26 Great Books on Vietnam

by Nov 1, 2020Books, 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 say about it? Probably it’s because of all the tragedies the country has experienced over the past 100 years. Tragedies make the best stories.

Anyway, there are lots and lots of books on Vietnam to choose from. The good news is that many of them are damn 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 sometimes it’s hard to choose and if you’re like me and you’re on a budget, you want to choose the best book on Vietnam.

So, here is my curated list of 26 books on Vietnam and Vietnamese culture, 21 of which I’ve read. The 5 I haven’t are considered classics so I included them on the list. Some of the books take place in the United States but involve Vietnamese characters. The list is growing and I’ll be adding to it and updating my reviews as I read them. 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

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 have more time to uncover its multiple layers.

The Quiet American takes place in 1955 during the French-Indochina War. The narrator of the novel is Thomas Fowler, a 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 the life as a mistress. What lengths will Fowler go to keep Phuong?

The Quiet American is a brilliant book. So many things in this book are a metaphor for something more important. 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 there are so many layers to 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 book on Vietnam, 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. The feelings of those memories are so real that you feel completely immersed in them. 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, through fields dotted with mines, or while waiting in their camp.

Another thing that stands out for me is the absurdity of some of the stories.  For example, in Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, a soldier’s girlfriend comes and lives with him and his fellow soldiers at their post and starts going out on night missions in the jungle. This could never happen, yet the feelings the story evokes is so real.

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.

I’m not fond of war novels, but this one resonated with me. Perhaps because I liked the bookish Waino. But also because it’s not just for people who like to read about war and fighting. It 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, they’d succeed only to be told to abandon it. Huh????

Verdict: Read Matterhorn even if you’re like me and 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 and is to be translated into English. 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 I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

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.

It’s an autobiographical novel of 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.

6. The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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

As I have said earlier, I loved reading books on Vietnam that are written by Vietnamese or Vietnamese-Americans. The Sympathizer is written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese American. It won the Pulitzer Prize for best fiction in 2016.

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

I wanted to love this book, but instead, I’ve got mixed feelings. On the one hand, the writing is good. Nguyen is a humorous writer. I get and sympathize with his premise that the story of the Vietnam-American War that we get in the United States is only 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 put myself out of the misery of reading it. I hated the narrator. 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 accuses 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. 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 before reading this book. The stories are about something that happened to the characters either in Vietnam or in the United States.

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. 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.

Reading A Good Scent a second time more recently, I couldn’t get the author’s race out of the back of my mind. It made me question the authenticity of the stories. Are these feelings and thoughts that a Vietnamese immigrant would actually possess? I’m not sure, but I do know these thoughts of mine did detract from appreciating the stories.

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 hate that the first book on this list of books on Vietnam is one that I can’t actually recommend. But I guess that’s the way it goes when you’re listing items alphabetically. 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.

I’m sure you can tell from the cover that The Bride Test is a romance or the term that makes me cringe “chick-lit”. 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 in stereotypically Asian fashion, 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 Asian mothers, are going to choose a bathroom attendant as a future wife for her son, especially after talking to her for only 5 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.

Books on Vietnam: Nonfiction

9. 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. The author, 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 would never 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 love, love, love 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!

10. 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 higher than him what he thought regardless of the consequences. But 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 why 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 books on Vietnam. 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.

11. 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 the country 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’s years 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.

There are so many things that I loved about the book. 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.

Two other things I loved about Vietnam: A New History was how Goscha clearly shows how Vietnam’s colonizers (Chinese, French, Japanese, and Americans) have influenced the country but also how Vietnam has colonized other people.

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. 

12. 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 as refugees 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 difficult life with his 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.

To be honest, this book didn’t stand out for me. I read it at a time when I was fascinated by Vietnam but before I had set foot in the country. The book does a better job at telling the immigrant story than telling a travel story. I was looking for a book focusing more on the latter than the former since I’d already read so many books on the immigrant experience.

Verdict: Skip it unless it’s on sale. 

13. 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!

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

14. 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, healthy, and 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 ok. Holiday writes not only about food but also about his 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 I started to really enjoy the book. 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 prose gets better too in the Sai Gon section. It’s still not great (compare Anthony Bourdain’s introduction with Holiday’s writing and you’ll see). In the first half, he tries too hard on the descriptions.

“I cycled through a curtain of pork in fume form. It danced its way across the street, wiggling its hips, flashing its tits, tempting me to come sit down for a while, to imbibe, nibble, or gorge.”

He overdoes it with the metaphors like here:

“My pinball machine eyes ricocheted around, taking in the riotous scene.”

In the second half, he tones down his writing, and it becomes more effective and enjoyable.

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

15. 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 the story of his father. is 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. Whereas I wasn’t so impressed with his first book, I thoroughly enjoyed his second one.

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 a good book to help you understand Vietnam’s history better. I liked that it helped me understand what happened during the Japanese occupation and the Indochina War.

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

16. 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 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 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.

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 memoir 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.

The Sacred Willow is another book about Vietnam’s history told through the lives of ordinary (but also wealthy) Vietnamese. In this one, 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 during the Vietnam War. That last part is quite fascinating

As I had mentioned earlier, history is best understood by reading both a nonfiction objective account of events and a personal memoir or autobiography of events from the point of view of those not in power. From the latter, you get an understanding of how ordinary people were affected by historical events.

What I liked about Sacred Willow is Elliot’s work for the Rand Corporation and how she 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.

19. 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 by Bill Hayton.

Bill 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.

20. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places

Le Ly Hayslip (1989)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Another great book on this list of books 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 uses 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 unclear. I do remember it being an emotional read. The author went through some horrible events (rape, torture, death of loved ones) and at times it was hard to read. It was also made into a movie called Heaven and Earth by Oliver Stone.

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: Cooking

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 the food. 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 that is 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, 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!

22. 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 on why you would use one ingredient (fish sauce, chicken stock) or one 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 cooked 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 in order to understand what to do. Then The Pho Cookbook came out. 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. In fact, there are no colored photos, which is it’s only negative. The dishes just sing! 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 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!

25. 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’ve cooked the restaurant’s famous dish, Shaken Beef. I wasn’t impressed. My problem with the recipe was that it called 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!

26. 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 Vietnamese Home Cooking. Charles Pham is Chinese-Vietnamese, so some of the recipes are more Chinese than Vietnamese. Don’t worry! There are 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!

So that’s my list of 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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books on Vietnam
books on Vietnam

6 Comments

  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

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

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

    Reply
    • Thanks, Ann!

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Anna!

      Reply

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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  Travel addict and bookworm! This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore the history, heritage, and culture of Asia and beyond. On this site, you’ll find itineraries to help you plan your trip, reviews to help you make better-informed decisions, lots of history and cultural information to help make your travels more meaningful, and book recommendations to help you understand your destination more deeply.

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