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62 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The must read for the 25th Anniv of the Fall of Saigon
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...
Published on April 25, 2000 by Larry Mark MyJewishBooksDotCom

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30 of 41 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars From another Vietnamese's perspective
Overall, this book is well written and has its good moments. As a Vietnamese who came to America at the same time frame and age as the writer, I can't help but to dislike the writer as I read the book.

First of all, I think the writer has a condescending view toward Vietnam and the people. He tries too hard to describe the negatives while not trying to even...
Published on February 22, 2007 by Dakao


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62 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The must read for the 25th Anniv of the Fall of Saigon, April 25, 2000
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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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great, great book., January 4, 2000
By 
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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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I believe this book is destined to be an American Classic., November 9, 1999
By 
Terry L. Young (Los Angeles, CA USA) - See all my reviews
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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.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly outstanding book, June 12, 2000
By 
saigonese (San Jose, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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!
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Books Like This Come Along Once in a Decade, June 30, 2000
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.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vietnamese-American identity journey, April 4, 2000
By 
David To (San Jose, CA) - See all my reviews
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.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars San Jose Mercury News Review, October 31, 1999
By A Customer
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.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing! I can't praise this book enough., November 5, 1999
By 
C. Hoang (San Francisco, California) - See all my reviews
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!
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning and accomplished books about displacement, December 14, 1999
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!
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vietnam Today from a Unique Perspective, January 16, 2000
This is a new book by a young Vietnamese-American who revisits the homeland he fled in 1977 with his family at the age of 10. He travels by bicycle, and the rigors of his personal discomfort as well as his memories are eye opening as he faces the realities of what it is to be Vietnamese today, both in America and in Vietnam.
The book is totally involving, pulling the reader into the world of Andrew Pham, from the childhood games he played with his sister, to the horrific boat escape where he and his family were inches away from death, to Vietnamese culture in California. The writer is brutally honest, sparing neither his family, America nor the Vietnamese from candid review. His insights are at once startling, fresh and vivid and some of his images will long haunt my imagination.
The people in Vietnam are poor. There is filth everywhere and mosquitoes and bugs and rats. He constantly is overcharged and everyone has their hands out, especially the police. When he looks at his cousins who he played with as a child, he realizes that his life could have been just like theirs if his family hadn't escaped.
The flashbacks t his childhood in Vietnam are interspersed with his flashbacks with life in America and there is much exploration of what can be called his dysfunctional family. Among other things, as there are family secrets that rip them all apart.
The one weakness of the book is that some things are not fully explained. A little gentle editing would have proded the writer to put more information in to some of the segments and leave out the boring details from others.
However, I did love the book. I loved the fact that it took me to places I know little about, both in the geographical as well as the author's own internal landscape. It's a modern update of the Vietnam experience from a very unique point of view. And it focuses on Vietnam as it is today.
Recommended
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Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam
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