The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph and the Vietnam War. London: Viking. Kim Phuc is now living in Canada. Denise Chong got her to spend several years co-operating to produce this book. She is the little girl running naked down the road into the camera, napalm clouds behind her and hot napalm on her back. There is a lot in this book about the town, Trang Bang, where her family lived, which is in a province right about where the road into Cambodia and the Ho Chi Minh trail cross, so a whole lot of fighting took place there, first one side and then the other. Through it all, her mother supported the family (and had 10 kids) by running a noodle shop in the middle of town, and her shop suffers every possible kind of bad luck. The description of how Kim Phuc got used as a propaganda tool by the local leaders of her province is excruciating, as is the story of her changing relationship with her mother. This book is full of details that help bring that part of the war to life, help me understand what it was like on a daily basis. The CuChi tunnel museum is right near there.

Dang Nghiem Van, Chu Thai Son, and Luu Hung. Ethnic Minorities. Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers. Haven’t read this yet. Looks like a reference book. Later: Went to the Ethnography Museum in Hanoi and developed some respect for this book, as well as respect for the approach to minorities in Vietnam. It’s very different from “minority” issues in the US. There are 53 or 54 “minorities” in Vietnam, many still living in their historic regions and villages, speaking their own languages.

Huu Ngoc. 2010. Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture. Sixth Edition. Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers. Leanna says I will love this book and it will last me a long time. I will take it with me on our next trip. (Joe read it, cover to cover, all 1000 or so pages. He says it’s got a lot of good stuff in it. Unfortunately, it’s organized by topic, not in order in which it was written, which would have been more interesting to me.)

Lundquist, Lt. Col. Donald. 2014. Letters from the Battlefield. Vietnam Writer’s Association Publishing House. This is a very odd book. Its impact comes from its structure, as if it was a play. There are two sets of letters. One set is from a US officer who commanded a headquarters in Chu Lai-Tam Ky known to American troops as “Fat City.” On page 73 he describes “the battle a commander dreams of” when he called in four Cavalry platoons and “all the helicopters I could get” to shoot at “about 300 Viet Cong in open fields running”. The level of self-reflection never goes deeper than that. As if that wasn’t appalling enough, they’ve paired his letters with the letters of someone who actually thinks about the war. No comment, just the contrast.  Lindquist says that out of 180 killed he personally killed 11 himself and was “given much credit for the whole show”. He racks up many medals, retires to his wife’s home in Germany, and dies of a heart attack at age 38 after a helicopter ride.

Nearly 30 years later his daughter reads his letters, listens to his tapes, and goes to Vietnam to retrace his steps. She writes a book, is interviewed on NPR, and gets a screenwriter to write a script. While in Vietnam she is introduced to a family from Hanoi. The father of this family was also in the military, dug earthworks, pushed artillery up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail, saw friends killed, and wrote letters. This guy was a student in the Hanoi University of Literature at the time that he left to fight. His letters are thoughtful, reflective and beautifully written, although the translator certainly gets some credit. After 5 years of war he goes back to Hanoi and works in the military archives, making a personal project of collecting and organizing the letters and other writings of soldiers who were killed. In this case, his youngest daughter, born after he came back, introduces his letters. Both sets of letters are in Vietnamese and English. Side by side, the contrast is enough to make you want to throw the book across the room.

I am sure the book is not a fake. On the 40th anniversary of the end of the American war I read, maybe in an article in the New Yorker (which is where the My Lai story first got widespread attention), that some Vietnamese spokesperson, maybe someone at the War Remnants Museum, said, “We forgive but we do not forget.” I kept thinking of that when I read this book. So here’s a book that helps us not forget: that US military officers were given medals for shooting at fleeing Vietnamese from a helicopter. Like shooting at buffalo from a train.

Nguyen Ngoc Thuan. 2014. Open the Window Eyes Closed. Translated from Vietnamese by Thuong Tiep Truong. Nha Truat Ban Tre Publishing House. HCMC. This is a perfect book. It is written as if someone is holding you on his lap and telling you stories that are just scary enough, just terrible enough, but also completely believable and true, and told completely for the purpose of warning you what life is like, especially how beautiful and wonderful it is. Apparently it is a children’s book but it hits an adult right between the eyes, whammy.

Nguyen Kach Vien. 1987 (2014). Vietnam: A Long History. HCMC: The Gioi Publishers. This is a really good book. It starts with Paleolithic Vietnam and keeps on going up through the beginning of doi moi and the author keeps a steady narrative tone the whole time. He’s a real Marxist: holds everything up to the same standard, makes everything fit in the same story, including the role played by state religions, the labor invested in irrigation systems, how small communities combined for self-defense (against the Han), all the way into the arrival of the French and the experience of colonization. He can wrap a big complex historical crisis into a short paragraph by using exactly the right words. There is evidence that some really good English-speaking people were involved in the translation, because sometimes a word like “pressganged” shows up—a very specific word, correctly use. It wasn’t until I read this that I began to understand the post-1945 period. I think I have a better handle on it now. I assumed, since this book was so good, that it was a famous book and probably was the history book assigned in high schools. When I waved it around at Vinh’s wedding, no one had heard of it.

Ly Qui Trung. 2015.The Sky Does Not Have to be Blue. Nha Truat Ban Tre Publishing House. HCMC. This is one of the ones Joe got at the bookstore in Koreatown. It’s the happy story of a young entrepreneur who decides to open a restaurant selling pho, called Pho24, and turns it into a chain and then franchises it all over Asia. It is written to both inspire and guide young entrepreneurs.

Thong, Nguyen Dinh. 2014. Vo Thi Sau: A Legendary heroine. HCMC: Literature and Arts Publishing House. A very short book. A hagiography, really, for this young girl who was captured after throwing a bomb in a marketplace. She would throw a bomb and cry “Viet Minh attack!” and then run. After some years in prison with a lot of other Viet Minh (where they had a prisoner-run school and she learned to read and write) she was executed. Many cities have streets named after her. The book treats her like a saint but it still reads well; feels like a poem.

Thum Duong. 2013. Beloved Oxford. Translator, Elbert Bloom. HCMC: Tre Publishing House. This is a really strange book. The main character is a Vietnamese girl who goes to Oxford on some scholarship to study international business. Her advisor’s (tutor) assistant is a Portugese guy who, from the POV of a US woman, harasses and abuses her. However, it turns out this is a love story and the young woman actually likes what the guy does to her. Makes for very weird, unpleasant reading. Her assignments in her business class include preparing marketing plans for big US companies like Proctor and Gamble. The translation is strange, too; maybe it just reflects the original, but it is not recognizable as something a native English speaker would produce.

Tre Publishing House appears to cater to youth readers. They run a Book Bus, for example, and donate books. It’s true that you don’t see a lot of books around. YOu don’t see people sitting and reading books. So this may be a way to appeal to a youth audience and get them reading.

Tran, Angie Ngoc. 2013. Ties that Bind : Cultural identify, Class and Law in Vietnams’ Labor Resistance.  Cornell Southeast Asian Program PUblications. We bought this in the US. This is a major work of research into labor in Vietnam. We have used some of her anecdotes as case studies in our classes. The framework is the relationship, both in terms of time sequence and importance or power, between ethnic communities and villages of origin (hometowns), versus class. Which is the operative source of solidarity when it comes to resisting bad work? She carries these units of analysis into reports of labor disputes. Some of her research is library and archives, a lot of it is direct interviews with workers. A huge amount of research went into this. She piles examples and stories into the book. She apparently participated in the conference held last spring (2014) here, that Richard Fincher worked on. I don’t know of any other comparable book. She teaches at Monterrey Bay CSU in California.

Trung Trung Dinh. 2010. Lost in the Jungle. Translated by Gary Donovan and McAmmond Nguyen Thi Tu. Vietnam Writers’ Association Publishing House. This is a gripping can’t-put-it-down book, very short, unforgettable and unique. A young North Vietnamese soldier gets separated from his unit in the highlands and is captured by a guerrilla group that belongs to a small ethnic minority assigned to watch and report on the movements of Americans. It’s written from the point of view of the soldier/prisoner. Also captured by the guerrillas is an American soldier who has apparently decided that he’d rather stay with the guerrillas than go back to his unit. Lots and lots of descriptions of the life of the guerrillas, the jungle, the language, the food. The translation is very readable. This book has won a lot of prizes in Vietnam.

Vo Nguyen Giap. 2010 (written years ago). Unforgettable Days. Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers. General Giap is a good writer. He actually wrote many books; the year in question in one is 1945. The Vichy French government has lost the war, but DeGaulle doesn’t think that means that France has necessarily lost Indochina. The Japanese have also lost the war, and the Kuomintang Chinese, who are simultaneously confronting the Chinese Revolution (Mao) on their home territory, have been told that they (as allies with the Allies, meaning the US, Britain and Russia) are the ones who should disarm and peel off the Japanese who had invaded Vietnam. So we’ve got the Japanese on their way out in North Vietnam (but who inflicted huge damage during the war); the Kuomintang who have arrived in Hanoi with 200,000 soldiers and may not be eager to leave after they’ve carried out their assignment, and then the South jumping with homegrown Vietnamese uprisings against the French. In the middle of this, Ho Chi Minh comes down out of the mountains carried in a litter (he was ill) and has a short window of time in which to get a government together. He also has to deal with some provocateur nationalists on one side and some elitist pro-French on the other. Oh, and the French have just arrived in Hanoi harbor in a destroyer. So Uncle Ho calls a general assembly one day early and whips up new government set up in half a day, spreading seats in the governing body among the different constituencies so that everyone is on the same page. I am only halfway through this. Needless to say, this was done with full preparation; they just carried it out fast. Giap seems to be writing this from his diaries, so there’s a “Now today we did X, the next day we did Y” quality to it, but he conveys the intensity of the time. One lesson I have got so far is that if the gift for maneuvering and strategizing that is displayed in these events is inherent in Vietnamese character, we should not assume that anything happens by accident without enormous amounts of forethought, planning, and the ability to jump into action from dead zero when necessary. I’m talking about the TPP, which I’ll get into more later.

Wong, Kent and An Le. 2009. Organizing on separate Shores: Vietnamese and Vietnamese American Union Organizers. UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.This is a beautiful, simple and much under-utilized book. It’s just a bunch of good interviews with organizers on each side, which is a simple idea, but it can be used for a lot of purposes such as learning some of the history the war through personal stories to teaching how to see what the working class struggle has in common on both sides of that history. The interviews start with the people’s childhoods so we have the story of the war’s impact on children on both sides. Could another book like this be written now, even only 7 years later? People are getting old! Maybe it was a good thing that the book got written when it did. You can see that the role of the organizer is fundamentally the same whether you’re doing it under Vietnamese or US law. This is important news. We’ve found a student named Dang Dang whose English is very good and he’s helping us translate it one chapter at a time. The parallels between organizing in Vietnam (with the VGCL) and in the US are really significant, both in terms of similarities (many) and differences (interesting and important).

A very weird, kind of unpleasant book is Vietnam as if....by Kim Hunyh. I do not recommend it.It occasionally rises to a level of cynicism combined with “more than I really wanted to know about that, thank you,” that seems motivated by a mean spirit.  For some reason it’s being distributed by the Australian National University. This ebook can be downloaded for free from press.anu.edu.au/titles/vietnam-as-if

Final note: If you are going to buy one book about Vietnam, buy the Nguyen Kach Vien. 1987 (2014). Vietnam: A Long History. HCMC: The Gioi Publishers. It’s curious that so far no one I’ve met in Vietnam has heard of it, though. Once I read it I saw it in both hardback and paperback, especially up in Hanoi at the Savina bookstore.

We are at about the halfway point of our time here. Hmmmm…..

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

5 thoughts on “What Books We Are Reading about Vietnam

  1. Binh’s book sounds a lot like the one I am reading right now called Red Blood, Yellow Skin by Linda L.T. Baer. Her story of growing up in Vietnam before the French war, and then grew up during all the other wars there. It’s quite an amazing story, what a hard life those kids at that time must’ve led. Her book is amazing, her website is lindaltbaer.com.

  2. I’m not thinking about a book at this point. There’s too much I don’t understand. Not speaking Vietnamese is a real drawback. Im trying to understand by looking, but a lot is still mysterious. Right now we’re trying to write something about the TPP. We’ll be back in the US in February. Our contract here is over at the end of January. Thanks for your good words. Look forward to seeing you.

  3. Helelna, your posts are invaluable…I hope you are planning to get a book together…when are you coming back to the U.S.?

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