Enamored of Vietnam

Interview by Allison Martin

Dana Sachs (author of The House on Dream Street, If You Lived Here and other popular books about Vietnam) describes her attraction for Vietnam and her favorite Vietnamese places.

What is it about Vietnam that attracts you so?

Dana Sachs: I could answer this question in so many ways, because so many things attract me, but there's one thing I keep coming back to. When people ask me what was the hardest thing about living in Vietnam, I talk about the lack of privacy, the fact that Vietnamese don't value personal space in the same way that Americans do. That used to drive me crazy. I felt like I could never be alone. People were always looking over my shoulder, watching me, coming into my room without even bothering to knock on the door. But the flip side of that lack of privacy is the fact that people are so much more interconnected in Vietnam than they are in the States. People watch out for each other, they keep an eye on each other's children, they even want to know if you remembered to eat lunch or not! Even though it's invasive, I loved feeling that I was a part of a household, a neighborhood, a city, this great complicated web of lives that make up Vietnamese society. America feels very isolating compared to that.

Could you describe a one or two of your favorite moments or places?

Dana Sachs: In my book I describe the hours and days I used to spend just sitting around in the living room of the house I lived in in Hanoi, hanging out with the family, drinking tea, watching the children play. There's nothing very dramatic about those experiences, but they forced me to slow down and focus on simple things in a way I hadn't been able to do in the States. So, those were some of my favorite moments. Favorite places? I love nothing more than going out into the countryside and exploring the ancient villages of the Red River Delta around Hanoi. Life there hasn't changed very much in hundreds of years. The scenery is spectacular. I especially love to go to two villages with extraordinary pagodas: Thay Pagoda and Mia Pagoda, both of which are within a day's drive of Hanoi (you can see both in the same day--and Tay Phuong Pagoda as well, if you're very energetic.)

What advice would you have for adoptive parents who have a few extra days in Vietnam?

Dana Sachs: Well, as I say, I'd go out into the countryside. It's an entirely different side of Vietnam from what you find in the cities.

What advice would you have for people who wish to stay in Vietnam for longer periods?

Dana Sachs: Learn some Vietnamese! I know that it sounds overwhelming when you first learn how the language works, but it can be enormously rewarding. You just have to set reasonable goals--"I want to learn greetings" or, "I want to learn to order food." It doesn't really matter what you say. The key is trying to communicate with the Vietnamese people. When you start speaking Vietnamese with a Vietnamese person the entire tone of the relationship changes. They are so charmed by your effort that it brings out a different side of them. I don't think anything gave me more joy than being able to talk to people on the street in Hanoi. What we said was not important (we often exchanged no information except our ages and how many children we had!). The important thing was that we were speaking to each other. I think that Vietnamese take it as sign of respect for their country and culture if a foreigner makes the effort to learn their language.

What are your future projects?

Dana Sachs: I'm at work on two projects right now. First, I'm editing Crossing the River, an English translation of short stories by the Vietnamese author Nguyen Huy Thiep. He's a fabulous writer and this collection is full of wonderful stories. Second, I'm working on a novel about an American woman adopting a Vietnamese baby, If You Lived Here - A Novel. So the Adoptive Parents Vietnam listserv you manage has been enormously helpful to me!

Dana Sachs is the author of The Life We Were Given, House on Dream Street, If You Lived Here, and other popular books.