I believe that one of the best ways to prepare yourself to visit a new destination is to read and learn about it before you go.
These are my own selection of both fiction and non-fiction books that will inspire you to visit Vietnam and Cambodia. This is another in my series of “Around the World in 80 books.”
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The land of Angkor Wat, beautiful islands and home to 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But also synonymous with the brief rule in the 1970’s of the Khmer Rouge and the brutal killing of an estimated 1.7 million people (21% of the population) Visiting Cambodia is as much about learning about its recent past as its ancient history.
So what can you read to help better understand this S.E. Asian country before you visit?
A generation after the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia shows every sign of having overcome its history–the streets of Phnom Penh are paved; skyscrapers dot the skyline. But under this façade lies a country still haunted by its years of terror.
Joel Brinkley won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Cambodia on the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime that killed one quarter of the nation’s population during its years in power. In 1992, the world came together to help pull the small nation out of the mire. Cambodia became a United Nations protectorate–the first and only time the UN tried something so ambitious. What did the new, democratically-elected government do with this unprecedented gift?
SURVIVAL IN THE KILLING FIELDS
Nothing has shaped my life as much as surviving the Pol Pot regime. I am a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That’s who I am,” says Haing Ngor. And in his memoir, Survival in the Killing Fields, he tells the gripping and frequently terrifying story of his term in the hell created by the communist Khmer Rouge. Like Dith Pran, the Cambodian doctor and interpreter whom Ngor played in an Oscar-winning performance in The Killing Fields, Ngor lived through the atrocities that the 1984 film portrayed. Like Pran, too, Ngor was a doctor by profession, and he experienced firsthand his country’s wretched descent, under the Khmer Rouge, into senseless brutality, slavery, squalor, starvation, and disease—all of which are recounted in sometimes unimaginable horror in Ngor’s poignant memoir. Since the original publication of this searing personal chronicle, Haing Ngor’s life has ended with his murder, which has never been satisfactorily solved. In an epilogue written especially for this new edition, Ngor’s coauthor, Roger Warner, offers a glimpse into this complex, enigmatic man’s last years—years that he lived “like his country: scarred, and incapable of fully healing.”
WHEN BROKEN GLASS FLOATS
Chanrithy Him felt compelled to tell of surviving life under the Khmer Rouge in a way “worthy of the suffering which I endured as a child.”
In a mesmerizing story, Chanrithy Him vividly recounts her trek through the hell of the “killing fields.” She gives us a child’s-eye view of a Cambodia where rudimentary labor camps for both adults and children are the norm and modern technology no longer exists. Death becomes a companion in the camps, along with illness. Yet through the terror, the members of Chanrithy’s family remain loyal to one another, and she and her siblings who survive will find redeemed lives in America.
With only half a canteen of water and one baby bottle, a family of eight fought for their lives in the killing fields and land mines of Cambodia.
Surrounded by unimaginable adverse forces, one strong woman would ultimately lead her entire family to survive. Beautiful Hero is an autobiographical narrative told from a daughter’s perspective. The story centers around Meiyeng, the eponymous Beautiful Hero, and her innate ability to sustain everyone in her family.
THE KILLING FIELDS
When the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975, many thought the killing would end. Instead it started a long nightmare in which three million Cambodians would die in the “killing fields.”
The Killing Fields is an epic story of friendship and survival produced by David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire) and directed by Roland Joffé (The Mission). Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, whose war coverage entraps him and other journalists. Dr. Haing S. Ngor is Dith Pran, Schanberg’s aide and friend who saves them from execution. But Pran is sentenced to labor camps, enduring starvation and torture before escaping Thailand. Ngor also endured Khmer Rouge atrocities and saw his moving, Academy Award-winning* portrayal of Pran (one of the film’s three Oscars*) as a way of bringing his nation’s tragic ordeal to light.
TRAVEL GUIDES AND MORE
LONELY PLANET CAMBODIA
Lonely Planet Cambodia is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Stand under the glimmering spires of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, trek the lush rainforest of the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor, or explore the floating village of Kompong Luong; all with your trusted travel companion. Get to the heart of Cambodia and begin your journey now!
Another popular S.E. Asian country Vietnam is home to the beautiful Ha Long Bay, cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh and 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
THE BEAUTY OF HUMANITY MOVEMENT
The acclaimed author of Sweetness in the Belly journeys to Vietnam in this rich and tantalizing new novel.
Raised in the United States but Vietnamese by birth, Maggie has come to Hanoi seeking clues to the fate of her father, a dissident artist who disappeared during the war. Her search brings her to Old Man Hu’ng’s pho stall. The old man once had a shop frequented by revolutionary artists, but now Tu’, a hustling young entrepreneur, is his most faithful customer. Maggie, Hu’ng, and Tu’ come together during a highly charged season that will mark them forever. Exploring the indelible legacies of war and art, as well as love’s power to renew, The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a stellar achievement by a globally renowned literary light.
Joseph Sherman first visits Saigon—the capital of French colonial Cochin-China—as a young man on his father’s hunting trip in 1925. But the exotic land lures him back again and again as a traveler, soldier, and reporter. He returns because of his fascination for the enchanting city—and for Lan, a mandarin’s daughter he cannot forget.
Over five decades Joseph’s life becomes enmeshed with the political intrigues of two of Saigon’s most influential families, the French colonist Devrauxs, and the native Trans. In this sweeping saga of tragedy and triumph, Joseph witnesses Vietnam’s turbulent, war-torn fate. He is there when millions of coolies rise against the French, and during their bloody last stand at Dien Bien Phu. And he sees US military “advisors” fire their first shots in America’s hopeless war against the Communist revolution.
A story of adventure, love, war, and political power, Saigon presents an enthralling and enlightening depiction of twentieth-century Vietnam.
From one of America’s most important writers, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, comes Perfume River, an exquisite novel that examines family ties and the legacy of the Vietnam war through the portrait of a single North Florida family.
THE BEST WE COULD DO
This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.
At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.
The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as six other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.
TRAVEL GUIDES AND MORE
LONELY PLANET VIETNAM
#1 best-selling guide to Vietnam
Lonely Planet Vietnam is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Eat, drink and shop til you drop in beautiful, ancient Hoi An; kite surf in Mui Ne; or visit the impressive pagodas and royal tombs of Hue; all with your trusted travel companion. Get to the heart of Vietnam and begin your journey now!
MADE IN VIETNAM
Based on memorable meals eaten at street food stalls, family gatherings and countryside eateries, Made In Vietnam covers three main culinary regions of the country: the heart food of the north, dishes from the center, with its tradition of the imperial cuisine of the Hue, and the sweeter and spicier food of the tropical South. This comprehensive collection includes recipes from staple Vietnamese dishes, such as Beef Noodle Soup (Pho Bo), to lesser-known recipes, such as Eel in Caul Fat, Banana Flower Salad and Boiled Jackfruit Seeds. In addition to the recipes, Made in Vietnam also looks at aspects of the country’s food history and its absorption of various culinary influences, including the extensive French influence, long-established coffee culture the casual style of dining that is so synonymous with many parts of Asia.
Winner of 1992’s Best Foreign Film Oscar(r), Catherine Deneuve stars in this story of passion and revolution in colonial Vietnam.
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