28 Books on Vietnam That’ll Give You Serious Wanderlust

by Feb 3, 2024Books, Vietnam

If you’re like me and you love to read up on the place you’re traveling to, then you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by all the choices of books on Vietnam. I swear the number of English-language books on this country could fill a small public library.

What does it say about Vietnam that people have so much to write about? Probably it’s because of all the tragedies the country has experienced over the centuries–war, colonialism, famine, etc. Tragedies make the best stories.

Anyway, there are lots and lots of books on Vietnam in English to choose from. The good news is that many of them are really good. I mean REALLY good! Some of the best writers in the English language (Greene, O’Brien, Caputo, Sheehan, and so on) have chosen to write about this fascinating Southeast Asian country.

The bad news is that most of us don’t have the time and/or money to read more than one or two, so it’s important to choose the best Vietnam book.

So, here is my curated list of 28 books on Vietnam and Vietnamese history and culture, 23 of which I have read. The five I haven’t read are on here because they’re considered classics.

Most books are set in Vietnam. However, there are some that take place in the United States but center around Vietnamese characters.

The list is growing and I’ll be adding to it and updating my reviews as I read more. Not all of them are great. So, I’ll let you know which ones I think you should buy, borrow, or just plain skip.

And if you’re interested in books on other Asian countries, check out my books on Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, China, Thailand, and Singapore.

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Books on Vietnam: Fiction

There are some amazing novels set in Vietnam to choose from. Most books are set during the Vietnam War. However, there are some more contemporary ones written in Vietnamese and translated into English that are also worth reading.

Let’s take a look!

1. The Quiet American

Graham Greene (1955)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Innocence is a kind of insanity.”

I’ve read The Quiet American twice. The first time was 20 years ago, and the second time was while I was traveling through Vietnam in 2015. It’s a complex book that is better the second or third time around when you are more able to uncover its multiple layers.

The Quiet American takes place in 1955 during the French-Indochinese War. The narrator of the novel is Thomas Fowler, a jaded and cynical British journalist, who’s living an idyllic life in Vietnam with his Vietnamese mistress. That is until he meets the naïve, fiercely anti-communist, and very quiet American Alden Pyle. Pyle is working for the CIA and is involved in some reckless scheme to save Vietnam from not only the communists but also their old European colonizers. Surprisingly, the two instantly like each other.

However, there’s a bit of a problem. Pyle is in love with Fowler’s lover, Phuong. Fowler is at a disadvantage. While Pyle is promising to “rescue” Phuong and take her back to America, Fowler, a married man, can only promise life as a mistress. What lengths will Fowler go to keep Phuong?

The Quiet American is a brilliant book. So many things in it are a metaphor for something more important. For example, Pyle is a metaphor for the United States’ arrogance and ignorance. This quote from Fowler describes Pyle (but really America) perfectly:

“That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

The book was so prescient at the time. Greene wrote it in 1955 (the American Vietnam War began in 1965), yet Graham could foresee the damage America’s idealism, arrogance, racism, and naivety would bring to Vietnam.

Verdict: Buy The Quiet American so that you can read it more than once as it’s so complex and thought-provoking. One of the best books on Vietnam. 

2. The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien (1990)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”

If you’re going to read just one novel on the Vietnam War, make it The Things They Carried by my fellow Minnesotan, Tim O’Brien.

O’Brien’s writing is so beautiful that it feels more like poetry than prose. Here’s one sentence to give you an idea:

“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

Forty years have passed since the war ended, and the narrator (named Tim O’Brien) is writing down his memories of Vietnam.  In one of my favorite stories, O’Brien describes the feelings of getting his draft notice. You can sense how O’Brien felt–the numbness, anger, paralysis, bitterness, and self-pity. It almost feels like you’re with him as he contemplates running away to Canada.

I’m not fond of war stories. But the ones here are an exception. They aren’t so much about battles or fighting as they are about what’s going on inside the minds of the soldiers–what they’re thinking while walking through the jungle or through fields dotted with mines or waiting in their camp.

Verdict: Of course, read The Things They Carried! 

3. Matterhorn

Karl Marlantes (2010)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“It was all absurd, without reason or meaning. People who didn’t know each other were going to kill each other over a hill none of them cared about”

Written by Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn is an epic novel (617 pages) on the Vietnam War. It’s a story of a young bookish Marine Lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and the soldiers he commands in Bravo Company. He and his men are dropped in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle where they’ve been ordered to take a mountain–the Matterhorn.

I’m not fond of war novels, but this one resonated with me. Perhaps because I liked Waino so much. It also does a good job of highlighting the pointlessness of the war and how stupid the American military leadership was.

The thing that stuck with me was how the Marines would be ordered to take a mountain. After fighting to the death for it and succeeding to take it, they’d be told to abandon it. Huh????

Verdict: Read Matterhorn even if you’re not into war novels. But read it while traveling in Vietnam, specifically around the DMZ (central Vietnam).

4. The Mountains Sing

By Nguyen Phan Que Mai (2020)

I’m always on the lookout for books on Vietnam written by Vietnamese. The Mountains Sing was originally written in Vietnamese by a famous poet, Nguyen Pan Que Mai.

It’s a sweeping multigenerational story of Tran Dieu Lan and her family’s life from the 1920s to the present. Tran’s family was originally from the North. During the communist land reforms, her family was forced to migrate to Hanoi.

The English translation was released in March 2020. I bought the book, but as of 2023, I haven’t read it yet. Hopefully, I’ll have time by the end of 2023. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think.

5. The Sorrow of War

Bao Ninh (1987)

I saw copies of The Sorrow of War in English all over Vietnam. Unfortunately, I didn’t pick it up. I wish I had, though because it would be nice to have read a book about the war from a North Vietnamese perspective while in Vietnam.

It’s an autobiographical novel based on the author’s time in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. Just like the main character, Ninh served from 1965 to 1976 and was one of 10 survivors from his unit. The book is told in disjointed snippets (not chronological) as the narrator (the author) reminisces about the war.

I finally bought the book but I haven’t read it yet. However, according to Goodreads reviewers, it’s worth it. It’s got a 4.1/5 rating on Goodreads and 4.4/5 on Amazon.

6. The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“I could live without television, but not without books.”

Written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for best fiction in 2016.

The narrator is half-French, half-Vietnamese. He’s a soldier fighting for  South Vietnam. But he’s also a double agent, secretly working for North Vietnam. He leaves Vietnam with other refugees for the U.S. While in America, he spies on his former commander and friends and reports back to his superiors in Hanoi on them.

I wanted to love this book, but I just couldn’t. Instead, I’ve got mixed feelings. On the one hand, the writing is good. It’s funny and insightful.  I sympathize with his premise: the only story of the Vietnam-American War that we get in the United States is one that is told from the point of view of America and that view is often full of racism, arrogance, and ignorance. Nguyen wanted to give us the story as told from a Vietnamese point of view.

However, I found myself wanting to get to the end of the book not because I was eager to find out the ending but to get away from the narrator. I hated him. He’s arrogant, bitter, and cold-blooded.

I was also hoping that Nguyen’s view of the war would be more nuanced. But instead, I thought he painted the American side with as many stereotypical brushstrokes as he accused American writers of doing.

Verdict:  I so wanted to like The Sympathizer. But sadly, my recommendation is to skip it or get it from the library.

7. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

By Robert Olen Butler (1992)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“He was a believer. I could see his Buddhist upbringing in him. The communists could appeal to that. They couldn’t touch the Catholics, but the Buddhists who didn’t believe in all the mysticism were well prepared for communism. The communists were full of right views, right intentions, right speech, and all that.”

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain won the Pulitzer Prize for the best work of fiction in 1993.

Written by Robert Olen Butler, it’s a collection of short stories told from the point of view of Vietnamese immigrants. All of them live in Louisiana.

Some are Catholics who fled North Vietnam when the country was first divided, and some are Buddhists from South Vietnam. Before reading this book, I wasn’t aware of the distinction before (Catholics were from the North and Buddhists from the South), and I wasn’t aware of the animosity each side felt towards the other.

Butler joined the U.S. military and was sent to language school to study Vietnamese before his tour of duty n Vietnam. He arrived in Vietnam already fluent. Through his language abilities, he was able to get to know regular Vietnamese people. So he saw a side of Vietnam that most American journalists and soldiers could never see.

I first read these short stories 25 years ago when the book first came out. At that time, no one thought to criticize the author, a white American male, for writing from the voices of Vietnamese immigrants.

However, if you look today on Amazon or Good Reads, you’ll see that people criticize Butler for thinking he can write with the voice of a Vietnamese immigrant.

I think it’s best to ask Vietnamese of the same generation and background as Butler’s characters whether his stories are authentic. Then make your decision on whether to read A Good Scent .

8. The Bride Test

Helen Hoang (2019)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“The government didn’t care about her, the schools didn’t, the scholarship organizations didn’t, but this one person did, and sometimes one person could make a world of difference.”

I had high hopes for The Bride Test . I loved the author’s first book (5/5 stars), The Kiss Quotient. But The Bride Test just fell flat.

The Bride Test is the story of Khai Diep, a Vietnamese-American, who happens to be movie-star handsome but also autistic. Khai struggles with feeling emotions, and as a result, avoids relationships, especially romantic ones. His lack of a girlfriend concerns his mother, so she heads off to Vietnam to find him a bride. She returns with Esme, a young half-Vietnamese half-Caucasian woman. Will Khai fall in love with Esme and will Esme do the same? Read to find out.

Why I wasn’t in love with this book? Not very interesting characters and not a very believable plot. Esme was shallow and selfish, and Khai was just blah. And I just don’t think they had much chemistry together. (Read the Kiss Quotient for some real chemistry.)

Also, few mothers, especially status conscience ones are going to choose a bathroom attendant as a future wife for their son, especially after talking to her for only five minutes and without checking out her background.

Verdict: Skip this book. Better yet, get her book, The Kiss Quotient. It doesn’t have Vietnamese characters, but it’s a fun and deliciously sexy read! Hottest sex scenes I’v read in a long time.

9. The Lotus Eaters

By Tatjana Soli (2010)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“One stayed at first for glory, then excitement, then later it was pure endurance and proficiency; one couldn’t imagine doing anything else. But there was something more, hard to put her finger on—one felt a camaraderie in war, an urgency of connection impossible to duplicate in regular life. She felt more human when life was on the edge.”

I really wanted to love The Lotus Eaters. It has everything I like in a book: a strong female character with an interesting job (photojournalist) working in an exotic setting (Vietnam) at an important time in history (the Vietnam War). Alas, I could only “like” the book. Too many nagging holes in the story.

The year is 1965—the beginning of the Vietnam War. Recent college dropout, Helen arrives in Vietnam wanting to become a photographer. Up to this point, she doesn’t even know how to load a roll of film into the camera. Yet she wants to be a professional photographer. And she does become one—some of her photos make it on to the cover of Life magazine. If anyone has ever done photography, you will know that Helen’s fast progress is unrealistic.

There are two other main characters in the book: Darrow, a famous war photographer, who becomes her mentor and lover and Linh, another man who also becomes her lover.

I liked the story. It’s got enough unexpected twists and turns and beautiful descriptions of Vietnam.

I loved the theme of the book, which is related to the title. The “Lotus Eaters” comes from Homer’s The Odyssey—people who live in a dreamy state of forgetfulness and idleness after eating lotus roots. In Vietnam, the lotus eaters were those who gave up everything for the excitement, adrenaline, and danger of war. They pushed themselves to take greater risks.

There were two kinds of lotus eaters in Vietnam: those who became emotionally involved and were there to search for truth and justice. The other type of lotus eaters were the ones who stayed aloof from the suffering. They were unbothered by questions of right or wrong. They were only there for the thrill of war.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the characters to be very believable. I could never figure out what Helen’s initial motivation for coming to Vietnam was, and I could never believe her passion for photography.

Linh was the weakest character in the book I don’t think the author captured what a Vietnamese man would think, act or say. He didn’t come across as very authentic.

The romance between Helen and Linh also wasn’t believable either. I didn’t feel the love or the passion between the two characters.

I will say that the ending of The Lotus Eaters is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

10. Dust Child

By Que Mai Phan Nguyen (2023)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Throughout his life, he had been called the dust of life, bastard, Black American imperialist, child of the enemy.”

This is the first time that I cried in the first chapter of a book. That’s how powerful the book Dust Child is.

Written by Que Mai Phan Nguyen, Dust Child is about Amerasians–the children of Vietnamese women and American soldiers during the Vietnam War and the discrimination and cruelty they faced growing up in Vietnam. The Vietnamese call these children the “dust of life.”

The story begins in 2016 and jumps backward to 1969. It’s told from the perspectives of three characters:

  • Phong – Half Black and half-Vietnamese man who grew up in Vietnam; at the beginning of the book, he’s in his 40s and he’s trying to get a visa to immigrate to the U.S. As the book progresses, we learn about the tragic life he had up to that point growing up in Vietnam as an orphan.
  • Dan – Dan was a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. During the war, he had a relationship with a Vietnamese woman who became pregnant. In 2016, he returns to Vietnam with his wife.
  • Trang – Trang was a 19-year-old bar girl in Vietnam in 1969.

Eventually, we see how these three characters know each other.

This book stirred up a lot of angry emotions about my country and the way it breaks everything it comes into contact with absent of any remorse. Perhaps 20 years later, there is regret.

However, the Vietnamese don’t come across much better. Their treatment of Amerasians, especially Black Amerasians, is dreadful. Everyone is trying to cheat someone. Why did it take these women who abandoned their children 20 years to go looking for them?

Nguyen is a good storyteller. The story sucks you in and you want to keep reading to find out if Dan finds his child and Phong his parents. Her characters are realistic: flawed but sympathetic. You should hate Dan but you don’t. Thien is a jerk but then when you learn his backstory, it’s hard not to empathize with him. The way she describes Vietnam makes you feel that you are right there sitting next to Trang and Quynh at the Hollywood Bar in Saigon.

Dust Child is one of my top 3 favorite fiction books on Vietnam.

Books on Vietnam: Nonfiction

There are so many good non-fiction books about Vietnam that it’s hard to choose sometimes. Of course, you’ve got loads of books on the Vietnam War, books on the history of Vietnam, and family memoirs that tell the history of one Vietnamese family.

Let’s jump in!

11. The Best and the Brightest

David Halberstam (1972)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Up to then there had been something of a gentleman’s agreement among those who might be called The Good Journalists of Washington that the Kennedy Administration was one of excellence, that it was for good things and against bad things, and that when it did lesser things it was only in self-defense, and in order that it might do other good things.”

If you want to know why the United States lost the Vietnam War, read The Best and the Brightest. David Halberstam was a New York Times journalist stationed in Vietnam during the 1960s.

The Best and the Brightest refers to the Harvard-educated foreign policy decision-makers in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. These are the same ones that got the United States mired in a war they couldn’t win.

Halberstam looks at what led America to think they could do what the French couldn’t do–defeat the communists and control Vietnam–and why they lost.

I loved, loved, loved this book. I was so absorbed in reading about the arrogance and ignorance of those in power that even though it’s thick (832 pages), it didn’t take me that long to get through it.

Verdict: Read it! The Best and the Brightest is one of the best nonfiction books about Vietnam!

12. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

Neil Sheehan (1988)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Another great book that reveals why the United States lost the war is A Bright Shining Lie by journalist Neil Sheehan. Like The Best and the Brightest, it’s an unputdownable and thought-provoking book that will change your thinking of those in power. A Bright Shining Lie tells the story of John Paul Vann–a fascinating character. Deeply flawed yet very heroic. Sheehan portrays John Paul Vann as the only person in the military who understood how to win the war. He was outspoken and critical of those in power, and he wasn’t afraid to tell those higherup what he thought regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, no one wanted to listen to him. Whereas The Best and the Brightest focuses on policy-makers in Washington, A Bright Shining Lie looks at how the incompetence and malfeasance of the U.S. military and the corruption of the South Vietnamese army led to the loss of the Vietnam-American war. Verdict: Buy it! One of the best Vietnam War books. Sheehan beats Halberstam at 898 pages. But A Bright Shining Lie is so good that it doesn’t feel long. It reads more like a novel than a work of nonfiction. I’m glad I own this book because it’s one I’d like to read again.

13. Vietnam: A New History

Christopher Goscha (2016)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“In the great power account, Vietnam is the victim of colonization and domination, never a colonizer or conqueror itself. Its own internal divisions, ethnic diversity, and conflicts are obscured.”

Vietnam: A New History is a riveting and groundbreaking book on the history of Vietnam from ancient times to the present day.

Out of all the books I’ve read on Vietnam, it’s probably helped me understand the country’s history the most.

There are fourteen chapters in the book, three of which focus on pre-colonial history, seven on Vietnam under the French, two on the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War), one on the Third Indochina War (Vietnam against China and Cambodia), and one on the country’s post-war years.

I’m always excited by a book that can make me look at the past in a new way, and Gosha’s book made me rethink many of my assumptions and beliefs about the Vietnam War.

If you’re into the history of the Vietnam War, I highly recommend this book. If you want to know more about the history of Vietnam under the French, then this is also a great book to start.

Verdict: Buy it!

You can read my full review of Vietnam: A New History here. 

14. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

By Andrew X Pham (1999)

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“If trouble is coming, don’t turn your back, because that’s when it’s gonna stab. Best to meet it with a grin. That way, you can see what’s coming.”

Part memoir and part travelogue, Catfish and Mandala is Andrew X Pham’s first book about his return to Vietnam. Pham was born in Vietnam but immigrated with his family to the United States as a child.  After the suicide of his sibling, Pham quits his job, sells all his possessions, and takes off on a bicycle ride across Vietnam.

Pham writes about his family’s immigrant experience. He talks about his difficulties growing up with a strict father and coming to terms with being of two cultures: conservative Vietnamese culture and liberal American culture. The other part of the book is a travelogue about his adventures biking across Vietnam.

The stories about his family in Vietnam and the U.S. are fascinating. The travelogue part of Pham biking through Vietnam is dated. It was written in the 1990s. Vietnam has changed a lot in 20+ years. 

Verdict: Read it for the history of his family. 

15. Dispatches

Michael Herr (1977)

Dispatches by journalist Michael Herr has been on my Amazon Wish List for several years. I have yet to buy or read it. So many books so little time. It’s supposed to be one of THE classic books on the Vietnam War (along with The Things They Carried and A Rumor of War).

Dispatches is a memoir describing the author’s time as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine. He was in Vietnam reporting on some of the most important battles—Ke Sanh and Hue.

The writing is supposed to be superb!

The book gets a 4.2 rating on GoodReads and 4.5 on Amazon.

Just be aware that he had admitted to inventing some of the stories and conversations (it’s touted as nonfiction). 

16. Eating Vietnam

Graham Holiday (2016)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The single thing that alters, distinguishes, and sets Vietnamese apart from Thai, Cambodian, Lao, or any other Southeast Asian cuisine is the presence and abundance of herbs”

The best food I’ve ever eaten in Asia was in Vietnam. Not Japan and not Thailand. But Vietnam It’s fresh and healthy and the flavors are complex, and it’s got these wonderful herbs I’d never seen before. So, I was eager to read Eating Vietnam by former street food blogger, Graham Holiday. I figured since he’d lived in Vietnam for over 10 years, he had enough street cred to write about Vietnamese food.

Eating Vietnam is divided into two parts: part 1 focuses on Hanoi and part 2 on Saigon.

The Hanoi section is good. Holiday writes not only about food but also about his everyday life. For instance, you’ll read about both his first-time tasting Bun Cha and Cha Ca and the first bike he bought, the first apartment he lived in, and the first time he fell in love. I could relate to these westerner-in-Asia experiences having lived for several years in Asia during the same period as Holiday. But if you haven’t lived in Asia, this part might bore you.

It wasn’t until I got to the Saigon section (57% on my Kindle) that the book got REALLY good. Holiday focuses less on himself and more on the food. The chapters on the differences between Ha Noi and Sai Gon cuisine are particularly fascinating.

The writing gets better too in the Sai Gon section.  He tones down adjectives and metaphors, becoming more effective and enjoyable.

Verdict: If you’re looking for a book on Vietnam’s food, buy Eating Vietnam.

17. The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars

Andrew X Pham (2008)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Eaves of Heaven is Andrew X Pham’s second book. In his first one, Catfish and Mandala, he recounts his travels by bike around Vietnam. In The Eaves of Heaven, he tells the history of Vietnam through his father’s life story. His father lived through the Japanese occupation of Vietnam, the French-Indochina War, and the Vietnam War. His father’s family was once wealthy landowners who had to flee from their home in the North to the South when the country was divided. His second book is sooooo much better than his first.

I think history should be learned in two ways: through a nonfiction analysis of historical events and through a memoir of an ordinary person who experienced those events. 

The Eaves of Heaven is the latter. It’s an EXCELLENT book that made me really understand Vietnam’s history better. I got a sense of what it must have been like to live through those events. 

Verdict: Read Eaves of Heaven for an interesting look at Vietnamese history from an ordinary Vietnamese person’s perspective.

18. Fire in the Lake

Frances Fitzgerald (1972)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If you want a book that helps you understand the Vietnamese people better, read Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald. Unlike many books on Vietnam, this doesn’t center around an American marine, but instead, focuses on the Vietnamese people and who they are, what they believe, and why they think the way they do.

The premise is that if the United States had understood Vietnamese history and culture, then it would never have gotten into a war in the first place.

I read the book many years before writing this post, so I can’t give you many details on why I like it. It’s got a 4.1 rating on GoodReads and a 4.6 on Amazon.

Fire in the Lake is an informative and fascinating book.

Verdict: Read it!

Like Dispatches, A Rumor of War is another classic Vietnam War book I haven’t read yet.

Beginning in 1965, Philip Caputo served for 18 months in Vietnam. He was part of the first combat troupe to land on the ground in Vietnam. The memoir is about his time in Vietnam.

Caputo was brought up on murder charges for commanding two of his men to capture two Viet Cong soldiers and kill them if they resisted. The charges were later dropped.

It’s got a 4.2 rating on GoodReads and 4.6 on Amazon.

The Sacred Willow is a book about Vietnam’s history told through the lives of a wealthy Vietnamese family.

Duong Van Mai Elliot tells the story of her family starting with her great-grandmother to her time working for the RAND Corporation interviewing Viet Cong POWs. That last part is quite fascinating.

Following the story of Elliot’s family during the most important events of Vietnam’s history was a powerful way to help me understand the country better. 

I also liked reading how during her time working for the RAND Corporation, Elliot slowly begins to understand that the South will never win. 

Verdict: Read this! Which one is better: The Eaves of Heaven or The Sacred Willow? The Sacred Willow is broader in scope, covering a longer time period and more generations than Eaves of Heaven. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. So, I’d pick The Sacred Willow.

21. Vietnam: Rising Dragon

Bill Hayton (2010)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“There’s a saying in Vietnam: ‘The emperor’s rule stops at the village gate’.”

If you’re interested in learning about contemporary Vietnam, then the most recently written book on the subject is Bill Hayton’s Vietnam: Rising Dragon.

Hayton is a British journalist who was working for the BBC while in Vietnam. He lived in Vietnam in the early twenty-first century. He doesn’t even tell his readers exactly when he lived there, but he does mention that in 2007, he was expelled from Vietnam for his reporting on the dissident movement.

Rising Dragon is informative and insightful. To help you decide whether to buy it, here’s a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of what you’ll read:

  • Chapter 1:  the economy
  • Chapter 2:  the farmers
  • Chapter 3: the cities; the government’s policy of “civilized living” versus reality
  • Chapter 4: how the government controls the people
  • Chapter 5: who has the power in Vietnam
  • Chapter 6: the dissident movements
  • Chapter 7: freedom of the press
  • Chapter 8: the environment
  • Chapter 9: relations with China and the United States; how Vietnam got its name
  • Chapter 10: north/south relations and treatment of ethnic minorities
  • Epilogue: Is Vietnam headed toward a liberal democracy?

Over 10 years have passed since the book was written, so some things might be out-of-date. But I haven’t come across anything more recent than Rising Dragon.

Bill Hayton’s writing is dry, and he rarely puts his personality or personal life into his writing. So, the book can be boring at times.

Verdict: If you’re interested in reading something about contemporary Vietnam, Vietnam: Rising Dragon is a good choice.

22. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places

Le Ly Hayslip (1989)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

An emotionally heartwrenching book on Vietnam is the memoir by Le Ly Hayslip When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. 

Hayslip grew up in a poor family in a small village that became a battleground in the war. Both the North and South accused her of being a spy for the other side, and as a result, she was tortured, raped, and sentenced to death. She and her mother fled their small village to live in Saigon where she worked various jobs from housekeeper to black marketeer to prostitute. She married an American contractor, had a son, and moved to the United States.

I read the book many years ago, so my memory of the content is hazy. I do remember it being an emotional read. The author went through some horrible events (rape, torture, death of loved ones). It was also made into a movie called Heaven and Earth.

Verdict: Your understanding of the Vietnam War will be incomplete unless you read at least one book told from the point of view of the Vietnamese. There are many like that on this list of books about Vietnam, and When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is a good choice. I had originally borrowed it from the library. I wish I owned it so that I could read it again before my next trip to Vietnam.

Books on Vietnam: Food

After my first trip to Vietnam, I became obsessed with Vietnamese food, and I bought and borrowed cookbooks and scoured the internet for videos on how to cook it. I tried making pho and other noodle dishes, Cha Ca (fish in turmeric and dill), stews, banh mi, and other dishes.

Here is a list of my favorite cookbooks:

The Banh Mi Cookbook is the first of many cookbooks on this list by Andrea Nguyen, and as the name suggests, it focuses on making banh mi sandwiches. Here’s what you’ll get in this cookbook:

  • tips on buying the most suitable bread for banh mi including alternatives to baguettes
  • recipes for making your own bread
  • 1 detailed recipe for making a banh mi sandwich
  • recipes for making your own condiments
  • lots of delicious recipes for making the cold cuts like pate, chicken, seafood and fish, pork, and beef that goes into the banh mi sandwich
  • recipes for making vegetarian banh mi

I’ve made some of the chicken recipes in this book, but I haven’t made my own bread. The recipes are tasty and easy to make, but I’m always hampered by a lack of suitable bread in my city. Without good bread, the sandwiches can get annoyingly chewy. They should be chewy but not THAT chewy. So, I stopped making banh mi after several attempts.

This is still a great cookbook and I highly recommend getting it if you like sandwiches.

Verdict: Buy it or borrow from the library!

24. Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors

Andrea Nguyen (2011)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Into the Vietnamese Kitchen was my first Vietnamese cookbook and the one I have cooked from the most. It’s a treasure trove of information about cooking Vietnamese food.

What I love about it is Nguyen’s explanations of why you would use one ingredient (fish sauce, chicken stock) or cooking technique over another.

The list of recipes includes those from both the North and South (missing those from the central part). Many of them were ones that I tried on my trip. It also helps me that Nguyen gives the name of the dish in Vietnamese because I’m more familiar with the original name than the English name.

However, some of her instructions are confusing, and I needed other books to help me cook such as when I was first cooking pho.

I had some successes with Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: banh mi, beef stew, and a curry. I also had some major failures as well: papaya salad, a dried noodle bowl, and the Cha Ca dish.

Verdict: Buy it!

Have you ever tried making pho before?

It’s one heck of a loooooong and complicated process. The first time I made it, I didn’t have this cookbook. Instead, I had to use several cookbooks and YouTube videos to understand what to do.

Then The Pho Cookbook came out. And I found all I needed to cook pho in one cookbook. 

The book explains the process so clearly and thoroughly that you don’t need several books or videos to understand how to make this iconic Vietnamese dish.

You’ll even find a recipe here for making it in an instant pot (not as good as the traditional method but quicker and easier).

Verdict: Buy it!

Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table is THE best Vietnamese cookbook I’ve used.

It’s not flashy. There are no colored photos–it’s only negative.

The dishes just sing! And whenever I cooked dishes from it, I always felt like I was a good cook.

Unfortunately, I don’t own the book. I used to get it from my local library and hold onto it until I ran out of renewals. Then one day my local library got rid of it when they disposed of a whole bunch of books for a temporary move during a remodeling project. Ugh! I’m on the move now, so there’s no need for me to purchase my own copy. But someday…

When I’m first learning to cook a certain cuisine, I need photos. Since this one lacks them, I think Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table is more suitable for those with some experience cooking Vietnamese food.

Verdict: Buy it!

27. The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food

Charles Phan (2014)

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Charles Phan, head chef and owner of the popular San Francisco restaurant, the Slanted Door, wrote this cookbook with recipes from his restaurant. I’ve never eaten at the Slanted Door. But I tried cooking the restaurant’s famous dish, Shaken Beef, using this book’s recipe.

I wasn’t impressed. My problem with the recipe was that it calls for way too much beef to cook in a home cook’s wok (maybe it’s ok for a restaurant wok). When you cook in a wok, you need to cook fast, so you shouldn’t have too much food in it. If you do, the ingredients will either be overcooked or undercooked. The recipe also called for a very expensive cut of beef: filet mignon! In the end, I got an overpriced unevenly cooked disaster of a dish.

Verdict: Skip it!

28. Vietnamese Home Cooking

Charles Phan (2012)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

While I was disappointed with Charles Phan’s The Slanted Door, I love, love, love his cookbook, Vietnamese Home Cooking.

Charles Pham is Chinese-Vietnamese, so some of the recipes are more Chinese than Vietnamese. Don’t worry! There are still lots of Vietnamese dishes.

The recipes are clear and easy to follow—perfect for the home cook. My favorite dish from this book is the steamed pork ribs with black bean sauce. I cook this dish over and over again.

I highly recommend getting Vietnamese Home Cooking!

Verdict: Definitely buy it!

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Final Thoughts

So that’s my list of the best and the not-so-great books on Vietnam. If I had to choose one book to read on this list, I’d say The Things They Carried is #1. Here are my top 5 must-read books:

  1. The Things They Carried
  2. The Best and the Brightest
  3. A Bright Shining Lie
  4. The Quiet American
  5. Matterhorn

If you’ve got a favorite book, I’d love to hear from you. Include it in the comment section. If you find this list helpful, please share the love on social media. Thank you!

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  1. One I loved was Single White Female in Hanoi – written by an Australian woman who was living as an ex-pat in Hanoi for a period. Sadly she passed away not long after it was published and the profit from sales of the book goes to charities she chose

    • Thanks Paula for the recommendation. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. This is a great post with some really solid advice, thank you for sharing! Merry christmas from Stockholm Sweden 🙂

    • Thanks, Ann!

  3. I love your post! It’s so nice to read a book about the country that you visit. I’ve read a book from Graham Greene (it was his sort of autobiography), and I’d be really interested in the Vietnamese authors’ fiction.

    • Thanks, Anna!

  4. Last year, I read “The Lotus Eaters” by Tatjana Soli and it was my first historical fiction read set in Vietnam. Having been born during the war, my knowledge of it is not very great. It also seems like history classes in school always focused on older history and we consistently ran out of time before we could track as far forward as things that were then more considered “recent events.”

    Last week, I finished reading “Come Fly The World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am” by Julia Cooke and the last fourth of the book was about the ways the international airlines helped during the Vietnam War. I had never even realized there were so many orphans who were saved and brought to the United States during that time. I am now interested in learning more about Vietnam with the hopes of one day visiting. Thank you so much for your list and your insight into these books. You might enjoy “The Lotus Eaters” also!

    • Thanks for the recs! I’ve heard of the Lotus Eaters but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I haven’t heard of the other book, though. It sounds interesting.

  5. The perfect spy

    • Do you mean the John le Carre novel? Does it take place in Vietnam? I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.


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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.


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