There was still a lot I didn’t know about Vietnam, but in the months before my trip, I tried to immerse myself in the culture from afar, reading novels, guidebooks, memoirs, historical books and watching movies.
My Korean friend Kim Dong Hee had seen the movies Indochine and The Scent of Green Papaya, so she was determined that I should see them as well. One night we went to the DVD bang in Daegu and watched the 1992 French film Indochine, with Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Perez. Set in 1930s French Indochina, it tells the tale of a love triangle between a rubber plantation owner, her adopted daughter and a younger French navy lieutenant. The rising Vietnamese nationalist movement is the backdrop of the movie. It was a great movie that gave me a feel for Vietnam under the French Protectorate.
I read a book by Uyen Nicole Duong called Daughters of the River Huong; it told of 4 generations of women in the same family, beginning with the story of the Mystique Concubine of the King at the time when the French were in charge in Vietnam; the love story continued through to the modern-day. This this book, I got a a feel for the beauty and the mystique of Vietnamese culture.
I also read Catfish and Mandala, a memoir by Andrew X. Pham, a Vietnamese-American guy who bicycled all around Vietnam to explore his heritage. He and his family escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. This book tells a true story of Vietnam from a victim’s perspective, with no gloss or glimmer. The horrors visited upon families during the war are depicted here; when he returned to his home in 1989 for this trip, Vietnam was still a very poor country, rife with corruption and filth. It’s a memorable and sometimes disturbing personal story of war and a search for roots and identity. Some parts were difficult to read, but I’m glad I did, because I could really feel for Andrew’s struggles and the search for peace in his life.
When my son Alex came to visit in Korea in December of 2010, he brought two movies, The Scent of Green Papaya and Three Seasons. Kim Dong Hee, who had been dying to see The Scent of Green Papaya for months, went with me to dinner at Little Italy across the road from my apartment. We shared an entire bottle of wine and then took my DVD to 3 DVD bangs before we were able to find one that could play an American-made DVD. We settled in to watch it. It was really a mood piece, depicting the simple daily lives of a Vietnamese family and a servant girl. It had very little dialogue and even less action. After all the wine I drank, I’m sorry to say I fell asleep and missed parts of it! Kim said it looked to her like I slept through the whole thing, but I think she was mistaken because I remembered a lot. A lot of lush green leaves dripping with dew, green papayas, cooking, scrubbing of floors, and ants. Taken from Wikipedia, here’s a plot description:
A young girl, Mui, becomes a servant for a rich family. The family consists of a frequently absent husband, a wife and two young boys. When the husband leaves, he takes all the household’s money. As Mui grows up, the family falls on hard times, and eventually she becomes a servant for a pianist who befriends the family. That man is engaged to be married, but he prefers playing the piano to spending time with his fiance. One night, after blowing off his fiance yet again, the pianist sleeps with Mui. The engagement is broken off. The pianist starts teaching Mui how to read and write. A pregnant Mui reads to her unborn child.
I read another book by Duong Thu Huong called Paradise of the Blind, the first Vietnamese novel published in the United States in 1988. In 2010, it was banned in Vietnam because of the political views expressed. It told the story of a girl whose family was torn apart by the Communist takeover, including the land reforms and the so-called Rectification of Errors. The girl’s uncle was the primary culprit in the novel and was the personification of the evils of Communism. A powerful book, it infuriated me to read it.
Last but not least, on Christmas Day, my colleague Myrna lent me her computer, since mine crashed two days before Christmas, and I watched the 1999 movie, Three Seasons, a movie that takes place in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, well after the war. It tells intertwining tales of different Vietnamese characters in a changing Saigon, including that of an American ex-soldier who comes in search of his lost daughter and a cyclo-driver who falls in love with a Vietnamese high-class call girl. The movie may be somewhat romanticized but I found it also depicted the dark underbelly of the city, especially in the story of a little boy, Woody, who lived on the streets. But the story was also a hopeful one, one that showed a Vietnam on the verge of a new life, caught up in modernization and globalization.
I would take along another book by Andrew X. Pham called The Eaves of Heaven, which I planned to read while I was traveling, in between writing, seeing the sights, floating on a junk in Halong Bay, and eating some great Vietnamese food!
Books set in Vietnam:
- American Romantic by Ward Just (Indochina) ****
- A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just (Indochina)
- The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars by Andrew X. Pham ****
- Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X. Pham ****
- Daughters of the River Huong by Uyen Nicole Duong ****
- Paradise of the Blind by
- The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood by Kien Nguyen
- The Lover by Marguerite Duras (Indochina)
- The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
- What It’s Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
- The Things They Carried (stories) by Tim O’Brien
- If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O’Brien
- Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
- The Man From Saigon by Marti Leimbach
- The Quiet American by Graham Greene
- Chickenhawk by Robert Mason (Thanks to Mari for the remaining suggestions)
- Live from the Battlefield, autobiography of one of the greatest war correspondents, Peter Arnett
- Nam by Mark Baker
- In Pharoh’s Army by Tobias Wolff
- Dispatches by Michael Herr (possibly Mari’s favourite)
- All the Wrong Places by James Fenton
- A Wavering Grace by Gavin Young
- Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden by Tim Page
- A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan (history)
- Winning Hearts and Minds, war poems by Vietnam Vets
Movies set in Vietnam:
- The Deer Hunter (1978) ****
- Apocalypse Now (1979) ****
- Platoon (1986) ****
- Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
- Full Metal Jacket (1987)
- Hamburger Hill (1987)
- Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
- Casualties of War (1989)
- Indochine (1992) *****
- The Lover (1992)
- The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) ***
- Heaven and Earth (1993)
- Forrest Gump (1994) *****
- Cyclo (1995)
- Three Seasons (1999) ****
- The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000) *****
- The Quiet American (2002)
- We Were Soldiers (2002)
- The Fog of War (2003)
- The Beautiful Country (2004)
- The Buffalo Boy (2004)
- Owl and the Sparrow (2007)
- Tropic Thunder (2008)
- 21 and a Wake Up (2009)
- The Sapphires (2012)
- Noble (2014)
- The Vietnam War (Ken Burns 10-episode TV series) (2017) *****
Finally, on Tuesday, January 11, 2011, I was sitting in Daegu, Korea and finalizing the details of my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I would leave the following Thursday, January 13; my plane would take off at 2:15 pm from Incheon and arrive in Hanoi at 11:15 the same evening, after a 5 hour layover in Guangzhou, China. As usual, I was stressed out, as I always was before I travel; thinking of all the details made my head spin. In addition to the regular stress, something happened to my back; I didn’t do a thing, just got out of my bed after a nap on Sunday, and voila, I couldn’t move! Why was it that I always got sick or got some physical pain right before I left for a vacation? So, in addition to being stressed because there was not enough time to get everything ready, I had to take the time to visit the hospital for physical therapy on my back!
Here was my itinerary for Vietnam:
January 13-14 & January 17-18, 2011: Hanoi Ngoc Mai Hotel: Address: : 07-17 Cua Dong str., Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Dist, Hanoi, Vietnam
“ANTICIPATION & PREPARATION” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about anticipation & preparation for a particular destination (not journeys in general). If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments. Include the link in the comments below by Thursday, August 22 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Friday, August 23, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation, on the 4th Friday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂 If you’d like to read more about the topic, see: journeys: anticipation & preparation.
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!
You certainly did a lot of preparation prior to going to Vietnam. Indochine and The Scent of the Green Papaya are great films. I had not heard of The Three Seasons but will seek it out. I would add The Quiet American by Graeme Green to your reading list..I thoroughly recommend it if you have not read it.
Thanks so much, Albert. I have added The Quiet American at your suggestion. I don’t know how I overlooked it. I haven’t read it myself yet, but I hope to do so one day. I love Graham Greene. 🙂
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I very highly recommend it Cathy
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I so enjoyed this post Cathy, as apart from your always sparkling and engrossing prose, the subject matter is dear to my heart. The Vietnam was was my war, if a war can be ‘owned’ by anyone. I was one of the marchers (in London) against the war and against the spin-off, the Cambodian war. I immersed myself in the literature of the period, the wonderful writings of Noam Chomsky at that period, the poetry of the era and somehow I’ve amassed a collection of literature that almost needs cataloguing. May I add a few books to your list?
Often called “the best book to come out of Vietnam” is “Chickenhawk” by Robert Mason, “Live from the Battlefield” the autobio of one of the greatest war correspondents, Peter Arnett, “Nam” by Mark Baker, “In Pharoh’s Army” by Tobias Wolff, “Dispatches” by Michael Herr (possibly my favourite), “All the Wrong Places” by James Fenton, “A Wavering Grace” by Gavin Young, and “Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden” by Tim Page. For a good history, you can’t beat “A Bright Shining Lie” by Neil Sheehan. But if you like poetry, please get hold of “Winning Hearts and Minds” war poems by Vietnam Vets. I remember crying when I first read some of these and it was then I think that I decided to make War Studies my subject for my post-grad study (mature student stuff) at University as I saw with such immediacy the same innocence destroyed as happened to the young men in the first world war. Both wars have produced great poetry, it’s just taken longer for that of Vietnam to be recognised. The British James Fenton also wrote some good poetry from Vietnam and his work is still available I think. But do try and get hodl of “Winning Hearts & Minds”.
I’ll finish now, this is like a post in itself, but one more thing. I think you should add The Killing Fields to the list of films because although it’s about Cambodia and not Vietnam, it has a causal link and it is a continuation of the horrors of Vietnam.
Wow, Mari. I didn’t know of all your involvement in the war. You’re one of my heroes, as a protestor and scholar! I’m so excited to add your list of reading to mine. I will do so. Thank you for all your knowledge. As for The Killing Fields, I will add it to my list for Cambodia. I have an upcoming post in September about my call to place for Cambodia, as well as my anticipation and preparation. I loved that movie, well as much as you can love a movie about such horrors, and I loved my time in Cambodia. By the way, you might have enjoyed my post about Call to Place: Vietnam, which has much more about the war than this piece where you commented. It’s the one right before this one: https://wanderessence.com/2019/07/25/call-to-place-vietnam-in-2011/
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Actually, it was the Call to Place: Vietnam I was commenting on. Somehow, I must have scrolled down too far and hit on this post where my comment landed. Yes, I did enjoy Call to Place, it was that that made me respond at such length! I look forward to reading your Cambodia posts, I’m sure they’ll be just as good as your Vietnam ones. And let’s hope that with the sabre-rattling Trump in the White House and our Mini-Me Trump in No. 10 our countries won’t end up again, together, in a Middle East war. What makes these men so craving power, to act as they do? Nothing seems to change, nor do we/they seem to learn from history.
Oh, good to know, Mari. I’m enjoying writing about past trips and what they meant to me and why I was called there. I’m glad you enjoyed this one. It means so much that you read so thoughtfully and always have such insightful comments.
It is really terrible what our world is coming to with “sabre-rattling Trump in the White House and [your] Mini-Me Trump in No. 10.” it does seem that we never learn from history, and that people in power will do anything to keep that power, no matter how wrong and immoral it is. I am more disgusted with each passing day and less hopeful that we as humans will ever progress beyond our basest instincts.
I hope your back improved enough for you to enjoy your trip, Cathy.
It did, thank goodness. I don’t know why I’m always getting sick or hurt right before I travel. I assume it’s stress. 🙂
Lovely and very timely to read your blog. It is on my list for next year so I will be taking inspiration from your preparation. Thanks.
Wow, where will you be going in Vietnam? I wish I could have gone to the south and hope I can return someday. I’m glad I could give you some ideas to prepare! Thanks for reading. 🙂
This was a journey I did in 2017 and though I did read about the place the anticipation far exceeded the information and it was justified.
Wow, Indra. Thank you for linking this post to my “Anticipation and Preparation” invitation. I’ll be so happy to include your link in my upcoming post of August 23. It’s so interesting, because I have a friend who just changed her citizenship from American to Canadian and moved to Prince Edward Island. She’s invited me to come and visit, which I hope to do in the next year or two. What wonderful pictures and a wonderful summary of all PEI has to offer! By the way, I tried to post a comment on the piece itself, but for some reason I wasn’t able to do so. 🙂
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Sorry … I just read ur reply. Will check the reply part
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