Cinema has produced some excellent Vietnam films! 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, sociopolitical 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.
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.
Vietnamese films tend to focus on the war itself or on the effects of post-colonialism. However, my favourite 4 Vietnam-related films have a few less guns and explosions and a bit more history and politics.
1. The Quiet American (1958 and 2002)
Actually, I’d definitely say read the The Quiet American book before watching the films. 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 a Vietnamese woman — explores the relationship between the “civilising” West and the “exotic” East in a more rooted and sophisticated way than the other Vietnam films.
The Quiet American (2002) film stars Michael Caine. I personally felt the film wasn’t as subtle as the 1958 version of The Quiet American, but it was still enjoyable. Perhaps mostly so because when you do go to Vietnam, you can spot all of the places from scenes in the film.
Buy the The Quiet American book as paperback or for Kindle on Amazon.
2. Full 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.
Rent or Buy Full Metal Jacket on Amazon.
3. Indochine (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 (one of the best coffee places in Hanoi) where Deneuve bought her coffee and croissants every morning when she was filming Indochine.
Buy or rent Indochine on Amazon.
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.
Buy The Lover on Amazon.
… 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.