reading the war

The inspiration for this post comes from the wonderful Chris Galvin Nguyen, a super talented and very cool writer who divides her time between Montreal, Canada and Hue, Vietnam. Chris recently reviewed The Lotus Eaters, a Vietnam war novel by Tatjana Soli, published by St. Martin’s Griffin in December 2010. The main characters in the book are Helen and Sam (both Americans) and Linh (Vietnamese), who work together as photojournalists based in Saigon. Her book review has just gone up on the DiaCRITICS website.

I haven’t read The Lotus Eaters yet, but Chris and I exchanged a couple of messages while she was finishing the review. She mentioned that the book—which she basically liked—is mostly very well researched, but that the extensive bibliography contains very few works written by Vietnamese authors. This is a recurrent issue with English-language fiction and non-fiction on the Vietnam.. American.. uh, i’m going to call it the 2nd Indochina war, ok? Apparently there is a similar situation in French, with literally hundreds of books on the battle of Dien Bien Phu but only a handful of works by Vietnamese authors.

After the review went up, as well as a related post on her regular site, Chris asked me what books by Vietnamese authors I would suggest on the war. It was a fair question given our previous discussion, and it certainly got me thinking.

To be clear, I’m really not sufficiently well read to suggest a definitive list. I’m also constitutionally lousy at short lists when it comes to any complex question. And most questions worth thinking about are complex, right? Conclusions on wars, and on this war in particular, are so contested that i think the only valid option is to expose yourself to lots of different perspectives and build up a gradual and inevitably incomplete picture, holding each individual account pretty lightly while slowly and gently sifting through facts and opinions to build a kind of composite and often contradictory working model.

Reading the War: books on the 2nd Indochina War

For me the ideal set of resources would include perspectives from NLF, PAVN and ARVN combatants as well as officials and civilians from all sides and none and from different parts of the country. It would also include both unreservedly positive accounts of the victory of the NLF and PAVN, the liberation of Saigon and the reunification of the country, and equally polarized views of the defeat of the southern forces, the fall of Saigon and the loss of the country. And, hopefully, more reflective works from the range of perspectives listed above, including Vietnamese voices from within the country as well as from the diaspora in America, Australia, Canada, France and elsewhere. It would include both fiction and non-fiction accounts, noting that there are strong and differing views on the facts and significance of key events, even to the extent of continuing arguments over “who really won”.

One thing I realize is that a lot of my own perspective on the war has been reached kind of obliquely. What I mean is that reading, for example, about Vietnam in the 1930s, or about the period from 1954-1958 in Hanoi, or the basically sincere propaganda from reunified Vietnam in the late 1970s and damning accounts of the same period from abroad, has informed my views of the context for war and the experience of the periods of war themselves. Much more than reading about battles or strategy, and probably at least as much as accounts of political decision-making or everyday life during the war.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to take a look over my own collection and to list out what I find there, limiting myself to books directly about or largely set during the war itself, written by Vietnamese authors and published in English. I’m hoping that Chris and others will respond to identify works that I have missed, and maybe also to question a few of my selections.

Basically non-fiction

  • Bui Tin, Following Ho Chi Minh: memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel, translated and adapted by Judy Stowe and Do Van, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1995.
  • Duong Van Mai Elliott, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family, Oxford University Press, USA, 1999.
  • General Van Tien Dung, Our Great Spring Victory: an account of the liberation of South Vietnam, translated by John Spragens, Jr. for Monthly Review Press, New York in 1977 and reprinted in Hanoi by The Gioi Publishers in 2000.
  • Luu Van Loi, 50 Years of Vietnamese Diplomacy: 1945-1995, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 2000.
  • Luu Van Loi & Nguyen Anh Vu, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi 1996.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnam: The Lotus in the Sea of Fire, SCM Press, London, 1967.
  • Truong Nhu Tang with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, A Viet Cong Memoir: an inside account of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, Vintage Books, USA, 1985.
  • Various editions of the journal Vietnamese Studies, published by Xunhasaba Publishing House from the mid-1960s onwards, covering topics like The Failure of “Special War”, 1961-1965, Glimpses of US Neo-Colonialism, The Catholics and the National Movement, and Chemical Warfare.
  • Vu Can, A Daily Resistance, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi, 1975.

Basically fiction

  • Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War: a novel, translated by Frank Palmos, based on the translation by Vo Bang Thanh & Phan Thanh Hao, with Katerina Pierce, Secker & Warburg, London, 1993.
  • Duong Thu Huong, Novel Without a Name, translated by Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson, W. Morrow, New York, 1995.
  • Le Luu, A Time Far Past, translated by Ngo Vinh Hai, Nguyen Ba Chung, Kevin Bowen & David Hunt, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1997.
  • Nguyen Trung Thanh, Dat Quang: A South Vietnamese Novel, translated by Han Giang, revised by Elizabeth Hodzkin, Giai Phong Publishing House, 1974.

So what is missing from my shelves? I suppose a couple of the most obvious non-fiction works would be Le Ly Hayslip’s memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, which became the basis for Oliver Stone’s movie Heaven and Earth, and also Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: the diary of Dang Thuy Tram.

I don’t have any fiction on the war itself from the Vietnamese diaspora. Apparently, one of the first such works published in the US was Tran Van Dinh’s 1983 novel, Blue Dragon, White Tiger: a Tet story. A detailed article on that book is available here. There must be others as well. I’m also pretty light on works of non-fiction from the Vietnamese diaspora. For example, Nguyen Cao Ky, former Prime Minister of South Vietnam has written a couple of autobiographical works: How We Lost the Vietnam War and Buddha’s Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam. His works have come in for some criticism, but still form part of the overall mix.

While preparing this entry, I also came across references to some other English translations of non-fiction works published in Vietnam, including:

  • Ho Khang, Tet Mau Than 1968 in South Vietnam, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 2001.
  • Hoang Van Thai, How South Vietnam was Liberated, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 1996.
  • Nguyen Khac Can (Ed.), Vietnam, The war: 1858-1975, NXB Van Hoa Dan Toc, Hanoi, 2000.
  • Nguyen Khac Vien, The Long Resistance, 1858- 1975, Foreign Language Publishing House, Hanoi, 1978.

That pretty much ends my list. I’d love to hear of other works, as well as reactions to those listed above, in the comments section. Keep an eye out here also for a further post by Chris.

~ by hanoi ink on July 1, 2011.

9 Responses to “reading the war”

  1. Currently “enjoying” (never the right word for these kinds of books) Wayne Karlin’s Wandering Souls. It’s not a work by a Vietnamese author but it includes far more of the Vietnamese perspective than most English language books. It’s almost a comparative account of how an American vet and the family of a PAVN medic he killed dealt with the whole tragedy. Poignant stuff–especially the effort to return the medic’s personal effects the family so that he can be properly mourned. Owing to Karlin’s work as a translator, it features conversations with and discusses quite a few Vietnamese authors’ takes, inc. Bao Ninh, Le Minh Khue, Ho Anh Thai, the poet Ho Xuan Huong etc. Really great actually, and I thought I’d come to loathe these kinds of books.

  2. I was about to recommend Chu Lai and Khuat Quang Thuy but their fictions have been translated into French only. Besides, do you enjoy reading Dat Quang by Nguyen Trung Thanh? I’ve only read Dat Nuoc Dung Len and really like it based on merit alone. Strange that it didn’t get translated into English, since it’s widely considered to be Nguyen Trung Thanh’s best work.

  3. I forgot this classic anti-Vietnam War: Hon Dat by Anh Duc at http://www.amazon.com/Hon-Dat-Anh-Duc/dp/B000JPC6OE/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1309576664&sr=8-2

  4. […] owner for suggestions of books by Vietnamese authors on the subject of the war. The result is his fantastic post with a list of what’s on his shelves. I agree with him that the ideal list would include works […]

  5. […] translated by Andrew X. Pham and published by Three Rivers Press in New York in 2007. As noted in a previous post, this was one of the key books missing from my collection of war writings by Vietnamese […]

  6. I am seeking information on my cousin’s fate. His name was John Michel Nash, and his recon plane was shot down on March 15, 1966 near Ban Na Hai, Laos. He ejected before the plane crashed, and 3 accounts from individuals on the ground report he was captured, uninjured. The account/individual I am most hopeful of locating, is a diary written by a PAVN medical officer on the scene, which was published in Hanoi, recently, as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Truong Son trail. Do you have any contacts who could help me? I will ask my cousin’s brother for the name of the medical officer. Thank you! Cate

    • Hi – sorry for the delay replying. If you could find me the name of the author I’ll see if I can track it down and will let you know what I find. I understand there is a very active program here following up leads on MIA solders so make sure you are in contact with them also.. All the best.

  7. My favorite pick of vietnamese authors is Truong Nhu Tang, who wrote ‘Viet Cong Memoir’

  8. Hi, Ms Nguyen. Love your non-fiction list. If possible, could/would you advise me on where to publish a family memoir I am almost finished writing: true story of a family of 12, ten of whom escaped by boat in the 1980’s, came to the U.S. and are now doing well. Their individual stories are hair-raising, as you must know.

    thanks.

    (I’m the lady who commented about Truong Nhu Tang’s Memoir(

    Patricia Carew

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