There’s been an uptick in sales for Vietnam books and guidebooks lately. One customer astutely pointed out that Anthony Bourdain’s love for the nation’s food might account for some of that. But what’s not to be drawn to: a nation with an ancient history, jungles, cities, and a nearly impossible language for an English speaker (tonal!). As Vietnam modernizes and moves on from the Vietnam War, it offers a culturally and historically rich destination for all kinds of travelers!
Last year’s Pulitzer Prize went to author Viet Thanh Nguyen for his novel The Sympathizer, set during the war, follows a Vietnamese army captain who struggles with his half-French heritage and loyalties to the other side. This year, Nguyen published a work of nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies, which explores not only the history of the war, but the memory of it embedded in Vietnamese citizens today.
Quan Berry’s novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born is a stunning, chilling novel that melds the harsh realities of the Vietnam War with a beautiful magical realism, following the life of Rabbit, a girl who can communicate with the dead.
Still in print, and still selling, is Graham Greene’s 1956 novel The Quiet American. The book follows a well-meaning American sent on a mission to Saigon, and his initial good intentions begin to deteriorate into violence.
Told from the perspective of a young French girl who takes a Chinese lover, is Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. The slim novel, originally published in 1984, is set during the sunset of France’s colonial power in Vietnam.
If you’re going to head to Vietnam, you’ll need a decent phrasebook, and the tonal language will certainly be a tricky one for an English-speaking tongue to master. The Insight Guide Vietnamese phrasebook, however, has helpful pronunciation keys, and mercifully comes with a code for an app download so you can hear the pronunciation as you practice.
There are plenty of the usual-suspect travel guides to Vietnam, but for a novel approach, To Vietnam With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur offers a beautifully written almost narrative approach, as if a friend is giving you the scoop on where to eat and sleep.