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

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3.96  ·  Rating details ·  4,896 ratings  ·  531 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
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Paperback, 344 pages
Published September 2nd 2000 by Picador USA (first published 1999)
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3.96  · 
Rating details
 ·  4,896 ratings  ·  531 reviews


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David
Nov 15, 2014 rated it liked it
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
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Nhu Than
Dec 10, 2013 rated it really liked it

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.

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Connie
Dec 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Sara Mannheimer
Dec 11, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
Dana Stabenow
Jan 31, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-club
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.
Emma Sea
Nov 12, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle, memoir, travel
2.5 stars
Lars Guthrie
Aug 10, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Nikki Fordey
May 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Sophia
Apr 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Aaron
Mar 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Betsy McTiernan
May 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Kit
Feb 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Karen
Jan 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
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Autumn
Jun 09, 2013 rated it really liked it

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
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Cora
Jul 12, 2015 rated it liked it
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
Danny Schiff
Jul 14, 2018 rated it liked it
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.
Trung Tran
Mar 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
Jeff Chappell
Sep 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jeanne
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
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Christy
Mar 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book as a I haven't read a good travel story in awhile. It is full of the clever writing and one liners you except in a book like this. And yet it also has a lot of heart and is a personal story of one man's quest to understand his life and identity after growing up in America when his family escaped Vietnam after the war.

I think the key note I took away from this is the importance of the human values of humor and tolerance. When understanding, sympathy, and agreement have yet to
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Alli Sullivan
Sep 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
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.
Schuberino
Aug 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
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Laura
Sep 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Jenny
May 22, 2011 rated it liked it
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
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Angela
Mar 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
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Claire Enders
Aug 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
Steven Tomcavage
Nov 04, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
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Stan
Mar 30, 2009 rated it liked it
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
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Jim
Dec 04, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, asia, travel
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
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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
“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.” 12 likes
“When it's all over, you'll realize that the answer is already within you.” 11 likes
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