Over the Moat Love Among the Ruins of Imperial Vietnam

James Sullivan




Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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In the fall of 1992, James Sullivan travels to Vietnam to bicycle from Saigon to Hanoi. He has just finished graduate school and has an assignment to write a magazine story about a country that is still subject to a United States trade embargo. But in Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam, the planned three-month bike trip takes a detour. Here, in a city spliced by the famed Perfume River and filled with French baroque villas, he finds himself bicycling over a moat to visit a beautiful shop girl who lives amid the ruins of the last imperial dynasty of Vietnam. She falls for him, but there's a catch. Several other suitors are vying for her hand, and one of them is an official with the city's police force. Over the Moat is the story of Sullivan's efforts to win Thuy's favor while immersing himself in Vietnamese culture, of kindly insinuating himself in Thuy's large, tight-knit family, and of learning how to create a common language based on love and understanding.


Praise for Over the Moat

"Near-perfect . . . Sullivan's description and characterization are deft and sure, and his dialogue crackles, carrying always an emotional subtext . . . The book is a masterful blend of travelogue, love story, memoir, and cultural anthropology, with a dash of guidebook and phrasebook thrown in. Let's face it, the fairy-tale romance is no longer enough. We want entire lives with the structure and resonance of fiction. Over the Moat, Sullivan delivers two and more such lives. Ten years from now, I hope to read the sequel to this book, the flip side, the States-side, the return, the dis-Orientation. In the interim, I'll settle for any story Sullivan wants to tell."—The Boston Sunday Globe

"This book is, in large part, about abandoning long-held assumptions about love and romance. And it is also about the influence a landscape can have. Hue, the city that 'the Vietnamese loved—unconditionally,' is in many ways the defining figure in the book. Sullivan captures its character in exacting prose, making Over the Moat an essential entry in the canon of expatriate literature."—Amy Kroin, The Washington Post

"James Sullivan has written a brilliant, intimate account of desperation. Cast within the layered textures of contemporary Vietnam, this is a vivid book with irresistible underpinnings: desire and discovery."—Lewis Robinson, author of Officer Friendly

"Over the Moat tells a tale we sorely need to hear at this moment in history. This true story of an American man and a Vietnamese woman gives us a vision of how to reach with love across the boundaries of race and culture in the aftermath of war. Elegantly written, redolent of our universal humanity, this is an important book."—Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

"A Vietnamese girl behind a shop counter in the city of Hue gives a young American one year to win her heart—what a wonderful premise for a novel. But Over the Moat isn't fiction; it's a true story. Sullivan's tenacity, passion, luck and the purity of his love comes through in his prose, and he has succeeded admirably both in the telling of this story and in the living of it."—Abraham Verghese, author of My Own Country and The Tennis Partner

"Over the Moat is a fine piece of writing. Here is a story about modern Vietnam. Here is the much celebrated city of Hue. Here are two lovers trying their best despite language and culture to merely and genuinely be in love."—Larry Heinemann, author of the National Book Award-winning Paco's Story

"Here is a book that carries us on a thoughtful journey along the crowded boulevards of dreams and the unlit paths of love and human understanding, in a distant place where we turn a corner and catch an unexpected glimpse of ourselves. It is a gift."—Don J. Snyder, author of The Cliff Walk

"Sullivan is the best kind of guide—adventurous, intelligent, and desperately interested. Over the Moat takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the country and the culture, never letting us forget that, as Americans, we're just visitors."—Stewart O'Nan, author of The Names of the Dead and editor of The Vietnam Reader

"While bicycling through Vietnam and writing about his experiences for a magazine, Sullivan (of Irish New Englander descent) meets Thuy, the daughter of a shopkeeper in Hue. He becomes her English-language tutor and thus begins a long, involved courtship. [Over the Moat] records their struggles with two cultures over the next few years, bouncing among Vietnam, Bangkok, and Quincy, Mass. Their blooming lrelationship runs up against a number of obstacles, from getting to know each other's culture to the interference of a rival local suitor (also a key government official) to a bout with hepatitis to Sullivan's gaining permission to stay in the country and marry . . . [A] revealing account of Vietnam just before diplomatic relations with the United States were restored, but essentially [this] is the personal story of two people from different and sometimes conflicting societies struggling to find common ground."—Harold M. Otness, formerly of Southern Oregon University Library, Ashland, Oregon, Library Journal

"A recounting of the author's courtship of his wife-to-be in the ancient Vietnamese city of Hue. In the fall of 1992, shortly after graduating from the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Sullivan went to Vietnam with an assignment from Bicycling magazine to write about biking from Saigon to Hanoi. He was looking for local color to flesh out the piece when he first encountered Thuy in her exotic native city. She wanted to learn English; his interest was caught and held from his initial vision of her traditionally dressed in a graceful ao dai . . . [Yet] it was clear from the outset that their relationship would be complicated. Thuy's family had very traditional values and beliefs—her mother, for instance, insisted that she tightly braid her long hair before going out in the evening so that 'ghosts will not fly in there'—and she respected them. The U.S. trade embargo on the reunited country's communist government worked against Jim in subtle ways. It was a 19th-century courtship; Thuy's initial refusal to even shake his hand put physical contact well back on the calendar. When the first kiss finally arrived, Sullivan writes, 'A tiny gasp escaped between us. It could have been her; it could have been me.' But there were other persistent gentlemen callers, and one of them, a Hue police officer assigned to monitor foreign travelers, took Jim's success personally. The ensuing complications afforded the author a Kiplingesque take on the community of marginally depraved Western expats going to seed in Bangkok, where he waited in agony for bribes and paperwork to interact. Cultures clash, but love conquers, with some fascinating twists and plenty of intimate details."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



  • James Sullivan

  • James Sullivan was born and raised in Quincy, Massachusetts. He attended Colby College and received his graduate degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He lives with his wife and their two children near Portland, Maine.