When it comes to films in Vietnam, most likely the first that come to mind are the likes of Oliver Stone’s war trilogy (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven & Earth), Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter or Good Morning, Vietnam.
Undoubtedly, you may have noticed a common thread – they’re all about the Vietnam War (or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American War). While each deserves every bit of praise for their ruthless yet accurate depictions of war, we just wanted to turn our attention away from this turbulent period which lasted throughout the 1960s and 70s.
Instead, we highlight the beauty of the country, its people and culture through the lens of the silver screen. Be sure to peruse the following compilation of acclaimed films not directly related to the Vietnam War, sorted by IMDb rating.
13. Monsoon (2019) – 6.0 IMDb
We start with the list’s most recent film starring Henry Golding, still hot off the heels the success of Crazy Rich Asians. Kit’s family of boat refugees escaped Vietnam (just like our tour guide) and settled in England when he was just six-years-old. Thirty years later, following the deaths of both parents, he decides to embark on a personal journey to his country of birth to scatter their ashes and to make sense of his family’s history.
Don’t let the low 6.0 IMDb score mislead you – critics on both Rotten Tomatoes (87%) and Metacritic (69%) lauded this unhurried, poignant film for its beautiful camera shots and for capturing the essence of a country caught between tradition and modernity.
12. Furie (2019) – 6.3 IMDb
This action-packed, martial arts-packed thriller stars one of Vietnam’s most prominent actresses, Veronica Ngo (The Old Guard and Star Wars: The Last Jedi). After giving birth to a daughter, ex-gangster Hai Phuong decides to put her life of crime behind her by laying low in the countryside.
Her shady past comes back to haunt her, however, as human traffickers abduct Hai Phuong’s daughter and she is forced to pursue them to Saigon. Furie is now streaming on Netflix.
11. The Third Wife (2018) – 6.7 IMDb
In this period drama set in 19th century rural Vietnam, 14-year-old May’s peasant family has arranged for her to become a wealthy landowner’s third wife. Though the first two wives welcome her, May soon discovers their promiscuities in addition learning that her livelihood depends on birthing a son for her husband.
10. Indochine (1992) – 7.1 IMDb
Indochine is another period piece film, though this time during the waning decades of French Colonial Indochina (1930s-1950s). After her best friends from the Nguyen Dynasty die in a tragic plane crash, French aristocrat Eliane, portrayed by legendary European actress Catherine Deneuve, adopts their 5-year-old Vietnamese daughter Camille and raises her as a privileged European through her teenage years.
In her young adulthood, Camille falls for French naval officer Jean-Baptiste, also her mother’s former lover several years past, and joins the Vietnamese struggle for independence.
Dubbed the French Gone With The Wind, Indochine the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in addition to a nomination for Best Actress.
9. The Quiet American (2002) – 7.1 IMDb
The Quiet American is adapted from Graham Greene’s bestselling 1955 novel, and like Indochine, is also set in Vietnam’s late French Indochina period.
The film stars Michael Caine as Thomas Fowler, a jaded British reporter covering the French-Indochina war; Brendon Frasier as Alden Pyle, an idealistic, aforementioned ‘quiet American’ and undercover CIA agent; and Do Thi Hai Yen as Phuong, a beautiful 20-year-old Vietnamese woman and love interest for both men.
The novel received universal acclaim for its accurate prediction of American interventionism in the coming decades, as did the 2002 film for staying true to its source material. For his captivating performance, Michael Caine received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
8. The Buffalo Boy (2004) – 7.2 IMDb
This coming-of-age story is set in 1940 in Vietnam’s southernmost province of Ca Mau. Due to seasonal monsoons, much of the region is submerged underwater for six months out of the year.
After his father becomes ill, our 15-year-old protagonist Kim must embark on a perilous journey alone to lead their two buffalo to dry land. He comes across other herdsmen during the expedition, one of whom is able to impart knowledge regarding his true birth mother.
A full version of The Buffalo Boy, with English subtitles, is available on YouTube (see above).
7. The Vertical Ray of the Sun / At The Height of Summer (2000) – 7.2 IMDb
The Vertical Ray of the Sun (also titled At The Height of Summer) is the third entry out of French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s trilogy of films set in Vietnam (see Cyclo and The Scent of Green Papaya below).
The film centres on three sisters who reunite in Hanoi on the anniversary of their mother’s death. At first glance, it appears the two older sisters are happy in their idyllic marriages, but we soon learn there is much more underneath the surface.
6. Cyclo (1995) – 7.3 IMDb
Another of director Tran Anh Hung’s acclaimed Vietnam films, Cyclo tells the gritty story of an 18-year-old orphan who struggles to make ends meet as a cyclo (bicycle-taxi) driver on the streets of Saigon.
Unfortunately, after his cyclo, and only means of support, is stolen he is forced to turn to a local gang leader for help, while is sister also becomes a prostitute.
5. Three Seasons (1999) – 7.3 IMDb
Lauded for being the first American movie to be shot entirely in Vietnam following President Clinton’s lifting of the embargo, Three Seasons follows the stories of, “three people, trying to find their place in a world that changes like the seasons.”
Kien An is a young woman who pick lotus flower and sells bundles at just 30 cents (USD) per bundle. 10-year-old “Woody” peddles chewing gum, cigarettes and other knick-knacks from a case strapped around his shoulder. Hai is a cyclo driver who tries to catch the attention of a hotel call girl named Lan. And finally, Harvery Keitel plays James Hager, an American returning to seek a daughter he fathered during his stint as a Vietnam War soldier.
Three Seasons was highly praised by critics, particularly at the Sundance Film Festival where it took home the Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award and Cinematography Award.
4. The Beautiful Country (2004) – 7.4 IMDb
Like a few other films in our list, The Beautiful Country’s protagonist, Binh, is born out wedlock and fathered by an American G.I. (played by Nick Nolte).
Facing prejudice as a ‘bui do’ (derogatory term for child of mixed Vietnamese and American soldier descent) and constant abuse as a servant, Binh escapes the countryside and searches for his mother, Mai, in Saigon. Upon finding her, he learns that that he also has a younger brother, Tam, and that Mai is working for a wealthy household.
After an unfortunate accident occurs where the mistress of the household dies and Binh is falsely accused, Mai sends her two sons away to find Binh’s birth father in Texas. The pair take passage on a boat and arrive at a Malaysian refugee camp, followed by another voyage aboard a barge heading to the United States.
3. Daughter From Danang (2002) – 7.4 IMDb
Winner of the 2002 Sundance Best Documentary award, Daughter from Danang follows Heidi Bub, one of over 2,000 children evacuated out of Vietnam at the end of the war as a part of Operation Babylift. While working at a military base in Danang, Heidi’s mother meets her biological father, an American serviceman, and gives birth to their daughter in 1968. As the North Vietnamese army approaches in 1975, her mother sends the child to the U.S. out of fear for Heidi’s safety as a mixed-race child.
At just six-years-old, she is placed into an American orphanage before being adopted by a single woman in Tennessee. Having been told her parents had died in the war, it is an absolute shock to Heidi when, 22 years later, she is notified by her adoption agency that her biological mother had contacted them about Heidi’s whereabouts.
After falling out with her adoptive mother, Heidi makes the fateful decision to return to Vietnam to reunite with her birth family. Having no knowledge of the Vietnamese language, food or customs, she faces culture shock when meeting the family, who are now living in abject poverty.
2. The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) – 7.4 IMDb
Taking place between the 1940s and 1960s, The Scent of Green Papaya is about a young child named Mui, who becomes servant for a wealthy family. She immediately gets on well with the couple and performs her tasks dutifully. The innocent little girl is quite observant, noticing beautiful intricacies in the finest of details. As Roger Ebert states, the film, “is of great visual beauty; watching it is like a poem for the eyes.”
Like a silent spirit, she also witnesses the husband’s infidelities, which nearly bankrupts the couple, while the wife is barely able to keep them afloat with her side business. Years later, after the husband passes away, Mui is sent to work for a family friend, a handsome and already-engaged pianist, who she can’t help but fall for.
The film was highly praised, with Tran Anh Hung winning the 1993 Cannes Caméra d’Or award (Best First Film) as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
1. Song Lang (2018) – 7.8 IMDb
Set in vibrant 1980s Saigon, Song Lang is centred around its two main characters: Dung, a ruthless debt collector, and Linh Phung, a young and struggling cai luong (traditional Vietnamese folk opera) singer. As the former attempts to strong arm the latter’s opera troupe into paying their debts, instead a friendship – and unlikely romance – starts to develop between the two men.
This “gritty underworld noir hiding a tender, romantic heart” film has won 52 awards to date, most notably among Asian and/or LGBT film festivals. Song Lang is now streaming on Netflix.
Instead of living vicariously through Vietnamese film, why not visit the beautiful Southeast Asian country and experience it first-hand? While there, consider embarking on one of Heritage Line’s unforgettable cruises. In northern Vietnam, we offer journeys in breath-taking Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay, while in the south we also have two luxurious vessels operating on the Lower Mekong River.
Banner: Monsoon, BBC Films, 2019.
Thumbnail: The Quiet American, Miramax Films, 2002.