Vietnamese Literature 101: A Guide to the Literary Canon

Originally published in Word Vietnam, November 2014.

As a literature lover in a new country, I felt compelled to learn more about the literary arts in my adopted home, Vietnam — a daunting task as Vietnam has centuries’ worth of legends, lore, poetry and fiction. Most have yet to be translated into English, and many older tales live primarily in the oral tradition. Looking for guidance, I went to a few experts, including professors and those at Hanoi’s Bookworm, for a beginner’s reading list. As with any short list, many important works are not included. To make this list, we looked for work that is available in English and in Vietnam.

The Tale of Kieu
Nguyen Du
First published in 1820

“What tragedies take place
within each circling space of years!
‘Rich in good looks’ appears
to mean poor luck and tears of woe;
which may sound strange, I know,
but it is really not so, I swear,
since Heaven everywhere 
seems jealous of the fair of face.”

The epic poem The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du is often considered the most significant work in Vietnamese literature, a masterpiece written during the transition between the Le and Nguyen dynasties at the end of the 18th century. Originally written in chu nom, the Vietnamese script that uses Chinese character, early editions can be found from the first decade of the 19th century. A few decades later, Kieu was considered important to be one of the first texts to be translated into quoc gnu,  the romanised Vietnamese alphabet.

Rob Boulden from Bookworm says Kieu is essential for understanding Vietnamese literature. The tale portrays a young woman Kieu who falls in love. But when her family is imprisoned, she sells herself into slavery to free them. The epic highlights the conflict between a girl’s passion and Confucian values, while literary scholars draw parallels between the plot and Nguyen’s thoughts about Vietnam’s changing leadership.

The Yale Press bilingual version translated by Huynh Sanh Thong is considered one of the best English editions available.

Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong
Ho Xuan Huong
Written in the late-18th/early-19th century

“My body is like the jackfruit,
Its skin prickly, its meat thick.
If you want to test it, then drive in your stake,
Don’t fondle the surface or sap will stain your hand.”

Ho Xuan Huong means Spring Essence. But don’t let the pretty name fool you — this late 18th-century poetess is surrounded by controversial legends. The legend goes that Ho was an erotic poetry-writing concubine who had several lovers. It’s a titillating story, but it isn’t necessarily true.

Few facts are known about Ho’s life, but her poetry, full of double-entendres, is rooted in traditional poetry and proverbs, leading some scholars to argue that it is a mistake to assume the poems are autobiographical. Others, like translator John Balaban, argue that her poetry is too consistent to be fictional.

Regardless, Ho’s poetry is subversive, speaking about sexuality when any art about sex or nudity was forbidden, and ridiculing authority when impropriety could have been her death sentence. Naturally, the poems were popular. In the introduction to Balaban’s translation, he writes, “Her verbal play, her wicked humour, her native speech, her spiritual longing, her hunger for love, and her anger at corruption must have been tonic.”

Dumb Luck 
Vu Trong Phung
First published in 1936

“Almost effortlessly and without being truly aware of it, he was gradually becoming an important player in society. His stupidity was mistaken for a combination of courtesy and modesty, and it made him wildly popular.”

Author of eight novels, seven plays, dozens of short stories and hundreds of articles, essays and reviews in his short life, Vu Trong Phung died at the ripe age of 26, leaving a world of possibility behind.

Dumb Luck is his satirical novel about the westernisation and modernisation of  Vietnam’s upper classes in the 1930s. First published in Hanoi in 1936, the novel was banned in Vietnam until 1986. It follows the story of Red-Haired Xuan, an orphaned vagrant swept up in the tides of change, going from being a ball-boy at a tennis court to social activist to doctor to national hero in a quick five months. The storylines mocks the bandwagon appeal of the new, and the hypocritical opinions towards the old, in the eyes of the socially-(un)conscious class climbers. Once politically controversial, Dumb Luck’s situational humour is slap-stick funny.

Look for the translation by Peter Zinoman and Nguyen Nguyet Cam. Zinoman’s introduction is also worth a read.

Crossing the River
Nguyen Huy Thiep
Published in 2002

“At the moment the shotgun hit the ground, the baby monkey suddenly appeared from a rocky mound. It grabbed the sling of the shotgun and dragged it off along the ground. The three monkeys scurried off on all fours, shrieking. Mr. Dieu was struck dumb for a second then burst out laughing; his predicament was so ridiculous. He picked up a handful of dirt and stones and threw it at the monkeys, as he took off howling in pursuit.”

Born in 1950, Nguyen Huy Thiep began publishing his short stories in Vietnamese literary journals in 1986. he quickly became known as a controversial writer — his stories, normally set in Vietnam’s northern mountainous regions, are known for their poetry and harsh views of humanity.

The story collection Crossing the River, put together by Dana Sachs and Nguyen Nguyen Cam, is one of the most complete English-language compilations of Nguyen’s writing available.

Non-Vietnamese readers may feel the stories are cryptic and symbolically complex, and they are. The introduction states, “Sometimes confounding to a Western audience unfamiliar with Vietnamese history, [the stories] take a sharp — and often arch — look at the relationships between political power, intellectual life and art.”

Regardless of the reader’s previous historic and literary knowledge, the stories contain microcosms of meaning with beautiful weavings of rural lives — though the narrator of “My Uncle Hoat” is quick to say there is nothing beautiful about poverty.

The Sorrow of War
Bao Ninh
Published in 1990

“There is no new life, no new era, nor is it hope for a beautiful future that now drives me one, but rather the opposite. The ope is contained in the beautiful pre-war past.”

Rob Boulden from Bookworm says Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow War is his top literary pick: “It’s the best anti-war book ever written.” First written in 1987 as a graduation project, it has been translated into several language since.

The Sorrow of War is a psychological portrait of the character Kien, a North Vietnamese soldier. Using a stream-of-conscious narrative, emphasising the alienation and suffering felt by those who lived during the American War, the novel delves into the after-effects the war had on the lives of the men and women who survived.

In an interview, Bao once said, “The majority of the world does not understand the soldiers of northern Vietnam. They believe we are all cold-hearted murderers. But there is a great mistake… men do not wish for bloodshed.”

Look for the Riverhead Books or Random House versions.

Truong Hoang
Wonder of Bookworm, Vietnam’s exclusively English-language bookstore, and writer of the monthly Word column Book Buff

Truong’s love of stories began as a child, when his mother and grandmother sang Vietnamese folk songs and lullabies to him. They lived in a fishing village, and Truing grew up hearing accounts of Vietnamese legends and folklore. Oral narrative was an important part of his childhood, but books soon became important as well. He remember his grandmother going to Hanoi to sell fish, fish sauce and shrimp. “When she returned from Hanoi, she always brought me a book as a gift,” he said. later, his mother and sister also went to Hanoi to sell fish, and they, too, returned with books.

“Literature expanded my horizon outside the confines of an isolated fishing village and encouraged me to travel through Vietnam to discover who we are and how was are changing,” Truong says. “Listening to and reading peoples’ stories, fact and fiction, allows me to make sense of my values and those of my developing society.”

Now, Truong owns a two-location bookstore that his Australian foster parents helped him purchase in 2006. His foster-father is Rob Boulden, another steady presence at Bookworm.

While the store features a variety of English-language books, Truong is very familiar with Vietnamese writers — both contemporary and historical — and their works in translation. He can spin out a rather lengthy list of books you should read, and make many recommendations for the English-only reader.

For Truong, it’s important that non-Vietnamese readers select a wide-range of books from different time periods and regions to get a fuller, more three-dimensional understanding of Vietnamese culture. However, one thing that Truong points out is that when talking about Vietnamese literature, few people mention Vietnamese children’s literature, which he argues is necessary for understanding the meanings and nuances of literature written for adults.

Literature in Context

Literature doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To get a sense of the major influences on Vietnamese literature, I went to Neil Jamieson’s Understanding Vietnam, a cultural analysis of Vietnam based on firsthand research. Jameson, an American anthropologist, conducted fieldwork in Vietnam from the 1950s t0 1970s. From interview, research and firsthand experiences, he chronicles Vietnamese history and spotlights the cultural and political thought of a complex, multi-faceted society.

Vietnamese legend, literature, songs, journalism and publishing are significant to this study. Jamieson analyses a range of literary texts to examine the tension between traditional formal Vietnamese culture, which Jamieson describes as the dominant, or yang, culture and the marginal subcultures, or yin cultures, that coexist within the larger Vietnamese context.

Jamieson traces this context through legends of the Trung sisters, who rebelled against Chinese occupation and became exemplars of Vietnamese values, jokes about leaders whose net worth falls in the “prestige economy,” and the multitude of poets, novelists and songwriters who used metaphor to say things they couldn’t otherwise have said.

Peter Zinoman 
Professor of History and Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Vietnamese Studies. He’s also the editor and co-translator of Dumb Luck and the author of Vietnamese Colonial Republican, an analysis of the work of Vu Trong Phung. 

Growing up as a foreign-service kid living in Malaysia, Thailand and Laos, Zinoman naturally developed an interest in Southeast Asia. He then lived in Vietnam of the first time in the 1990s, when he says doi moi writing was “all the rage.” This time period — during during which he had a literary scholar as an advisor — pointed his gaze more directly to Vietnamese literature. It also helps that his wife, Dumb Luck co-translator Nguyen Nguyet Cam, is an avid reader with “infectious enthusiasm.”

Zinoman’s interest in Vu Trong Phung began with the writer’s popularity, the quantity of work he produced before his early death, his mastery of both the novel and reportage — a nonfiction style situated between literature and journalism — and his focus on the criminal and perverse underbelly of colonial society. Also, his satires are really funny.

It’s difficult to translate humour, particularly wordplay-like puns, but Zinoman describes Vu’s jokes as Saturday Night Live-style references to contemporary figures and current events. Dumb Luck is among the funniest of his works, which Zinoman says satirises an “omnipresent” persona that still rings true today: “the social climber who embraces foreign fads as an instrument for advancement.”

But Zinoman’s interest in Vu goes beyond good wordplay. In Vietnamese Colonial Republican, he offers a new approach to reading Vu. He gives an alternative to the current conversations that centre Vu in the debates of the time, and instead argues that Vu’s work is more complex than that. “Vietnamese Colonial Republican” is a term he coined to describe the broader political project established through Vu’s fiction and nonfiction.

As a historian, Zinoman leans towards historical and contextual understandings of Vietnamese literature, and suggests styling the local history of an author to best understand that writing. Literary history is also important, especially as many contemporary writers reject earlier literary traditions. Zinoman cites Nguyen Huy Thiep as an example. “Nguyen Huy Thiep’s formal innovations are much easier to grasp if you know something about the socialist realist tradition that it is rejecting,” he says.

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