The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnamby Dana Sachs
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Dana Sachs went to Hanoi when tourist visas began to be offered to Americans; she was young, hopeful, ready to immerse herself in Vietnamese culture. She moved in with a family and earned her keep by teaching English, and she soon found that it was impossible to blend into an Eastern culture without calling attention to her Americanness--particularly in a country where not long ago she would have been considered the enemy. But gradually, Vietnam turned out to be not only hospitable, but the home she couldn't leave.
Sachs takes us through two years of eye-opening experiences: from her terrifying bicycle accidents on the busy streets of Hanoi to how she is begged to find a buyer for the remains of American "poes and meeas" (POWs and MIAs). The House on Dream Street is also the story of a community and the people who become inextricably, lovingly, a part of Sachs's life, whether it's her landlady who wonders why at twenty-nine she's not married, the children who giggle when she tries to speak the language, or Phai, the motorcycle mechanic she falls for.
The House on Dream Street is both the story of a country on the cusp of change and of a woman learning to know her own heart.
(five out of five stars)
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1. Through the Green Gate
The cyclo pulled to a stop in front of an enormous green gate. I turned around and looked at the driver, but he only gave me a smug smile from his seat on the pedicab. "This is number four," he said, gesturing toward the address beside the gate. I glanced at the number, then at the address in my hand, then glared at him. When he had first approached me as I stepped off the bus in central Hanoi, he had insisted that my destination was ten kilometers away and that he, in turn, deserved a hefty fee for pedaling me there. But we had traveled less than a kilometer and arrived in five minutes.
"Stay here," I said as sternly as I could in my miserable Vietnamese. I clambered over my backpack and out of the basketlike passenger seat, unwilling to pay him before I knew if this place was, indeed, the home of the only person I knew in Hanoi. The cyclo driver shrugged, then twisted around on his bicycle seat and immediately leapt into a discussion with the people gathered around a sidewalk tea stall across the narrow street. "She's an American. Came here to study Vietnamese. Twenty-nine years old. Not married yet," he told them, making quick work of all the information I had given him on the ride over.
I stood for a moment, looking around. I remembered Hanoi from my previous visit, in the late winter two years before, and much that I saw around me now felt familiar. Today's sky was the same impermeable gray, the color of the rice porridge I'd watched people swallow quickly on their way to work. The air had the same chilly moistness, carrying hints of motorbike exhaust, overripe fruit, and chicken broth simmering all day over tiny charcoal stoves. Across the road, a group of pale-faced old women sat at the tea stall. They wore scarves around their heads and held tiny cups of Hanoi tea between their fingers. I remembered that tea as well. In Saigon, people had drunk endless glasses of iced tea. At restaurants and sidewalk food stalls, every order, even coffee, came with tea. But Saigon tea was weak as water, barely yellow. The copper-colored Hanoi tea was a different drink entirely, whiskey strong and drunk in shots. On my first trip to Hanoi, I had sipped it and gagged.
I could remember a lot about Hanoi, but I felt shaky anyway. My earlier visit to Vietnam had lasted only a month. Now, I was moving here. The difference between visiting and living in Vietnam felt immense, and very scary. I'd had big dreams to come back to this country to live. But now, I only felt small and fragile and very foreign. I couldn't satisfy myself with a quick jaunt through the famous sites and then a taxi ride back to the airport. I had to find a job. A home. Some friends.
From across the road, the tea drinkers stared at me with speculative interest. Pulling my scarf tighter against the wind, I wished I could take a little break, maybe just sleep in my own bed tonight in San Francisco, then try Hanoi again tomorrow. But the tea drinkers didn't disappear. One of them, perched on a stool with her knees tightly folded against her chest, lifted a hand and briskly waved me toward the gate. Her face, as infinitely lined as cracked porcelain, broke into a great, wide grin, revealing two rows of deeply red, betel-nut stained teeth. I looked at her for a moment, forcing my mouth into a smile of its own. Then, mustering all my courage, I turned around, walked over to the doorbell, and rang. I'd come all this way. It was too late to change my mind.
After a minute, I heard a shuffling behind the gate. A latch turned and a husky, pale-skinned teenage girl appeared in the doorway. She looked out at me in shock. I stammered in Vietnamese, "Uh. Is Tra here? I want to meet Nguyen Thi Tra."
The expression on her face did not change. "Nguyen Thi Tra!" yelled the cyclo driver from behind me. The girl's mouth twitched in some form of recognition, and she disappeared again behind the gate.
I had met Nguyen Thi Tra less than a year before, when she taught Vietnamese at a summer-long intensive language course I'd attended in upstate New York. All the students adored her, not because she was such a fine language teacher--she was actually an economist drafted for a job outside her field--but because she had that rare and very lucky quality of being completely attractive. She was less than five feet tall, but maintained an energy that, even compressed inside that tiny body, could expand to fill a room.
Although Tra was Vietnamese, she was not an easy person to imagine living in Vietnam. I had only known her as a resident of the States, where she had been studying business at the University of Michigan for the past three years. America suited her well. There, she had guzzled diet Cokes, developed a preference for poppy-seed bagels, and become a jogger who worried about her weight. The only thing that tied her to Vietnam, it had seemed to me, was that she had a husband and young son who still lived there. I was anxious to see how this fiery spirit, so thrilled by America, would appear in Hanoi, an ancient city of crumbling colonial mansions and wizened old ladies who could make an afternoon out of staring at a foreigner.
I heard a squeal on the other side of the wall. The teenager pulled back the gate to reveal a young woman bounding toward me. She was wearing a burly white sweater, Day-Glo aquamarine biker shorts, and brand new Nike sneakers. With her hair pulled back into a high ponytail, she looked more like a college gymnastics star than a Hanoi wife and mother. I smiled. It was Tra. We passed the next minutes in a frenzy of loud, American-style greetings. The neighbors, the cyclo driver, and the teenage girl watched us as if we were enacting the reunion of long-lost sisters in a traditional folk play. "Don't just stand there," Tra said, finally, ready to drag me by the hand into her house. I paid the cyclo driver and grabbed my backpack. As the gate slammed shut behind us, I felt, for a moment at least, that I was safe.
The yellow, two-story house curled around the sides of a courtyard. The older section at the left looked over the high wall into the street outside and had the elegant symmetry of French colonial architecture. Behind it sat a more modern U-shaped addition, a utilitarian two-story structure with a balcony running the length of the second floor. Together in its two parts, Tra's house looked like a stately Paris mansion run up against a Motel 6.
The two of us stood in the blue fluorescent glow of the kitchen. We'd spent an hour or two catching up over tea and candy and now I'd offered to help cook dinner. Tra was planning to serve rice pancakes wrapped around grilled pork, a sort of Vietnamese version of the burrito. To accompany the dish, she was preparing a platter of rice noodles, lettuce, bean sprouts, sliced lemons, hot chilis, and a variety of herbs. Tra pushed a bowl of herbs in my direction.
"This is what you do," she said, the tone in her voice reminding me of the way she used to beat the blackboard with a nub of chalk while trying to explain some complicated rule of Vietnamese grammar. Today's lesson centered on a sprig of basil, from which she plucked off the smooth green leaves. "What do you call this vegetable in English?" she suddenly paused mid-demonstration to ask. Tra believed that her chances for success in the world outside of Vietnam were directly related to her aptitude in English. "Basil" was a word she needed to know.
"You should learn to say these things in Vietnamese, too," Tra said, after I had carefully pronounced "basil," "cilantro," and "mint" for her. Slowly, she said each word for me in Vietnamese, adding the names for several mysterious-looking herbs that sat before us on the table. The one called tia t, was maple-shaped, green on one side and royal purple on the other. Chewing the leaves, Tra said, would cure a sore throat. The rau ram had long, thin leaves and a spicy smell. Tra held it up and looked at me with one of her wicked grins, the kind of expression that she would describe as meaning, "I have something in my sleeves." Rau ram, she whispered now, "is for the monks to eat, so they won't want to have the sex." Then she dissolved into laughter.
I tried to pronounce the new words correctly, but I couldn't absorb a thing. At this point, I could hardly recall the Vietnamese for "eat" or "buy." Meanwhile, Tra stood next to me, slicing cucumbers and repeating "basil," "cilantro," and "mint" to herself as if she were trying to remember the recipe for some complicated salad.
I moved slowly through the bowl of basil. Back in the States, I might have rushed to finish such a task, but here I took my time. I didn't have anywhere else to go. Tra had described some possible rooms for rent, but nothing sounded promising. My great secret hope had been dashed when she told me that she didn't have government permission to house a foreigner. At this moment, Tra and her house felt like my only refuge. I picked through the basil carefully, hoping that if I were a good enough guest at least she'd invite me back.
Use of this excerpt from The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice:
Copyright (c) 2000 by Dana Sachs. All rights reserved.
What People are Saying About This
(John Balaban, author of Locusts at the Edge of Summerand Remembering Heaven's Face
Meet the Author
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Dana Sachs is a freelance journalist who has written for a number of magazines and newspapers, including Mother Jones, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Philadelpia Inquirer. She has translated Vietnamese novels into English and codirected the award-winning documentary about Vietnam Which Way Is East. A graduate of Wesleyan University and the MFA program at UNC-W, she teaches journalism and Vietnamese literature courses at UNC-W and lives with her husband and son in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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'If You Lived Here' by Dana Sachs is the gripping and lyrical story of the healing friendship between two very different women who travel together to Vietnam, assisting one another on their personal quests. One of the women, Xuan Mai, is a single Vietnamese-American who impulsively fled her family and a poverty-stricken Vietnam 23 years ago under the impetus of an almost unbearable tragedy. The other woman, Shelly, is a married white American from North Carolina who finds herself captivated by Vietnam when her desire to adopt a child leads there, also under very difficult circumstances. Together the two women, transformed by their individual (yet shared) dramatic journeys to their families, come to their own peace in Vietnam.