Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam


[A] still more implicit and powerful difference posited by the Orientalist as against the Oriental is that the former writes about,whereas the latter is written about.1
--Edward W. Said

The U.S. lost the shooting war, but, so far, it is winning the meta-war.2
--Renny Christopher (4)


In universities in the U.S., works about the war in Vietnam are taught most commonly in history and political science courses but also in special topic courses in English departments and sometimes as part of programs that address conflict resolution and issues related to war and peace. Rarely are works by Vietnamese assigned in these courses. History textbooks on the war present American perspectives, often suggesting, as David Hunt points out, that the Vietnamese victory was a result of American mistakes and had nothing, or at least precious little, to do with actions by Vietnamese.

In courses on Vietnam War literature, courses proposed in many instances as alternatives to the traditional canon of U.S. literature, a new canon has developed of personal memoirs and fiction by priviliged white American men. Philip Caputo's Rumor of War, Michael Herr's Dispatches, and a work by Tim O'Brien (Going After Cacciato or The Things They Carried) are usually present. The absence of Vietnamese voices in courses on the war has, as Christopher points out, produced the reverse of the adage "Winners write history; losers live with it." Euro-Americans are winning the meta-war that will determine how people (Americans, at least) will remember the war (2, 4).

Why have Vietnamese works been ignored? Based on her reading of Vietnamese exile narratives, Christopher suggests one reason: Euro-American ethnocentrism. She approvingly quotes Timothy Lomperis: "Most of the literature of the Vietnam War is an exercise in American cultural narcissism" (11). According to Christopher, most Euro-American narratives about the war are de-politicized stories characterized by a "mythologizing and valorizing of personal experience" (2). Vietnamese exile narratives, with their emphasis on communality and bi-culturalism (loyalty to both Vietnam and the U.S., for example), challenge this dominant discourse. They force American readers to look at an exotic "other" as they look at themselves, a double perspective that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Although I think there is some truth in Christopher's explanation, she is talking only about works by Vietnamese living abroad, and even in regard to these my own view for their being neglected is somewhat less accusatory. Some teachers of courses on the war have been eager to assign works by Vietnamese but haven't known how to locate suitable texts. Until recently not many works by Vietnamese were available in English. Euro-American ethnocentrism may in part explain the scarcity, but it is certainly not the only cause. Works by communist writers were translated and appeared in editions published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Hanoi, but most of these were stories in the socialist realism mode, a mode that many American readers, even those not afflicted with Euro-American ethnocentrism, would find boring or repugnant or both. Moreover, these editions were not sold in bookstores in the U.S.; they were available only in some academic libraries and through movement outlets. Before the cold war thawed in the late 1980's, some teachers hesitated to assign these works for fear of being accused of spreading communist propaganda.

Vietnamese in the South produced a variety of literature between 1954-1975, but even to this day only a very few works have been translated. It is puzzling why more works by our allies have not been translated. In Saigon during the war there was no equivalent to Hanoi's Foreign Language Publishing House to translate and publish stories for distribution abroad. Recently commercial publishers in Europe and the U.S. have published works by Renovation writers (See below) from the North, but they haven't been interested in publishing works by our allies, perhaps because works by former enemies are thought to be more exotic and marketable than works by those who were comrades in arms. As for exile narratives in English, not many have been published. Christopher finds only nine, and most of these were published by small, obscure publishers. But again, one shouldn't be too quick to cite Euro-American ethnocentrism as the cause. Until recently, most older Vietnamese refugees were too busy surviving economically to write in any language. If they were writing in Vietnamese, which usually was the case, they didn't know how to get their works translated and published in English. Many younger Vietnamese could speak Vietnamese but, educated in U.S. schools, their Vietnamese writing skills were underdeveloped. They were busy struggling to become proficient in English.

The situation is changing, however. After the Sixth Party Congress in 1986, Vietnamese writers achieved some freedom to publish works that broke with government demands, dictates that had stifled creativity and frustrated writers and editors at least since 1975. Although Party officials apparently became alarmed, particularly when the iconoclastic writer Nguye^~n Huy Thie^.p began publishing stories that portrayed famous Vietnamese historical figures unfavorably, the genie was out of the bottle and a variety of works were produced and published in Vietnam or in some cases smuggled out of the country to be published first in Vietnamese and then translated into English. Vietnamese exiles, given time to adapt economically and socially to the U.S., and to learn English, have produced more works.

Great gaps remain: not all perspectives are adequately represented. As mentioned above, very few works written in Vietnamese in South Vietnam have been translated. There is now, however, a substantial body of work by Vietnamese available. This bibliography is designed to introduce this literature to readers. I've prepared it primarily with teachers in mind, but I hope students and other interested readers will find it useful as well.


Works are categorized under eleven different headings. At the start of each section I explain the category and offer some teaching suggestions relating to the works in it. Here is a list of the sections:

I. Bibliographies
II. Works from the Colonial Period (1867-1945)
III. Historical Accounts, Memoirs
IV. Literary History and Criticism
V. Autobiographical Accounts, Personal Memoirs, Reportage, Tu`y Bu't
VI. Cultural Background: Religion, Language, Myths, Legends
VII. Works of Socialist Realism from the North and "Liberated" South
VIII. Fiction from the Non-Communist South
IX. Accounts of Imprisonment and Reeducation
X. Vietnamese Exile Narratives
XI. Contemporary Literature, DDo^`i Mo(+i (Renovation)


Though not every category is a literary period, the arrangement is roughly chronological, moving from accounts of colonial Vietnam to recent works that discuss post-war Vietnam and the life of exiles abroad. Since my arrangement is primarily chronological, I haven't created a separate category for works by or about women, but these works are well-represented in the bibliography. Many works, particularly those in Section V (Literary History and Criticism), clearly fit into more than one category. My approach has been to put a full listing for a work--citation plus annotation--under the most appropriate, usually more specific, heading and place only a citation with a cross-reference under other possible headings. For example, full listings for the articles by Qui'-Phie^.t Tra^`n on Vietnamese exile literature are found in Section X (Vietnamese Exile Narratives); partial listings (citations only) appear in Section IV (Literary History and Criticism). As an additional aid in locating works, an alphabetical (by author) "List of Works Annotated" appears at the end. Each citation on this list ends with a roman numeral that indicates the section where the annotation for the work is found.

In my title I mention the "War in Vietnam." In preparing this bibliography I sought out works that dealt primarily with the period from 1954-1975 which Hanoi historians refer to as the "Second Resistance," the first, of course, being the one against the French that culminated in the French defeat at DDie^.n Bie^n Phu?. But since it is impossible to understand the second war without going further back in history (Vietnam did not begin with the arrival of the Americans!), I've included works relating to earlier periods.

Although war has been a fact of life for Vietnamese for generations, one must realize that Vietnam for Vietnamese is a place, not a war or a metaphor for waste and violence. To encourage readers to realize that Vietnam is more than a war, I've listed works about Vietnamese culture that relate only peripherally to recent armed conflicts. It was the war that brought and still brings--literally and figuratively--many of us to Vietnam. My hope is that readers will find other reasons to stay.

My Own Thematic Interest

In my introductions to the different categories of works I occasionally call attention to those that relate to the theme of Society vs. the Individual, a theme that I think can be usefully highlighted in a course emphasizing Vietnamese perspectives. I suggest this theme because many works on this bibliography reveal authors struggling with the question nicely phrased by Neil Jamieson: "How [can] individualism and its associated notions of romantic love and personal freedom be reconciled with filial piety and the primacy of family obligations?"3 This question suggests another: What is the relation of political loyalties to both individualism and family obligations? A third related question is this one: What is the relationship between politics and art? (Are they separate spheres? Should one dominant the other?)

In dealing with anthologies I always provide a general annotation for the entire work, and sometimes, to highlight texts that I think are particularly valuable, annotations for individual selections as well. Readers are encouraged, however, to study these collections themselves and make their own choices.

Teaching Vietnam

I would like now to move from details relating to the bibliography to some general comments about the benefits and difficulties of teaching works by Vietnamese in courses on the war. To start with the difficulties, one is the problem of making room in one's syllabus for more reading. In history courses most teachers feel pressed to give their students a basic understanding of the war; they may discover that assigning works by Vietnamese and comparing interpretations of key issues, while nice in theory, is not so easy to pull off in practice. Teachers who focus on literary texts may be reluctant to leave out powerful Euro-American narratives in order to make time for Vietnamese works that, at least at first glance, may strike students as strange, unexciting, or difficult to understand.

Teachers who wish to solve the time problem by including only one or two Vietnamese texts as comparison pieces to some Euro-American narratives may discover that this is not always so easy. The Vietnamese text may raise questions that they can't easily or quickly answer; or--and this is a real possibility--it may raise no questions because neither they nor their students have enough background knowledge to give the text a meaningful reading. Unfortunately, some editions of Vietnamese writing include little background information on the text or the author, sometimes all one finds is a one or two-line biographical sketch of the author, and so all teachers and students can do with the text is give it a close reading--analyze it with an eye for internal patterns and contrasts.

In my view, however, there are solutions to most of these problems; and I'm convinced that the benefits of including Vietnamese perspectives make the struggle to work them in worthwhile. I personally prefer a course in which at least three or four Vietnamese works are included. If only one is read, students may accept the view of this author as the Vietnamese view of the war. It's important for students to understand something of the rich variety of views and styles of discourse. Much depends, however, on one's course and what one hopes to achieve. In a history course, for example, one built around one of the standard histories (like Herring's America's Longest War),4 one can assign Vietnamese texts at certain junctures. In discussing the Ngo^ DDi`nh Die^.m period, for example, one could read Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh's memoir No Other Road to Take (See Section V); in discussing the final defeat of the Saigon forces, one can assign Cao Va(n Vie^n's The Final Collapse (for the view from Saigon) and Va(n Tie^'n Du~ng's Our Great Spring Victory (for the view from Hanoi) (See Section III). Some collections of historical documents on the war include a fair number of Vietnamese texts for purposes of comparison (See, for example, the one edited by Gettleman et al. that is annotated in Section III).

I personally prefer courses that focus on literary texts, some by Euro- Americans, some by Vietnamese. I prefer this focus in part because I am in an English Department and have been trained to read and appreciate literature. But it is also because I have found that memoirs and fictional accounts about the war engage students more powerfully than "straight" history. Once engaged, once their curiosity has been aroused, then I refer them to histories. In choosing Vietnamese literary works, I prefer translations to works written in English, often with the help of a ghost writer, for Western readers. So instead of Tru+o+ng Nhu+ Ta?ng's Vietcong Memoir I might select Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh's No Other Road to Take (See Section V); instead of Le^. Ly' Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, I might choose Vo~ Phie^'n's Intact (See Section X). I say "might" because problems of availability enter in. Intact, for example, is out of print.

If available, I prefer translations because I think students can learn a great deal as they listen in on conversations not intended for them. Overheard conversations, however, are more difficult to understand than face-to-face communications: the speakers use a language that may sound strange to the person listening in; and they leave things unsaid, confident that their listeners know what they are talking about. In many translations Americans are referred to as imperialists and their allies as puppets or lackeys. Some works contain a great deal of Marxist- Leninist jargon. Some stories are, at least by standards of the U. S. college classroom, extremely sentimental. I think it's valuable for students to encounter this discourse in the raw, so to speak, before it's carefully adjusted for consumption by Western readers. As they struggle, aided by the teacher, to deal with their reactions to this unusual discourse, they will be doing the hard intellectual and emotional work that makes the course worthwhile. Vietnamese perspectives do not exist apart from the discourse in which they are encoded. By preserving the flavor of the original text, good scholarly translations make Vietnamese perspectives accessible to students.

Teaching Literature

I mention my preferences because they are reflected in this bibliography, most clearly perhaps in the teaching suggestions I make in my introductions to the different sections but also in my choices of works to include. Though I have a section on history, this bibliography concentrates on literature, primarily prose texts--autobiographies, memoirs, fiction. (Little poetry is listed primarily because so little has been translated.) My teaching suggestions, perhaps most obviously the ones I make in Section VI (Cultural Background), are quite ambitious, probably much too ambitious for many courses on the Vietnam War. My suggestions reflect my belief in the value of reading works within a historical and literary-cultural context. There are many levels of reading. One can encounter a short story by a Vietnamese in an anthology and with no background information read it and enjoy it and learn from it. But if one knows something about the author and his world, one can give the same text a deeper and in my view more satisfying reading.

Again, much depends on the goals of one's course. In a history or political science course, one might wish to bring in a Vietnamese document to give students information and facts not available in Western sources. The rationale for use of the Vietnamese text in this case could be to ensure that all the evidence was in, that witnesses from both sides were heard from, before a verdict was rendered on some historical or political event. This is a completely sensible use of Vietnamese texts. In my courses based on literature, however, I want to do more than simply give students facts and information not available in Western sources. I want to enable them to appreciate different ways of thinking, feeling, and writing both because I think gaining this appreciation is worthwhile in itself and because once achieved it will enable students to read Euro-American works on the war more intelligently. If the course succeeds, students will see that the Euro-American works which before struck them as natural and universal are just as culture-bound as the works by Vietnamese. To achieve these insights, contextualized readings are necessary.

The good news is that teachers and students have many resources that will help them achieve more contextualized readings of Vietnamese sources. One good result of the war is that it added to the number of Vietnamese scholars who know English and Western scholars who know Vietnamese. These scholars--people like Co^ng Huye^n To^n Nu+~ Nha Trang, Hue^. Ta^m Ho^' Ta`i, Huy`nh Sanh Tho^ng, Neil Jamieson, Greg Lockhart, David Marr, Ngo^ Vi~nh Long, Qui'-Phie^.t Tra^`n, and Peter Zinoman--have written excellent articles and books that provide the literary and historical background to many of the works that a teacher might want to assign. Some translations have been published with excellent scholarly introductions. See, for example, David Marr's introduction for Tra^`n Tu+? Bi`nh's The Red Earth; Mai Eliot's for Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh's No Other Road to Take, and Greg Lockhart's for his translations of stories by Nguye^~n Huy Thie^.p. In addition to critical studies written originally in English, there are also translations of critical studies written in Vietnamese. Vo~ Phie^'n's study of literature from the South, now available in a translation by Vo~ DDi`nh Mai, is an excellent introduction to works by non-communist writers. In terms of Vietnamese exile narratives, Renny Christopher's The Viet Nam War / The American War includes critical discussions of works written by Vietnamese abroad. For reasons mentioned above, teachers of courses focused primarily on Euro-American narratives may be reluctant to assign a Vietnamese work to all students in the class. Using this bibliography, however, they could prepare special assignments on Vietnamese authors that included suggestions for background reading. Students could then prepare written or oral reports to share with the rest of the class.

In my experience, students are quick, sometimes quicker than their teachers, to insist on reading works by Vietnamese in courses on the war. The last time I taught my course, students asked me to suggest additional reading by Vietnamese authors. Perhaps this is because I live in California, an ethnically diverse state where most students have been taught to value different cultures. (One of the students who asked for more reading by Vietnamese was a Vietnamese American.) I think, however, that it is not only sympathy for multiculturalism which makes students want to understand Vietnamese perspectives. The war remains controversial in American society. Students, most of whom have an innate sense of fair play, like to hear from all the parties involved. Usually the two sides emphasized in U.S. history textbooks are the Hawks, who felt that the U. S. had no business being in Vietnam if we weren't willing to do what was necessary to win; and the Doves, who felt that the U. S. had no business being there at all. Students appreciate having this debate opened up to include Vietnamese views. Introducing Vietnamese perspectives complicates the debate, enlivening it.

Another argument for including works by Vietnamese is that in this literature war takes place at home--in the country and sometimes in the villages in which the writers live. In this literature we see how war affects not only soldiers but also families, villages, houses, crops, and animals. Even in stories designed to glorify revolutionary heroism and encourage readers to "Oppose the Americans, Save the Country" [Cho^'ng mu~, cu+'u nu+o(+c], war's capacity to destroy village life is often revealed. Including works by Vietnamese helps us convey a picture of war that is truer than the one we convey if we assign only Euro-American narratives. In part because for American soldier-authors Vietnam was a long way from home, many of these narratives leave the impression that war occurs only in distant unreal places and that the only victims are soldiers. "Where are you from back in the world?" U.S. soldiers in Vietnam used to ask each other, a habit of expression that suggests the pervasiveness of this American notion that Vietnam was an unreal place, not the home of ordinary people with human hopes and fears.

What is at stake here is the definition of "war literature": Is it only stories by soldiers about soldiers? Lynne Hanley blames Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory, for canonizing a small group of male soldier-writers (Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, for example) who remember the First World war as occurring only at the front and with only soldiers as victims. Fussells' book, Hanley maintains, "has largely determined what we in America call our literature not only of that war [World War I] but also of all our wars since." It "still reigns as the paradigm in this country for thinking literarily about war."5 Hanley sees the influence of this paradigm in Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and in other novels and movies about the war in Vietnam.6

The war in South Vietnam often lacked clear fronts. American soldiers could not always distinguish civilians from enemy soldiers, and sometimes, as in the massacre at Mu~ Lai, they did not try. Small arms, bombing, and artillery fire drove millions of people from their homes. It was, in other words, a war that is not easy to remember as one in which the only victims were soldiers.

In fact, Euro-American narratives do include civilians as victims: in many the climactic event is an atrocity committed by an American against a civilian--the rape of a girl, the torturing of an old man, or the shooting of unarmed villagers to revenge the deaths of comrades. I question Hanley's assertion that in Euro-American narratives the victims are always soldiers.

These works, however, evoke terror in a way that places primary emphasis on the moral wounds of the American soldier, not the suffering of the victim. As Tobey Herzog points out, the recurring motif of the typical Vietnam War novel is that of "a John Wayne figure confronting a modern heart of darkness," with the heart of darkness being that capacity for evil that Americans discover in themselves.7 Many Euro-American narratives are painful and powerful descriptions of how young Americans committed acts that left them tortured by moral anguish.

Vietnamese works offer an interesting contrast to these Euro-American narratives. Many stories do not take place on the battlefield but in the rear. Many authors were not soldiers. The victims are typically the soldier and his or her family and village, not the soldier alone. In Nguye^n Ngo.c's The Village that Wouldn't Die the victims are Bahnar (an ethnic minority) villagers who are forced to move again and again to avoid French troops (See Section VII). In Nha~ Ca's At Night I Hear the Cannons, a Saigon family waits for a son and his friend, the fiance of the son's sister, to come home on leave from the front. The mother prepares a special meal, but all in vain: her son and his friend have been killed (See Section VIII). In Vo~ Phie^'n's Intact, the victim of the war is a young girl whose dreams for a rather ordinary happiness are shattered by the war (See Section X). These may not be the kind of war stories our students expect, and they may at first disappoint some students, but these works have the potential to enlarge our students' conception both of war and of how war can be remembered in literature.

Perhaps the most important benefit of having students read works by Vietnamese is that it will free them of the notion mentioned by Edward Said, the idea that Asians do not write but only are written about. Courses on Vietnam War literature, by excluding works by Vietnamese, have perpetuated this notion of Asian silence and passivity. By introducing Vietnamese perspectives a teacher may project a truer image of Asians and, somewhat paradoxically, by teaching students about this terrible war, move beyond its memory to peaceful understanding.


Renny Christopher, Barry Kroll and Vince Gotera read an earlier draft of this bibliography and made many constructive suggestions. Peter Zinoman suggested additional works to include. I've also benefited greatly from the editorial assistance of Dan Duffy, someone who knows not only editing but also Vietnamese literature and culture. Though these people have helped me, obviously I'm responsible for the final product.

Sherry Gordon and her staff in the Interlibrary Loan Department of Humboldt State University efficiently and patiently handled dozens of requests. I couldn't have done this project without their help.


1 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978)

2 Renny Christopher, The Viet Nam War/The American War: Images and Representations in Euro-American and Vietnamese Exile Narratives, p. 4. See bibliography for full citation. Works mentioned in this introduction or in an introduction to one of the sections will not be footnoted if they are listed in the bibliography.

3 Neil Jamieson, "Relata, Relationships, and Context: A Perspective on Borrowed Elements in Vietnamese Culture," Borrowings in Vietnamese Culture, ed. Tru+o+ng Bu+?u La^m (University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1987): 131.

4 George Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1996).

5 Lynne Hanley, Writing War: Fiction, Gender and Memory (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991) 21, 37.

6 Though Hanley doesn't mention Philip Caputo, this influence is particularly evident in his narrative Rumor of War (New York: Ballantine, 1977). Many chapters in this work begin with quotations from poems by the First World War poets discussed by Fussell, and Caputo draws parallels between their experience and his own. "I had read all the serious books to come out of the World Wars, and Wilfred Owen's poetry about the Western Front," he says (76).

7 Tobey Herzog, Vietnam War Stories: Innocence Lost(London: Routledge, 1992) 31.

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