Vietnam Calling!

1st Jun 2014
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 1/14 by Camille Willemain
In Hanoi
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 2/14 by Camille Willemain
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 3/14 by Camille Willemain
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 4/14 by Camille Willemain
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 5/14 by Camille Willemain
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 6/14 by Camille Willemain
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 7/14 by Camille Willemain
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 8/14 by Camille Willemain
An Bang
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 9/14 by Camille Willemain
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 10/14 by Camille Willemain
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 11/14 by Camille Willemain
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 12/14 by Camille Willemain
Ha Long
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 13/14 by Camille Willemain
Photo of Vietnam Calling! 14/14 by Camille Willemain

Today I woke up to the sound of motorbikes honking. They wove past women balancing baskets of lime, ginger, and tropical fruit. Indiscernible chatter in a foreign tongue followed by laughter echoed up the walls to my window.

Good morning Vietnam.

Less than four decades ago my hippie parents sported long hair and peace signs and protested the war that many Americans and Vietnamese remember daily. In fact even the phrase “enjoy your time in Vietnam” sounds foreign to my mother’s ears.But wandering the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter eating streetside pho with the locals and watching tai chi classes at sunset on the lake Hanoi does not feel like a place tied down by its past.

It feels like a place of possibility.

"Where I am the farthest I have ever been from home.

Where I do not speak the language.

Where I am traveling completely on my own.

Where I do not know when I will return."

How I arrived to Hanoi

Airport shuttle

$5 flat rate

Rather than deal with a taxi, they have caused me many problems in the past, I walked right over to the shuttles that take passengers into the center of Hanoi about a half hour from the airport. Everything I researched online said $2, but after the longest day of travel of my life and an asking price of $10, I settled for $5. If you’ve got more people it could be worth arranging a shuttle through your hotel or hostel.

How to Get to An Bang

Most people base themselves in nearby Hoi An and spend the day in An Bang. From Hoi An Old Town, head away from the river on Hai Bai Trung. Follow the road for about 4km and you will reach the beach. Ignore the women blowing whistles shouting at you to park your bike. You can park it for free on the road behind the beach.

I walked for hours through tiny streets dodging cars, motorbikes, and bicycles. I stared at strange shops, ate strange food, and let myself be a total stranger in this strange land. This is the beating heart of Hanoi, maybe even Vietnam.

Photo of Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

$2 admissionThis beautifully preserved temple is a great place to observe Vietnamese architecture and sit in a sunny courtyard to rest your weary feet.

Photo of Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

$1 admissionAn excellent museum for any city in the world, the Women’s Museum houses a large collection of traditional costumes, jewelry, and housewares to demonstrate life and customs for women in Vietnam. They currently have an exhibition dedicated to the Mother Goddess religion in Vietnam.

Photo of Hoả Lò, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

This was hands down my favorite place in Hanoi. To my fellow Seattleites it reminds me a lot of Greenlake. I went there every day I was Hanoi to escape the stimulation of the city and stare at the beautiful temple. The lake is the best place for people watching. Joggers make their laps, older women do tai chi, and men lift weights and do pull ups. At sunset couples line the lake taking photos of one another. The temple on the bridge at the North end of the lake is a peaceful place to sit and ponder.

Photo of Hoan Kiem Lake, Hàng Trống, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

The water puppet theater performance truly exceeded my expectations. Water puppetry originated in Northern Vietnam by villagers living in the rice fields. Hanoi’s water puppet theater has stage filled with water to replicate the tradition. While the performance is done in Vietnamese, the artistry and music is stunning and entertaining without words. The theater is quite small, so even the cheap seats are good.

Photo of Water Puppet Theater, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

$2 to $5This restaurant seems too good to be true. The enormous menu features Vietnamese specialties from all over the country in an open, airy, beautiful space and it costs next to nothing. Different cooking stations line the restaurant so you can walk around the perimeter for a food tour of Vietnam. My favorite dishes I tried here were the green papaya salad and the ban xeo (crispy fried crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts served with rice paper, fresh herbs, and lettuce).

Photo of Quán Ăn Ngon, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain
Photo of Quán Ăn Ngon, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

$3 to $7 Hanoi is a city that loves its meat, so it was nice for me to find a place with a vegetarian menu. The space is really cozy, the perfect spot to chill with a book or do some blogging. I had an amazing juice that was reasonably priced for less than $3 with beets, carrots, and ginger. They also had a wide selection of salads and other healthy meals.

Photo of Tamarind Café, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

$3 to $7 This darling little café is definitely a tourist/expat spot but we all need these meccas when traveling. The menu has a selection of salads and other healthy dishes, including energy balls, and this is the only place I’ve found in Vietnam with brown rice. Check their schedule for nights when they have live music.

Photo of The Hanoi Social Club, Hàng Bông, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

$4 to $8 This is the one truly healthy place I found to eat in Hanoi. It’s definitely pricier than other restaurants and cafes, but it’s totally worth it for truly organic whole food. I had a pot of fresh, hot ginger tea with lime and honey, a green super smoothie, and a pumpkin chia seed burger on whole grain bread. All were amazing. The café is also connected to a yoga studio which offers daily classes.

Photo of Zenith Cafe, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

$7.50 for a dorm bed, $25 for a private roomIf you’re traveling solo and hoping to meet other backpackers, this is the place to stay. Nightly events, pub crawls, high quality tours, and an Australian staff make it an approachable place to begin your travels. They have a new hostel with great facilities smack dab in the old quarter with an onsite bar and restaurant. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, the original location is much more chill. The price includes a small breakfast of either eggs or fruit salad.

Photo of Hanoi Backpackers Hostel the Original, Ngõ Huyện, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

$6 for a dorm bed, $18 for a private roomLittle Hanoi quickly felt like home. The staff speaks excellent English and is so nice and accommodating, the rooms are as nice as a high end hotel, and they offer free coffee, tea, and fruit all day. The breakfast is satisfying with fruit, made to order omelets, bread, rice, noodles, and veggies. They also have a great location in the Old Quarter.

Photo of Little Hanoi Hostel, Hàng Gà, Hanoi, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

Waves crash violently, drowning the hushed screams of children who play along the shore. Hammocks sway under huts made of bamboo and woven palms that rustle in the gentle wind.Reggae music and French chatter emanate from the beachfront bar where I sit drinking from a coconut, my feet covered in sand. In the distance islands struggle to appear through a thick haze. Fishermen steer in the rough sea aboard the small round boats used by their people for centuries.

Local women sweep debris from the sand, covered head to toe in garments to block the rays of the sun. A few wander my way selling peanuts and boiled quail eggs. The sun is behind me now shielding sunbathers with its dramatic shadows. I exchange shy smiles with the French bartender, who is quite possibly the most beautiful man I have ever seen. My time in Vietnam has not been easy, but today I feel filled with such hope I could explode. I feel gratitude for my incredible life that I am so blessed to be living.In one week my visa in this beautiful, complicated, fascinating country will expire. I never thought I would say this, but I don’t ever want to leave.

Photo of An Bang, Hòn Gai, Quảng Ninh Province, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

Few budget accommodations exist in An Bang, but if you want to stay at the beach it’s worth the splurge. An Bang Seaside Village Homestay has beautiful little cabins starting at $50 for two people.

Photo of An Bang Seaside Village Homestay, Hoi An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

Part of the charm of An Bang beach is that there are only a few little bars and restaurants lining the beach. My favorite place to hang out is Le Banyan Bar. The place is owned by two French couples who could not be more friendly. My first night here they were already inviting me to meet them in Bangkok and letting me hold their baby. Oh, and did I mention how beautiful the bartender is? Right, it needs to be said again. Come at sunset for a young coconut or a glass of French wine.

Photo of Le Banyan Bar, An Bang, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

The legend goes that the people of Vietnam were born from the union of the dragon and the fairy. The dragon rose up from the sea and onto the Earth to unite with the fairy of the mountains. Together they created one hundred sons. When the dragon returned to the sea, fifty sons followed to live thousands of feet deep in the oceans. Once Vietnam became threatened by Chinese invaders in the North, the Gods summoned these dragons to resurface.They released jewels and jade from their mouths creating islands across the bay, forming a great wall of protection. As the mother dragon made her way onto the Earth, she fell so heavily that deep valleys formed and filled with water when she plunged back into the sea.The peaks left behind became the region known as Ha Long or “where the dragon descends to the sea.”For thousands of years ancient civilizations lived in these jungle covered limestone islands surrounding the bay. It is in this labyrinth of channels that the Vietnamese stopped invasions from its coastal neighbors. Many years later it was through these same waters that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees fled Communist rule en route to Saigon. Today communities live on and from the sea in floating villages.A UNESCO world heritage site and one of the new Wonders of the World it has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in all of Southeast Asia.Tourists cruise across the bay snapping photos, passively observing the surreal beauty and foreign way of life.

Photo of Ha Long, Quang Ninh province, Vietnam by Camille Willemain

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