Five books about the American War in Vietnam

May is Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month! So for this month I’m going to share reading recommendations from across Asia and the Pacific Islands.

I love this part of the world and I’m excited to be sharing books from here. I think books are a great way to gain insight into peoples’ lives and their culture. You may not be able to travel or live everywhere you’re interested in, but you can definitely read books from anywhere in the world.

One world altering event, I’ve been enjoying learning more about is the American War in Vietnam (as called by those in Vietnam).

The more that I read from different perspectives the more nuance I gain in understanding complex events. I think most world altering events deserve as much nuance as possible. There are always good and bad decisions, but the individuals involved in carrying out those decisions are rarely purely good or bad.

Personally, I’ve been interested in learning about the Vietnamese perspective of the war. I grew up in the Western world and so the little I understood about the war was shaped by the societies’ perspective of the war. I know most North Americans are used to hearing about the “Vietnam War”, but even just what we call it shows different perspectives.

Importance of different perspectives

Books written by Vietnamese authors are a great way to gain some insight into the diverse opinions and experiences of the Vietnamese. Just like any event, no two perspectives or experiences are going to be the same.

I think it’s important to read from multiple perspectives, such as from survivors of the war, refugees of the war (and their descendants), and the generations that grew up in the aftermath of the war. The more perspectives you read about, the more pieces of the puzzle you gain, and slowly a larger picture or understanding will form.

For context, it’s important to understand that the Vietnamese government still has influence over the publishing industry in Vietnam, meaning all media has to be reviewed/approved by the government. This influence has been exerted over all media in Vietnam since the war ended (1975), with many writers either being arrested or having to leave the country.

Due to the government censorship, some books (like The Mountains Sing) are actually written in English to avoid being altered or affected by the government. Interestingly English might allow them a bit more freedom of expression, because it helps them get published outside of Vietnam (aka outside of the government’s influence).

I’ve included a range of books to help showcase a range of perspectives.

Photo by Thijs Degenkamp on Unsplash

Five books about the American War in Vietnam

Here’s a list of five books that explore the American War in Vietnam.

  1. The Sorrow of War / Thân Phận Của Tình Yêu (The Fate of Love) (1987)
  2. Novel Without a Name (1991)
  3. The Sympathizer (2015)
  4. The Mountains Sing (2020)
  5. Wandering Souls (2023)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in order of when they were published.

The Sorrow of War / Thân Phận Của Tình Yêu (The Fate of Love) (1987)

by Bảo Ninh, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Thanh Hảo and edited by Frank Palmos

  • Year Published: 1987
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, dark, reflective, sad, slow-paced
  • Won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier, provides a strikingly honest look at how the Vietnam War forever changed his life, his country, and the people who live there. Originally published against government wishes in Vietnam because of its non-heroic, non-ideological tone, The Sorrow of War has won worldwide acclaim and become an international bestseller.


Novel Without a Name (1991)

by Dương Thu Hương, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson

  • Year Published: 1991
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, dark, slow-paced
  • Hương was labeled a “dissident writer” by the Vietnamese Communist party for her criticism of the party and its members.

Twenty-eight-year-old Quan has been fighting for the Communist cause in North Vietnam for a decade. Filled with idealism and hope when he first left his village, he now spends his days and nights dodging stray bullets and bombs, foraging scraps of food to feed himself and his men. Quan seeks comfort in childhood memories as he tries to sort out his conflicting feelings of patriotism and disillusionment. Then, given the chance to return to his home, Quan undertakes a physical and mental journey that brings him face to face with figures from his past—his angry father, his childhood sweetheart, his boyhood friends now maimed or dead—and ultimately to the shattering reality that his innocence has been irretrievably lost in the wake of the war. In a voice both lyrical and stark, Duong Thu Huong, one of Vietnam’s most beloved writers, powerfully conveys the conflict that spiritually destroyed her generation.


The Sympathizer (2015)

by Viet Thanh Nguyen / Nguyễn Thanh Việt

  • Year Published: 2015
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, thriller, challenging, dark, tense, slow-paced
  • Won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong.

The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.


The Mountains Sing (2020)

by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (written in English)

  • Year Published: 2015
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, thriller, challenging, dark, tense, slow-paced
  • Won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

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.


Wandering Souls (2023)

by Cecile Pin

  • Year Published: 2023
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, emotional, reflective, sad, medium-paced
  • Finalist for the 2023 Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize

A luminous, boldly imagined debut novel about three Vietnamese siblings who seek refuge in the UK, expanding into a sweeping meditation on love, ancestry, and the power of storytelling.

There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies—everything in between is speculation.

After the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Thanh, and Minh begin a perilous journey to Hong Kong with the promise that their parents and younger siblings will soon follow. But when tragedy strikes, the three children are left orphaned, and sixteen-year-old Anh becomes the caretaker for her two younger brothers overnight.


Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. I’d love to know which books you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of it?

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