The best books about the French in Vietnam

Why am I passionate about this?

In the crucial period after the end of WW2 the stage became set for thirty years of war in Vietnam, yet there’s very little written of it. My stepfather was there, and Hanoi, Adieu is a memoir of his experiences and his sentiments about what happened in the country he’d grown to love. I have a fascination for Southeast Asian history and he was keen for me to tell his story such that readers could absorb the history through his book. I have recommended here those I enjoyed and found useful from a historical or atmospheric perspective in the larger context of French Indochina. I hope you will too.


I wrote...

Hanoi, Adieu - A Bitterweet Memoir Of French Indochina

By Mandaley Perkins,

Book cover of Hanoi, Adieu - A Bitterweet Memoir Of French Indochina

What is my book about?

Hanoi, Adieu is an intimate and compelling journey through the exotic and tumultuous final decades of French Indochina. It’s a unique book in that it is a memoir and eyewitness account from one of the few French civilians who remained in Hanoi throughout the chaotic and tragic aftermath of World War II. Michel L’Herpiniere worked with the writer to bring to life this little-known history that led to thirty years of war in Vietnam. The book was shortlisted for the 2006 NSW Premier's Award for Non-fiction: Narrative as strong and clear-eyed in discerning the political intricacies and their deadly consequences, as it is poetically evocative of the landscape and people… Hanoi, Adieu is an exquisitely beautiful and most beguiling story.” (Judge’s comments) 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Saigon: An Epic Novel of Vietnam

Mandaley Perkins Why did I love this book?

If you don’t mind a long read and are after a novel rather than non-fiction then this is my pick. It is an epic saga of the last decades of the French in Indochina, following the story of American Joseph Sherman who becomes enchanted by the country and entangled in the lives of two different families, one French and one Vietnamese. It is essentially a love story involving a Mandarin’s daughter but it will give you a flavour of the political plot twists and military conflicts that were the reality of this turbulent period of history. The book spans 50 years to the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, but refreshingly does not try to push any real political perspective. Once again, it is a novel but it will certainly give you a taste of Indochine and an idea of the grand sweep of Vietnam’s tumultuous history. 

By Anthony Grey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Saigon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An epic saga of love, blood, and destiny in twentieth-century Vietnam: "This superb novel could well be the War and Peace of our age" (San Francisco Chronicle).

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…


Book cover of River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia

Mandaley Perkins Why did I love this book?

Personally, I love historical memoirs, real stories from people who were there. Fast forward 14 years of war from the time Michel left Hanoi to dive into the memoir of another who fell for the allure of Vietnam and Cambodia. British journalist Jon Swain was in the region from 1970 to 1975 and saw the horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge when it finally took Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Having been captured by the Khmer Rouge he was saved from execution only by the actions of The New York Times interpreter, Dith Pran. It was this story and experience that inspired the Oscar-winning movie The Killing FieldsThe author’s love for Indochina shines through the pages despite the fact that he is often sickened by the brutality and atrocities he witnessed. He also successfully captures the doomed atmosphere in Saigon as the Americans and the South Vietnamese realise they have finally lost the war and the withdrawal begins. 

By Jon Swain,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked River of Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A splendid memoir...a tale, at once tragic and beautiful, of love and loss, of coming of age and of witnessing the end of Indochina as the West had known it for more than a century."—Los Angleles Times Book Review. From the writer immortalized in the Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields.


Book cover of Vietnam: A History in Documents

Mandaley Perkins Why did I love this book?

If you are a serious student of history then you will be fascinated by this book because it tells a story in letters and official documents of how events in Vietnam unfolded the way they did. The book is a history of communications and policy documents between all the key decision-makers from the end of the 2nd World War in 1945 through two more wars, one with the French and another with the United States, ending in 1975. It reminds us how easily things could have swung a different way and, for me, raises many questions. Could thirty years of war have been avoided had there not been a power vacuum in North Vietnam at the end of WW2 when the French military was left in incarceration by the small anti-colonial US occupation force, leading to the outbreak of violence and chaos between Nationalist Vietnamese, Communists posing as Nationalists, Chinese Nationalists hoping to regain control of the country after their previous 900 years of rule and the Japanese Imperial Army for a time still at large.

If the French had been able to quickly re-establish control in 1945 would they have been able to keep the Communists at bay and would successive French governments have the desire to slowly but surely over the next five to ten years grant full independence to a truly Nationalist Vietnamese government, saving millions of lives and another thirty years of conflict and war.

Book cover of The Quiet American

Mandaley Perkins Why did I love this book?

Written in 1955 The Quiet American is probably the most well-known novel of the very few written in English about French Indochina and has been adapted twice to film, in 1958 and 2002. It is set in the last years of the French in Vietnam and the early days of American involvement. Graham Green apparently drew on his experience as a war correspondent for the French daily Le Figaro. The two main characters are Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist, and Alden Pyle, an idealistic American CIA agent with no experience in southeast Asia who is full of foreign policy theory and feels that he knows what’s best for the country and how to solve the problems of communism v colonialism by introducing a “third force.” There’s a love triangle woven through the story serving mainly to accent the moral peccadilloes of the characters, but the main interest is in the different ways the cynical Brit and the naïve American view the situation in Indochina. 

By Graham Greene,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Quiet American as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Graham Greene's classic exploration of love, innocence, and morality in Vietnam

"I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused," Graham Greene's narrator Fowler remarks of Alden Pyle, the eponymous "Quiet American" of what is perhaps the most controversial novel of his career. Pyle is the brash young idealist sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission to Saigon, where the French Army struggles against the Vietminh guerrillas.

As young Pyle's well-intentioned policies blunder into bloodshed, Fowler, a seasoned and cynical British reporter, finds it impossible to stand safely aside as an observer. But…


Book cover of Little China: The Annamese lands

Mandaley Perkins Why did I love this book?

If you want to immerse yourself in the old French Indochina then this could be the book for you. Published in 1942 it is written by a Brit who describes it as a travel book, but it is a travel book that is replete with history. That the author travelled the Annamese (Vietnamese) lands during a time of peace made it of particular interest to me when working with Michel on his early years from 1936 in Vietnam for my book. In Little China one can immerse oneself in the life of the Annamese people through Brodrick’s descriptive prose of everyday scenes. The book has not only a historical Chronological Table, but an Appendix, a short Bibliography, a map, and a comprehensive Index in case you happen to be looking for something specific. It was published by Oxford University Press.

By Alan Houghton Brodrick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Little China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


You might also like...

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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