Vietnam Travel Advice from Dana Sachs, Author of If You Lived Here

Interview by Allison Martin

Author and scholar Dana Sachs discusses how adoption is viewed in Vietnam, with advice for Vietnam travel.

How has Vietnam changed since your earlier book, Dream Street? What remains the same?

The obvious changes are economic. You see more motorbikes, more commerce, more  expensive clothes. When I first visited Vietnam in 1990, there were almost no places for a foreigner to eat. The few restaurants that existed were very simple and cheap. Now, you see restaurants all over the place in the cities, and--most interestingly, to me--the clientele is often predominately Vietnamese (not just wealthy foreigners), which means that there's a growing middle class.

The subtler changes I notice often have to do with people's time. People are much busier than they used to be, often juggling several jobs at the same time. Andrew Lam, a Vietnamese-American journalist, has pointed out that Vietnamese have adopted the American word "stress" into their vocabulary. I think that's fascinating.

How do Vietnamese people view adoption?

That's a hard question to answer because I don't feel I can speak for all Vietnamese and I haven't done any kind of organized study on the subject. I can say a few things based on what I've seen there, though. Domestic adoption is still very limited in Vietnam and international adoption is something that people don't seem to know much about. When I've spoken to Vietnamese people about international adoption, they've often told me that they think the children are "lucky" because they will be going to live in wealthy countries overseas. They have a very practical attitude that, I think, reflects the fact that Vietnam is still a poor country and that orphans don't have much of a chance there. I wonder if people will continue to feel that way as the country becomes more developed, or if they'll start to see other options that they think are better for those kids. It's hard to know.

What advice would you have for Americans (or other nationalities) traveling to Vietnam to adopt?

For the most part, I would offer the same advice that I'd offer anyone traveling to Vietnam. Don't worry too much. Wander. Allow yourself to get into conversations with local people, from whom you can learn a lot. Try different foods. For adoptive families, this trip might be the only link their child has to Vietnam for a long, long time, and at some point, I imagine, the child will ask questions about the place. It's wonderful when families have stories to tell about their visit there. Children love to look at photographs, scrapbooks, babybooks, and souvenirs. I would think that anything from the trip would be a treasured item.

What was the inspiration for your novel? What did you wish to achieve?

Many things inspired me, but one of the main things was my own desire to have a child. I began constructing the story in my head in 1996, when I was first trying to get pregnant. I'd been to a fortune teller in Vietnam a few years before. He had told me that my attempts to have a baby would be difficult, so I was already thinking of adoption as an option. As it turned out, I didn't have any serious problems getting pregnant or carrying a child (so much for the art of fortune telling!). Still, adoption remained an idea that intrigued me a lot and part of me would really love to do it. Fiction is a kind of fantasy fulfillment, so I got to indulge my own desire by writing Shelley's story.

My main goals were literary. I think that you have to concentrate on those goals first. There are great novels that focus on politics, or philosophy, or great goals of humanity, but I think that, first and foremost, those novels tell good stories and that's why we want to read them. If my novel helps to broaden people's understanding of adoption, or Vietnam, or the nature of friendship, then I'll be delighted. But my main goal was to tell a story that would interest people, and to introduce characters whose predicaments they would care about.

This interview is reprinted from the Chao Ban Vietnam Adoption Newsletter. Dana Sachs is the author of The Life We Were Given, House on Dream Street, If You Lived Here, and other popular books.