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Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam Hardcover – September 29, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

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

From Publishers Weekly

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (September 29, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374119740
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374119744
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (180 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #919,881 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Andrew X. Pham trained and graduated from UCLA as an aerospace engineer. He worked at United Airlines as an aircraft engineer before switching career to become a writer while pursuing dual graduate degrees, M.B.A and M.S. in Aerospace Engineering, specializing in orbital debris. His brother's suicide was the catalyst in his pivotal life changing decision.

He writes and lives on the Thai-Laos border in a traditional wooden farm bungalow he built on the Mekong River. He teaches writing and occassionally lead bicycle tours in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. He has launched a culinary project on, titled A Southeast Asian Love Affair: My Cookbook Diary of Travels, Flavors and Memories, a literary work that tells the stories of his life in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. He can be found at

He is the author of  Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam (1999)  and The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars (2009). He is also the translator of Last Night I Dreamed of Peace (2008).

Catfish and Mandala won the 1999 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize,  QPB Nonfiction Prize, and the  Oregon Literature Prize. It was also a Guardian Shortlist Finalist, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Barnes & Noble Discovery Book, a Border's Original Voices Selection

The Eaves of Heaven was a National Book Critic Circle Finalist and a Asian Pacific American Librarian Association Honorary Book of the Year. It was also the Honor Book of the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association and named as One of the Ten Best Books of the Year by Washington Post Book World, One of the Ten Best Books of the Year by Portland Oregonian, One of the Los Angeles Times' Favorite Books of the Year, and One of the Best Books of the Year by Bookmarks Magazine

Andrew X. Pham also won a  Whiting Writer Award, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Montalvo Fellowship.

Customer Reviews

I think Andrew Pham did a great job on writing Catfish and Mandala.
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).
Jorge Barbarosa
I am going to Vietnam this summer and I am glad I read this book before I went.
Kindle Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

65 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Larry Mark MyJewishBooksDotCom on April 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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.
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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Max Benjamin on January 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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.
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Terry L. Young on November 9, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By saigonese on June 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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.Read more ›
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