4 Films to Watch Before Travelling Vietnam

Before travelling anywhere I always make a list of films set in or related to that country, and sometimes books as well (but I watch films much faster than I read books). Cinema is a good way to immerse yourself in the cultural, socio-political and historical context of a country before you’ve even booked your flight. It’s also way more fun than trawling through facts on Wikipedia.

Halong Bay vietnam films
The film Indochine is often credited for putting Halong Bay on the map.

When we decided to travel to Vietnam, I realised that the only “Vietnamese” films I had seen were American war films, like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. All I remembered of them was a lot of explosions, guns and a strong binary between Americans/Vietnamese as Civilised/Savages.

Unsurprisingly, Vietnamese films tend to focus on the war itself or, if not, focus on the effects of postcolonialism. However, my favourite 4 Vietnam-related films have a few less guns and explosions and a bit more chattering.

1

The Quiet American (1958 and 2002)

Actually, I’d definitely say read the book over watching the films. Nonetheless, Graham Greene’s dark story of questionable morals and dubious American intervention in France’s war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, is tremendous. The love-triangle between the three main characters – a British journalist, an American aid worker, and Vietnamese lady – explores the relationship between the “civilising” West and the “exotic” East in a more rooted and sophisticated way than the other films.

The Hotel Continental Saigon vietnam films
The Hotel Continental Saigon, where Graham Greene stayed as a long-term guest whilst writing his novel, The Quiet American.

2Full Metal Jacket (1987)

There’s a scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket that sticks in my mind. Sitting on the side of a dusty road, a Vietnamese prostitute saunters up to two American soldiers asking, ‘You got girlfriend in Vietnam?’ whilst swinging her hips. ‘Fifteen dollar each,’ she sings. As the two soldiers are gawking at her, considering, a skinny Vietnamese man runs up and steals their camera, jumps on a motorbike and rides away.

I never had or saw anyone have something stolen when I was in Vietnam, though I did hear a few stories from other travellers, so maybe I learnt something subconsciously before I even got there.

Hue vietnam films
The historic streets of Hue, where Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was set (but not filmed).

3Indochine (1992)

I’ve heard a lot of other bloggers say that they fell in love with the idea of travelling in Vietnam after watching Indochine. This French-language film tells the story of a French plantation owner (Catherine Deneuve) amidst the Vietnamese people’s struggle for French Indochina’s independence from France. In Hanoi, you can visit the café where Deneuve bought her coffee and croissants every morning when she was filming Indochine.

Kinh Do Café vietnam films
Breakfasting at Kinh Do Café, right under the Indochine film poster.

4

The Lover (1992)

Who could turn down a steamy French-Vietnamese romantic drama? What I liked most about this film is that the Western man/Eastern woman couple is reversed. Instead, the protagonists are a Vietnamese man and a French school girl, who begin a love affair together in Saigon. It’s an elegant, atmospheric film, although it’s more character-focused than anything.

hoi an couple vietnam films
A stylish couple shopping in Hoi An. Kind of unrelated, but it’s the best I’ve got.

… and 1 Film Not to Watch

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Controversial? Only because there are so many Robin Williams fans I think. A comedy about the Vietnam War? There is just something that fundamentally doesn’t work about it. Perhaps it’s because the film’s comedy is more slapstick than deadpan that it just feels as though it’s showing Americans (represented by Robin Williams’ character and the cronies who laugh at his jokes) to be oblivious of the horrific reality of the war. It’s mostly really cringey, often unrealistic and, also, the main character appears totally void of cultural understanding or sensitivity. Other people loved it though, so maybe I’m just a bore.

Have you watched any of these films? What was your opinion of them?

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

11 thoughts on “4 Films to Watch Before Travelling Vietnam

  1. I’ve only seen one of these films! I’ve grown up hearing about the terrible war from my grandparents and dad, so I never felt the need to watch such films. I do the sound of a few, so I may consider it next time :) thanks for sharing!

    1. It’s certainly different if you were brought up hearing those stories, whereas most travellers don’t really know that much about it.. The films are very good in their own right though, even if you’re not focused on the context of the war, so I’m sure you’d still enjoy them!

  2. Not seen any of these, but going to bookmark this page and try see as many as I can before I travel to Vietnam. Great list, thank you for sharing :)

  3. I’m not going to Vietnam at the moment (even if I’d love to) but there are some good film suggestions here that I might watch anyway. I’ve seen a couple but not all! Thanks Charlie!

  4. Hi Charlie,
    Your articles are very informative. Can you please suggest if we should go to Thailand Versus a Thailand + Cambodia trip for 10 days. We will be travelling from India on a budget (INR 50k per person * 4 persons all inclusive). First thing is if it is even possible in this budget.
    We are vegetarians, and non-alcoholic/no-beers. We are more interested in natural beauty (Beaches, rivers, hills, caves, cruise, architecture like temples, ruins) and are not looking for city-life or shopping or partying experiences. We are looking for a relaxing romantic holiday for us two couples.
    We would also prefer to go to where there are more vegetarian food options for us.

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