Halong Bay, Vietnam
Photo of Halong Bay by Andrew Hux used under a Creative Commons license.

Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam (University of California Press, 1995).
In Salon’s Literary Guide to the World, Tom Bissell calls it

the rare book that seemingly everyone who cares about Vietnam recommends without reservation. Jamieson argues that any understanding of Vietnam must start with the fractious cultural debate that began in the first half of the 20th century over the benefits of “old” and “new” ways of Vietnamese life. From the 1930s on, Vietnam’s enterprising, tireless and often despotic communists hijacked this intracultural argument, making it a debate between Marxism and feudalism…. Jamieson’s most enlightening chapters … concern the traditional Vietnamese man or woman’s expected — and unquestioning — obedience to his or her parents and village. These tendencies remain strongly in place among rural Vietnamese. While Vietnam’s cities are producing a generation of young people less spellbound by conservative village mentality, it is a rare home indeed that lacks an altar, and requisite incense sticks, for the proper worship of one’s forebears, the rituals of which Jamieson thoroughly explains. Above all, Jamieson is admirably fair, refusing to regard Vietnam’s communists as somehow more authentically Vietnamese than its non-communists, which alone makes Understanding Vietnam a rare buoy of reasonableness.

Google Book Search has an excerpt and more. Here is a review by Rick Martin. And one by Stephen O. Murray. Herbert Mitgang offers a few words about the book and others on Vietnam in The New York Times. Dana Sachs recommends it and other books about Vietnam (.pdf file). One blogger read it on a junk in Halong Bay.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.