To arrive in Hanoi is to emerge into humidity and horns. A city famous for its traffic and food, it transforms over the course of the day as plastic stools turn the pavements into cafes, dinner is cooked on the street and conversations rattle long into the night. But Vietnam’s ancient capital has also inspired its writers. To sink into Vietnamese literature is to understand its history of war, French colonialism and food – but also the art that has resulted.
Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong (1988)
Paradise of the Blind was the first Vietnamese novel to be published in English in the United States – but it remains banned in Vietnam. Its author, Duong Thu Huong, has suffered for her art, serving time in prison and being denied a passport for 11 years, preventing her from travelling abroad. Why so controversial? Well, Huoung was expelled as a traitor for her Communist Party membership. Paradise of the Blind was her second novel, and tarnished the success of her bestselling debut with controversy, leading to two assassination plots. Huoung’s life is fascinating in itself but Paradise of the Blind is fiction, offering an insight into the slums of Hanoi where narrator Hang grew up, via the prism of a journey to communist Moscow. Despite the Russian framing, this is nevertheless a vital book about the political restraints put on Vietnamese women during the 20th century.
Dumb Luck by Vũ Trọng Phụng (1936)
Vietnamese high school graduates will be familiar with Phụng’s work – he’s a regular on the curriculum, but Dumb Luck hasn’t always been as popular. The novel, a rambunctious satire of French colonialism, was banned for 50 years after its publication in 1936. Our hero is Red-Haired Xuan, a kind of Vietnamese Becky Sharpe, who slithers his way out of the slums of Hanoi and up the social ladder to become a pioneer for social reform in this piquant example of Vietnamese modernism.