Around the world in books: Five books by Vietnamese authors

The month of May is often an opportunity to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander people and their heritage. In America the month is called Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and in Canada it’s called Asian Heritage Month. For this month, I’ll be sharing books by Asian authors.

I know it’s currently June, but since I missed a week, here’s one more book list with Asian authors for Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Have you ever wanted to visit Vietnam? Here’s your chance to visit Vietnam through reading!

Vietnam’s history

Vietnam has such a long history. Throughout their past, many external forces have exerted influence over the Vietnamese. Two of the most recent influences were the French and the Americans.

The French slowly exerted more and more influence over Vietnam over 3.5 centuries, and between 1859-1884, French eroded Vietnam’s sovereignty and forced them to become a French colony. French rule lasted until 1954, with a break during WWII from 1941-1945 when the Japanese took over. In 1954, French Indochina was dissolved into Cambodia, Laos and North and South Vietnam according to the Geneva Accords.

Shortly after the French withdrew, North Vietnam was led by the Viet Minh and the USA started providing military and financial support for South Vietnam. The Vietnam War (or as it’s called in Vietnam the “Resistance war against the United States” (Kháng chiến chống Mỹ) and sometimes called the “American War”) lasted almost 20 years. This war is often seen as a Cold War-era proxy war, as the North was supported by communist parties and the south was supported by the USA and other anti-communist forces.

The Vietnam War has had a huge impact on the Vietnamese people and in turn their literature. There were enormous human casualties, from the 1-3 million Vietnamese that were killed, to the millions of refugees that left the region and the additional 250,000 refugees that died on their way to safety.

Historical impact seen today

All this history has had a huge impact on Vietnam, the Vietnamese people, their culture and even literature. You see it in the banh mi on baguettes that they got from the French and the way that Vietnamese authors are producing literature in different languages and while living outside of Vietnam.

I’ve included a range of books in this list, and notably the books have been written in Vietnamese, French and English. Hopefully this list gives you a glimpse into the range of Vietnamese voices in modern literature and sparks your interest to read more from Vietnamese authors.

Five books from Vietnamese authors

Here’s a list of five books with Vietnamese authors.

  1. Dumb Luck by Vũ Trọng Phụng (1936)
  2. The Crystal Messenger by Phạm Thị Hoài (1988)
  3. Mãn by Kim Thúy (2013)
  4. The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith (2014)
  5. The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (2020)

I’ve listed them in order of when they were published. Keep reading to find out more about each one and at the end there’s a bonus suggestion!

Dumb Luck (1936)

by Vũ Trọng Phụng, translated by Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm and Peter Zinoman

  • Year Published: 1936, English version in 2002
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, dark, funny, medium-paced
  • Language: Vietnamese
  • Banned by the Vietnamese Communist Party, first in North Vietnam from 1960 to 1975, then throughout the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam until 1986


Banned in Vietnam until 1986, Dumb Luck-by the controversial and influential Vietnamese writer Vu Trong Phung–is a bitter satire of the rage for modernization in Vietnam during the late colonial era. First published in Hanoi during 1936, it follows the absurd and unexpected rise within colonial society of a street-smart vagabond named Red-haired Xuan. As it charts Xuan’s fantastic social ascent, the novel provides a panoramic view of late colonial urban social order, from the filthy sidewalks of Hanoi’s old commercial quarter to the gaudy mansions of the emergent Francophile northern upper classes. The transformation of traditional Vietnamese class and gender relations triggered by the growth of colonial capitalism represents a major theme of the novel.

Dumb Luck is the first translation of a major work by Vu Trong Phung, arguably the greatest Vietnamese writer of the twentieth century. The novel’s clever plot, richly drawn characters and humorous tone and its preoccupation with sex, fashion and capitalism will appeal to a wide audience. It will appeal to students and scholars of Vietnam, comparative literature, colonial and postcolonial studies, and Southeast Asian civilization.


The Crystal Messenger (1988)

by Phạm Thị Hoài, translated by Ton-That Quynh-Du

  • Year Published: 1988, English version in 1997
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Language: Vietnamese
  • Described as the ‘renaissance of Vietnamese literature’ and was banned by the Vietnamese government


This award winning book has been described as the ‘renaissance of Vietnamese literature’. Written by a young woman in her twenties at the end of an era when Vietnam closed itself off from the world, it is widely regarded as one of the most important works of fiction ever to come out of that country. Ostensibly, The Crystal Messenger is a magical and moving story of two sisters’ journeys to emotional and sexual maturity. But it is also a powerful allegory about the fate of North and South Vietnam, the struggle with reunification after the war, and the effect of consumerism and westernisation on the nation’s soul.


Mãn (2013)

by Kim Thúy, translated from French by Sheila Fischman

  • Year Published: 2013, English version in 2014
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, literary, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Language: French
  • Kim Thuy is a Vietnamese-born Canadian writer, whose debut novel Ru won the Governor General’s Award for French-language fiction at the 2010 Governor General’s Awards


Mãn has three mothers: the one who gives birth to her in wartime, the nun who plucks her from a vegetable garden, and her beloved Maman, who becomes a spy to survive. Seeking security for her grown daughter, Maman finds Mãn a husband – a lonely Vietnamese restaurateur who lives in Montreal.

Thrown into a new world, Mãn discovers her natural talent as a chef. Gracefully she practices her art, with food as her medium. She creates dishes that are much more than sustenance for the body: they evoke memory and emotion, time and place, and even bring her customers to tears.

Mãn is a mystery – her name means ‘perfect fulfillment’, yet she and her husband seem to drift along, respectfully and dutifully. But when she encounters a married chef in Paris, everything changes in the instant of a fleeting touch, and Mãn discovers the all-encompassing obsession and ever-present dangers of a love affair.

Full of indelible images of beauty, delicacy and quiet power, Mãn is a novel that begs to be savoured for its language, its sensuousness and its love of life.


The Frangipani Hotel (2014)

by Violet Kupersmith

  • Year Published: 2014
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, fantasy, horror, short stories, reflective, medium-paced
  • Language: English
  • Based on traditional Vietnamese folk tales

Violet Kupersmith was born in America, but her mother is from Da Nang Vietnam and fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.


A beautiful young woman appears fully dressed in an overflowing bathtub at the Frangipani Hotel in Hanoi. A jaded teenage girl in Houston befriends an older Vietnamese gentleman she discovers naked behind a dumpster. A trucker in Saigon is asked to drive a dying young man home to his village. A plump Vietnamese-American teenager is sent to her elderly grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City to lose weight, only to be lured out of the house by the wafting aroma of freshly baked bread. In these evocative and always surprising stories, the supernatural coexists with the mundane lives of characters who struggle against the burdens of the past.

Based on traditional Vietnamese folk tales told to Kupersmith by her grandmother, these fantastical, chilling, and thoroughly contemporary stories are a boldly original exploration of Vietnamese culture, addressing both the immigrant experience and the lives of those who remained behind. Lurking in the background of them all is a larger ghost—that of the Vietnam War, whose legacy continues to haunt us.


The Mountains Sing (2020)

by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

  • Year Published: 2020
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, emotional, reflective, sad, medium-paced
  • Language: English
  • Her debut novel and first work in English (known as a poet in Vietnam)


With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore apart not just her beloved country, but also her family.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.


Bonus Suggestion: Modern Vietnamese poet Bao Phi

Bao Phi is a Vietnamese-American spoken word poet and community activist. He was born in Vietnam and raised in Minnesota. His second book of poetry, Thousand Star Hotel, was nominated for a Minnesota Book Award, named by NPR as one of the Best Books of 2017, and was named the best poetry book of 2017 by San Francisco State’s Poetry Center.

Thousand Star Hotel (2017)

by Bao Phi

  • Year Published: 2017
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, poetry, race, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance: Bao Phi is a National Poetry Slam finalist.


Thousand Star Hotel confronts the silence around racism, police brutality, and the invisibility of the Asian American urban poor.


Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books written by Vietnamese authors.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. If you have a favourite book written by a Vietnamese author, please feel free to share it in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of the book?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

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