Sunday, June 3, 2001
When an American writes about Vietnam, there's a presumption that war will figure largely.
That's why Dana Sachs begins her extraordinary memoir by saying: "This is a story about Vietnam, but it's not about the war."
Indeed, it's not. "The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 348 pages, $22.95) is, however, about conflict ï¿½ personal, social, economic, philosophical. It's about culture clash and the boundaries of "global" understanding.
As a young journalist, Sachs spent nearly two years in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. Her passion (some might say obsession) for the country began on a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, an experience that left her thirsty for a deeper understanding of the country whose very name had been a synonym for war in her 1960s childhood. She quenches that thirst by quitting her job and going to live in Hanoi.
Her book is about this "lark," this "just do it" adventure. Thus we find her in the Viet Cong capital in the early 1990s with little knowledge of the language, renting a room in a couple's home and slowly becoming part of their family. She also becomes romantically involved, briefly, with a working-class Vietnamese man, and her recounting of this experience, both fulfilling and harrowing, provides much of her book's dramatic tension and depth.
Sachs is a consummate diarist with the narrative gifts of a good novelist. The book is resplendent with detail ï¿½ from the minutiae of Vietnamese home interiors, to the odors and tastes of sidewalk noodle shops and urban markets, to the lively racket of motorbikes on the bustling streets of Hanoi ("Dream Street" in the title is a reference to the number of "Honda Dream" motorcycles near her house).
Her talent, however, goes beyond the diarist's recording of colorful detail to the raconteur's province of spotting a good story in the seemingly mundane.
Much of the charm of Sachs' memoir is in her unflinching honesty. As a tall, unmarried, Jewish-American woman approaching midlife, she is a conspicuous anomaly on the streets of Hanoi. Her appearance and situation excite a great deal of unflattering comment, and vanity does not prevent her sharing it with us.
In turn, she finds much that is unseemly in Vietnamese culture, namely repressive treatment of women and vulgar commercial opportunism, and she is not afraid to honestly discuss such matters, her very evident love of the Vietnamese people notwithstanding.
In the end, Sachs endears herself to the Vietnamese, and ultimately to the reader, not by "going native" as it were, or by attempting to cast off the cultural lens through which one people sees another, but by acknowledging the inevitability of that filter and celebrating the differences that it implies.
The genius of "The House on Dream Street" is that while it is a story about Vietnam, it is also a story about a stranger in a strange land, a story about Sachs and a story about America.