Bandes dessinées are a francophone tradition; to call them “comic books” is do to them a disservice. The English term “graphic novel” isn’t quite right either, since a bande dessinée might, as is this one, be non-fiction; and while the artwork in contemporary English-language comics is not as dire as it once was, the emphasis is, as the term implies, as often as not on “graphics” rather than work in traditional media.
The “thousand star hotel” of the title is a metaphor of the night sky, the roof of the homeless. Bao Phi’s prose poem attributes this to a self-deprecating Vietnamese joke. Who knows? It is just one of perhaps one thousand metaphors, images and turns of phrase that sparkle in this new collection.
Vietnam is often featured in Western media and culture as the battleground where the US actually lost a war in the 20th century. This is unfortunate because it obscures a fascinating Southeast Asian nation that is now on the cusp of significant economic growth and prosperity. Vietnam: A New History presents a more comprehensive account of the country by explaining how it came about, originating as a collection of tribal entities in the north over two thousand years ago that coalesced into kingdoms that gradually expanded, combined, and suffered colonization by the French before becoming united in the 20th century after a brutal war with the US.