anticipation & preparation: vietnam in 2011

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.


Vietnamese Buddhist temple

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:

  1. American Romantic by Ward Just (Indochina) ****
  2. A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just (Indochina)
  3. The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars by Andrew X. Pham ****
  4. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X. Pham ****
  5. Daughters of the River Huong by Uyen Nicole Duong ****
  6. Paradise of the Blind by Dương Thu Hương ****
  7. The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood by Kien Nguyen
  8. The Lover by Marguerite Duras (Indochina)
  9. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
  10. What It’s Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
  11. The Things They Carried (stories) by Tim O’Brien
  12. If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O’Brien
  13. Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
  14. The Man From Saigon by Marti Leimbach
  15. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  16. Chickenhawk by Robert Mason (Thanks to Mari for the remaining suggestions)
  17. Live from the Battlefield, autobiography of one of the greatest war correspondents, Peter Arnett
  18. Nam by Mark Baker
  19. In Pharoh’s Army by Tobias Wolff
  20. Dispatches by Michael Herr (possibly Mari’s favourite)
  21. All the Wrong Places by James Fenton
  22. A Wavering Grace by Gavin Young
  23. Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden by Tim Page
  24. A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan (history)
  25. Winning Hearts and Minds, war poems by Vietnam Vets

Movies set in Vietnam:

  1. The Deer Hunter (1978) ****
  2. Apocalypse Now (1979) ****
  3. Platoon (1986) ****
  4. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
  5. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  6. Hamburger Hill (1987)
  7. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
  8. Casualties of War (1989)
  9. Indochine (1992) *****
  10. The Lover (1992)
  11. The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) ***
  12. Heaven and Earth (1993)
  13. Forrest Gump (1994) *****
  14. Cyclo (1995)
  15. Three Seasons (1999) ****
  16. The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000) *****
  17. The Quiet American (2002)
  18. We Were Soldiers (2002)
  19. The Fog of War (2003)
  20. The Beautiful Country (2004)
  21. The Buffalo Boy (2004)
  22. Owl and the Sparrow (2007)
  23. Tropic Thunder (2008)
  24. 21 and a Wake Up (2009)
  25. The Sapphires (2012)
  26. Noble (2014)
  27. The Vietnam War (Ken Burns 10-episode TV series) (2017) *****



junks in Halong Bay

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

Tel: (84-4) 3923 1931/39231932 – 3828 6236/38282605
January 15-16: Indochina Junk on Halong Bay (The Dragon’s Pearl Junk): Indochina Junk


“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.

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