Top critical review
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Too Western, too detailed, and too boring
on March 17, 2003
While this book does exactly what it says, gives "a view of modern Vietnam", and does so with an impressive swath of parts of society, I wasn't satisfied with the "view" that it presents. First, there are marked Western overtones; in one chapter, young people's valuing reform above democracy is presented with some cynicism, as young people's valuing material gain over freedom. It could just as easily be argued that these young people believe that their country is not ready for Western-style democracy. Another example is the incredible detail into which the author delves, on phenomena that are different from the Western experience but are applicable to many Third World countries. The names in the anecdotes are Vietnamese, but Templer doesn't do a good job of saying what about the phenomena themselves are particularly Vietnamese. If this book were my only experience with Vietnam and someone asked me, "What makes Vietnam different from other Third World countries?" I would be virtually stumped. Still another example is his beyond-superficial treatment of Buddhism and its influence on Vietnamese people, history, and culture. He has an entire chapter on religion in Vietnam, and virtually all of its focus is on Vietnamese Catholics and their history. Vietnamese Catholics make up about eight percent of the Vietnamese population, and Buddhists are some sixty percent. Instead of exploring the particularities of Buddhism, Vietnamese-style, Templer basically dismisses it as a ... mishmash of beliefs. There is a palpable anti-Communist tone in certain portions of the book, which is annoying because in countries like Vietnam the system would be corrupt whether you called the ruling class "the Communist Party", "the Socialist Party", or even the "Coalition of Freely Elected Non-Party Affiliated Officials". Templer seems to direct wrath at Communism that is more logically directed at a corrupt system and entrenched power in general.
Second, some of the chapters are just not that interesting. One chapter seems to be "the architecture chapter". That's just not the kind of thing that someone who buys a text-only book on Vietnam is interested in, in general.
Third, the detail Templer goes into is admirable, and shows how well-researched the book is, but it isn't that interesting. After a while, the anecdotes in a particular chapter all seem to run together. I got the sense that this book could have been cut down to a friendlier length if each chapter had contained only one major anecdote.
Overall, it's a decent book, especially if your library already contains some books about the country, but if you're only going to read one book on Vietnam, this DEFINITELY shouldn't be it.