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Understanding Vietnam (Philip E. Lilienthal Book.) Paperback – March 10, 1995

4.0 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Jamieson ranges over the entire sweep of Vietnamese political culture, using as his window of observation the past century's Vietnamese literary output. There is nothing quite like this in print."--"Indochina Chronology

From the Back Cover

To better understand ourselves, we must understand the Vietnam War. We must learn more about Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese paradigms in order to untangle the muddled debates about our own. Realizing that we must do this is the first and most important lesson of Vietnam. And it is one we Americans have been exasperatingly slow to learn. We remain far too ready to assume that other people are, or want to be, or should be, like us.

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Product Details

  • Series: Philip E. Lilienthal Book.
  • Paperback: 428 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; Reprint edition (March 10, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520201574
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520201576
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #265,283 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The author explores the cultural values of the Vietnamese and traces the transitions in thinking which took place over the past several decades: from the introduction of Western ideas and values under the French, to the various Vietnamese responses and reactions to Western thinking, the humiliating aspects of colonialism, and the subsequent struggle for independence. I have read other histories of Vietnam, but none has so clearly described the underlying cultural dynamics which drove the events. I feel like I understand for the first time what the Vietnam war was all about, from the perspective of the Vietnamese themselves; the conflict between North and South Vietnam over the nature of the nation and society which would emerge from independence.
The best part of the book for me was the extensive use of excerpts from Vietnamese literature and editorial pieces to illustrate Vietnamese thought. This gave life to the concepts he was describing, it gave me a first hand account by letting me hear from the Vietnamese people themselves.
The author's overall thesis, relating societal changes to the oriental concept of yin and yang --a continually adjusted balance between structure and feeling, duty and compassion -- is clearly delineated throughout the story (yes, it really reads like a story), and is quite compelling. By all means, read this book!
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Format: Paperback
I bought my first copy of this book in 1994 in Hanoi from a book stall outside the Museum of History. I read that copy at least three times, and I've since bought about five more for friends visiting or working in Vietnam. It helped me enormously to enjoy my time working there, and to appreciate and understand my Vietnamese colleagues. The author is one of those tremendously gifted and committed people who has spent decades learning and thinking about Vietnam as experienced by Vietnamese. Some might criticize the approach as too simplistic - as if the life of a nation and culture could be so easily explicated through the history of its literature! - but for me it was immediate, insightful, and engaging. Like Fitzgerald's much earlier "Fire in the Lake", it is one of the very few books on Vietnam that addresses issues raised by the American war (Jamieson first went to Vietnam for the USG during the early "advisor" phase) through a serious exploration of the Vietnamese perspective.
During my time in Hanoi, Jamieson's office was just down the street - I wish I had gone in, as I often thought of doing, and said thanks for the great book.
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By A Customer on April 14, 2003
Format: Paperback
This book's focus on contemporary Vietnamese literary sources through the years makes it absolutely unique in the field. Its blend of straight history narrative and multiple-voice literature excerpts fleshes out Vietnamese society in a way that was sorely needed in the field. To those well-read in Asian studies: this book can almost be seen as a Vietnam analog to Patricia Ebrey's book "Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook," which is a collection of contemporary Chinese sources through history.
The history is instructive and concise, with little excess prose. Jamieson writes in an eminently readable style, and focuses on the most interesting events in order to keep the reader from being bored. He does a pretty good job of giving both Northern and Southern Vietnamese viewpoints, although he does focus a little more than would be preferable on South Vietnam, especially in the later parts of the book. The twentieth century chapters do a better job than almost any book on the market in focusing on the Vietnamese, rather than on the multi-decade war in which they fought.
My only complaint is that the extended yin/yang analogy used to explain societal trends was not very helpful. On the whole, though, I'm really impressed.
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Format: Paperback
This is a somewhat difficult book to understand, although it turns out to be a gem.

The author sets out to demonstrate that Vietnamese society, history, and culture from 1700 to 1990 revolve around the yin and yang system. While harmony derives from a balance between these two elements, an imbalance on the other hand results in revolution and war. The forces, which have been pulling the Vietnamese community apart since 1920, came to a head-on battle in 1945-50.
During the 1954-1975 war, the northern yang being stronger and more refined than the southern one led to a northern invasion and collapse of South Vietnam. The hegemony and repression of the north, however, caused a violent reaction of the southern yin during the post 1975 years: exodus of hundreds of thousands of boat people, and refusal of farmers to participate in the collectivization of the agriculture causing a decrease in productivity. Those who could not escape survived by peddling their belongings at flea markets, which over a period of time grew into a vibrant capitalistic system thanks in part to the money sent home by relatives abroad, especially in the U.S. A decade later, the southern economy rebounded while the northern counterpart floundered. This led to a reversal of the dogmatic northern policy and implementation of the "doi moi" policy in 1985.
The author also suggests that happiness and prosperity cannot come to Vietnam unless true freedom and basic human rights are respected.
The American Library Association has voted "Understanding Vietnam" the 1994 Outstanding Academic Book.
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