Saigon (Book Review) + Vietnam’s Rising Importance In Asia

Sunday, January 27, 2013, marked the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that paved the way for the end of the United States’ formal military involvement in the Vietnam War. The conflict would continue until April 1975, when communist North Vietnam conquered the US-backed South, but by that time Washington had effectively already abandoned the regime in Saigon.

By coincidence, over the weekend I finished reading Saigon, an epic 750-page novel by former British journalist Anthony Grey that covers the period 1925-1975. The novel was first published in 1982 and is now sadly out of print; I only happened to have discovered it by chance at the second-hand book market several months ago. Nevertheless, if you can get hold of a copy, it’s well worth the read.

Saigon is a multi-decade, multi-family saga covering a huge swathe of modern Vietnamese history. Perhaps the easiest way to think of the book is as the ‘Gone With The Wind’ of the Indochina wars, at least in scope. The reader largely experiences the events through four main families: the wealthy and politically influential Sherman family of America; the Devraux family, who are French colonial settlers; the Tran family, who are powerful and pro-French Vietnamese landowners; and the Ngo family, who are servants of the Devraux family, but eventually turn against them and join the anti-colonial rebellion.

The story begins in 1925 with American Senator Nathaniel Sherman visiting Vietnam with his wife and young sons, a trip that would ultimately lead to Sherman’s sons and grandsons being heavily involved in events in Vietnam for the next 50 years. The novel is divided into eight parts, each dealing with a major phase of Vietnam’s struggle for independence, such as the failed anti-colonial uprising of 1930; Vietnam during the Pacific War; the Battle of Dien Bien Phu of 1954, which led to France’s defeat; the early phase of US military involvement in 1963; the Tet offensive and the height of US combat in Vietnam in 1968-1969; and lastly the US withdrawal and the final collapse of South Vietnam in 1972-1975.

As might be expected, the war not only divides Vietnam, but also the main families of the story along political lines, with often deadly consequences. There’s certainly a lot of tragedy going around in this book. Several real life historical figures, such as Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnamese military commander Vo Nguyen Giap, and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem also make brief appearances in the story.

Overall, I would recommend the novel Saigon first and foremost to anyone with even a cursory interest in Vietnam or Asian history, but also to anyone who likes good and highly readable historical fiction involving revolution, war, family drama, tragedy, and political intrigue, all leading to a gripping finale that coincides with a major world event.

Vietnam’s Rising Importance

Almost four decades after the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnam is rising in importance, economically and geopolitically. Vietnam is now recognised as one of the next generation of emerging markets, albeit one whose recent growth has not been as smooth as neighbouring China, with which it is often compared. Meanwhile, the US has been seeking to develop closer relations with Vietnam, in a context where both countries are apprehensive about the rise of China. Hanoi and Beijing dispute parts of the South China Sea, which, along with the East China Sea, is emerging as a zone of geopolitical competition in Asia. Thus, we can expect to hear more about Vietnam over the coming years.