On April 21, a movie I wrote, “A Tourist’s Guide To Love,” starring Rachael Leigh Cook, will air on Netflix. The story follows an American woman’s journey as she travels through Vietnam, and with the help of her Vietnamese tour guide, learns to follow her heart and find the love she deserves. While it is a work of fiction, the inspiration came from my own real life love story.
My story begins in Barrington, RI, where I grew up as the youngest of six kids to a Vietnamese mother and a Boston Irish Catholic father. But the real love story goes even further back — to 1968, when my parents met in Saigon. My father, a naval officer and a poet, met my mother one night in a bar in the city through mutual friends.
She thought he had a beautiful smile. He thought she had a beautiful laugh. They flirted a bit and then went their separate ways. A classic meet-cute. It got even cuter a few days later, when my mom showed up at the government office where he worked. She said her motorbike had broken down, but after some more flirtation, she hopped on it and rode off without a hitch.
I watched all the romantic comedies and wished for the day when it would be my turn to be swept away.
A few days later, he showed up at the house where she lived and claimed his Jeep had broken down. He asked her out for a date, then drove off in his car. Clearly, the rom-com genes run deep in my blood.
My mother’s life, though, was more of a drama than a comedy. Born in central Vietnam, she was just a child when all the men in her family were killed. At 14, she was forced into an arranged marriage with a man from the neighboring village who was violently abusive. She had a child that same year and ran away with him to Saigon. When he became sick, though, she realized she couldn’t take care of her son, and so she went back to her village and left him with her mother before returning to the city. Her husband found out and took the baby; for years, she lost her son.
Like any true heroine, my mother did what she had to do in order to survive. She supported herself as a maid, then a nanny, then opened her own ice cream stand. She taught herself English off of old newspapers used to wrap fish. By the time she met my father, she had her own black-market money-laundering business. After just a few dates, they both knew that this was no ordinary wartime romance. My father extended his stay twice, so he could be with her and eventually left the Navy so he could marry her. They’ve been together now for more than 50 years.
So this was the love story that I grew up inspired by. No pressure, right? It didn’t help that I was never the girl that got the boy. I was the friend, the sidekick, the shoulder people came to cry on when their own love lives turned tragic. I watched all the romantic comedies and wished for the day when it would be my turn to be swept away, carried off to my happy ending in the glow of sunsets and fireworks.
The year I graduated from college, I went to Vietnam for the first time. My oldest sister wanted to have her wedding there, so the whole family went. Growing up in my mostly white town, I had never felt very connected to my Vietnamese identity. Meeting my very large extended family for the first time made me feel connected to my mother and myself in a way I had never felt before.
A few months later, my sister and I decided to go back to Vietnam for a five-week trip. I was so excited to go back. That excitement turned to heartbreak, though, when my college boyfriend broke up with me two days before I was set to leave.
I was a wreck for the first week of our trip. But then — as we traveled through the country — I realized that it was the best thing that could have happened. And I learned that although it had been a good relationship and he was a nice guy, we never would have worked long-term. By the last week of my trip, I was happy to be single. No man for me. I was in love with life!
And of course, as all good rom-com fans know, this is the moment when you meet The One.
It happened when my sister and I were in Hanoi. One night, we walked into a restaurant and there was nowhere to sit. A group of four guys offered us a seat at their table.
One of the guys was a dreamy Canadian surfer named Brad. He’d been backpacking around Asia for a year and had just arrived in Hanoi that day. The group of us spent the night hanging out, dancing and drinking. Brad and I spent the week together. He was supposed to be my holiday fling, my rebound.
But in that week, I knew I would never be the same. With him I felt a freedom and passion for life that I had never felt before. I realized that I didn’t have to settle for what I was given, what was expected. That I could and should want more. That my heart was worthy of a Big Love.
My life, literally, became a movie.
When I left Vietnam, I thought I’d never see him again. He was heading to China and Japan, and I was going back to New York. But just like my parents, I knew this wasn’t just a fling. That summer, I was driving cross country and went to visit him in Banff, up in the Canadian Rockies, where he’s from. When I told my mother where I was going, she said, “He could be crazy!” But so was I, it turns out. We were crazy together and crazy for each other. I was finally, at long last, the leading lady.
Our rom-com life didn’t end there, though — we kept the adventure going. We spent time in Costa Rica, then lived in Japan for two years teaching English. After a few months in Indonesia, we went to South Africa to get our Yachtmaster Offshore certification.
We then spent a few years in Rhode Island, but eventually sold everything and set out in our VW van, living in it for a year while I pursued a career as screenwriter. Nine years ago, we welcomed a daughter, a quirky scene-stealing sidekick who is forever adding both comic relief and drama to our love story.
Last April, we traveled to Vietnam to visit the set of “A Tourist’s Guide to Love.” It was an amazing experience. I hadn’t been back in 20 years, and it had changed so much. I got to see my whole family again and introduce them to my husband and child.
Image Source: Netflix / Sasidis Sasisakulporn
One of my aunts still lives on the family farm where my mom grew up, and I watched my daughter play with chickens and thought about how my mom had played with chickens in the exact same place when she was a kid. Watching my white-presenting daughter connect with her Vietnamese heritage was so powerful.
Another magical moment came when we visited the set and saw scenes that had lived in my head for so long finally come to life. I told my daughter, “You can have big dreams, and they can come true.” Someone pointed out that my idea had brought millions of dollars into the Vietnamese economy and provided jobs for hundreds of people and legitimized the local film industry on an international scale. I’ve never felt prouder. My life, literally, became a movie.
We spent the last days of our trip in Hanoi. Brad and I wandered the streets near the lake where we had fallen in love all those years ago. Turning a corner, I looked up and saw a wide patio balcony. I felt shivers and I knew. That was the place where we met. Brad looked at me and I could tell he knew, too.
No longer a bar, it’s now a coffee shop called the Timeline Cafe, and walking onto that patio it truly was a time machine. I remembered the exact moment I first saw Brad. I thought of the years in between and the adventures we’ve shared. To be standing there, now with our daughter, it was happier than any Hollywood ending I could ever have written.
So if you are reading this, just know that love doesn’t follow a script. That broken heart or bad day might just be the plot twist you need to turn the page. You never know where you will find fireworks. You are the star of your love story. So keep writing. Because life is a journey, and love is the destination.