Image: Penguin/Ryan McEachern

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

Image: William Morrow Paperbacks

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.

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong (2003)

Why read a book about Paris to understand Vietnam? Well, chances are a trip to Hanoi would take in a visit, if not a stay, in Ba Dinh, the city’s French district, where the legacies of French occupation and colonialism can be seen in the architecture and tasted in the food. Vietnamese American Troung’s inventive debut, the book cracks open an interesting dialogue between French colonial Vietnam and the experience of a Vietnamese immigrant decades later after central character Bình is employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as a cook in their Parisian home. Delicious.

The Song of Kieu, A New Lament, by Nguyen Du (1820)

According to Ocean Vuong, arguably Vietnam’s most prominent contemporary writer, Du’s narrative poem is “essential… for anyone invested, not only in Vietnamese literature, but the historic power of the national epic.” The Song of Kieu doesn’t focus on Hanoi, per se, but if you’re after a Classic to ground your cultural understanding of the city and Vietnam more widely, it’s a good place to start. Kieu is a poet who is forced into prostitution after marrying in an attempt to save her family from debt. Her life only becomes more dramatic from there, as she survives through her art and determination.  

The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh (1987)

Vietnam isn’t defined by its history, but the war that ravaged the country for two decades until the mid-Seventies has nevertheless informed its literature. Dozens of books have been written about the conflict, but the most famous from a Vietnamese perspective is Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, which started as the author’s graduate project at the Nguyen Du Writing School in Hanoi. While Vietnamese books about the war had proliferated before Ninh’s account, his was among the first to counter the glorified narratives of battle, bringing the reader – with a stream-of-consciousness narrative – into solider Kien’s own private hell on the frontlines. As a result, the book has earned comparisons to All Quiet on the Western Front. Nevertheless, it still took 10 years, after English publication, for Sorrow of War to appear in its native country.

Dumb Luck

Image: University of Michigan Press

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.

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