Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Catfish & Mandala

People often ask me what books about Vietnam I could recommend.
Aside from Destination Saigon (naturally), one of my all-time favourites is Andrew X. Pham's exquisite travel-memoir Catfish & Mandala. This book has been around for a while now, and has a real cult following, especially among those who have visited Vietnam.

Pham is an American-Vietnamese, and in this book he decides to re-visit his homeland. A committed bike-rider and something of an idealist, Pham's return is hardly triumphant, and from the beginning he experiences cultural confusion when he cannot be the person his family in Vietnam want him to be.
Throughout the book his journey through Vietnam is interspersed with stories of his life as a refugee boy growing up in the States. His wonderfully dysfunctional family (including a gay brother and a transsexual sister) are constantly examined and pulled into focus as events in Vietnam remind him of his fractured, multi-cultural experience.
Pham is honest in this book, painfully so. He is unafraid to represent himself as a paranoid whinger, or to discuss difficult aspects of contemporary Vietnamese culture. In fact, I really do rate this as one of the best - and most original - travel books ever written.
Essential reading if you're headed to Vietnam.

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