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

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  6,011 ratings  ·  633 reviews
Winner of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Winner of the Whiting Writers' Award
A Seattle Post-Intelligencer Best Book of the Year

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 for
Kindle Edition, 353 pages
Published April 1st 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1999)
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Average rating 3.98  · 
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Nov 15, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-memoir
History is a nightmare from which Andrew X. Pham is trying to awake.

I have a variety of odd and vague unappealing habits. One of them is reading one-star reviews on Goodreads. In the case of this book, one review of this book reads, in its entirety, “Just because you go on a cool vacation doesn't mean you have to write a book about it.”

Call me all hyper-sensitive, but that seems just a smidge unfair. I mean, as a child, the guy endures the danger and chaos of the lurching end of a war, his fat
Left Coast Justin
Oct 31, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel
(Re-reviewed after a recent re-read, Jan 2021):

This will probably end up being the longest review I’ll ever write on GR, and without a doubt the most difficult. It still will only scratch the surface of my thoughts about the book, and despite its length, you’re getting the ruthlessly edited version.

Andrew Pham, writing in his second language, is an excellent memoirist. He turns his pitiless lens on himself, his family, his city and his past, and does a wonderful job describing the effects that
Nhu Than
Dec 10, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

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.

Connie G
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
Missy Ivey
Mar 26, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoirs
Andrew X. (An) Pham is a great storyteller! Raw truth, and very intense! His story goes back and forth through 2 or 3 time periods is the only reason I didn't give it the 5-stars. I'm just not too fond of the switching back and forth too many times. But, every part of it was AMAZING!

This book caused a riff between his parents and himself for quite a few years because it also revealed a lot about his dysfunctional family, which is the very reason he needed to go back to his home country to find a
Dana Stabenow
We have a lot of work to do on race in America. I'm exhausted just thinking about it, but as a white-as-you-can-get-without-bleach American I have to at least show up to read books like these. Because Americans of color and other ethnicities have to live through the brutality of it every day of their lives. ...more
Dec 11, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
I remember Tien asking me if I thought someday I could take my own life as Chi had done. Could you do it, Andrew, if everyone you loved had forsaken you—no hope left, nothing to live for? Maybe, I told him, I don’t know but I always think I have one last ticket, one last hand to gamble. What would you do then before you die? I’d walk out the door to destinations unknown, spending the sum of my breaths in one extravagant gesture. (Loc. 493-496)
When your older sister-brother hangs himself after ha
Betsy McTiernan
May 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Emma Sea
Nov 12, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: kindle, memoir, travel
2.5 stars
Apr 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book! Found it in a hotel in Hanoi, it was the perfect book to read as I returned home and reflected on our trip. Pham captures the rawness, beauty, chaos, and striving that characterized my brief visit better than I ever could. His own story is remarkable: escaped Vietnam with his family after the war, boat nearly sank, refugee in America, growing up in a rough neighborhood, family drama and trauma, and of course his journeys peddling through mexico, the Pacific coast of the us, an ...more
Lars Guthrie
Aug 10, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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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Feb 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Catfish and Mandala is a lovely book. I read it slowly so it wouldn't end. From the first page, I was engrossed in the story of one man's attempt to make sense of his past and his present by integrating the two parts with a return trip to Vietnam, twenty years after his family fled. A gifted storyteller, Pham describes unflinchingly the details of his childhood in Vietnam, family life in a traditional Vietnamese family, the struggles of being an immigrant in southern California and the poverty a ...more
May 08, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jeff Chappell
Sep 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jan 07, 2022 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
There is a special place in my tiny personal imagined hell for people who write travel memoirs that are too heavy on the memoir aspect and too light on the travel. I'd call it the EPL Effect if I weren't slightly more dignified than that. So someone, usually an American or at least a Westerner, goes on an expensive journey of privilege around the world to "find themself," and then writes a book about it in order to make more money. Sorry I sound cynical, but come on. Pham, a quite well-off man, ...more
Jan 29, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked this book. I would have loved this book except that after "Eat, Pray, Love" and "Wild" it is one more memoir in which the author takes an exotic journey to "find himself."

In this case, Andrew Pham bicycles through Vietnam in search of his cultural roots. Along the way we are introduced to his family and a past that includes abuse, scandal, shame, and regret. Pham was a boy when his family emigrated from Vietnam via a rickety fishing boat in the middle of the night. He is in his mid- to
Jun 09, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

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
Aug 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Loved it!

It occurs to me that this is my first travelogue! Anyways, I'm not sure why I wasn't drawn to this genre before, but if this is what travel writing is about - I'm completely hooked.

My rating is likely influenced by the fact that I've spent a lot of time in Vietnam this year, and finished the book in one of it's cafes. But beyond that, I felt the writing was fantastic and the identity crisis at its heart was truly engaging. I have a much richer understanding of Vietnam, and the struggle
Jul 12, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
andrew pham is a really great writer!! i honestly wasn't expecting his writing to be as good as it was. i also didn't realize how multifaceted the story would be, i kind of just assumed it would strictly be about the experience of biking through vietnam. it actually had a lot of really interesting and emotional family history intertwined with the trip itself. a very honest account of his feelings about being vietnamese-american/being around vietnamese people. the story perfectly culminated in a ...more
Trung Tran
Mar 25, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
overall a very well written book that takes you through Andrew Pham's journey for self identity, rediscovering his past all the while trying to come to grips with his life and family in the US. The chapters alternate between his past and present, which keeps you hooked. His descriptions and adventures through Vietnam are very vivid and has even helped me understand the culture and etiquette of Vietnam more thoroughly, I highly recommend it. ...more
Danny Schiff
While leading a summer community service trip throughout Vietnam, this felt like the perfect companion memoir for the long flights and bus rides throughout the country. I expected this book to be a bit more about his bicycle adventure throughout Vietnam, which only sort of ebbed and flowed as the main theme. But Pham dealt with his personal and family cultural identity in this book, as he does not quite feel wholly American nor Vietnamese.
Alli Sullivan
Sep 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was a fun read and eye opening to the struggles of a Vietnamese-American straddling two worlds...plus a bunch of other life experiences and whatnot. I'd recommend it, but I'm not sure to who. To both everyone and no one I guess, it doesn't seem to fit in many categories in my head. ...more
Sep 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Many people, especially in their 20s, embark on long treks across various regions of the world in search of something.... adventure? home? revelation? identity? In the case of Andrew Pham, his trip by bicycle across Vietnam involves all of the above. His family escaped from Vietnam on a rickety boat after the fall of Saigon, and, after several years in a refugee camp in Indonesia, immigrated to the United States. Twenty-odd years later, Andrew returns to Vietnam, now an adult on his own and as n ...more
Mar 14, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have a thing against being a tourist. I like moving to new places, but I want to actually live there, not just see the surface of other people's lives from the outside looking in. Reading this book had me thinking about some of the limitations of that approach - how impossible it can be to become a local.

Our author takes a bicycle trip up the Western coast of the USA, through Japan, and then around Vietnam. Descriptions of his journey are interspersed with memories of his early childhood in Vi
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
Claire Enders
Aug 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is far more than just a tale about traveling through Vietnam by bike. It is a beautifully crafted story that traverses time, countries, cultures, and historical events. It can be hard to believe that it’s not a work of fiction. At times funny, heartbreaking, suspenseful - but always moving.
Jared Della Rocca
Wow, this was a really incredible book. Pham has a tight narrative that jumps timelines between the present, his childhood in Vietnam, and then his early life in the United States. While his main theme is, in my opinion, about the disconnect between the young immigrant and his homeland, he also dealt well with family relationships, particularly Vietnamese, immigrants and their new home, the spectacle of poverty, and the relations between the Vietnamese and Americans. There were many different ti ...more
Nov 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, nonfiction, travel
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.

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Detailed Bio: https://www.andrewxpham.com/

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