The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam

The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam

by Dana Sachs
The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam

The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam

by 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565128729
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 09/08/2000
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: eBook
Pages: 368
File size: 2 MB

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


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 tô 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.

A hinge creaked and I looked up to see the husky teenage girl peek in through the door of the kitchen, then disappear again.

"Tra, who is that girl?" I asked.

"That's Lua," Tra said. "She's from the countryside. Her family's very poor, so she came here to work for us."

"The Vietnamese government lets people have servants?" I tried to place this in the context of Marxism.

"Of course," said Tra. "We could always have servants." She explained that, in the past, if a family had servants the government would consider it an exploitation of labor, but as the economy started to pick up, no one cared as much.

The girl was back, eyeing me again through the doorway. Lua was taller than average, with a physique that in another decade might have hiked the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, one more able body in the intricate network that supplied the Communist forces down south. Now, her family probably spent its days bent double in the rice fields, backs burning in the sun. Lua had managed to get away from all that, taking up the less strenuous life of a servant in the city. She didn't look like either a fighter or a farmer. No famous black pajamas. No conical hat. She had on pink pastel pants and a frilly yellow top. Perhaps she was wondering why I wasn't wearing a pith helmet and a flak jacket.

I pulled together a few words in Vietnamese. "My name is Dana," I said to Lua. She giggled and ran away. I looked at Tra quizzically.

Tra dumped the last handful of cucumber slices into a bowl. Wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, she said, "She's never been so close to a foreigner before. She's scared."

"What can I do?" I asked.

"You can't do anything. People from the countryside, they don't know anything about foreigners." Tra gave a wave of her hand that showed her impatience with Lua's lack of sophistication, then she looked at me for a moment. "I was thinking about something the other day. What is the word in English for a person with a nice face, so nice that it means good luck for their children?"

I thought about it. "I guess we would say a nice face."

"No. It's more than that. In Vietnamese we say phúc h?u, a face that means good destiny."

"I don't think we have a word for that in English," I said.

Dissatisfied, Tra pulled a handful of greens from my bowl and began to tear them apart impatiently. Despite her years in the States, she hadn't realized that the concept of destiny is not as important to Americans as it is to Vietnamese. Tra took destiny, and the role it played in people's lives, for granted. I, on the other hand, never thought of destiny at all. It wouldn't be long before I began to realize how fundamental it was in Vietnam.

I couldn't sleep at Tra's, but her neighbor across the street, Nhung, had permission to rent rooms to foreigners. Nhung's place was clean and convenient, but I didn't fancy the brand-new carved wood furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, or the price, which seemed to reflect the cost of the opulent surroundings. On the bedside table, perhaps to entice me to stay longer, I found a plate of bananas and oranges with a little note that said, in simple Vietnamese, "Enjoy! All of this fruit is a gift for you, and you don't have to pay for it." For a long while, I lay sideways across the imperial bed, eating a banana and staring at the ceiling. I'd lived in Hanoi for more than eight hours, and so far, I reminded myself, things were going just fine. On the other hand, I'd spent seven of those hours cloistered inside Tra's house, and my hour-long journey from the airport had felt a bit dicey. I considered the fact that, for as long as I lived in Vietnam, I would always stand out in a crowd — bigger, paler, and richer than everyone else.

Maybe I was a little out of my league as an independent traveler. I doubt that Paul Theroux or Graham Greene got shaky every time a group of old women stared at them from across the street. Eric Hansen, author of Stranger in the Forest, trekked through the jungles of Borneo — facing wild animals, debilitating ailments, and the constant danger of getting lost — and then he turned around and trekked right back. A guy like that wasn't likely to quake when a cyclo driver demanded a better price.

But women and men, in general, experience travel in very different ways. A man carries a certain cachet in international society. He's the explorer, and although locals might question his behavior, they're not likely to question his very right to travel. When women venture into foreign societies, we often throw ourselves up against the hard surfaces of traditions that aren't flexible enough to accept us there. Simply by daring to go, we break a taboo. Many local men regard breaking one taboo as license to break another, or so I had learned from a hotel bellboy in Thailand, who sat down on my bed, expecting sex as a tip, and from the tour guide who couldn't keep his hand off my thigh, and from the sweet older man in North India who suddenly grabbed me from behind and tried to kiss me. Women travelers have to move through the world very carefully.

Sure, I'd heard about the woman who rode a camel by herself across Australia, but I didn't know any women (or men, for that matter) like her. Most of the women I knew who traveled had to overcome huge obstacles in their own psyches before they even packed their bags. Growing up, I'd always considered myself a physical weakling. When I started to travel, I realized I had to either find my own strength or stay home. One of my most exhilarating experiences had been a very mundane one. It was my first day alone in Asia and I was terrified. My backpack felt like a small child hanging from my shoulders. At the airport bus stop, someone pointed out the bus I needed to go to Bangkok. I watched the vehicle pull alongside the curb and slow down and then realized it was never going to come to a full stop. With my pack bumping along behind me, I jogged to the open door, grabbed the metal bar at the side of it, and pulled myself up. I was still hanging over the side when the bus sped away. For one eternal moment, my arm muscles competed against the weight of the backpack and I knew that I could either pull myself into the bus or allow myself to come crashing down onto the street. With a strength I didn't know I had — a powerful combination of desire and fear of disaster — I pulled myself into the bus.

For me, success in travel had always depended on that mix of desire and fear. Desire got me to buy the ticket, and fear of failure kept me from cashing it in. Coming to Hanoi was no different, except that the stakes were higher. My desire to live in Vietnam was so absolute that I could not imagine any other way to spend the next great chunk of my life. Fear, on the other hand, made me think that if I failed at this I'd have to take it as a general sign of failure in life. I pictured Eric Hansen, setting off into the wilds of Borneo, confronting the challenge of nature. But I wasn't Eric Hansen.

It was nearly midnight. I rolled my banana peel into a little ball, tossed it onto the bedside table, and switched off the light. Upstairs, I could hear the landlady's family watching TV. A dog in the house next door let out a whiny howl. I calculated the time difference between Hanoi and San Francisco — fifteen hours — and fell asleep.


The House on Dream Street

THAD VISIONS OF RENTING A LITTLE GARRET in an old villa built by the French. I didn't want anything big, and I could live with creaky doors and peeling paint, as long as I had a view of a tree or two. I pictured renting a room from a big family full of wise grandmothers and cooing babies. I would help them celebrate their weddings, and if someone died I would be with them to share their grief. This house would be my entry point into the culture and customs of Vietnam, and at the end of each eventful day, I would climb the stairs to my quiet little garret, where I would look out at my tree and reflect on what I had learned.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. Garrets, Tra explained, were hard to come by in Hanoi and seldom rented out to foreigners. Though the city had many villas, most were decrepit tenements that lacked such amenities as indoor plumbing. The families lucky enough to have government permission to rent rooms to foreigners were generally the people building the shiny new houses springing up all over town. I might have to make do with something a bit less quaint, Tra told me, but I'd be happier with the plumbing.


Excerpted from "The House on Dream Street"
by .
Copyright © 2000 Dana Sachs.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Through the Green Gate,
2. The House on Dream Street,
3. Navigation,
4. The Four Stages of Love,
5. Pilgrims,
6. War Stories,
7. Liberation Days,
8. A Typhoon and a Full Moon,
9. Private Rooms,
10. Dreams, and Waking Up,
11. Shifting Positions,
12. New Arrivals,
13. Firecrackers on Dream Street,

What People are Saying About This

John Balaban

Really, I know of no other book that enters so thoroughly into the live of Vietnamese. A wonderfully told story, full of bright, telling details of endurance, risk, and romance. Sachs has seen Vietnam as few Westerners have: from the other side of the mirror. ‘Go out one day," the village proverb says, "and come back with a basket full of wisdom.
—(John Balaban, author of Locusts at the Edge of Summerand Remembering Heaven's Face

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