Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

by Andrew X. Pham

Hardcover, 1999




Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1999), Edition: 1st, 336 pages


Vietnamese-born Andrew Pham finally returns to Saigon, not as a success showering money and gifts onto his family, but as an emotional shipwreck, desperate to find out who he really is. When his sister, a post-operative transsexual, committed suicide, Pham sold all his possessions and embarked on a year-long bicycle journey that took him through the Mexican desert; around a thousand-mile loop from Narita to Kyoto in Japan; and, after five months and 2,357 miles, to Saigon, where he finds nothing familiar in the bombed-out darkness. At first meant to facilitate forgetfulness, Pham's travels turn into an unforgettable, eye-opening search for cultural identity which flashes back to his parent's courtship in Vietnam, his father's imprisonment by the Vietcong, and his family's nail-bitingly narrow escape as boat people. Lucid, witty and beautifully written,… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member janeajones
An Pham arrived in America in 1977 at the age of ten. His father, who had worked for the Americans, had recently been released from a deadly prison, and the family hastened to escape from Vietnam before he could be arrested again.

Eighteen years later, after his older sister Chi committed suicide, An, now Andrew, headed on a bicycle into the Mexican desert, where he encountered a Vietnam veteran and realized that he needed to go back to Vietnam to understand where he had come from and what he had left behind. He decides to go by bicycle -- riding up the coast of California to the Pacific NW whence he flies to Japan, which he tours by bicycle, and finally to Vietnam.

As his journey progresses, his family history slowly unfolds -- in a skillfully constructed, novelistic approach. The book alternates between a fascinating travelogue of Vietnam's cities and countryside, and the difficulties of a proud immigrant family struggling to adjust to American life with its new freedoms, racism, and contrasts of poverty and prosperity. As Viet-kieu in his homeland, Pham faces a mixture of suspicion, affection, envy and very real danger. His descriptions are visceral and sensual: he is particularly cognizant of food, and the reader's reactions veer from mouth-watering to stomach-churning. His connection to Vietnam is anything but sentimental -- although he empathizes with its inhabitants, he has a love-hate relationship that is complicated by his knowledge that but for chance, their fate could have been his.

The slow unraveling of his family history is riveting -- from his parents' disapproved-of marriage to his sister's anguish in trying to come to terms with life in America and with her sexual identity. In many ways Catfish and Mandala is a quintessentially American tale, beautifully written, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful. Highly recommended, especially for anyone who is interested in the history and culture of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
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LibraryThing member cestovatela
I opened this book expecting a typical backpacker's travelogue, pages filled with loving descriptions of food and scenery. But Andrew Pham's reasons for traveling are much deeper than simple wanderlust and his experiences taught me as much about America as they did about Vietnam.

At 8 years old, Andrew became one of Vietnam's boat people, the refugees who fled their country by a dangerous open-ocean journey in the wake of the Vietnam War. As an immigrant to America, Andrew finds that he is not entirely welcome and the legacy of the Vietnam War is never far away. His trip to Vietnam is an attempt to understand his lost homeland and to make peace with the suicide of his oldest sister, Chi. Adult Andrew is a masterful storyteller who weaves effortlessly between modern-day Vietnam and haunting memories of his war-torn childhood. Still fluent in Vietnamese, he is able to explore the country in a way few foreigners can, providing real insight to life in poverty and the effects of tourism on native culture. Drop by drop, he reels out the story of Chi in between chapters until the book mounts to a powerful and surprising conclusion. After reaching the ultimate revelation, the book struggles a bit, feeling contrived where each page before felt authentic. However, five disappointing pages were not enough to spoil the book.

I savored this book slowly with a glass of wine before bed each night and I recommend you do the same.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Catfish and Mandala is more than an adventure story about biking across Vietnam. It's a cultural exploration and by turn, an explanation. Comparing American versus Vietnamese differing viewpoints on mundane topics like when a child should move out of his parent's home after reaching adulthood. And yet. Noticing similarities: we all want our fathers to be proud of us, in any culture.
The story of Pham's father's imprisonment in the Labor Camp is brief, but heartbreaking just the same. After reading pages 16-20 I will never look at catfish the same.
Pham's ability to weave past with present is brilliant. He recaptures his family's flight from Vietnam to the U.S. when he was a small child seamlessly while recounting his own journey from the U.S. back to Vietnam as an adult. His confusion over what he remembers is intertwined with his inability to articulate what he is really looking for. Pham finds himself asking "what am I doing here?" time and time again. As he faces prejudice and violence and corruption I asked the same question.
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LibraryThing member jayhiker
Vietnamese American's bicycle journey back to the country his family left by boat when he was ten. Honest and raw. He's really a man without a country. He didn't seem to know what he sought when he went to Viet Nam and he seemed not to have found whatever it was anyway.
LibraryThing member george.d.ross
All memoirs have an element of self-indulgent navel-gazing about them, but I found this worse than most. Maybe it's because Pham's insights are obvious and predictable, or that his whole "journey" is so blatantly engineered to serve the purpose of his narrative. Or maybe it's just that the writing is overblown and self-consciously "literary".

The best and least expected parts of the book were when Pham talked about his transgender sibling -- that story, which we see only in glimpses, is far more compelling than the author's.
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LibraryThing member nandadevi
This was incredibly hard-going, at first. It's difficult to put my finger on it, perhaps it was the author's making very few concessions to the reader. Ostensibly about a bicycle trip through Vietnam, it reads in part like a diary of a self-absorbed and self-indulgent young man. But there are constant references to family complications and tragedy that are not explained - and which might in defter hands have caught the readers interest, but the sheer opaqueness of the story presented here made me put the book down for weeks on end. But then, but then. As the journey through Vietnam proceeds in fits and starts, the story of the author's life (and that of his family) in the US unfolds, and what was mediocre becomes stunning. Perhaps this was as hard to write and it was to read (at least at the beginning), but it was (is) a journey worth taking. Recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member mr_rhumba
A life-changing book for me. Makes you consider identity, ethnicity and self-perception.
LibraryThing member StaffReads
Some mixed reviews about this title. It was an eye opener for me; both stories. (The author tells the story of his childhood on one hand and his stories biking Vietnam on the other.) Personal accounts of escaping Vietnam as one of the boat people, of a Viet Cong prison, of extended family expectations in America took me to landscapes I've never read about. Stories of traveling in Vietnam in the 21st century were equally eye opening. Very raw and emotional but the kind of non-fiction armchair travel I enjoy. KH… (more)
LibraryThing member niquetteb
Pham takes his readers through an adventure on bike from California to Japan to Vietnam. The many people and situations he encounters are intertwined between the story of his family and how and why he ended up where he is.
LibraryThing member bobbieharv
I probably would not have enjoyed this book as much as I did if I hadn't been in Vietnam as I was reading it. He's a Viet-kieu, one of those "boat people" who left as a child and returned years later. As a result, he was experiencing the country as I was, but also as someone who understood the language. An outsider and (somewhat looked down-upon) insider at the same time.

I shared so many of his impressions. The streets of Hanoi jammed with motorcycles loaded with everything conceivable going every which way, ridden by masked men and women on cellphones with babies and small children riding along; not to mention the trucks and the people and the cars and the constant car horns and the pollution. The food, some delicious but some quite questionable (e.g. organs), and the water you can only drink out of the ubiquitous plastic bottles, both of which eventually gave him dysentery. The people, welcoming and (of him) scornful at the same time.

I liked the interwoven strands of his previous life and his journey, and how he discovered himself in the process.
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LibraryThing member banjo123
Andrew Pham is a Vietnamese American, who went back to Vietnam, and bicycled across the country; in an exploration of his identity and roots. I felt that the book could have used a little more editing and focus. The book is dedicated to one of Pham's siblings, Chi, who committed suicide at age 32. Chi's story really should be the center of the book; and it would be a good base for an exploration of the authors ambivalence about Vietnamese American identity. (which I think is the purpose of the book) However the book seems to careen from story to story; camping near the Tokyo airport, drinking with cousins in Saigon, an ex-girlfriends relationship with her birthfather. Each story is interesting in it's own right, but maybe not all in the same book.… (more)
LibraryThing member pizzadj2
Vietnam on a bike, knows the language, usually viewed as Korean or Japanese, lived in the country until he was 10 during half of the Vietnam War, US educated engineer. Could have been 4 stars with less of the family drama and soul-searching segments. I grew up one town over from his US "hometown" so for that reason I found his winding family assimilation particularly interesting. But c'mon, 1000s of miles on a bike in Mexico, Japan, and Vietnam - write about that!… (more)
LibraryThing member reader1009
travel memoir/Vietnamese culture (native and American). I don't usually go for the meandering-type of narrative, but I really enjoyed the pace of this and the unfolding of the various stories in the author's family history.
LibraryThing member sbloom42
After months of guilt over not making better progress in this book, I'm calling it quits on "Catfish and Mandala". There are two stories in this book, and like a lot of books with two story lines, one is a great read and the other feels like a slog through the mud.

In "Catfish and Mandala", there is a story about the book's author, a self-centered young adult going on a "rebel's" journey to his homeland of Vietnam. This story was far too bitter and narcissistic to be enjoyable. The author really needs to do some deep soul searching, and not just the surface level plumbs represented in this book. As a reader, I really don't care that the author ran away from home on his bike to another country as a young adult while trying to pacify the lack of control he felt as a child, and the author does nothing to bring me to the point of caring.

The author does, however, write very movingly about his father's journey to escape Vietnam with his family at the close of war in the 1970s. I only made it halfway through the book, but the father's struggles are enthralling to read. I only wish is comprised a larger chunk of the book. Because the book had those fascinating glimpses into another world, I bumped my rating up to 2 stars.
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