Saigon – a Good Read

In trying to find a decent book about Vietnam, I found books about war, as well as recent travel guides. But my friend John Rockhold, who fought in the Vietnam war and who now lives in the city of Saigon with his Vietnamese wife and two children, recommended the book Saigon – An Epic Novel of Vietnam, written by Anthony Grey in 1982, and re-released in October, 2013.


A local market scene, from a painting on sale in a Saigon alleyway

Years ago when I worked in Malawi, John worked for a Danish consulting company. One day, myself and two other Peace Corps volunteer engineers were sent to where he managed a project in the southern town of Balaka. He immediately provided us with work to do while the Malawian government waited for funding for rural water supply projects we were assigned to design and build. In my book Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi John is the man who introduced us to Malawi. [Named Rickenbakker rather than Rockhold.] John now owns and directs his own successful engineering consulting business in the city of Saigon – also now known as Ho Chi Minh City (please, no political correctness comments regarding the city name; locals refer to it as Saigon).


Downtown Saigon today – a colorful blend of parks, traditional architecture, and raucous moped traffic


The fictional book Saigon begins in the 1920s and moves to the 1970s, following the life of a young American who first visited the country with his parents as a boy, and found love, friendship, and intrigue during his subsequent visits.


A map painted on the wall of the old train station, which is now a market


This is a grand tale, which – like a James A. Michener book – is long, sweeping in scope, and entertaining. It is a tale of family and allegiances, woven in with the author’s solid grasp of history and facts from days he spent working as a newspaper foreign correspondent.

The book provides rich history about the French / Vietnamese relationship long before the United States engaged in a war in the region. This includes how much the French valued this coastal S-shaped strip of land.

The Frenchman peered through his binoculars for a moment. “Yes, Monsieur Joseph, you are right. That is the coast of the most beautiful and prosperous French colony in the world.” ’


John shopping in his home city – where he was stationed as a soldier decades ago



Market fresh

The book also weaves in the history of Vietnam before the French arrived.

“…they had named their country Nam Viet — Land of the Southern Viet People. This was changed to An Nam — The Pacified South — by the Chinese who conquered them, occupied their territory for eleven centuries, and called them Annamese.”


Local ‘pho’ noodle soup – inexpensive and delicious


For those interested in Vietnam, including military history, this book provides illuminating insight into conflicts from the past century. For visitors to Vietnam, the story also highlights fundamental geography, topography, and cultural variations within the country.

“…the rocky peaks of the thousand-mile-long mountain spine that linked the rich southern rice lands of the Mekong delta and Saigon with the fertile plain of the Red River around Hanoi in the north.”

This engaging story provides history about Saigon within a tale of deception, rape, torture, bravery, and unexpected victories.

“In old Annamese it means ‘Village of the Boxwoods,’ after the trees that originally grew there. It wasn’t much more than a fishing village until the eighteenth century when French Jesuits and a few merchants demanded the right to build a city. But its name could also be based on the Chinese characters ‘Tsai Con,’ which mean ‘Tribute paid to the West.’ ”


Majestic Hotel – where foreign correspondents stayed during the Vietnam war


During the French colonial era, ample opium dens operated around Saigon

The book’s characters include United States Senator Nathaniel Sherman, who brings his two young sons to visit Saigon on a hunting trip. During this outing in the initial chapters, his bravery and bluster are unhinged through a bizarre act of cowardice. The story, one of many from the book, sets up Sherman’s ego to topple by showcasing his own defiant narratives. For example Sherman tells his sons how Vietnam, or any nation, needs to be ruled by force.

“That’s the way of the world. The rich and the powerful call the tune. If you can muster superior strength, you can impose your way of thinking on others — even if they don’t like what you do or the way you do it.”

This story will take you on a journey into Vietnam far deeper and more extensive than any books confined to military conflicts of the past fifty years.

Thanks for the hospitality, John and Nga. And for recommending a good read.

My happy hosts - John and his wife Nga - in Saigon

Happy couple – John and wife Nga – in Saigon







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