70 pages 2 hours read

Andrew X. Pham

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

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide


Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam is a 1999 nonfiction book by Andrew X. Pham. Pham’s other books include The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars and The Theory of Flight. He is a recipient of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Award, the Whiting Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Plot Summary

Pham, an American citizen, decides to take a cycling trip to Vietnam in a search for identity. It will be the first time he has returned to the country of his birth since his family fled in 1977. He first describes a shorter bike trip to Mexico, where he meets a Vietnam war veteran named Tyle, whose story sticks with him throughout his longer journey. After a brief stay with his parents in California, Pham hits the road again, biking up the coast to Seattle before crossing the Pacific to Japan and then Vietnam.

Pham begins in Saigon, then makes his way up the coast to Hanoi and back over a number of months. His grandmother’s cousin-in-law, whom he calls Grandaunt, and her family welcome him in Saigon. They all discourage him from riding his bike through the country, however. Grandaunt bluntly says it is too dangerous and that he won’t survive the trip. He spends some time with them, getting to know Grandaunt’s three sons, who are roughly his age. Pham also goes in search of his family’s former house, only to find that it is now a health clinic—and little else in the neighborhood is recognizable. This is the first in a series of disappointments for Pham when seeking traces of his former life.

Eventually, Pham leaves Saigon. He bikes up the coast to a resort town, where a friend’s mother lets him stay in her beach house. From there, he continues on to his hometown, Phan Thiet. Again, he is disappointed when he seeks out his childhood home there: It is now a repair shop for motorcycles. Similarly, his grandmother’s house has changed so much it’s unrecognizable to him until a former neighbor leads him to it. All these old landmarks of his former life have naturally changed over the years, and Pham feels somewhat ashamed for seeking some kind of easy Hollywood resolution from visiting them.

Pham ends up stowing away on a train to Hanoi, after contracting a stomach bug and realizing he can’t make it that far by bike. He is also running out of money and needs to get to a large city to access his bank account. In Hanoi, he falls in with a group of ex-pats and feels more comfortable. As a Viet-kieu, or foreign Vietnamese, many of the Vietnamese he meets don’t accept him. Some treat him with either suspicion or contempt (for being a “traitor” from South Vietnam), and many seek money from him, assuming that—as an American—he is rich. In the city of Hue, for instance, he befriends a cyclo driver whom he thinks is a poor young man with a growing family. Pham later learns that the driver really has no family and has sold him a story to scam money from him.

Pham’s negative encounters are balanced by the generosity of others. On the road south of Hanoi, for example, Pham meets an old man with one leg who invites him to his country hut to stay the night. When Pham becomes ill overnight, the man nurses him back to health. In another town, the owner of a small inn where Pham stays protects him from a mob of drunken men by calling out his sons and workers to chase the mob away. By the time Pham returns to Saigon, he has realized that the search for his roots in his native country has become a search for what his true home is. Flying back to the US, he feels more American than when he left.

There are two other story lines that Pham weaves into the tale of his cycling trip. The longer one is the story of his family’s transition from life in Vietnam to life in the US. His father, an official with the South Vietnamese government, faces imprisonment after the war ends. When he’s released, the family flees the country by hiding on a fishing boat. An Indonesian ship rescues them, they make their way to America, and end up in California. Pham’s sister Chi runs away after her father beats her, and they don’t see her again for 14 years, when Chi has become Minh, having transitioned genders. Depressed, laid off, and separated from his wife, Minh commits suicide. The other brief storyline consists of short vignettes about his family’s life in Vietnam. The first few vignettes center on his parents, but most involve Pham’s own foggy memories from his early childhood.