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Authors: Dana Sachs

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The House on Dream Street

BOOK: The House on Dream Street
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The House on Dream Street

Memoir of an American Woman
in Vietnam


Dana Sachs

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
To my friends in Vietnam,
for inviting me into their
lives and encouraging me to
write about it; and to Todd
and Jesse, for everything
In memory of Leah Melnick
A frog that sits at the bottom of a well
thinks that the whole sky
is only as big as the lid of a pot.



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



This is a story about Vietnam, but it’s not about the war there. It is a story about Vietnam much later, and about one American woman’s life in that country. It’s the story of a love affair with a place, a love affair that I never would have predicted.

I was born in 1962, and when I was a kid, the words “Vietnam” and “war” were interchangeable. People asked questions like, “When will Vietnam be over?” and, for me at least, such a question didn’t sound strange at all. I’d never heard of “Vietnam” except as war, and the place itself conjured nothing in my mind but dust and blood and wailing faces.

Of course the war did end, finally, after more than twenty years, and the deaths of fifty-eight thousand Americans and nearly two million Vietnamese. After North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of Saigon’s Presidential Palace on April 30, 1975, Vietnam became one nation, then it shut itself off from the Western world.

Nothing that had happened during the war in Vietnam had caused my family to suffer. My father had been too old for the draft. The people we knew who had served in the war hadn’t died, thank goodness, or even been injured. And now that it was over, Vietnam receded into history for me, which amounted to the few bits of information I absorbed when my harried American history teacher compressed all of Vietnam and Watergate into the last week of eleventh grade.

Nothing in my background hinted at the possibility of my falling in love with Vietnam. Then in 1989, when I was twentysix
and working as a journalist in San Francisco, a friend and I decided to quit our jobs and go backpacking through Asia. In Thailand a few months later, we found out that Vietnam, for the first time since the war ended, was offering tourist visas to Americans. We were hungry to go to a place that hadn’t been transformed by tourism (and travelers like us), and so we went.

Realistically, I knew no bombs would drop during that visit, but my imagination couldn’t get past television images of my childhood: screaming women in black pajamas, military jeeps roving city streets, and bomb-shocked children begging for food. Instead, I was confronted by a world in the midst of regenerating itself. I saw lush vegetation growing out of the broken carcasses of airplanes, and I met passionate, stubborn, intensely engaging people who, far from being beaten down by their past, focused limitless energy on constructing for themselves a less troubled future. We traversed the country during that month, from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, and in a way that no other place I’d ever visited had done, the country seemed to open its soul to me. I stood on busy sidewalks as teary-eyed young mothers held my hands and told me stories of their lives. I spent happy evenings laughing and guzzling beer with cranky old men, and lazy afternoons riding bicycles along quiet country roads with foreign language students who collected hip English phrases as obsessively as American teenagers collect CDs. I fell in love with Vietnam during that visit.

I spent most of the 1990s either living in Vietnam or figuring out how I could go back. I held a number of different jobs: I taught English, wrote a newspaper column, edited English-language radio broadcasts, led tours. More often, I worked for Hanoians, and my wages came in the ten- or twenty-dollar bundles for which my employers had scrimped and saved. Once, I contributed the voice-over narration for a documentary on the
production of silk. For that, I earned a few dollars and a pale peach blouse.

I never made more than what I needed to pay the rent. But I kept returning. It was memories, and moments, that drew me back: the feel of my rickety one-speed bike careering through the streets of Hanoi; the rich, woody smell of freshly steamed rice; my friend Huong and the way a smile appeared, like sun after rain, across her face. I missed the green, crashing summer storms and the way they managed to break the heat. I missed carrying home lunch wrapped in a banana leaf and a few recycled pages of some child’s homework. I missed sitting in cafés and drinking sweet sugarcane juice with Phai, the Hanoi man I would come to love. Over the course of all these years, some part of my soul reserved itself for Vietnam. When I went there, it became alive again. And when I left, it retreated.

      Not surprisingly, my personal life changed enormously over the next eight years. In 1995, I got married, and in 1997, I had a baby. I no longer had the luxury to take off by myself for Vietnam. I’d like to say that it didn’t matter, that, over the course of those years, my passion for the place had finally waned. But it hadn’t. I still wrote about Vietnam. Read about Vietnam. I still dreamed about it. Regularly.

In May of 1998, I went back, this time with my husband and son. The journey was long and complicated, demanding nearly thirty hours, crossing twelve time zones, and changing planes three times. Still, I forgot my fatigue when the jet finally touched down on the tarmac of Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport. As the other passengers on the plane hurried to pull their belongings down from the overhead racks, I held my son in my arms and turned toward the window, straining for a glimpse of what I knew lay
outside: deep green fields stretching off toward the hazy silhouette of Ba Vi Mountain. And there it was, just as I’d remembered, a view spread out before me beneath a rice-colored sky.

I had not always felt so sure of this place. Six years earlier, on a blustery day in early March of 1992, the view outside the window of the plane looked barren and uninviting. Staring out across the rice fields toward that unknown mountain, I’d felt alone and quite terrified. My plan to come here, which had once sounded like great adventure, now seemed foolish, like a game of pretend that I’d taken too far. I had nothing except a backpack and a wavering determination to build a life for myself in this place. Just those two things. And one address.

1. Through the Green Gate

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.

BOOK: The House on Dream Street
11.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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