“Very well written and engaging story. I especially liked learning about French occupied Vietnam and the Vietnamese culture. My only complaint is the cover is not very descriptive of the contents. This is a period romantic novel set in pre-communist Vietnam. It can be read as a historical novel or a romantic novel and still be enjoyable as either.” Kepler Gelotte “neighborwebmaster.com”, April 5, 2015.
“Excellent.” David, October 19, 2014.
“I read this book without knowing a lot about the history of the French colonization of Vietnam and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The characters are well drawn, the prose is spare and to the point and suits the story very well. I would have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.” Michael Kenny, August 16, 2014.
“I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful and well written book. The author is a gifted story teller. I hope he writes more books.” Thomas C. Heuerman(Minnesota), August 4, 2014.
“I loved the characters and story plot, and I’m glad I decided to give this book a read. It’s one of those whose memory will stay with me, long after I forget all the details. In my opinion, it’s a very good book.” Lisa H. Danford (Alabama), July 28, 2014.
” Village Teacher is a delightful reading. The author blends a beautiful romantic story with the Vietnamese history and culture and the French colonization influences. Throughout the book, the author tactfully incorporates other tales and carefully introduces the family, society structures of Vietnam. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Village Teacher. It’s a well-written book, I highly recommend it. Congratulation to Neihtn!” shopper “amazonshopper” (Texas), April 4, 2014.
“This engrossing historical novel is set in the days of the French colonization of Vietnam. The background historical detail appears meticulous and it is interesting reading this book for that reason alone, however there is much more here than that. This is a tale of the travails and loves of the main character during a period of turmoil.
The characters in this story are very well developed and complex and the events that intertwine them are seamlessly presented so that the story flows well. There are numerous characters who appear in a sequential manner and their side stories add to the whole of the story but do not detract from it.
I enjoyed this book for the fascinating historical and cultural perspectives as well as the dramatic fictional story. There is a definite element of suspense and about halfway through the book It became a real page turner and I could not put it down until the end.” Eric, November 25, 2013.
“Village Teacher is one of the most unique and delightful love stories I have read in a very long time. Because members of my family did spend time in Viet Nam in 1964 and 1968 through 1970, I was particularly interested in a story set during a historic period prior to the Vietnam War. I knew very little about what it was like during the years of the French colonization or anything about the exam system in place at the time.
While the author does give a very complete historical backdrop of the period, it really is at heart a story about people trying to live their lives during turbulent times of change. When introduced to Teacher Tam you really cannot help but love him and the example he provides of an individual interested in what is best not just for his students but for his country, and the steadfast honesty with which he approaches everything.
The reviews I have read here address so perfectly the complexity of this story so it is difficult to add to how wonderful those reviews are. But, this is a book that is difficult to put down as the reader does become invested in the characters and wants passionately for destiny to unfold as it should in the lives of Teacher Tam and Giang. With various political factions and betrayals at play, this is by no means assured. The story is well paced and well crafted and will keep you anxious to see what the next chapter holds. I particularly enjoyed the tenderness with which the story is told and the underlying understanding of human nature, and the respect for the importance of education and the culture of Viet Nam that the story reveals.
I recommend this tender, historical love story set in Viet Nam during the French colonization without reservation!! I loved it!!” Judith Ann Lovell, November 4, 2013.
“While reading this book, I learned much about the history of Vietnam. This book is well written, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought the author did an excellent job of developing the characters and making them seem real. I think it would be an exceptionally good book to be read by a book club.” Faye Smith September 16, 2013.
“This is a refreshing look at a Vietnam that’s rarely featured in English language fiction.
Village Teacher, set in the early years of French colonization, when the Vietnamese first began to grapple with the West, is on its surface a love story about a virtuous village scholar, Tam, and Giang, a spirited half-French daughter of the Hue elite. But, the book has many layers. At heart, it is a quiet tribute to Vietnamese men of letters and the prevailing spirit of the Vietnamese language (whether in Chinese ideograms or French invented alphabets). Although probably unintended, there is also a larger moral lesson about how countries, not just Vietnam, can be won or lost if change is not embraced appropriately.
I thought the book was well plotted, from the scholar’s initial meeting with his beloved all the way through the obstacles the two must encounter, until the bitter-sweet finale.
What charmed me most about the narrative were the details about late 19th century Vietnamese life – the snack of taro cooked by the teacher Tam’s student, the innuendo fraught conversation about the misplaced imperial corpses in the Nguyen tombs, the machinations of the matchmaker Madam Pumpkin.
This book is thoroughly imbued with the ethos and mindset of the period, even to its crafting. The story unfolds almost operatically, with all the elements of a traditional cai-luong, including revelations about past indiscretions and newly discovered illegitimate children. For good measure, some of Vietnam’s best love poetic lines, like the opening stanzas of Nguyen Du’s epic Kieu, and Doan Thi Diem’s Song of a Soldier’s Wife. It is apparent that the author Nguyen Trong Hien is someone who appreciates the legacy of the Vietnamese language.
I opened this book on a Saturday morning and did not go on to anything else till I finished it on Saturday night.
So why not 5 stars then?
I have a confession. I’m a plot driven reader and if a plot is engaging, I need to follow the twists and turns until the final satisfying resolution. The problem with Village Teacher was that when I emerged from the book, I did not feel regret about leaving the characters behind. Most were too patently white or black, including the scholar and his beloved. The motivations of the two villians, the bullying village headman Xa Long and the MInister of Rites Toan, were never “shown” sufficiently. The novel would have been more satisfying with more conflicted grey characters like Ba Trang, the heroine’s mother, and Teacher Xinh, the dismissed scholar. Indeed, the question that has been haunting me since I put the book down is how the pseudo romantic relationship between two minor characters – the brigand chief and his half sister – would have played out realistically.
I was also a little irritated with the English translations of the Kieu opening lines, which did not do any justice to the beauty of the Vietnamese. I’m afraid, I do love Kieu, so that counted as a big minus too.
All in all though, this is a lovely piece of work which I’d recommend to anyone who wants to read a good piece of romantic historical fiction. In addition, those with an interest in late 19th century Vietnamese society will find this book particularly valuable. It may be a work of fiction, but the setting and norms and mores are so realistically described, it can be a work of cultural anthropology.
A great escape into Vietnam, with no mention of that war we’re all still haunted by.” Aud, August 25, 2013.
“Village Teacher is an interesting and informative book about life in Vietnam around the time of the French colonization. The historical facts are true to life and the tale is skilfully intertwined with history and fiction. Not only is the author’s writing method smooth and flowing, but the dialogue between the characters is equally as smooth and believable.
I found this book a delightful read, full of colourful descriptions which capture the magic of the scenery. In my opinion it also accurately represents the changing times when the Vietnamese people became tired of the bindings and oppressions the French had placed on both their people and their land.
The story follows the life of Tam , an intelligent young village teacher, who journeys far to take an examination in the capital city of Hue. After taking his final examinations, it is just a matter of time before Tam will hear if he is to stay on as a mandarin, or return to his quiet village and continue as the teacher there.
Everything seems rather simple and straightforward until one day Tam has the opportunity to save a young lady and her handmaid from a thief. The young lady, Giang, is a beautiful woman with a Vietnamese mother and a French father. Times are turbulent, and Giang’s mother is not supportive of the growing rapport between Tam and Giang. This does not stop their love from blooming, however, and Giang and Tam remain true, supporting one another in close friendship.
I thoroughly enjoyed Village Teacher, from the gentle tone of the storytelling to the tender love story and interesting historical facts.” Nicua Shamira “Shamira”, July 17, 2013.
“This book is excellent. I would like to recommend this book to those who want to know Vietnamese educational exam. systems before 20th century: local exam , regional exam and palace exam. ( Thi Hương , Thi Hội , Thi Đình ), and a little bit of Vietnamese society and history in early period of French colonization.” XChau, July 12, 2013.
“I would recommend this book to anyome who is as avid as I am about history and especially French history. The way the Vietnamese and French cultures cohabited is a mystery; although thanks to the author, by reading this book we can learn more about a part of the past which needed to be studied.” Alain Darmon, September 24, 2012.
“Village Teacher is a Vietnamese love story during the early years of French colonization and the Nguyen Dynasty. It is a story of Tam, the young Village teacher and Giang, a Vietnamese French young lady. Their love was passionate , complicated and exciting due to their different social background, education and culture . However, after so many ups and downs, their love has a happy ending.I would recommend this book to all those who are interested in love stories, Vietnamese culture and history. I highly recommend this book for young Vietnamese Americans to understand and appreciate their country, culture, and history.” Thinh Vu, June 26, 2012
“I just finished reading the Village Teacher and L-O-V-E-D it. I kept turning the pages and the story was so intriguing that I skipped a few chapters in the middle to read the end of the story then came back later to read the chapters in the middle. I do that all the time with the very good books.
The Vietnamese customs and traditions in the early days of French colonization are very well described and set as the background for the love story of the village teacher and a Vietnamese French young lady, daughter of a prominent French officer. The book is thoroughly entertaining!” Hue Phan, June 24, 2012
“In the waning years of the 19th century, Vietnam found itself convulsed with tumult and upheaval, its age-old Buddhist-Confucian order rapidly crumbling. Various factions were vying for power at the enfeebled Imperial court at Huê, while contending forces in the countryside fought both each other and the French, even as the French were inexorably consolidating their own imperialist subjugation of the entire country. Entering upon this turbulent scene, a gifted but unassuming young schoolteacher named Tâm, full of high aspirations for his country, makes his way from his relatively peaceful northern village to the capital city of Huê. There, within the walls of the Forbidden City, he will take the final national examinations that enable those passing to enter into the ranks of the scholarly ruling class: the mandarins.
Out for a stroll on the outskirts of Huê while waiting for the examination results, Tâm springs to the rescue of a lovely young woman beset by a pair of ruffians, only to learn that she is the daughter (named Giang) of a powerful French officer and his Vietnamese wife. Tâm is greatly surprised by this, for Giang’s appearance is completely Vietnamese, except for one feature that he finds utterly mesmerizing: her captivating blue eyes….
So begins a love story that unfolds in the face of many hurdles, perils, and vicissitudes, including a nefarious scheme to deny the young scholar the rightful place he has earned to an official position by dint of his mastery of the classical texts of Chinese literature and the punctilious art of calligraphy. In Vietnam, as in China, this emphasis on literary and writing skills, combined with the examination system itself, was expressly designed to perpetuate the whole traditional order and with it, of course, the mandarinate itself. In consequence, as one character muses, such a system made of Vietnam “a country where the status quo was the official policy and where [beneficial] changes often met with punishment instead of rewards.”
Yet as Tâm is painfully aware, such classical scholarly training was scarcely a useful preparation for the practicalities of governing, let alone for conducting modern, technology-driven warfare. Tâm recognizes that the Vietnamese of his era would have to learn from the Westerners if they were eventually to withstand or, come to that, defeat them. Moreover, the mandarinate itself, like much else in the Vietnam of that time (and since), was riddled with its own corrosive moral and intellectual corruptions, extending even to the very examination system that was supposed to validate the mandarin’s righteous claim to rule.
Thus from the beginning the novel strikes its overarching theme of the wrenching conflict of Western-influenced modernization and entrenched Vietnamese traditionalism. The deft master-stroke the author has hit upon to flesh out this theme is the gradual transition in Vietnam from the Chinese-based ideographic writing system, chữ Nôm (“demotic”), to the modern, romanized script, Quốc ngữ (“national language”), in use today. This ingenious literary device grounds the novel in a profound process of cultural change, with the historic transition in orthography serving as at once a master trope and as a running motif interwoven throughout the story.
For the sake of progress, Teacher Tâm becomes not only a student but a proponent of the new script, seeing in it a means of promoting literacy among his largely illiterate countrymen, along with the schooling made possible by it, eventually implying a less aristocratic, more democratic, opening-up of the entire culture. In one of the novel’s many subtly ironic turns, the village teacher is himself taught the new writing system by none other than Giang, his French-Vietnamese love-to-be. Further, Giang’s bicultural family is Catholic and she herself was taught the new script by Jesuits — the very order of Catholic missionaries that introduced and perfected the Quốc ngữ writing system (all the better to convert as many Vietnamese to Catholicism as possible by making translations of the Christian Bible widely available to a literate populace).
But, of course, the alphabet-based Quốc ngữ (with only 23 characters to learn as opposed to several thousand ideograms) represents a direct threat to the old order and to the tight grip of the Old Guard mandarins who sustain it, they being the elite few with the skill and wherewithal to master the difficult classical system. Thus do the plot elements and the major themes of Village Teacher adroitly dovetail.
As befitting the national character of the language-haunted Vietnamese people, then, their language is at the heart of the novel. (For that reason alone, it is entirely apposite that the author presents Vietnamese words with their full complement of diacritical marks.) Historically, the Vietnamese have invested their language with near-talismanic properties. Words are infused with a certain awe and mystery, especially names, such as those bestowed on newborns and on royal personages. Correspondingly, there are strict language taboos, particularly when it comes to the many names and verbal associations that accrue to an Emperor. Indeed, the hinge of the plots to destroy Tâm turns on just such magico-religious taboos, and the novel will end with a lexical misapprehension, inciting an accusation that threatens to lead to his precipitous beheading.
To appreciate and enjoy the novel best, it is well to keep in mind that the tale and its telling are rooted in Vietnamese literary and dramatic traditions, both classical and popular, including The Tale of Kiêu, the epic verse novel written in the early 19th century by Nguyên Du. As in the opening lines cited from that work, at issue throughout is the unending conflict between great human character (expressed as prodigious talent) and human destiny or, more ominously, Fate. The major protagonist, Tâm (much like Kim Van Kiêu), is plainly meant to be a paragon, representing an idealized portrait of a Vietnamese of the highest talent, character, and grit. (His given name signifies a combination of “heart, mind, center.”) Although an erudite scholar, Tâm remains a noble village teacher at heart, being something of a pure and chaste soul among the cutthroat schemers and malevolent brutes who populate the debased world in which he finds himself thrown. (The villains may be thought of as perversely “perfected” in their own way, depicted as they are in sharp, almost calligraphic strokes as venal, vicious, and vile.)
Village Teacher also features several strong female characters (including the biracial Giang and a daring beauty of a spy) who are also drawn in an idealized fashion, as is only befitting a Romance. As in The Tale of Kieu, much is made of the distinctly “modern” way of choosing a marriage partner on the basis of love and personal choice, as opposed to the time-honored practice of arranged marriages. Not that this comes easily. The most colorful character in the novel is a crafty old bag of a matchmaker by the name of Bà Bí (“Mrs. Pumpkin” in English), who is adamant about dissuading headstrong young people from their sentimental modern illusions of romance when it comes to such all-important affairs as marriage. (It is she who pronounces the hoary adage, “Love does not lead to marriage but follows from marriage.”) In a wryly pointed twist on the theme of fate, Mrs. Pumpkin takes it upon herself to collude with her claque of soothsayers in order to “adjust” what turned out to be a unpropitious alignment of the stars, all the better to satisfy her client’s wishes and, not incidentally, fatten her own fees. Such are the human wiles that can bend even the ostensible “will of Heaven.”
Although the story of Village Teacher is straightforwardly told in transparent prose (vivified at times by striking visual images), the reader should be prepared for some melodramatic, even “operatic,” elements in the convolutions and coincidences of the plot. In places the format even reminds one of hat cai luong, the “reformed (Chinese) opera” that is the most popular genre of musical drama in Vietnam. Death (whether by murder, combat, beheading, or sacrificial suicide) is never distant from the scene. (However, it is to the author’s stylistic credit that death comes to certain characters without elaborate literary “staging”; it simply happens with the stark suddenness of a lightning bolt splitting the blackness of the night.)
There are also mythic and fable-like aspects to the story in the uncanny way that vectors of the plot come together at certain times, what with the crisscrossings and interlockings of the fate of various characters, some of whom are related by blood (unbeknownst to them), notably including the misbegotten issue of forcible rape. (The novel has touches of Dickens-like sentiment in its poignant portrayals of the plight of orphans, abandoned children, and other innocent victims of forces beyond their control. But then, Vietnam has had more than its share of such unfortunates down through the ages).
To this reader, these features are all part of the charm and delight of Vietnamese dramatic literature, with the various pieces of the tale eventually falling satisfyingly into place. As with any good storytelling, particularly with love stories, the reader becomes invested in the characters and is keen to know what happens to them. Beyond that, the novel is intricately “dialectical” (in a literary-symbolic, non-Marxist sense) in its artful interweaving of its plot elements, characters, and themes. While the novel obviously bears on the many complexities of Vietnamese society, culture, and character (as entangled with the encroachments of the French), it consistently keeps to its historical setting and is not designed to prefigure in detail the tormented history of modern Vietnam to come. At most, it exudes a pained wistfulness as to possibilities thwarted, roads not taken, might-have-beens that were not to be. In that sense, although steeped in the history of its time and place, and saturated with politics of major and minor scales, Village Teacher is more of a meditation on the human condition and human destinies, as played out in Vietnam on the cusp of the 20th century, than an ideological tract, let alone a score-settling work of propaganda. It is, rather, a moving and gratifying work of literature.” AnhMaiDel, June 12, 2012
“`Village Teacher’ is a refreshing narrative of French colonization of Vietnam, and Vietnamese transition to the new age. Even though it is labeled as fiction, the author’s ability to intertwine historical facts with his narration is so original that I have read through it as a `true story’.This is author’s first attempt in writing in a book form but the writing is so prolific, style is so natural that it is very easy to get convinced that we are reading a book from a seasoned writer. I was impressed with smooth flowing of words and a mystique expression in sentences that it kept me glued to the book, page after page.While explaining the historical facts, and the turn of events, author approached what has happened with a broader perspective without giving into the narrow interpretation of one culture over the other and tried to convey the best from the both worlds.I have learned a lot about Vietnamese history but what I have learned more is about the ways of Vietnamese life. Author’s narrative was picturesque and as I was reading, I could actually visualize what he is describing in my mind and it made my reading more intriguing.
I recommend this book to international readers who are interested to learn about Vietnam but also to the new Vietnamese generations to understand and appreciate their country, culture, and history.” Manohar Ravela, June 5, 2012
“It’s a very good book to read for those who are interested in Vietnam, its history, its people at the period when the Chinese cultural influence was declining and the French cultural heritage was beginning to take shape.” Qnbui, May 31, 2012
“A well written and well edited story set in the time of French colonialism, the village teacher, Tam, has gone to Hue to take examinations which may guarantee him a successful career. In the course of his time in Hue, he falls in love, runs afoul of senior ministers and winds up on the wrong side of the law. He returns to his home village and again, runs afoul of local authorities. We learn a great deal about Vietnam of the period, we see court intrigue, the oppressiveness of colonialism and throughout get to enjoy a love story.” RustyTreasure, May 30, 2012