The War and its aftermath dominate the literature of Vietnam. But the intensity of the experience for those on all sides of the conflict has produced some memorable writing on the war and the refugee experience. Vietnam’s astonishing beauty, dominated by the Mekong and the mountains have been the big draw in recent times. Here are several reading recommendations presented by Karma Group Literary Luminary Philip Blackwell.
1. A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam
Published in the 50’s “This is an absorbing and heart-aching glimpse of lands, peoples and customs which have gone forever”. The books that inspired Graham Greene to visit.
The war has been extensively covered in every flavour, but the classics include Robert Mason Chickenhawk a helicopter pilot-eye view; Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Neil Sheehan’s epic Bright Shining Lie captures the futility of the slaughter. There is one great book that is written from the Vietcong point of view *The Sorrow of War by Bao Nihn; a semi-autobiographical account of a Vietcong soldier’s experiences. ‘A magnificent achievement…takes its place alongside the greatest war novel of the century, All Quiet on the Western Front’ The Independent.
2. Tree of Smoke Denis Johnson
Ostensibly tells the story of a CIA spy who may or may not be engaged in psychological operations against the Viet Cong over 2 decades– but also takes the reader on a surreal yet vivid journey, dipping in and out of characters’ lives to reveal fundamental truths at the heart of the human condition. ‘A Catch-22 for our times’ , Books of the Year, Observer; ‘A bizarre but wonderful novel: at times inelegant, but sharply observed and gripping.’ — Daily Telegraph
3. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
30 years in the making this epic of the war has been a sensation. ‘One of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam – or any war’ New York Times ‘Astonishing… A Vietnam novel of astonishing power and insight – the definitive Vietnam novel of our times – Marlantes steps alongside Stephen Crane, Joseph Heller and even Ernest Hemingway.’ Observer
4. Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden: Return to Vietnam and Cambodia by Tim Page
20 years after the liberation of Vietnam – through the land that dominated his life as a war photographer. His job used to be to record the horror, now he can tell of the country’s supreme beauty, and mourn the agony of the killing fields.
5. River of Time by Jon Swain
Between 1970 and 1975 Jon Swain, the journalist portrayed in “The Killing Fields”, lived in along the Mekong river. This is his account of those years, and the way in which the tumultuous events affected his perceptions of life and death as Europe never could. He also describes the beauty of the Mekong landscape – the villages along its banks, surrounded by mangoes, bananas and coconuts, and the exquisite women, the odours of opium, and the region’s other face – that of violence and corruption.
6. Romancing Vietnam by Justin Wintlein
The first published account by a Westerner when the country was finally opened up in 1989, it describes a heaven and hell country, still full of the pain of war and unappeased ghosts.
7. Mad About The Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South East Asia by John Keay
Keay retraces the steps, sometimes nightmarish, of the early exploration of the Mekong in the C19th. ‘entertaining… Keay anthropomorphises the Mekong with terrific verve and imagination throughout this delightful book’ Sunday Telegraph
8. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux makes two train trips in Vietnam on his trip which was during the war: from Saigon to Bien Hoa and from Hué to Da Nang.