If you are traveling to Vietnam, then it is pretty much impossible to ignore the fact that the country was at war for more than 20 years, and when looking at books set in Vietnam, it is just as difficult to escape the impact of the war on most literary endeavors. There are many fine novels written about Vietnam, but this selection attempts to present a range of views, giving you a wide perspective on the country and its history before you make your journey.
‘Matterhorn’ by Karl Marlantes
Written in 1977, but only published in 2010 after more than thirty years of rejections, this novel is being described as an ‘epic’ and the first ‘great’ novel of the Vietnam War. There is no getting away from the realities of the war in this book, as Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas and his Bravo Company face their fears of combat and the harshness of the jungle highlands of South-East Vietnam.
‘The Man from Saigon’ by Marti Leimbach
Books about the Vietnam War are often written from a male perspective, but with this one we meet Susan Gifford who is sent to Vietnam to write human interest stories about the war for a women’s magazine. While she may be quite naive to begin with, Gifford is soon covering the actual conflict, and finds herself in love with Marc, a fellow journalist. But if you think this books is going to be some kind of soppy romance, then you are wrong — there are very few books I have read that so completely immerse you in the horror and fear of war as this one. And while there is romance – the complications of Gifford’s relationships, both with Marc, and her Vietnamese photographer, Son, give this novel real emotional depth.
‘Novel without a Name’ by Duong Thu Huong.
And what of the North Vietnamese soldier? In this novel we share the story of Quan a soldier who has been at war for ten years, only to return to a village much changed in his absence. Written by a woman who has been imprisoned for her political beliefs, the novel captures Quan’s disillusionment and loss of innocence, giving us a side of the war which is rarely revealed. Here we see the ‘glory’ of the cause giving way to displacement of civilians, the hunger of villagers and the inevitable breakdown of families and relationships that are a result of sustained conflict.
‘Dragon House’ by John Shors
And now to modern day Vietnam, where two Americans try to deal with their own past by setting up a center to look after Vietnamese street children. On arrival the duo are confronted with the corruption and chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, and as readers we are treated to all the sounds and smells that bring the streets to life. But it is the children who will steal your heart in this novel, taking you with them as they battle the squalor in which they live. This book is a story of love, hope and redemption which is a stark reminder of the legacy of conflicts past.
‘Daughters of the River Huong’ by Uyen Nicole Duong
Spanning four generations, this is a book which takes us far back into the richness of Vietnamese history, before leading us through colonization and war to the country we know today. Written by a political refugee who arrived in the United States when she was just sixteen, this novel tells the story of one family of Vietnamese women, and in doing so reflects the struggles of a nation.
If you are about to visit Vietnam, you are visiting a country which has a particular fascination for those of us from the West – it is impossible to travel through Vietnam without being confronted by the roles colonization and war have played in its history. Arm yourself with these novels and you will be able to understand just that little bit more about the people who walk the roads of Vietnam today.