General Notes on Vietnam

-Unless a price is specifically written out (and sometimes even then) know that almost everything is negotiable.

-Before ordering any food, ask the price and make sure that you understand what you are getting for that price. We had many vendors who would show us the bill corresponding with the cost when we would ask “how much?” (bao nhiêu in Vietnamese, pronounced bow n-you)

-We were occasionally quoted a price that was inflated tremendously. When we countered with a lower price they would usually take it immediately. I read that the Vietnamese expect and appreciate a good negotiation. They do not consider it rude. We found this to be true. In some countries, the negotiation seems like a way to try in a rip you off, but here it is seems more like it’s what they think they can get away with. When you press them, they’re fine with a lower price. This is not to say that you won’t run into people whose plan is to try and separate you from your money. Be cautious and always ask questions.

-Most of our taxi drivers spoke very little English, so we were thankful for the small amount of Vietnamese that we had learned. The taxi drivers also do not seem well versed in explaining what they are doing or where they are taking you.

-Only ride in taxis with meters and tell them to turn it on. We used the taxi company Vinasun exclusively as they have a great reputation and an app for your smart phone.

-When researching this trip I came around many accounts of travelers renting motorbikes (motorcycles, Vespas, etc.) even though it is technically illegal to do so. What I didn’t grasp until we were in the country was that motorbikes were the only real option for independent travel outside a city. While I am glad that we did not rent motorbikes as we had no prior experience riding them (and we met far too many travelers with motorbike injuries and accident stories to tell), I did not like that this limited in our transportation options. In Hoi An and Tam Coc, we were able to rent bicycles cheaply, but could not cover the distances that a motorbike could. On Cat Ba, the hills were too much for a mere pedal bike and the only other option for getting around the island was by tour bus. Before I visit Southeast Asia again, I would take the time to become more familiar with motorbikes and how to ride them safely.

– Taking domestic flights within Vietnam was definitely worth the money to save some time. We flew VietJet Air three times with the average price for a one-way flight at $53USD. Beware that the site is buggy and it took me multiple tries to book tickets on each attempt. The trains take too long when trying to cover long distances. The sleeper bus is doable if you’re short in stature and small in build, but if you taller than 5’8” you’ll have a hard time fitting in the reclined seat.

 

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Here I am in a sleeper bus seat. I am 5’3″ tall so I fit but my husband and our friend (who are both much taller than I am) did not fit comfortably in their seats.

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– Consider using a trip to Vietnam as a cheap shopping opportunity. Need new t-shirts and flip-flops…why not get them there? If you’re looking for custom dresses, suits, etc., it might be worth more of a look than we gave it. Even for everyday things (sandals, umbrellas, etc.), it’s usually way cheaper to get them in Vietnam than at home. Also, the pharmacies in Vietnam offer most pharmaceutical drugs over the counter. When we needed Cipro and cough medicine we bought it there and the prices were cheap.

– It was easier to find triple rooms in Vietnam than it has been in other countries. This was great since we could usually split a hotel room three ways and it was only a bit more expensive than all three of us staying in a dorm together (along with others).

– As a traveler you cannot drink the tap water in Vietnam. Thankfully, you can find bottled water everywhere. Just shop around in each town or city you visit to find the going rate. The best deal we came across was 6,000VND for 1.5L of water.

-Vietnam is an amazing country to travel in when you are on a budget. The cost for my husband and I for this three week trip was just under $2,000USD which includes all of our flights, food, transportation, etc. We definitely could have spent even less than we did in Vietnam, but we wanted a few creature comforts once in a while; privacy, a clean bathroom, imported wine, and hassle free transportation in the form of taxis and faster ferries.

– As Americans traveling to Vietnam, you need to have a visa to enter the country and it is advised that you obtain the visa before you get to Vietnam. When we went looking for visa information, we were directed to a website (http://vietnamembassy-usa.org/consular) and email address (dcconsular@gmail.com). Having the visa in our passports when we arrived saved a lot of time, energy, and confusion.

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General Notes on Vietnam

Tam Cốc, Vietnam

We had a crazy travel day getting to the town of Tam Cốc. We took a morning train from Hue to Da Nang (70,000VND for a one-way ticket). Next, we took a Vietjet Air flight from Da Nang to Hai Phong. The plan was to then take a taxi from the airport to the bus station and, if we could, get a bus to Ninh Binh that night. If not, we’d stay the night in Hai Phong.

We hopped in a taxi at the airport and told the driver to take us to the bus station that would get us to Ninh Binh. While in the end he did get us to the correct bus station, we thought he was taking us on a wild ride instead of to the bus station. After arguing with the driver about the metered fare, we made it just in time to hop on the bus going to Ninh Binh. We arrived in Ninh Binh around 11:15 p.m. I want to point out that I am by no means recommending this route; I included it so others know that it’s possible.

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I believe we were taken to the new bus station (starred on the map) to catch a bus to Ninh Binh. The taxi driver told us the old one had closed.

We had booked a hotel while en route since it was going to be late when we arrived. (Did I mention it was also raining?) We chose the AIQ Hotel because it had the best reviews of the budget hotels in Ninh Binh (around $20USD a night), but the hotel was not nice at all; smelly bathroom, mold on the walls, and hard, moldy beds. Thankfully, we were only there to sleep. The next morning we took a taxi to Tam Cốc.

We stayed at a hotel called Tuấn Ngọc Hotel in Tam Cốc. It’s located just outside of town with wonderful views of the karsts. A triple room with a small private balcony, a large common area balcony, air conditioning, and breakfast cost 468,000VND per night. We stayed in Tam Cốc for three nights and made the best of our time there even though the rainy weather tried to hold us back.

During our time in Tam Cốc, we walked to some of the pagodas, temples, and caves. Our favorite day by far was when we rented bikes from our hotel (40,000VND per bike) and rode out to Thung Nham (also known as the Bird Sanctuary). We rode through the amazing beauty of this place and hiked when bikes wouldn’t do (like when entering the three caves near the front of the park). The entrance fee was 110,000VND per person. While in the bird sanctuary, we took a short boat trip into a cave. It lasted about 20 minutes and cost about 20,000VND plus tip. We decided to take this boat trip instead of taking the one that leaves from the middle of Tam Cốc. We did not have a single clear day while in Tam Cốc so we passed on paying the 390,000VND for two people because we were already getting the same views of the karsts on our hiking trips and our bike ride.

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Enjoying the boat ride, the view, and being off our feet even for a short while.
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A walking bridge in the Bird Sanctuary.
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Kyle and I enjoying the view and resting for a minute.

The food in Tam Cốc was not amazing though was reasonably cheap as it is a hot spot for day tours from Hanoi. Shop around and find a cheap option or you could be surprised by a large bill.

When we left Tam Cốc, we headed to Cat Ba Island. To get there, we booked a bus and ferry combination from our hotel in Tam Cốc. It cost 350,000VND per person and while it was expensive it seemed like the best option. We had read that ferries heading to Cat Ba Island left from the Ben Binh port in Hai Phong, but in actuality only the fast ferries leave from Ben Binh and arrive in the port at the center of Cat Ba Town. The slow ferry (which is what we paid for) leaves from another port in Hai Phong and arrives on the Bến phà Cái Viềng port on the west side of Cat Ba Island. Returning to Hai Phong from Cat Ba, we took the fast ferry (180,000VND instead of 130,000VND for the slow ferry) which dropped us off at the Ben Binh port.

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This is the Ben Binh port in Hai Phong where the fast ferries to and from Cat Ba Island leave. The fast ferries arrive at the port in Cat Ba Town, not on the edge of the island.
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This is where the slow ferry arrives from Cat Ba Island and leaves from Hai Phong.
Tam Cốc, Vietnam

Athens, Greece

I spent three days in Athens so I definitely didn’t cover the entire city. It is a city full of ruins and history but also full of lovely restaurants, shops, and cafes around every corner. We took a free walking tour while in Athens which lasted about three hours and we saw a lot of site. Our guide Marija was very helpful on explaining the history as well as what modern day life is like there.

The best souvlaki we had in Athens was at a little place called Souvlaki Kostas. The line was out the door and we definitely had to wait about 15 minutes to order, but it was worth it. Also, a handful of Greek words definitely helped though the man cooking and taking orders did speak English to me (I was the only foreigner in the joint).

While I was only in Athens for three days I would love to return and spend more time seeking out the hidden bars and quaint restaurant to see what the nightlife in Athens is really like. Here are a few websites that I found helpful.

http://athensguide.com/nightlife.html
http://athens.angloinfo.com/whatson/
http://www.athensfreewalkingtour.com/afwt/index.php/en/

Note: If you are flying in or out of Athens’ airport during the day, take Metro to and from the airport to save yourself a lot of money. The average cost of a taxi from the city to the airport is about €50. There is, however, a bus that runs 24 hours a day. Here is the link for the stops and schedules. At €5 a person, it is well worth waiting for the bus. But, note that it only makes stops going in one direction so check the bus stops on both sides of the street before waiting. 

Athens, Greece

Rila Mountains, Bulgaria

We landed at the Sofia airport on a cool October afternoon and made a beeline for the Sixt car rental counter. We’d booked a car for seven days for 107€. After some issues with the first car’s engine (thankfully I’m a wary traveler and knew not to take the car that was violently shaking when started), my husband and I were off to the Rila mountains. The drive was pleasantly smooth and road signs were usually in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.

We arrived at the Rila Monestary at 5 p.m. and asked about staying in the monastery itself. It took a few minutes and all of our horrible Bulgarian language skills, but we did it. We met one of priests who lives at the monastery and he gave us the option of a room with a shower (25BGN per person) or without a shower (20BGN per person). We chose the latter to save a little money. The room had 5 cots, a table and chairs, and a sink. There were also some beautiful carved wooden wardrobes and a lovely painted ceiling. While the room had electricity, it did not have heat. The temperature that evening dropped to 44 degrees Fahrenheit. We made due by sleeping under all of the wool blankets from the five cots and wearing a lot of clothes.

This is the church in the center of the Rila monastery.
This is the church in the center of the Rila monastery.
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Our room at the monastery.

The monastery does not offer meals, so we walked over to Hotel Tzarev Vrah (through the North gate of the monastery) for dinner and breakfast the next morning. The food was tasty, although nothing to rave about, and the prices were reasonable. We split a generous sized shopska salad, each ordered a meat dish, each had a drink (beer and wine), and split a rakia for about 31BGN total.

While in the area, we hiked to the Seven Lakes. If you are in Bulgaria, you need to do this. It’s one of the most beautiful and magical places I have ever been. To get there, we drove to the chair lift. We had planned to take the chair lift instead of hiking the 1.5 hours but we found out that it only runs on the weekends outside of summertime. Our other option was to take a ride in a Jeep from a man that hangs out nearby for this exact reason. We decided to do it as it was already 1 p.m. and we wanted to make the hike that day. The Jeep ride, round-trip for two people, was 50BGN. This is definitely not budget friendly but we went for it. Once we got up to the top of the ski lift, the man with the Jeep gave us his card and told us to call him when we were ready to come back down the mountain.

The center sign is for the chair lift. This should also get you close to the trailhead for the Seven Lakes.
The center sign is for the chair lift. This should also get you close to the trailhead for the Seven Lakes.

We started the hike up the hill, then the path flattened out for about 30 minutes. From here, you can see three or four of the lakes. We then hiked another 45 minutes up a rocky mountainside. It took us about two hours from the top of the chair lift to the point above all seven lakes. If we were to hike from the bottom of the ski lift, round-trip it would have been a seven hour hike. We made our way back down to the Rilski Ezera Hut and hopped in the Jeep. I do want to make it clear that the Jeep ride was incredibly bumpy and unnerving for those who are not use to off-roading. While in reality the ride down took only 25 minutes, it seemed to take forever as I feared we would tip over. I also want to note that the Rilski Ezera Hut seemed to be closed for the season, but I cannot be sure of this.

After hiking, we spent a few minutes in the car to make a plan of where to stay that night. It was 5 p.m. and we didn’t have accommodations. We picked a guesthouse room (40BGN a night for a double room with bathroom, balcony, and access to a communal kitchen) on Booking.com in the town of Sapareva Banya. The room was lovely, as was the owner of the guesthouse. We only stayed one night but this would have been an ideal base for exploring the Sapareva Banya area.

The next day we packed up into our VW Polo and headed back up the mountain to find the trail head for Skakavitsa waterfall. This was hard to find, but we did it! We parked at the Zeleni Preslap Guesthouse (Google Зелени Преслап to find the location or follow this link to the Booking.com for the location) and walked up the trail that kind of looks like a gravel road. In high season, you might want to ask about leaving your car there but in mid-October there were only two cars there and no people. From the guesthouse parking lot, the hike to the Skakavitsa Hut took one hour. Once again, it seemed like the Skakavitsa Hut was closed for the season but I cannot be sure. From the hut to the waterfall is another 30 minutes. While the trail starts off very flat and road-like, it makes a turn and you are quickly in a pine forest. From there, it’s all uphill to the hut. Both the Seven Lakes and Skakavitsa hikes were some of my favorite experiences in Bulgaria. They were well worth the effort and energy. If we had more time, I would have loved to stay in one of the huts overnight.

Look for signs like this along the hiking trails.
Look for signs like this along the hiking trails.
Rila Mountains, Bulgaria

Rangeley, Maine

Over Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I visited friends in the small town of Rangeley, Maine. Before we made the drive to Rangeley, we started our tour of Maine in Portland. We picked up some friends at the airport and then grabbed drinks and snacks at The Thirsty Pig, where we were greeted by happy hour and an extensive sausage selection.

Happy hour at The Thirty Pig
Happy hour at The Thirty Pig

Afterwards, we piled into the car to make the 2.5 hour drive to lakes region of Maine. We stayed with friends in the village of Oquossoc, just a ten minute drive from the town of Rangeley. Both town and village are on beautiful Rangeley Lake and are a great base for exploring the region. While in Oquossoc, we visited a few bars in town, including the Four Seasons. It was a casual, laid back place with friendly bartenders and great deals. We had high hopes of checking out Moose Alley, the local bowling alley in Rangeley, but we never made it. We’ll have to go there next time as we heard good things about the friendly staff and great food.

The beauty of Lake Rangeley
The beauty of Lake Rangeley

While in Rangeley, we were introduced to the owners of the Farmhouse Inn. They have  hostel-like accommodations for hikers trekking the Appalachian Trail as well as private rooms with kitchen facilities. The entire property is so lovingly built and maintained by the owners. They are remodeling the existing structure and building new structures with reclaimed materials when possible. For photos and more information, please check out their Facebook page. Though we did not stay there, I cannot express how impressed I was with the projects they are working on and their warm hospitality during our visit.

We also enjoyed the outdoors as much as we could and took in all of the natural beauty Maine has to offer. We hiked up Bald Mountain (worth the climb). We also hiked Cascade Falls (also locally called The Cascades) and crossed paths with a young moose! Both locations are part of a local land trust and therefore are free of charge.

We had to slowly walk by this young moose to continue on the trail while also keeping an eye out for the mother moose.
We had to slowly walk by this young moose to continue on the trail while also keeping an eye out for the mother moose.

We also took a boat tour on Rangeley Lake with Kevin Sinnett, Captain of the Oquossoc Lady (rangeleylakecruises.com). Lounging on the boat while taking in all the beauty was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Mr. Sinnett also offers a few private suites right on the lake. Check out the website or you can use Airbnb.com to book a suite. When we visit Rangeley again, I know we have lots of options of where to stay to enjoy this awe inspiring part of Maine.

The view from the boat.
The view from the boat.
Rangeley, Maine

Buses in Mexico

The bus systems in Mexico is a great way to get around the country with safe, affordable, and comfortable service. We found that in the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo, the colectivos are more organized and better operated than what we have experienced in other Mexican states (namely Chiapas) and other Central American countries (namely, Guatemala and Nicaragua). For instance, the colectivo we took from Playa Del Carmen to the Cancun bus station cost $34 MXN per person, then an ADO bus from the Cancun bus station to the airport (which leaves every 15 minutes) for $64 MXN per person. There were group shuttles from Playa Del Carmen direct to the Cancun airport cost around $20 USD per person.

In Playa Del Carmen, the colectivos gather near the park at 20 Avenida Notre and 2 Calle Norte. They don’t leave until they are full but this happens quickly. Also, the drivers had uniforms which, in my opinion, makes them seem more legitimate. But with this legitimacy comes higher prices. For example, when in Bacalar, we went to the bus station to ask about times and prices for getting to Mahahual. The Mayab bus cost would have cost $74 MXN each way with only two buses leaving every day whereas a colectivo driver said that the ride on his bus (which comes about every hour) would cost $70 MXN.

We took buses from ADO stations in both states and were very happy with the service, the condition of the buses, and the prices. When we looked at the ADO schedule online, only ADO buses are shown. But there are actually four bus companies that work out of the ADO stations we visited; ADO, Caribe, Mayab, and Oriente. Sometimes, we found that there were more buses running than what was listed on ADO’s website, sometimes not. We made a habit of going to the station and asking to see the timetable on the ticket agent’s computer. While this does not help to plan ahead of time, it was helpful when planning our next move.

Buses in Mexico

Renting cars in New Zealand and Australia

In Australia and New Zealand, cars are driven on the left hand side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right hand side of the car. For those of us who are not already use to this, it takes a lot of concentration to drive. Even if you think it’s bothersome or not necessary, I recommend having a passenger be a backseat driver with reminders. Having an annoying backseat driver is better than the alternative of causing an accident. During my visit, there was an ongoing debate amongst locals about tourists renting cars and causing devastating accidents. See one article here
Four of us and all of our luggage fit into our Toyota Corolla.
New Zealand has a website which offers helpful information for anyone driving in the country. I have looked for this kind of information from other countries when I have rented cars abroad I and never found a site so thorough. 

Taking all of this into account, I would still recommend renting a car to travel around either country. If you have room in the budget (in November 2014, a gallon of gasoline was $8 USD) and if you are pressed for time, it’s the way to go. I spent a total of seven days on the south island and am so glad that we had a car to get around quicker than using public transportation. We would routinely pull off the main road to explore the parks, hiking trails, or other natural beauty that these amazing countries have to offer.
We found this river after pulling over in one of the many National Parks in New Zealand.
Over the three weeks of my visit, we rented four cars. The majority of the time, we rented from Budget. We were happy with their service and pricing. We were also interested to find out that Budget does not charge extra for additional drivers. We also rented one car from Hertz. Hertz allows additional drivers who share the same address as the primary driver to be added without an additional charge. Do beware that in Australia both companies charge a fee for a mandatory toll transponder for the rental car. We were not allowed to opt out of this charge.
Renting cars in New Zealand and Australia