The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam

The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam

Think you’re smart, do you? Then this is the Vietnam book for you.

Browse titles by subject matter

Written from a scholarly, academic perspective but remaining accessible, 2017-published The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam is a broad-ranging, detail-oriented history of Vietnam that goes well beyond the usual focus of the American War years so much favoured by Western authors. If you’re looking for an up-to-the-minute, sweeping history of Vietnam that honours its incredible complexity, you’ve found it.

Author Christopher Goscha draws on a vast array of primary sources in the book, providing a reinterpretation of histories past (to draw, say, parallels between French and US aggression there). The level of detail is exquisite, beginning with, naturally, what Vietnam actually means at all and a nuanced critique of how problematic American-centric interpretations of Vietnamese histories, like influential Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald have been: It was never a given that Ho Chi Minh’s communism was going to prevail. While the alternatives failed, Goscha writes, “their stories spanning more than a century deserve our attention if we are to understand today’s Vietnam”.

Similarly, Goscha places greater emphasis on the importance of Vietnamese structures that were already in place when the French colonised the country and recognises that the French grafted their own ideas of modernity onto these. This, he writes, is in contrast to other historians who insist the French brought modernity alone. In doing so, he places greater importance on other early Vietnamese leaders, such as 1791-born Minh Mang, whose administrative policies helped shape the nation well before the arrival of the French; even the brief Chinese colonisation of Vietnam in the early 15th century was important, Goscha says, as it delivered tools that shaped the country to come such as gunpowder, bureaucracy and a colonial ideology they drew on as their own. The book’s goal, he adds, is to provide a “nuanced account of the plurality of modern Vietnams, from the past to the present”.

Beginning with Dong Son and Coa Lo civilisations (from around the sixth century BCE), Goscha traces the ebbs and flows of power within Vietnam as it grows into a recognisable entity. While academic in tone, this isn’t an overly academic treatise, and even those with just a passing interest in Vietnam will be drawn into the country’s story. If you’ve suffered through the average historical explanations at, say, Thang Long Citadel or the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, and thirsted for more, this is essential (and enjoyable) reading. Still, the lead up to French colonisation is just a chapter... the focus is more modern times.

French colonisation is explored, and we particularly liked the context given in relation to Cambodia and Laos, with tens of thousands of Viets trained and sent to Phnom Penh and Vientiane to work in the administration. By 1937, Goscha notes, 10,200 Viet lived in Vientiane compared to 9,000 Laotians. “Far from stopping Vietnamese expansion westwards, French colonialism often promoted it,” he adds. The full gamut of abhorrent colonialist behaviour is explored, down to the awful fate of some “metis” children (born to French fathers and Vietnamese mothers): “They scoured the Indochinese countryside, removing dozens of metis children, sometimes by force, from their Vietnamese mothers and placing them in orphanages and special military academies, and usually bestowing French citizenship on them.” Think of the innumerable horror stories that lie behind the three words, “sometimes by force”!

The years of global war are covered, leading to the development of nationalism, the rise of Ho Chi Minh and civil war, reunification and the years afterwards. It’s all very readable.

Goscha ends with a brief look at the rise of social media and NGOs in Vietnam and suggests the communists face the same dilemma as the inter-war colonialists once did: “When does state-sponsored reformism risk turning into outright revolution?” He makes no predictions; his point, really, is that the history of Vietnam shows she is immune to being predictable.

We have not yet read Ben Kiernan’s highly regarded 2017-published Vietnam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present, so we can’t compare the two... yet. We do however suspect they are both excellent, each coming from academics who have devoted their professional lives to the study of the Southeast Asian region.

As far as Goscha’s history goes though, it makes a near-essential companion to any traveller with even a passing interest in the history of Vietnam. Given the often poor state of English-language explanations in museums throughout the country (and their often pro-government slant), it makes for a fine substitute.

Note: Goscha’s book was published, as far as we can tell, as Vietnam: A New History in the US in 2016.

Buy online: Amazon | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble |



108 results found

Burma (Myanmar)

Burmese Days
Burmese Days

By George Orwell

Finding George Orwell
Finding George Orwell

By Emma Larkin

Miss Burma
Miss Burma

By Charmaine Craig

The Glass Palace
The Glass Palace

By Amitav Ghosh

The Trouser People
The Trouser People

By Andrew Marshall

Cambodia

Dogs at the Perimeter
Dogs at the Perimeter

By Madeleine Thien

Holiday in Cambodia
Holiday in Cambodia

By Laura Jean McKay

Hun Sen’s Cambodia
Hun Sen’s Cambodia

By Sebastian Strangio

Hunters in the Dark
Hunters in the Dark

By Lawrence Osborne

King Norodom's Head
King Norodom's Head

By Steven W. Boswell

River of Time
River of Time

By Jon Swain

The Gate
The Gate

By Francoise Bizot

Indonesia

A House in Bali
A House in Bali

By Colin McPhee

Beauty is a Wound
Beauty is a Wound

By Eka Kurniawan

Black Water
Black Water

By Louise Doughty

Home
Home

By Leila S. Chudori

In the Time of Madness
In the Time of Madness

By Richard Lloyd Parry

Indonesia Etc.
Indonesia Etc.

By Elizabeth Pisani

On the Java Ridge
On the Java Ridge

By Jock Serong

Ring of Fire
Ring of Fire

By Lawrence Blair

The Malay Archipelago
The Malay Archipelago

By Alfred Russel Wallace

The Rainbow Troops
The Rainbow Troops

By Andrea Hirata

The Year of Living Dangerously
The Year of Living Dangerously

By Christopher J. Koch

This Earth of Mankind
This Earth of Mankind

By Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Under the Volcano
Under the Volcano

By Cameron Forbes

Laos

Malaysia

Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians

By Kevin Kwan

From Third World to First
From Third World to First

By Lee Kuan Yew

If I Could Tell You
If I Could Tell You

By Jing-Jing Lee

In Transit: An Anthology
In Transit: An Anthology

By Zhang Ruihe and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Sarong Party Girls
Sarong Party Girls

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Singapore Noir
Singapore Noir

By Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan

State of Emergency
State of Emergency

By Jeremy Tiang

Sugarbread
Sugarbread

By Balli Kaur Jaswal

The Tower
The Tower

By Isa Kamari (translated by Alfian Sa'at)

Thailand

A Tiger in Eden
A Tiger in Eden

By Chris Flynn

Bangkok Found
Bangkok Found

By Alex Kerr

Hothouse Flower
Hothouse Flower

By Lucinda Riley

Jasmine Nights
Jasmine Nights

By S.P. Somtow

Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind
Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

By Carol Hollinger

Many Lives
Many Lives

By M.R Kukrit Pramoj

Sightseeing
Sightseeing

By Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Thai Street Food
Thai Street Food

By David Thompson

The Beach
The Beach

By Alex Garland

The Drinking Food of Thailand
The Drinking Food of Thailand

By Andy Ricker with JJ Goode

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

By Richard Flanagan

The Sad Part Was
The Sad Part Was

By Prabda Yoon

The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

By Philip Cornwel-Smith

Vietnam

Bright Shining Lie
Bright Shining Lie

By Neil Sheehan

Destination Saigon
Destination Saigon

By Walter Mason

Dragon Apparent
Dragon Apparent

By Norman Lewis

Fishing for Tigers
Fishing for Tigers

By Emily Maguire

The Lover
The Lover

By Marguerite Duras

The Quiet American
The Quiet American

By Graham Greene

The Refugees
The Refugees

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sorrow of War
The Sorrow of War

By Bao Ninh

The Sympathizer
The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried

By Tim O’Brien

When the War Was Over
When the War Was Over

By Elizabeth Becker

General