On 9 March 2015 I walked into the Prince Edward Theatre in London to see the revival of Miss Saigon knowing hardly anything about Vietnam except that we’d fought a war there and many had disagreed with the decision that got the U.S. involved.
Since then, I’ve learned more. I’ve gone back to see Miss Saigon on Broadway where it’s running until 13 January 2018 and watched documentaries on Netflix and YouTube. After I saw the Broadway revival on 5 April, I was looking at Amazon and I discovered a book about the history of Vietnam from 1925-1975: Saigon by Anthony Grey. At that point I hadn’t learned anything about Vietnam by reading books it was all from documentaries. While documentaries are good sources of information, they do have a narrator’s bias attached. I jumped at the chance.
In some ways, the book is different than what I expected. I expected it to be a nonfiction book along the lines of Edward Rutherford. Instead, there’s a fictional element where you get to inside the heads of characters and see what the different sides were like. I’m not sure if it’s actually fictional or if it’s along the lines of what Philippa Gregory does where the characters are historical, but the reader is still going inside the heads of the characters.
Despite the way not lining up with my expectations it’s in no way diminished my enjoyment.
I was expecting to gain knowledge from this book, but as with the Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton I recently read, I’m learning more than I thought I would. There were bits of Miss Saigon that were blurry in terms of my understanding, and by taking the time to read this book, I’m both enjoying it and getting those bits cleared up. Before, I understood the basic gist, but I didn’t understand how Vietnam moved from being a French colonial power to where they were in the 1960s when the U.S. got involved. While on some level it’s a depressing story because of the colonialism aspect of it, it’s also helped me to understand the perspectives that are on display throughout Miss Saigon.
Saigon, at its heart, is a book about the people, about their way of life, the way it’s changed because of Western influences from France and the U.S. as well as influences from Japan during and after World War II. It’s a story of the lives of families from different backgrounds, who end up on different sides of the story as their lives continue to overlap.