General Southeast Asia:
A Traveller’s History of Southeast Asia by J.M. Barwise and Nicholas J. White (History/ Travel literature). A lucid and concise introduction to the histories of the modern countries of South East Asia, this book provides an essential guide for both tourists and the general reader. It spans the history of the region from 'Java Man' some one million years ago to the development of high tech, sky scraper cities of the new millennium.
The River’s Tale, A Year on the Mekong by Edward Gargan (Travel Narrative). The book describes in beautiful detail a year spend on the Mekong River during a 3,000-mile journey from its source in China through Tibet, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Sri Rahula (Religion). A useful overview of Buddhism as it is practiced in Southeast Asia by an internationally recognized authority, who just happens to also be a Buddhist monk.
A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan (History/Memoir). This book details the Vietnam War through one of the big controversies - a clandestine briefing of the press by Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, a former New York Times reporter, who strongly disagreed with his superiors on the direction the war was taking and America’s chances of winning.
Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham (Memoir/Travel Narrative). A Vietnamese-American decides to revisit the land of his birth and some painful memories. This touching book balances the story of the author’s escape from Vietnam in 1977 and his subsequent return about 20 years later to tour by bicycle.
Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam by Kim Fay (Food). Part cookbook and part travelogue, this book charts the return of Fay to Vietnam for a culinary safari after a ten-year absence. Beautiful, bold photographs and stories about the chefs accompany authentic recipes.
Dispatches by Michael Herr (Journalism). First published in 1977, when Herr was a journalist for Esquire Magazine, this collection of firsthand reporting has been compared to a war documentary in print. Dispatches was one of the first pieces of American literature that portrayed the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War for American readers.
Dumb Luck by Trong Phung Vu (Novel). A 1936 novel, once banned, the works of Vietnamese satirist Vu Trong Phung, which satirizes the late-colonial Vietnamese middle classes. The book is now seen as masterpieces that were years ahead of their time. This sarcastic and comedic rags-to-riches story set in Hanoi is particularly popular.
Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald (History). FitzGerald, a staff writer at the New Yorker was on assignment in Vietnam when she became interested in the impact of America’s participation in the Vietnam War. The resulting book won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1973, and is still essential reading more than 30 years later.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (Literature). The bittersweet story of a doomed romance between a French teenager and an older Chinese man set in 1930s French Indochina (Vietnam). The novel contains some racy scenes and frank language, but was critically well-received and won France’s Prix Goncourt for literature.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace by Dang Thuy Tram (Diary). As a young doctor working for the North Vietnamese Army, Dang Thuy Tram kept a diary of her experiences until her death at age 27. Found by an American soldier, the diary was returned to her family and published for the first time almost 30 years later.
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (Literature). This debut novel is about a company of Marines who build, abandon, and retake an outpost on a remote hilltop in Vietnam. The author, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, reportedly spent 30 years writing this book about the folly of war. He succeeded in coming up with one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to be written about Vietnam - or any war.
Perfect Spy by Larry Berman (Biography). During the Vietnam War, Time reporter Pham Xuan An befriended everyone who was anyone in Saigon, including American journalists such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, the CIA's William Colby, and the legendary Colonel Edward Lansdale - not to mention the most influential members of the South Vietnamese government and army. Perfect Spy follows the intricate double life of Communist spy, who passed American military secrets to North Vietnam while undercover as a reporter for Time Magazine in Saigon.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene (Literature). Quite possibly the most famous novel set in Vietnam, and a classic love triangle too. A knowing British war correspondent and a hopeful American are caught up in both revolutionary politics and whirlwind romance in 1950s Saigon. Unfortunately, they both fall for the same Vietnamese woman.
The Sacred Willow, Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family by Duong Van Mai Elliott (Biography/Memoir). A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A family history following four generations that also reveals the country’s history over the last 100 years. It’s a rich, marvelously detailed family saga.
The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (Literature). The fictionalized account of the author’s own experiences as a soldier for North Vietnam, this novel became a best-seller in Vietnam despite having been banned by the government (because it does not portray the war as heroic). The story can be tricky to keep up with - the time period jumps around, sometimes without warning - but the emotional honesty strikes a cord.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Fiction). The taunt story of a double agent who secretly sympathizes with the Communist forces during the fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975. The Sympathizer is the 2015 debut novel, a best-selling novel, and recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Its reviews have generally recognized its excellence and it was named a New York Times Editor's Choice.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Literature). Like The Sorrow of War, this is a fictionalized account of the author’s own wartime experiences, but from the American point of view, and told as a series of short stories. It was Pulitzer Prize finalist when it was first published in 1990.
Vietnam, Now: A Soldier Returns by David Lamb (Memoir/Travel Narrative). For a reporter who once described Vietnam as “a war, not a country”, returning nearly 30 years after the war’s end as the LA Times bureau chief was a surprise. But Lamb puts his return to good use, creating a book that deftly interweaves the stories of “then” and “now”.
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip (Memoir). The true-life story of a Vietnamese girl forced into the war (on both sides), where she faced constant danger, near- starvation, and torture. A riveting, emotional, and brutally honest look at what it takes to survive a war. The sequel, Child of War, Woman of Peace describes the author’s life in America after the war’s end.
A History of Cambodia by David Chandler (History). A clear and succinct account of modern Cambodia that starts in 1953 and extends to the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge, the death of the noxious Pol Pot in the late 1990s, and the return of peace to this lovely land.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung (Memoir). Loung Ung is 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge assumes power over Cambodia in 1975. They soon begin a four-year reign of terror and genocide in which nearly 3 million Cambodians die. Forced from her family's home in Phnom Penh, Ung is trained as a child soldier while her six siblings are sent to labor camps. The book is a personal account of Ung’s experiences throughout the Khmer Rouge years as a survivor of the Pol Pot regime.
Golden Bones, An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America by Sichan Siv (Memoir). Deputy Ambassador to the UN during the Bush administration, Siv looks back on a remarkable life, from his privileged childhood in Pochentong to the murderous reign of Pol Pot, his escape from a work camp to freedom and, eventually, life in America.
Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism by Swami Achuthananda (Religion). Religion is the opium of the people, said Karl Marx many centuries ago. For more than a billion people living in India and abroad, Hinduism is the religion and a way of life. Although the primary focus of these books is on Indian Hinduism, some previous travelers felt that knowing about the Hindu religion is helpful to put the Angkor temples in context.
Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples by Dawn Rooney. Considered by many as the indispensable guide to Khmer culture and history. This beautifully illustrated book contains background information on Khmer history, religious beliefs and legends depicted on the bas-reliefs, as well as descriptions of the architectural features. This detailed, monument-by-monument guide to the sites includes detailed maps and plans, plus information about four newly opened temple complexes accessible by helicopter!
Apocalypse Now (1979, Drama). Set in the midst of the Vietnam War, this intense drama follows a special ops soldier on a dangerous mission. The film is actually an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness.
Good Morning Vietnam (1987, Comedy). While the irreverent humor of Armed Forces Radio Service host Adrian Cronauer (Williams) amuses the troops stuck in Vietnam, he clashes with the Army brass who try to censor his show.
Indochine (1992, Foreign). When a well-to-do French plantation owner and her adopted Vietnamese daughter both fall for the same naval officer, their lives get swept up in the burgeoning nationalist movement. Set in French Indochina of the 1930s; in French with subtitles.
MASH (1970, Drama/Comedy). A group of U.S. Army doctors fight disease, war, and military insanity in Southeast Asia. Although the action is meant to be the Korean conflict, it was widely understood to be a comment on the Vietnam War. The darkly comedic tone of the movie was so popular that it was developed into a long-running TV series, M*A*S*H.
Red Dust (1932, Classic). Set on a rubber plantation in French Indochina, this film is all about desire and romantic intrigue: Although initially attracted to a tough and brassy beauty (Harlow) plantation foreman Gable soon falls instead for the classy wife of an employee (Astor). Surprisingly, the film includes some fairly accurate depictions of rubber production and the challenges of a remote jungle plantation (monsoons and malaria, just to name two).
The Quiet American (1958, Classic). A love triangle between a British journalist, a young Vietnamese woman, and a U.S. official, based on the novel by the same name. The 2002 remake starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser puts more emphasis on the intrigue and seedy side of Saigon in the 1950s, but is also quite good.
City of Ghosts (2002, Drama). A con man looking for his payout, his criminal mentor, a trustworthy cyclo driver, and a pretty NGO worker are just some of the people that inhabit this increasingly dangerous story, which is mostly set in Cambodia. Filmed on location in Phnom Penh and at a pre-Angkor temple.
The Killing Fields (1984, Drama). Based on the work of New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Waterston) and his translator Dith Pran (Ngor), this war drama explores the tragic rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.