SSoP Podcast Ep. 22 — Vietnam: Divided by War, Bonded by Family

SSoP Podcast Ep. 22 — Vietnam: Divided by War, Bonded by Family

Monday, 11 January, 2021

Vietnam has mostly been defined by its tumultuous history of border scuffles, invasions, and colonialism — which does this beautiful, graceful, colorful southeast Asian country a disservice.

Respect for tradition jostles up against a forward-facing attitude in Vietnam, which makes for a jumble of fascinating contrasts: the hyper-energetic urban centers of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City versus the idyllic countryside (which two-thirds of the population call home); state-mandated atheism versus a long tradition of spiritual practices; Communist government versus capitalist economy.

But spend any time getting curious about Vietnam, and one thing becomes abundantly clear: family and a reverence for tradition are nearly universal. As is a passion for flavorful food that woos all the senses and an appreciation for the country’s stunning natural beauty.

In this episode, we delve into Vietnam’s dramatic history and discuss what makes it like no other place on the planet, then we recommend books that transported us there on the page, including moving family sagas, first-person memoirs, and an ode to a perfect bowl of pho.


Read the full transcript of Episode 22: Vietnam.

Listen, Slowly

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The Eaves of Heaven

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The Mountains Sing

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The Best We Could Do

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The Beauty of Humanity Movement

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other books we mentioned


other cool stuff we talked about

  • Vietnam is shaped like an S: This may only be of interest to Mel, but she finds it delightful.

map of southeast asia including vietnam

  • Tube houses: Found in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, these 3+-storey buildings are tall, skinny, and the quintessential urban Vietnamese family home. Read all about it.

tall skinny tube houses in vietnam

  • Halong Bay: Just take a few deep breaths and allow your gaze to linger on this beautiful, fantastical landscape. Aaaah…
boats and limestone columns in halong bay, vietnam
Photo courtesy of Ammie Ngo/Unsplash.
  • Vietnamese street food: From pho to banh mi and everything in between, Vietnamese street food is among some of the world’s best on-the-go grub. Here’s a list of 13 delicious options.

  • Egg coffee: Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of coffee in the world, and the coffee culture is strong. One specialty: egg coffee made from beaten egg yolks, milk, and sugar that’s blended with the coffee. It’s like coffee custard! Here’s a recipe, so you can try it at home.

  • Snake on the menu: In the village of Lệ Mật (‘snake village’), you can go to a restaurant where live snakes are killed and then served back to you ten ways, including the still-beating heart (?!). Atlas Obscura has more details — and here’s Gordon Ramsey trying this unusual delicacy.
  • Largest cave in Vietnam: Hang Son Doong, found in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, is 5km (3.1m) long, 200m (660ft) tall, and 150m (490ft) wide — that’s 162 American football fields in width and the equivalent of a 66-story building in height. And it’s stunningly beautiful. CNN Travel has the scoop on recent discoveries in the cave. Don’t miss the footage of a drone flying in the cave!
interior view of rocks and plants inside the cave
Photo courtesy of CNN Travel.
  • British Cave Research Association: Here is the proof that it exists

  • Hang Son Doong Cave Tour: Only 1000 people are allowed to visit the cave every year, and this is the only organization licensed to conduct tours.

  • Barack Obama & Anthony Bourdain eat bun cha: In May 2016, the two legends sat down at a greasy spoon in Hanoi to talk over bowls of noodles. Here’s an article with the photo of the preserved table, and this is the restuarant, should you find yourself in Hanoi. Eavesdrop on their chat:

  • NPR interview with Thanhha Lai: The author of Listen, Slowly talks about her fantastic novel. It’s a fun, fast 5 minutes!

  • Andrew X Pham at VONA Faculty Reading: The author of The Eaves of Heaven reads from his stunning book.

  • Libro FM interview with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: The author of The Mountains Sing shares the inspiration for her gorgeous novel.

  • Thi Bui at Century College Speaker Series: In this presentation from 2019, the author of The Best We Could Do talks about the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child.

  • Camilla Gibb on Empathy: The author of The Beauty of Humanity Movement gives a presentation on ‘Empathy, Narrative Truth, and Artistic Process’ at Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, University of British Columbia.
  • The Soup Dream: Yes, Kung Fu Panda is set in China, and Po has the Noodle Dream. But we like to call it the soup dream.
  • Vietnam Travel: This website is a treasure trove of photos, stories, and videos that will seriously make you want to go to Vietnam right now. You’ve been warned — and, also, we encourage you to to click around.

And just for fun, a few more beauty shots of Vietnam…

the countryside of nihn bihn, vietnam
Nihn Bihn, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Catherine Dionne/Unsplash.
person paddling boat on the mekong river
Mekong Delta, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Jack Young/Unsplash.
a man relaxing on the back of a water buffalo at sunset
Hoi An, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Kiril Dobrev/Unsplash.
aerial view of green terraced rice paddies
Y Ty, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Peter Hammer/Unsplash.
farmer carrying rice seedlings in a paddy field
Carrying rice seedlings in a paddy field. Photo courtesy of TOM...foto/Shutterstock.



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The VAC Library in Hanoi is a unique open-air structure that invites play along with learning. Solar-powered and self-sustaining, it's a modern (beautiful) example of how libraries can interact with the environment.
Pho is Vietnam's national dish, a comforting bowl of spice-infused broth, rice noodles, beef, and fresh herbs that tastes like love. We recommend you simmer a pot of broth and take a virtual trip to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Treat yourself to some travel inspiration and explore Vietnam. From oh-so-green rice paddies to energetic cityscapes, these vibrant images of scenery and people will fire up your imagination and your wanderlust.

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