Notes from a pilot's kid

History of Modern Vietnam - A Reading List

Spending a few weeks in Vietnam recently has made me curious about its modern history, a topic I know little about. I had no coursework in university related to Vietnam, and like most people in an American grade school I came to know Vietnam more as a place where the US fought the spread of communism than anything else. But being here and observing today’s society in Ho Chi Minh has led me to wonder about several questions, mostly historical in nature:

  • What did French colonialism replace, and how much of pre-colonial Vietnamese culture is relevant to and present in everyday life today?
  • How did French colonialism create an environment for socialism to take hold?
  • How are the socialist governments and ideologies of those governments of Vietnam and China different?
  • How was socialism implemented in Vietnam after the end of the civil war?
  • What is the history of economic reform in socialist Vietnam?
  • I understand China and Vietnam’s adverserial relationship in the 70s from a Chinese perpective, but how did Vietnam view China politically through the 20th century?

I am looking for reading materials that address these questions and am interested in any related suggestions. From my own searching, I found a Loyola University Chicago undergraduate modern Vietnamese history course syllabus and reading list, which seems to be a good starting point with the following texts:

Vietnam: A Long History by Nguyễn Khắc Viện

Vietnam - A long history

I can’t determine from synopses whether its focus is on modern Vietnam, but if it is, then this may be a broad reader similar to Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China. Its perspective may be different than that of Spence partially because Nguyen was both a Vietnamese historian and a party member.

Vietnam and the Chinese Model by Alexander Woodside

Vietnam and the Chinese Model

Woodside compares the systems of government of Vietnam and China’s last dynasties, the Qing and the Nguyen. I am planning to read ”Vietnam: A Long History” first (and hoping it adequately covers Vietnamese history during the Nguyen dynasty) to have the appropriate background for this interesting comparative politics topic.

Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow


There are a seemingly endless number of books about the Vietnam War written by American journalists, but reviews say that this is the most comprehensive and balanced. Hopefully they’re right.

The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh

The Sorrow of War

A famous and highly-acclaimed novel written by a Vietnamese soldier from the North about a Vietnamese soldier from the North, offering a Vietnamese perspective of the war. It was apparently banned by the Vietnamese government for lacking a heroic and positive perspective.

Postwar Vietnam: Dilemmas in Socialist Development from Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program

Post War Vietnam

This is a collection of essays about Vietnam after the war, focusing on socialist society, socialist ideology, economic issues, and other topics. The description seems to indicate that it covers a lot. I am curious why out of the LUC course’s reading list there is nothing else beyond this anthology that focuses on how Vietnam implemented socialism and the effects of that implementation.

There must be more to read out there on the topic of modern Vietnamese history. What else would you recommend to add to a reading list that would answer the questions above?