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Catfish and Mandala is the best book about Vietnam I have read in decades. It is humorous, witty, moving, but also very disturbing. Andrew Pham talks about his family's escape from Vietnam, his father's time spent in re-education camp, his family in the U.S., his sister's suicide, his brothers' homosexuality. But best of all is his bicycle travelogue in Vietnam with little money. It's a truly refreshing book, completely different from the tales that I heard from my Vietnamese friends who came back and travelled in air-conditioned cars. And even though I want to believe them, somehow their stories contradict with the experiences I had while living there. Andrew's book is a rare gem that explores the stories behind that are not readily available to the wide-eyed tourists in sanitized packaged tours. In Saigon, Andrew broke down sobbing after a beggar who resembled his old girlfriend pleaded for the leftover food. While travelling to visit his father's old prison, he was left with packages of smuggled tobacco while the police was searching the bus and demanding bribery. And in Vung Tau, he befriended a beautiful young girl who worked in one of those "embracing beer" halls. She was begging him to take her to the U.S. Even if he didn't love her, he could pretend to marry her so he could take her out. "My children, grandchildren, great grandchildren will thank you everyday for the rest of their lives," she said. When he refused, she just left and the next morning he saw her hand-in-hand with a white tourist who might be easier to be persuaded. The trip continued as he came back to his hometown Phan Thiet and then went up North to Ha Noi and beyond. In each city that he visited, there are tales of deception, duplicity, trickeries by the locals in an attempt to get the money out of the tourists' pockets. But there are also tales of Vietnam's beauty and the enduring lives of the Vietnamese people. A local policeman knocked on his room's door at night pretending that Andrew needed a better place to sleep because he was a Viet-Kieu, but his true intention was to get some money out of this poor guy. A prostitute knocked on his door at night offering her services without knowing that he was deadly exhausted. Perhaps a local police was nearby. If a customer refused, she would stripped herself naked and scream for help. The local police would run in and arrest the tourist accusing him of raping or having sex with a prostitute. Either way, it is a loosing proposition since the tourist had to pay $50-$300 U.S. fine. In Hue, Andrew thought that he had found a true friend who took him around in his broken cyclo. His friend's heart-wrenching stories of having to support a wife and three kids moved Andrew deeply that he gave his friend a lot more money than what was needed. But later he found out that his friend was not really married, but he just told the stories to get Andrew's money. In Hoi An, we see Andrew with a couple of Western tourists. A German man sat sadly alone in a pile of rubble. He was shocked to find out that he had paid $100 U.S. to rent a car to see the Cham ruins, but at the last moment, he was told that the car had broken down and he was not going to get his money back. And Cham's ruins are nothing than a pile of rubble. "Cham's ruins in Thailand are a thousand times more beautiful than this and I didn't have to pay $100 to see it," lamented the man. Next to him was an Italian young woman who broke down crying after her camera was confiscated by the guards. She couldn't take modern Vietnam anymore. I am particularly moved by this chapter and while reading it, I keep wondering about the future of Vietnam's tourism. "Is this how we treat the foreigners who come in our country yearning to learn more about our culture and history?" Near the end of his book, we meet Andrew's friend Calvin -- a professional guide tour in Vietnam. Calvin's appearance is impeccable from the outside. He earns a lot more money than the average Vietnamese. He is the epitome of success. But while he was drunk, the readers get a peek inside Calvin's heart that is very disturbing. It is for sure that he would never reveal this thought to any of the tourists or Viet-Kieu whom he takes around in Vietnam. He told Andrew through the cloud of alcohol. "Sometimes I feel like a pimp," he said. He continued, "The tourists wanted me to take them to the poor part of Saigon, so I took them there; they flinched at our poverty..." Calvin also offered us an opportunity to see how the local Vietnamese see the Viet-Kieu -- a truly honest and down-to-earth viewpoint even though it is also very disturbing. After reading Calvin's thoughts, I am not too sure if it is a good idea for a Vietnamese to go back there. The only really minor points in Andrew's book that need some clarifications is the part when he mentions about Hanoi's quarters and he says that it is the legacy from the French era. Somehow I always think that these specialized quarters of Hanoi predated the French. Regarding Uncle Ho, perhaps Andrew didn't know that he actually had multiple wives in many continents and he wasn't single because he was patriotic as described by the Communist propaganda. From the other books that I have read, he even stole his best friend's wife. Catfish and Mandala has won numerous praises from the New York Times, Elle, the Chicago Tribune, etc. His book is an extraordinary book in any way. It deserves 5 stars. It's a must-read for any foreign tourists who want to go to Vietnam, the Viet-Kieu who contemplate of going back there, and anyone else who wants to learn more about modern Vietnam. Two Thumbs Up!