Friday, December 5, 2014

Living Abroad - Vietnam

The House on Dream Street by Dana Sachs

Dana was a journalist in San Francisco in 1989 when she and a friend decide to quit their jobs and go backpacking in Asia for 2 months. Right before they leave for this trip Vietnam was offering tourist visas to Americans for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War. Dana finds herself in love with this beautiful and complicated country.

She returns to live (not just visit) in 1992, she had taken a very intense immersion Vietnamese language class for a few months before she returns. But she still finds he language skills pretty lacking. Luckily, she has an ally in Vietnam, her teacher from the US, Tra has moved back to Vietnam and will be there to help her along.

Dana moves into a guesthouse very near Tra. Her landlord is Tung, a savvy smooth talking businessman who always talks about the time he spent in Germany; along with his with Huong (who speaks no English) and their son Viet. They have a bit of an awkward start (the American and Vietnamese versions of privacy and personal space are very different). However this family will become very important in Dana's time in Vietnam.

In Hanoi, different trades would group together and settle different parts of the city (fabric vendors in one area, bronze workers in one area). Dana's place is located in the area of Hanoi where all the bicycle mechanics congregate. (A Dream was a popular type of motorbike, hence the title.)  Many of the mechanics would come into the house and lounge and chat with the family throughout the day. One such mechanic is a thoughtful young man named Phai, he also becomes an important part of Dana's time.

One thing that plagues Dana when she first moves to Vietnam is guilt she has as an American about the war. (Though - if I remember right- she was only 11 when the war ended). She worries about how people will react to have an American in their midst considering the war ended not long previously.She is never faced with open hostility because of this. Most of the Vietnamese that she talks to have strong feelings about fate and destiny and most have feelings that whatever death or unfortunate events that occur to them were just unhappy turns of unavoidable bad luck.

Dana has struggles. Though her language skills are improving everyday she often gets lost in conversations. People stare at her all.the.time. Perfect strangers warn her that at 29 she's getting to the "rotten fruit" stage where no man is going to want to marry her. She finds out that the regular (and secret) police have a keen interest in her and her friends and activities.

I didn't mind this book, I kind of wish I liked it more.  I think that the part of the problem is that I'm sure 1995 Hanoi and 2014 Hanoi are incredibly different places. I'd be interested to see a more updated "version" of this story. I give it a low 3 out of 5.

A very pretty cover though!

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