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Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam Asia Southeast Andrew X. Pham Picador 1St Edition edition

8th December 2012 History Books 27 Comments

A great memoirist can burnish even an ordinary childhood into something bright–see, for instance, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. So what about a really good writer with access to a dramatic and little-documented story? This is the case with Catfish and Mandala, Vietnamese American Andrew X. Pham’s captivating first book, which delves fearlessly into questions of home, family, and identity. The son of Vietnamese parents who suffered terribly during the Vietnam War and brought their family to America when he was 10, Pham, on the cusp of his 30s, defied his parents’ conservative hopes for him and his engineering career by becoming a poorly paid freelance writer. After the suicide of his sister, he set off on an even riskier path to travel some of the world on his bicycle. In the grueling, enlightening year that followed, he pedaled through Mexico, the American West Coast, Japan, and finally his far-off first land, Vietnam.

The story, with some of a mandala’s repeated symbolic motifs, works on several levels at once. It is an exploration into the meaning of home, a descriptive travelogue, and an intimate look at the Vietnamese immigrant experience. There are beautifully illuminated flashbacks to the experience of fleeing Vietnam and to an earlier, more innocent childhood. While Pham’s stern father, a survivor of Vietcong death camps, regrets that Pham has not been a respectful Vietnamese son, he also reveals that he wishes he himself had been more “American” for his kids, that he had “taken [them] camping.” Catfish and Mandala is a book of double-edged truths, and it would make a fascinating study even in less able hands. In those of the adventurous, unsentimental Pham, it is an irresistible story. –Maria Dolan –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

In narrating his search for his roots, Vietnamese-American and first-time author Pham alternates between two story lines. The first, which begins in war-torn Vietnam, chronicles the author’s hair-raising escape to the U.S. as an adolescent in 1977 and his family’s subsequent and somewhat troubled life in California. The second recounts his return to Vietnam almost two decades later as an Americanized but culturally confused young man. Uncertain if his trip is a “pilgrimage or a farce,” Pham pedals his bike the length of his native country, all the while confronting the guilt he feels as a successful Viet-kieu (Vietnamese expatriate) and as a survivor of his older sister Chai, whose isolation in America and eventual suicide he did little to prevent. Flipping between the two story lines, Pham elucidates his main dilemma: he’s an outsider in both America and VietnamAin the former for being Vietnamese, and the latter for being Viet-kieu. Aside from a weakness for hyphenated compounds like “people-thick” and “passion-rich,” Pham’s prose is fluid and fast, navigating deftly through time and space. Wonderful passages describe the magical qualities of catfish stew, the gruesome preparation of “gaping fish” (a fish is seared briefly in oil with its head sticking out, but is supposedly still alive when served), the furious flow of traffic in Ho Chi Minh City and his exasperating confrontations with gangsters, drunken soldiers and corrupt bureaucrats. In writing a sensitive, revealing book about cultural identity, Pham also succeeds in creating an exciting adventure story. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Winner of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Winner of the Whiting Writers’ Award
A Seattle Post-Intelligencer Best Book of the Year

Catfish and Mandala is the story of an American odysseya solo bicycle voyage around the Pacific Rim to Vietnammade by a young Vietnamese-American man in pursuit of both his adopted homeland and his forsaken fatherland.

Andrew X. Pham was born in Vietnam and raised in California. His father had been a POW of the Vietcong; his family came to America as “boat people.” Following the suicide of his sister, Pham quit his job, sold all of his possessions, and embarked on a year-long bicycle journey that took him through the Mexican desert, around a thousand-mile loop from Narita to Kyoto in Japan; and, after five months and 2,357 miles, to Saigon, where he finds “nothing familiar in the bombed-out darkness.” In Vietnam, he’s taken for Japanese or Korean by his countrymen, except, of course, by his relatives, who doubt that as a Vietnamese he has the stamina to complete his journey (“Only Westerners can do it”); and in the United States he’s considered anything but American. A vibrant, picaresque memoir written with narrative flair and an eye-opening sense of adventure, Catfish and Mandala is an unforgettable search for cultural identity.

A great memoirist can burnish even an ordinary childhood into something bright–see, for instance, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. So what about a really good writer with access to a dramatic and little-documented story? This is the case with Catfish and Mandala, Vietnamese American Andrew X. Pham’s captivating first book, which delves fearlessly into questions of home, family, and identity. The son of Vietnamese parents who suffered terribly during the Vietnam War and brought their family to America when he was 10, Pham, on the cusp of his 30s, defied his parents’ conservative hopes for him and his engineering career by becoming a poorly paid freelance writer. After the suicide of his sister, he set off on an even riskier path to travel some of the world on his bicycle. In the grueling, enlightening year that followed, he pedaled through Mexico, the American West Coast, Japan, and finally his far-off first land, Vietnam.

The story, with some of a mandala’s repeated symbolic motifs, works on several levels at once. It is an exploration into the meaning of home, a descriptive travelogue, and an intimate look at the Vietnamese immigrant experience. There are beautifully illuminated flashbacks to the experience of fleeing Vietnam and to an earlier, more innocent childhood. While Pham’s stern father, a survivor of Vietcong death camps, regrets that Pham has not been a respectful Vietnamese son, he also reveals that he wishes he himself had been more “American” for his kids, that he had “taken [them] camping.” Catfish and Mandala is a book of double-edged truths, and it would make a fascinating study even in less able hands. In those of the adventurous, unsentimental Pham, it is an irresistible story. –Maria Dolan –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

My Lai: A Brief History with Documents

“My Lai impresses me both with the editors’ exhaustive and extensive efforts to document the…massacre and its implications and, especially, with the superb introduction–one of the most graceful and potent pieces of historical writing I have come across in recent years. This volume will certainly make a valuable contribution to…modern U.S. history.”

The massacre at My Lai on March 16, 1968 continues to haunt students of the Vietnam War as a moment that challenges notions of American virtue. James Olson and Randy Roberts have combed unpublished testimony and gather a collection of eyewitness accounts from those who were at My Lai and reports from those who investigated the incident and its cover-up.
My Lai: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Series in History & Culture)

  • 27 responses to "Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam Asia Southeast Andrew X. Pham Picador 1St Edition edition"

  • Kilorad
    7:09 on December 8th, 2012
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    It has been a long, long time since I have been so moved by the work of a new American author. “Catfish and Mandala, A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam”, by Andrew X Pham, is a book that invites one along on a trek through the minds, hearts, and souls of two nations. As a veteran of the Vietnam War I tagged along willing with Mr. Pham—-at first. I soon found myself being pulled deeper into the past, a past that long ago laid waste to my youth and my spirit. Having read this book, I view the world in another light. I view the Vietnamese and American people with an understanding that has escaped me for so many years. To call “Catfish and Mandala” a travelogue is to call Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and Kerouac’s “On the Road” travel books. “Catfish and Mandala” is truly great literature. I only wish it had been written sooner.

  • Hammered
    8:18 on December 8th, 2012
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    Andrew Pham’s narrative weaves through various issues of being Asian-American, escaping Vietnam, cultural identity, sexual identity, racism, capitalism, etc., but what makes CATFISH a good read is that it’s just a very engaging story. Pham has a style of writing that took me a while to get warmed up to, but he writes with humor and emphathy, and a candor that makes memoirs worth reading.

    Contrary to some other reviewers, I don’t think it’s fair to expect that Pham’s book be written so you can learn about the country of Vietnam and its people for your own purposes. If that’s what you want, get a Lonely Planet guide. Besides, he does say a lot about the country and its people, albeit through his biased, “Viet-kieu” eyes. And that’s why you read memoirs–they’re personal.

    Pham deserves some praise for being crazy enough to bike from San Francisco to Seattle, throughout Japan, and from Saigon to Hanoi and back. And his portrayal of poverty and change, of the ugliness it brings to the people he wants to love, is enough to recommend this book.

  • Anybody
    10:17 on December 8th, 2012
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    I mainly bought this book to see another Vietnamese person’s view of Vietnam and the struggle that one faces as a Vietnamese American (in terms of merging two cultures together). Although his view is rather pessimistic, he gives a very thorough/descriptive account of his travels. You almost feel as if you are there. He mixes in the stories from his childhood and present together. This book was a wonderful read through and through. An honest testament to the author’s life journey and struggles. It maintained my interest throughout and gave me a different take on Vietnamese life/culture (although not an optimistic outlook as I have) although I think his pessimistic view on Vietnam changes near the end of the book.

  • Jonathan W Belcher
    12:24 on December 8th, 2012
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    I traveled through Vietnam in 1998 and I found Andrew Pham’s vivid descriptions of contemporary Vietnam in ‘Catfish and Mandala’ piercingly accurate. In the pantheon of “Vietnam” literature this book comes from a voice and perspective that has been grossly under-represented. Andrew Pham makes the most of this opportunity by writing a carefully crafted, moving and important work. Between the covers the reader is transported in time and place, from the author’s childhood hometown of Phan Viet in the 1970′s, to the low socio-economic Northern California suburbs of the 1980′s, to the chaos and disarray of modern-day Saigon. It should be made clear that this is not a book about the Vietnam War; in one sense it has everything to do with the war (without it he would not be here today), in another it has nothing to do with it. The war is the 800 pound elephant in the living room, the event that until now has defined the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam for most Americans. But Pham makes it clear that most Vietnamese have long since tried to move on, and this allows him to tackle the more universal and timeless issues of family, relationships, friendship, powerlessness, frustration, empowerment, injustice, corruption, redemption. He does this with remarkable success. I could not put this book down and would recommend it to anyone.

  • bob rocklin
    12:36 on December 8th, 2012
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    This book is about a Vietnamese-American man looking for his identity in his homeland. Like many Vietnamese who were children when South Viet Nam fell to the communist in 1975, Mr. Pham’s family fled to America where he grew up straddling two cultures. While his writing about biking though Viet-Nam is witty, observational, and realistic, I somehow felt sadden for him because of his Viet-kieu’s experience, a terminology used for expats. Over all his story made many generalizations about a very complex and exciting country. I am too a Viet-kieu. What I found is a country full of eager young optimistic people wanting a better life for themselves, their families, sometimes – for better or worse – at any price. Yes, there are poverty and corruption, but there also exist the dignity and quiet grace of a peasant woman who gets up at crack of dawn, earning a meager wage for the day to feed her family because it’s her duty. Mr. Pham chose to go back to America with his ”privileges” and his ”opportunity” still at a lost for his identity. Readers should not accept Mr. Pham’s experience as those of the other Viet-kieu’s in Viet Nam.

    M. Vo

  • jackeee
    19:37 on December 8th, 2012
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    Where in American writing did we cease to be classical copycats and take on the mantel of the American Writer? Hemingway argued that it was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which identified the American novel and that particular style or writing by individuals now referred to as American writers.

    Andrew Pham, combines both a sense of journalistic license with some stylistic American writing in Catfish and Mandala. Which struck me as rather interesting. Searching for his roots, a sense of self, who and where he came from all cumulated from his ability and sense of the American literary style.

    Mr. Pham may disagree after all, it is his writing style, but that is how it reads to me. Personally, I find his style very good — captivating me from start to finish.

    Other reviews on this book talk about the events of the story, I prefer to examine the style of this work. Again, Andrew Pham has accomplished a major breakthrough in his writing career with this one. It’s read in colleges, book clubs, by bicyclists, travel buffs and tourists — just to name a few. His style flows throughout the work… but the end just sort of happens. I thought perhaps an additional 100 pages or so may have moved the story of the trip and the introspection he experienced along a smoother path. So the ending just sort of happened and I was left a little perplexed… sort of like the end of a Clapton song — no “outro” just “blat” and it’s over.

    For the readers interest please note that this work has been well received by both the 2000 Whiting Writers Award and the 1999 Kiriyama (Pacific Rim Book Prize). Thank you Mr. Pham. Thank you.

  • Andy C
    21:06 on December 8th, 2012
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    Every once in a while a new voice appears on the literary scene that is at once lyrical, smart, unafraid and provocative. Andrew X. Pham is that kind of new voice. In Catfish and Mandala he combines no less than four genres–family memoir, adventure travelogue, the “going back” book and mystery–and he excels in each.

    While there have been other multigenerational sagas about Vietnamese families, Pham has approached his with an honesty and a kindness that is rare. In the travel adventure category, Pham gives Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, even Jon Krakauer a run for their money. He adds an entirely new dimension to the Vietnam vet “going back” story. Without diminishing the accomplishments of U.S. soldiers or the woes they experienced, Pham widens our perspective to include the Vietnamese veterans of that war. And if all this weren’t enough, Pham has skillfully woven in a family mystery–the suicide of his sister/brother, a post-operative transsexual–with an unflinching eye and the rhythm of a writer who seems like he’s been doing this for years.

  • Smuze
    21:26 on December 8th, 2012
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    I bought this book because I’ve been living in Andrew’s home town in Vietnam and I was looking for insight on the area’s past. While his biography does not spend a great many pages (relatively) describing Phan Thiet in depth, it was heartening to read his pungent and poetically detailed stories of his pilgrimage home. The heart of this book, seems to me, to be the experience of Vietnamese Americans; of being torn between two worlds. Countrymen in Vietnam no longer view them as fully Vietnamese, yet they can not feel truely at home and at peace in their home in America. Thank you, Andrew, for sharing and making yourself so vulnerable to readers, and thank you for bringing us back home to Vietnam with you.

  • yeahsure
    22:25 on December 8th, 2012
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    Midway through this novel, I wanted to pull my heart out of my chest. The emotions I felt were painful and sad. Worse part, this book wasn’t meant to be depressing or close to tear-jerking.
    While I could really care less about author Andrew Pham’s adventures on his bicycle, this book gave me a deeper admiration for my Vietnamese-American friends. It helped answer why they were born is such far flung locales like Albuquerque, Kansas City and some hick town in Illinois. Yes, Illinois.
    I did a double take while reading, wondering if my friend Ryan had actually written this novel. It seemed like his story, immigrating from Vietnam during the war, growing up in California and now successful in the medical profession. It seemed too close to be true, even down to the two gay brothers.
    I always wanted to ask him, but always thought twice, what was it like when he came to the states as a 13-year-old. I wanted to know how he felt, what high school was like, the struggles, the successes, the tears. Did his father die in the war? When did he finally feel comfortable with the English language? What was the discrimination he endured? How did his family leave war-torn Vietnam? All these questions, not a single answer.
    Pham’s vivid and emotional depiction of immigrant life in the U.S. could be applied to any immigrant group. He retraces his history from life in Vietnam, the escape from Vietnam, finally making it to the U.S. and then, his return to Vietnam.
    Pham achieves something with his depiction of his return home. He gives readers the truth, not some pretty account driven for tourists. He doesn’t lie about the mosquitos, dirty air, poverty, feelings towards America, commercialism and amount of change since the war.
    Pham tries to find some connection with the country he grew up in, some connection to understand who he is. What he finds is something readers need to read to gain a better understanding of immigrant life, Vietnam and one’s strive to survive.

  • A Noah
    2:49 on December 9th, 2012
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    As a Vietnamese-American in his 30s, the best possible compliment I can give to Pham X. An is that he has poignantly written a book for my generation. Throughout the book he had captured his generation’s psyche with moving honesty and accuracy that my heart has often felt but my words have been inadequate to convey them. Just like Pham X. An, I felt as an outsider in Vietnam and that feeling had and continue to trouble me deeply. I also faced painful realizations that “my” Vietnam, what I remember from my childhood, no longer exist. In the meantime, in America, I don’t quite think, act, and feel like an American. These heartrending feelings were captured poignantly by the author in Catfish and Mandala.

    The haunting questions of who Vietnamese-Americans are, where our home is, what we will become were answered in the book. How we will deal with this realization is another haunting question that I hope Pham X. An will continue to explore for us. I look forward to reading his next book and I hope I can thank him in person someday for being the voice of my generation.

  • Contus
    4:49 on December 9th, 2012
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    I was really interested in reading about cycling through Vietnam; but who cares how much Pham and his so-called friends drink or how sick they get. They are disgusting drunks. I gave it three stars because when he’s writing about Vietnam or his family the book is very interesting.

  • planes
    6:35 on December 9th, 2012
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    Between the harrowing postward existence and eventual escape from Vietnam (when he was ten) and the traumas of his family’s acculturation to America, Andrew Pham did not NEED to go on dangerous bicycle expeditions to get material! But he did and hung on a unique travelogue he has given readers a rich, multilayered, very moving, and very accomplished a book combining a haunting family history with tales of very rough travel, and reflections on being regarded as a crazy alien in Vietnam and America (and Japan). Pham is obviously very resilient, both physically and emotionally and makes something of great value from painful personal history and difficult travel.

    Although the book is unlikely to encourage visitors (especially Vietnamese American ones) to Vietnam, Pham’s journey into the multiple traumas of his family’s experience yields insights of universal significance. This beautifully written and painfully self-revealing book deservedly won the 1999 Kiriyama Prize. It is hard to imagine a reader who would not learn from the book and I would not want to meet anyone who is not moved by its emotional force!

  • Tom Peterson
    10:23 on December 9th, 2012
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    ABV (american born vietnamese)…slow and dull start…but the meat the meat and potatoes of the book lie in his journey through Vietnam. THe first half was just the precursor trips in mexico and japan. Now as I was getting the the last third of the book I was just trying to rush through the book cuz I started it and felt like I had to finish it. THe last third of the book and especially the last few chapters made me realize how glad I was to read it. From an ABV point of view, it helped me appreciate how similar his perspective and my perspective were about being and living here in AMerica. I recommend it a good read for any Vietnamese-American.

    11:40 on December 9th, 2012
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    CATFISH AND MANDALA won the 1999 Kiriyama Literary Prize. The book is also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a finalist for the PEN U.S. West Award for Creative Nonfiction, and The Oregonian Regional Book of the Year.

    I wonder why Pham didn’t get the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. If Robert Olen Butler got the Pulitzer for his so-so collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees, Pham ought to be an obvious winner for a travel memoir that truly breaks the mold. Technically, Pham has discovered new grounds while poetically dealing with some profound issues about humanity, forgiveness and redemption.

    What I respect most about this memoir is that the author does not capitalize on “personal tragedies”, but instead he uses the opportunity to search deeply for answers, truth and compassion. Yet, it certainly is no melodrama. In fact, the book reads like a literary thiller and a cross-cultural mystery (I finished the book in two sittings). It is the sort of book that will remain with its readers for decades if not longer.

    Despite all their good intentions, the raving newspaper reviews and the marketing efforts miss the point about CATFISH. It isn’t just a book about travel or a memoir about a troubled refugee family. It is about one man’s desire (any man’s or woman’s desire) and the choices he makes for his life. It is about the courage of letting go, of forgiveness, of starting over, of facing death, of accepting consequences. It isn’t simply an issue of “being caught between two world.” That is a cliche. Who among us have not been trapped between two places, two forces?

    Like the best literature, CATFISH AND MANDALA challenges us to read between the lines, to question our own reflections, and to hope.

  • Mark Marvel
    16:41 on December 9th, 2012
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    I found myself related closely to the book, not because of the dramatic of the story, but because of the experience that Vietnamese Americans have had… I found the truth revealed in many scence that Andrew described… This book actually recalled many memories for me… I also suprised that, with limited experience (was pretty young when Anh An left Vietnam), that he can bring out a lively pictures of reality in Vietnam. Identity… Somehow people like An and myself found that it is hard to believe, what a culture conflict could result such emotion… Thanks for the great work, Anh An.

  • Mohamed
    18:34 on December 9th, 2012
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    Finished reading Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham. He has a great facility with words and descriptions, however I was annoyed on more than one occasion with the picture he often painted of himself. It was difficult to sympathize or even identify with him. He used words so smoothly that I began to distrust the ephiphany he was describing. Maybe there were too many epiphanies in the memoir and it diluted the intentioned effect. By the end however there was a certain respect I had for him, for telling his story, for describing Vietnam and the Vietnamese with honesty, even though I couldn’t help feeling that a few things were more contrived than actually experienced, more exaggerated than exact. I got the feeling that he took various items from his past and arranged them conveniently into one scene for dramatic effect. And it was this dramatic effect that Mr. Pham wished to achieve that came off poorly to me. I would have wished that the chapters with his father at the end and the “family’s secret” (not the secret that was his sister) would have been elaborated at the start instead of paralleling them at interspersing chapters with his travels in Vietnam. It is how things occured chronologically and it would have given his journey to Vietnam more purpose at the outset. So while I thought the story was honest, I thought the storytelling was dishonest in that it was manipulative towards the reader. In fiction it works well, but in memoirs it more readily detracts from than adds to the book.

  • U R Fullovit
    21:13 on December 9th, 2012
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    In Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham, Pham rides his bike to Oregon, to Mexico, through Japan, and across his homeland, Vietnam. This last destination dominates the story, a narrative that seems to run closely to Pham’s life.

    The story lacks an intricate plot hoisted on recurrent characters, a common trait of road stories. This doesn’t mean nothing happens. It means that seldom do supporting characters dominate the narrative long enough for the reader to delve into their psychologies. One acquaintance says, “I’ll see you when I see you.” This noncommittal, but worry-free attitude justifies Pham’s style. Imagine Kerouac’s On The Road minus two of the wheels, much of the debauchery, and almost all of the author’s legendary notoriety.

    In the tradition of the road story, Pham’s road trip parallels his quest for personal identity, an identity Pham finds to be hyphenated. Pham assumes his master identity to be his ethnic identity. And he discovers his ethnic identity to be, not fused and consolidated by a hyphen, but cleft and bastardized by a hyphen. Americans label him Vietnamese-American. Vietnamese natives label him Viet-Kieu, a pejorative that means something like a sellout of your country. Pham considers both countries his homeland. But both countries consider him a foreigner.

    His life is hyphenated across the Pacific. The titles of each of the chapters are hyphenated (headwind-tailspin). And the Vietnamese terms of address translate into English as hyphenated words (brother-friend). But there’s also a semantic dexterity in hyphenated words that no lone word can match, a twofold diversity packed into one unit.

    The chapters form a montage; they alternate between Pham’s road trip in the present, his family’s past in Vietnamese-American Diaspora during the war, and his teenage and college years as he adjusts to American life.

    New characters appear so often and their Vietnamese names seems so homogenous (at least from my American standpoint), that I had trouble keeping track of their individualities. Their sheer quantity overwhelmed me. They blurred into a collective identity, which I soon assimilated into a heuristic: simply Pham’s current acquaintance.

    Pham has a knack for capturing all things gastronomic and culinary about Vietnam. A few strong descriptions remain fresh in my memory: Pham downs a shot of liquor with a still-beating heart of a cobra floating in it, tinging the drink with fresh blood. In another, his mother cooks the immigrant family their first Thanksgiving turkey. But she bastes the turkey in Vietnamese fishsauce (Vietnamese put fishsauce on everything, Pham writes) and doubts the lengthy bake time. The turkey emerges from the oven as a hideous, yellow, undercooked hybrid of Vietnamese and American culture. But, in time, the Pham family successfully transitions to American life. They all succeed, at least in terms of education and employment. But there is one exception…

    Very early, Pham writes that his sister, Chi, killed herself. This begs the question: why? This running puzzle comes together in the retrospective chapters as we learn that Chi’s identity, too, is hyphenated; She is actually Chi-Minh.

  • Sally Huss
    22:38 on December 9th, 2012
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    Pham’s descriptions of his journey–his writing, his words, his style–are simply breathtaking. He tells his story with simplicity but paints such a detailed, beautiful picture that you fall in love with the people and places that he visits. His descriptions of the peoplehe encounters, especially the street orphans of Vietnam, are so vivid and real–the latter brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give is to say that before I read the book, I lent it to my mother (a Vietnamese refugee who had come to the U.S. and raised four kids on her own)–she could not put the book down and still raves about it. Pham has at least two fans who are anxiously waiting for his second work!

  • jfranklin
    0:44 on December 10th, 2012
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    James Olson does it again. Distinguished professor and author of a variety of books on John Wayne, the Alamo, breast cancer, sports, Indian rights, etc., Olson clearly sifts the wheat from the chaff and tells us what really happened in the Viet Nam war’s worst massacre.

  • moneyall
    2:00 on December 10th, 2012
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    A great book in many ways – Andrew Pham succeeds in creating a seemingly straightforward memoir that is actually several subtle things skillfully weaved together: a travel narrative, a fight for personal independence, an investigation of one’s ethnic roots (which partially arises from a great deal of meditation over one’s own family history). Pham shifts between these eclectic elements with great skill, creating what is both a great Vietnamese story and a very classic sort of American one.

    Pham’s own family history is detailed at great length, and I like his tone through all of it; anyone who has ever come out of a self-aware and hard-working, but also highly dysfunctional family will instantly see a bit of themselves here. In writing about his own family, the mix of pride and defiance, set against a willingness to confront others on their b.s. makes for both an admirable self-portrait, and some very sharp writing.

    His writing about Vietnam – his travels from Saigon to Hanoi were mostly done on a bike – is the product of the same tough clarity of vision: a love of people, place and culture is always there, but Pham can’t see the place as exotic, and is no roots fetishist in spite of his interest in history – thus we are presented with a detailed, warts-and-all portrayal that – as with his comments about America – essentially demands that you see a place, and it’s inhabitants exactly as they are.

    His writing about his own siblings, and his relationship with them, is perhaps best – tender, baffled, smart and hopeful even when confronted by tragedies.

    -David Alston

  • Andy Jenkinsn
    5:06 on December 10th, 2012
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    Catfish and Mandala is the best book about Vietnam I have read in decades. It is humorous, witty, moving, but also very disturbing. Andrew Pham talks about his family’s escape from Vietnam, his father’s time spent in re-education camp, his family in the U.S., his sister’s suicide, his brothers’ homosexuality. But best of all is his bicycle travelogue in Vietnam with little money. It’s a truly refreshing book, completely different from the tales that I heard from my Vietnamese friends who came back and travelled in air-conditioned cars. And even though I want to believe them, somehow their stories contradict with the experiences I had while living there. Andrew’s book is a rare gem that explores the stories behind that are not readily available to the wide-eyed tourists in sanitized packaged tours. In Saigon, Andrew broke down sobbing after a beggar who resembled his old girlfriend pleaded for the leftover food. While travelling to visit his father’s old prison, he was left with packages of smuggled tobacco while the police was searching the bus and demanding bribery. And in Vung Tau, he befriended a beautiful young girl who worked in one of those “embracing beer” halls. She was begging him to take her to the U.S. Even if he didn’t love her, he could pretend to marry her so he could take her out. “My children, grandchildren, great grandchildren will thank you everyday for the rest of their lives,” she said. When he refused, she just left and the next morning he saw her hand-in-hand with a white tourist who might be easier to be persuaded. The trip continued as he came back to his hometown Phan Thiet and then went up North to Ha Noi and beyond. In each city that he visited, there are tales of deception, duplicity, trickeries by the locals in an attempt to get the money out of the tourists’ pockets. But there are also tales of Vietnam’s beauty and the enduring lives of the Vietnamese people. A local policeman knocked on his room’s door at night pretending that Andrew needed a better place to sleep because he was a Viet-Kieu, but his true intention was to get some money out of this poor guy. A prostitute knocked on his door at night offering her services without knowing that he was deadly exhausted. Perhaps a local police was nearby. If a customer refused, she would stripped herself naked and scream for help. The local police would run in and arrest the tourist accusing him of raping or having sex with a prostitute. Either way, it is a loosing proposition since the tourist had to pay $50-$300 U.S. fine. In Hue, Andrew thought that he had found a true friend who took him around in his broken cyclo. His friend’s heart-wrenching stories of having to support a wife and three kids moved Andrew deeply that he gave his friend a lot more money than what was needed. But later he found out that his friend was not really married, but he just told the stories to get Andrew’s money. In Hoi An, we see Andrew with a couple of Western tourists. A German man sat sadly alone in a pile of rubble. He was shocked to find out that he had paid $100 U.S. to rent a car to see the Cham ruins, but at the last moment, he was told that the car had broken down and he was not going to get his money back. And Cham’s ruins are nothing than a pile of rubble. “Cham’s ruins in Thailand are a thousand times more beautiful than this and I didn’t have to pay $100 to see it,” lamented the man. Next to him was an Italian young woman who broke down crying after her camera was confiscated by the guards. She couldn’t take modern Vietnam anymore. I am particularly moved by this chapter and while reading it, I keep wondering about the future of Vietnam’s tourism. “Is this how we treat the foreigners who come in our country yearning to learn more about our culture and history?” Near the end of his book, we meet Andrew’s friend Calvin — a professional guide tour in Vietnam. Calvin’s appearance is impeccable from the outside. He earns a lot more money than the average Vietnamese. He is the epitome of success. But while he was drunk, the readers get a peek inside Calvin’s heart that is very disturbing. It is for sure that he would never reveal this thought to any of the tourists or Viet-Kieu whom he takes around in Vietnam. He told Andrew through the cloud of alcohol. “Sometimes I feel like a pimp,” he said. He continued, “The tourists wanted me to take them to the poor part of Saigon, so I took them there; they flinched at our poverty…” Calvin also offered us an opportunity to see how the local Vietnamese see the Viet-Kieu — a truly honest and down-to-earth viewpoint even though it is also very disturbing. After reading Calvin’s thoughts, I am not too sure if it is a good idea for a Vietnamese to go back there. The only really minor points in Andrew’s book that need some clarifications is the part when he mentions about Hanoi’s quarters and he says that it is the legacy from the French era. Somehow I always think that these specialized quarters of Hanoi predated the French. Regarding Uncle Ho, perhaps Andrew didn’t know that he actually had multiple wives in many continents and he wasn’t single because he was patriotic as described by the Communist propaganda. From the other books that I have read, he even stole his best friend’s wife. Catfish and Mandala has won numerous praises from the New York Times, Elle, the Chicago Tribune, etc. His book is an extraordinary book in any way. It deserves 5 stars. It’s a must-read for any foreign tourists who want to go to Vietnam, the Viet-Kieu who contemplate of going back there, and anyone else who wants to learn more about modern Vietnam. Two Thumbs Up!

  • Maia Lepetich
    6:40 on December 10th, 2012
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    Pham, who bikes around Vietnam, travels back to his roots and takes his readers with him. Pham takes a journey into his life in Vietnam as a boy, how he and his family escaped to begin his life in America telling stories along the way. If you are interested in learning more about Vietnam, this is the book for you. Pham takes you through little towns in Vietnam and even introduces the readers to some very interesting dishes, that after finishing the book it almost leaves you homesick. Most importantly Pham describes his encounters in both America and Vietnam of being stereotyped with terrible names that would leave anyone feeling lost and confused. This book opened my eyes to just how much prejudice there is against another of the same nationality just because he/she was raised in America, but I finished with a smile knowing that I’m not the only one with this feeling of discplacement.

  • Big Don
    10:45 on December 10th, 2012
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    This a very revealing journey thru a society that could not possibly appreciate a man riding a bike under such dangerous and challenging circumstances. So many of these people walked tens of thousands of miles thru years of war who are now confronted with an American who wants to get some excercise and see the homeland.
    This book was more revealing than disturbing however and very difficult to put down at times. Thank you Andrew Phan and be well in America.

  • Daniel L
    13:35 on December 10th, 2012
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    I’d read several 5-star reviews of this book and was eagerly looking forward to reading it. But I came away strangely disappointed. It’s not that it wasn’t a good book; it’s just not what I expected.
    If a reader hopes to get a feeling for the present day Vietnam, this is probably not the book to begin with. As a returning Vietnamese who left his country as a 10 yo after it fell to the Communists, the author experiences almost exclusively the underbelly of the culture and sees little to praise.

    As a vehicle for exploring his own conflicted relationship with his parents, siblings, extended family, and his own identity, it works well.
    As a source for learning more about the length, width, and most of all the depth of Vietnam, it is less successful.

  • briancat
    15:11 on December 10th, 2012
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    The 25th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon was approaching, as was a conference at NYC’s Asia Society on Vietnamese American authors, so I purchased this book for a friend. But before I gave the book away, I started to read the preface. And I was as hooked as a net caught in a propeller. I gorged myself on this book’s language. It was so poetic, I wanted to deconstruct the sentences to see how Pham built them. How this book did not win a National Book Award I can not fathom. (although it was honored with the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize). As was said in the reviews above and below, Pham’s book is an adventure book as worthy as any Outside Magazine story, a memoir, and an extended essay on cultural identity, immigration, guilt, and family dynamics. The metaphor filled, flowing chapters alternate between his current bike trip, the immigrant experience, and his family’s flight from Vietnam two decades ago. The book is honest, humorous (as in when he relates his Dilbert-like experiences working as an aerospace engineer in California, or when his brother’s boyfriend offers him a supermarket of armaments for road biking protection), psychologically complex (the duty of the first son, the guilt over a suicide), frightening (when relating the experiences of his father in a post-War Vietnamese prison, their escape as boat-people, finding lodging at the home of what may be an escaped mental patient), gutsy (finding a bike path from Narita Airport), sensual, exhilarating, sad, profound, and subtle (can you save every beggar, can you marry every poor Vietnamese woman). Simply a must read.

  • Mantra
    17:19 on December 10th, 2012
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    Taken as a collection of travelogue vignettes, it’s a good yarn, fairly well told. I did think the writing style was a little uninspired. Pham deploys a technique of coining noun-verbs which I found distracting after a while. But that’s just surface style… the book stirred a lot of murky submerged feelings in me. Being half-Asian myself, there are natural parallels. Like Pham, I have thought frequently about the nature of identity here in “these United States”. Beyond that, it is an intriguing glimpse of a country and people about which the typical reader in the US probably has, like me, many misconceptions.

    Along with ‘Catfish and Mandala’, you might also consider Anne Fadiman’s ‘The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down’, which chronicles the collision of Hmong culture and Western medicine as embodied by the doctors of the county hospital in Merced, CA. The Hmong were mountain tribesmen who were used by the CIA to fight a shadow war in Laos, and many subsequently wound up here. The analogy to the Viet-kieu is obvious — that book too has a good chance of significantly expanding your consciousness of (Asian-)American cultural issues, and the writing, organization, and research are first-rate.

  • Calikicker
    22:13 on December 10th, 2012
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    I think Andrew Pham did a great job on writing Catfish and Mandala. It gives you information about all the countries that got in the war with Vietnam. It talks about An’s conflicts with his parents and what he felt when his sister Chi died. This book lets you know what An went through when traveling from city to city. Andrew does good on describing the characters and the places where An goes to. He makes sure that everyone can understand what he is talking about.
    He explains that when traveling he uses his bike which is the most interesting part. He explains that he meets new people on his way and describes the places that he goes through. He makes sure that he talks about what happened to him when he stayed in hotels. He makes the book interesting by describing everyhting he sees and everything he does.

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