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

3.88 of 5 stars 3.88  ·  rating details  ·  2,626 ratings  ·  353 reviews
Catfish and Mandala is the story of an American odyssey—a solo bicycle voyage around the Pacific Rim to Vietnam—made by a young Vietnamese-American man in pursuit of both his adopted homeland and his forsaken fatherland.

Andrew X. Pham was born in Vietnam and raised in California. His father had been a POW of the Vietcong; his family came to America as "boat people." Follo...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published September 29th 1999 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1999)
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Vietnamese-American Andrew Pham writes about his search for cultural identity in a book that is both a memoir and a biking travelogue. He remembers the fall of Saigon, his father's imprisonment in a communist reeducation camp, and the family's escape from Vietnam in a leaky fishing boat when he was a ten-year-old. After a stay in an Indonesian refugee camp, the family came to the United States and eventually settled in California. Although he recognizes the sacrifices made by his parents, he als...more
Nhu Than

Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam tells the story of Andrew Pham, a young Vietnamese-American man who travels to his hometown in search of “finding himself” due to a conflict between his adoptive land and his native land. The book is based on a memoir that uses flashbacks during the war, when Pham’s family were imprisoned in Vietnam. However, escaping from Vietnam by boat, the family was able to start a new life in America.

Sara Mannheimer
This book created a clear image of post-war Vietnam, but while I enjoyed following Pham's travels, I never became truly engaged with the book. Although the author constantly reiterated his deep and troubling ambivalence about his native land, his struggle failed to grab my heart. The book contained some scenes that were theoretically poignant and wrenching, but I just didn't think Pham's writing was strong enough to break through the screen of journalistic observation and actually convey authent...more
Nikki Frankel
This was a moving and engaging memoir. Mr. Pham is very skilled at vivid description and is careful not to over-sentimentalize the often deeply personal subject matter. He is honest about his family and about his own feelings in a way that is highly admirable. His quest to explore his own identity is something that many people can relate to. Although his situation is rather specific, the book deals with themes that are fairly universal. I would strongly recommend this title to anyone that enjoys...more
Betsy McTiernan
I found this memoir last week while browsing in a used bookstore. I'm ashamed to say this was my first book about the Vietnam War from the perspective of a Vietnamese. Pham's is the story of a refugee's return to Vietnam in the early 1990s, shortly after the country became open to tourists. Pham, as a young man in his 20s, takes a bike trip around the country hoping to gain insight into his past and to gain perspective on what he has come to view as the dysfunction that is his family. From the f...more
Andrew Pham has written an intensely honest book about his life in both Vietnam where he was born, and in the United States of America to where he and his family migrated to in the 1980s. Having graduated and worked as an engineer he decides to leave everything behind and commence a bicycle trip on the west coast of USA and from there fly to Asia, and then to Vietnam and travel the length of his country of origin on his bike. He relies on his personal skills to survive with little money, but it...more
This book was left to me by a friend who was passing through Singapore in early 2008. I started the book about that time but only just completed it.

Not that it was unreadable or anything like that. In fact, I enjoyed it. (Another friend who visited me finished the book in a day.) It's just that the story never developed a tempo/pace that propelled me forward.

It's a book about identity and history, about self, about family and all the things we don't say but wish was understood. The book is also...more
Lars Guthrie
Vietnam seems to be calling me recently. The graphic novel of "Artemis Fowl" startles me with its opening depiction of the central market in Saigon. A student researches Nixon's presidency and the fall of Saigon. I read "Tree of Smoke," and go to the internet to pull up maps, pictures and stories of Saigon, its surroundings, and the larger Mekong delta region, to look at the places I saw so many years ago (1969-1970). I am drawn into this work, on a summer reading list for another student. Pham...more
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It was like reading about my own family in so many ways I was disturbed at how accurately he portrayed the experience of a Vietnamese family and the conflicted childhood of their Vietnamese-American children. This author has never met me or my family but I instantly understood what he was describing, and I instantly understood why people interacted with him in their own way. His mother, father, girlfriends, local Vietnamese, Vietnamese shop owners, airport guards, tourists, etc. I know that Mr....more
This was another book I read to prepare for my trip to Vietnam. I don't think my experience will be anything like Pham's since he is a Viet-kieu (a Vietnamese who lives in the United States) and I am a white American. Also I don't plan to ride a bike from Hanoi south.

However, this book did make me think about the tourist experience. Of course, I bring my own biases to my trip. So I need to stay aware of those biases and try not to let them influence my views of the Vietnamese people too much. I...more
This book added more fuel to a fire I had to bike across Vietnam. (Someday, when I'm gray.) However Catfish and Mandala is more than cultural travelogue. Mr. Pham so eloquently ponders the complicated experience of never quite finding "home". An immigrant to the United States when he was a child, a trip to his parents' homeland was meant to be a reconnection with his roots. Sadly, a need for belonging felt keenly during his transplanted American childhood is never fully satisfied upon his return...more
More memoir than travelogue, the author struggles with the burdens of being an immigrant to America (a refugee from Vietnam), a violent old-fashioned and tormented father (who survived the reeducation camps), a transgendered sister who killed himself, and two gay brothers. This is not a happy, lighthearted tromp to an idyllic foreign country described by a wide-eyed American tourist. The family history and personal memoirs are interwoven with the tale of his soul-searching bicycling trip through...more
The language is as compelling as the journey.

"For some of us, by returning as tourists we prove to ourselves that we are no longer Vietnamese but Vietnamese Americans. We return, with our hearts in our throats, to taunt the Communist regime, to show through our material success that we, the once pitiful exiles, are now the victors. No longer the poverty-stricken refugees clinging to fishing boats, spilling out of cargo planes onto American soil, a mess of open-mouthed terror, wide-eyed awe, hung...more
Having just finished this books a few minutes ago, I was reluctant to admit that I had reached the end. Andrew X. Pham is a brilliantly gifted author; the history of his country, his family's journey, and his own personal adventures are woven together in an intriguing and flawless manner. I found myself captivated not only by Pham's honest descriptions and inner dialogues, but by his emotionally charged and philosophical testimonies of being a Vietnamese immigrant in America and, upon his return...more
Autumn Brady

I read this many years ago, around the time it first came out. From what I remember the language is beautiful. It is heartfelt and touching, yet somehow still remaining distant. I feel this is the point. After all, no matter how close humans get to figuring our own lives and humanity out, we never receive full disclosure, do we?

Sometimes I wonder if I went overseas to the places of my ancestors would I feel more at home? Would I find some lost part of my self that I left there? Would I make more...more
I enjoyed this a lot. It reads well and there is plenty of interesting material, both in terms of stories and observations as well as self reflection and exploring what identity means. The author is pretty open in sharing things, even when might reflect poorly on him. It skips around sometimes, mostly that's ok and merely leaves the reader wondering what other stories lurk in those gaps.
Andrew X. Pham spins a beautiful and heartbreaking tale through this autobiography and family biography. Told from An's perspective as he grows from a young, entitled schoolboy in Vietnam into a humble and respectful world traveler, this story delves into the importance of family ties, values across cultures, poverty, class and love. An travels by bike over thousands of miles from California to Vietnam in a quest to discover more about his family history since immigrating to the United States. A...more
Jeff Chappell
Sep 22, 2009 Jeff Chappell rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition Recommends it for: Anyone who loves *real* travel writing
Shelves: nonfiction
And Goodreads eats another review ... sigh.

Short version: an excellent account of the author's exploration of what it means to be both Vietnamese and American. Pham's quest to find himself reveals enormous insight into both Vietnamese and American culture; it helps that he is an excellent writer and pays no heed to political correctness -- there is no sugarcoating in Catfish and Mandala.

This ... this is what travel writing should be.
Anna Zbacnik
I enjoyed this book while reading it-- but upon reflection, any travel book that convinces me that I never want to travel to that country is lacking something....I think I wanted just a bit more of the good of Vietnam.
Fantastic memoir. There is much to be learned from this story about the legacy of the Viet Nam war as it has affected one family who eventually emigrated to America.
I read this book with great enthusiasm for about 2/3 of it. I recently returned from Vietnam and found a lot of validation in some of Andrew's experiences, and I enjoyed his colorful and amusing ventures.

He employs a lot of flashbacks throughout the book, which I didn't mind in the beginning, but by the last third I realized I expected the story to find more footing. It felt muddled and a little insignificant in the middle and towards the end, and it left quite a few unanswered questions. There...more
Pham's memoir is a very honest and unguarded tale of a native son returning to his homeland, where he receives a very complicated and often hostile welcome as one of the returned. His depiction of Vietnam is gritty and unromantic, where everyone he meets sees him as a dollar sign. He is unflinching about the cultural overconsumption of alcohol, which he is able to write about because he implicates himself. His description of the meals he ate, even pauper meals, ranged from mouth-watering to stom...more
Only 78 pages into the book, but I already know this is going to be one of my favorite books of all time.
Steven Tomcavage
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...more
Jun 15, 2011 Jenny rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jenny by: John
3.5 stars. Catfish and Mandala is a travelogue of Andrew Pham’s cycling trip through Vietnam and serves as a launching pad for excavating his family’s past. Because he’s Vietnamese American, he gets treated with resentment from the Vietnamese who stayed but because he is also a partial native, he gains access to a part of Vietnam that most Western tourists wouldn’t get to witness. Like many Asian American stories, Pham is searching for home, a place where he doesn’t feel like an outsider.

He spe...more
I would classify this as a travel journal and personal journal. The story was good, but what impressed me the most was how the author revealed the story. That was genius.
Some stories you read to get to the end or to find out what happens next. Though there were very interesting parts, this was not the case with this book. I do feel that I've learned all that I want to know about Vietnam, especially the food (the descriptions were so good it made my stomach hurt and not in a good way). I do feel...more
I'm a little biased as an expat living in Ho Chi Minh City and a bicycling enthusiast, but I really enjoyed this. It was interesting learning about the life of a Viet Kieu, an exile after the fall of Saigon returning to his home country and his various perceptions and interactions throughout various big cities and small villages. I learned a lot about my new place of residence although much of the information seems less relevant now than it would have been ten years ago.

I started reading this on...more
I went into this with high hopes, partly because I love travel books and partly because it was about Vietnam, a place that I have never visited but about which I am very curious.
The problem is that the author, An Pham, doesn't really want to write a straight up travel book. He changes the elements a bit by getting himself a tricked out touring bike which he proceeds to ride across most of the country, visiting places like Saigon, Hanoi and Hue. So the book is kind of about the quirky culture sh...more
Chuck Morgan
Andrew Pham, who was born in Vietnam but immigrated to the US as a child, documents his voyage on bicycle to re-discover the homeland that he never really knew.

He travels from the Pacific rim to Vietnam, biking 2,357 miles to arrive in to his final destination, the motherland, where he visits notable places such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi, to name a few.
Pham camps out most of the time in a pup tent, in ditches, and eventually meets up with friends in Vietnam that provide many andecdotal...more
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writer, artist, athlete, lover of food, watcher of sunsets, engineer, distracted cyclist, ocean swimmer, teacher, student, ultralight pilot, walker of deserted beaches, planter of rice, occasional madman, admirer of beauty, believer of karma, perennial tourist, reader of souls, grinning fool, dreamer, wild at heart
More about Andrew X. Pham...
The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars A Culinary Odyssey: My Cookbook Diary of Travels, Flavors, and Memories of Southeast Asia A Theory of Flight : Recollections Theory of Flight Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram

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“Nobody gives way to anybody. Everyone just angles, points, dives directly toward his destination, pretending it is an all-or-nothing gamble. People glare at one another and fight for maneuvering space. All parties are equally determined to get the right-of-way--insist on it. They swerve away at the last possible moment, giving scant inches to spare. The victor goes forwards, no time for a victory grin, already engaging in another contest of will. Saigon traffic is Vietnamese life, a continuous charade of posturing, bluffing, fast moves, tenacity and surrenders.” 6 likes
“When it's all over, you'll realize that the answer is already within you.” 5 likes
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