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

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

During our stay on Cat Ba, we stayed in two separate hotels. First, we stayed at the Hai Long Hotel. We had a spacious room with a view of the water and breakfast was included. At 600,000VND (for a triple room) per night, it was one of the more expensive places we stayed yet still under budget. This hotel was really nice by Vietnamese standards but it still had some oddities. For instance, our bathroom had a bathtub but no shower curtain, making it essentially still a wet bathroom. Also, the elevators smelled like gasoline and the hot water was heated with coal brought in by the employees through the lobby. Overall, it has a great location in town and was a better option than other hotels we looked at (and better than the other hotel we stayed in).

We spent one night at Le Pont. While the amenities at Le Pont are wonderful (great views, 20% off already affordable food and drinks, and a less congested location but still walking distance to town) the rooms were another story. Kyle and I splurged for the bungalow, which was nice since it had its own bathroom, but the bed was really hard (much like most beds we slept in while in Vietnam). Also we weren’t given any sheets and the pillows had mold growing on them. Because the bungalow is located near reception and a lounge area, light poured into our room throughout the night. For $22USD, we expected more given that our usual room cost about $27USD a night for all three of us.

Rheanna had a similarly bad experience with her private room ($10USD). It was separated from the dormitory by only a slatted wall, which did not block sound at all. She was pretty sure that her bedding had not been changed between her and the previous guest. Also her room was located right behind the bar at Le Pont, which sometimes has music blaring into the wee hours. Le Pont has great reviews online, so if you still want to stay there I would give this advice: in the low season, arrive before booking a room and only stay on the left side of the reception area. There is a ramp up to the bar area on the right and that is where most of the dorm rooms and private rooms are located. The left side was significantly quieter when we were there then the right side. The views from Le Pont are beautiful, so if you are going to stay there, spend some time enjoying it. We had two day tours planned and therefore really didn’t get to enjoy the view.

While on Cat Ba, we took two day tours around Ha Long and Lan Ha Bays. We had saved some money by staying on land at night and going on different tours during the day. Plus, the weather was not amazing while we were there, so the overnight on a boat would not have been clear or warm. We took our first day tour with Asia Outdoors because we’d heard they were the best and worth the extra money. On the tour of Lan Ha Bay, we boated for about an hour, kayaked for 1.5 hours, then had a delicious lunch. After lunch, we boated around for another hour and then kayaked for one hour. Our guide for the day was named Fouk and while he was nice and he answered our direct questions, he was not very forthcoming with the history and make up of the nature surrounding us and provided minimal instruction on how to kayak . He also didn’t have a commanding presence over our group. The tour was fun and I felt safe on the boat, but I expected more out of the tour. At a cost of 495,000VND per person for a double kayak and 600,000VND for a single person (which did not necessarily mean you would get a single kayak if you wanted it), it wasn’t the stellar experience I hoped for. Maybe I have been spoiled by great guided tours in the past (see blog entries for Canada and  Maine).

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The scenery of Lan Ha Bay was stunning.
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One of the many floating villages we passed while out on our boat tours.

The next day, we took another day tour (one that was offered at Le Pont Hotel) which included boating, kayaking, a visit to Monkey Island, and lunch on the boat. For $16USD per person this tour did not include an English speaking guide but the plan for the day was just as unexplained as the day before with Asia Outdoors. We were first dropped off on Monkey Island for one hour with no mention of the fact that the monkeys are somewhat aggressive and will try and take your objects out of your hand. Thankfully, we knew this ahead of time and were prepared to guard our belongings closely. We then boarded the boat again and later kayaked for the first time with the guide for about an hour. The afternoon kayaking session was 40 minutes long and our guide did not join us in the water. Lunch was provided and was just as tasty as the lunch we had with Asia Outdoors. All in all, it was roughly the same tour for a lower price. We were just happy to be out on the water for day.

It did not seem like we could haggle the tour price at Asia Outdoors though we definitely had to discuss the price that we saw on their website versus the price they were quoting us. As for the other tour, we definitely got a discount from Le Pont but found out that others on the tour were able to get it a bit cheaper ($15USD per person instead of $16USD per person). I’m not sure what you can get away with in high season, but we definitely tried to haggle down prices everywhere we went.

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Seeing monkeys up close was fun but also nerve-racking as they had no fear of humans and were very interested in taking the things that belong to us.
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Here we are returning from an hour of kayaking. Back to the junk boat for us to eat some tasty lunch.

The Vietnamese food in Cat Ba wasn’t amazing but if you do a little searching (and get off the main street near the water), the options get better and cheaper. We did eat and drink at a restaurant/bar called the Flightless Bird Bar. The drink prices were good (Vietnamese liquor and soda for 28,00VND) and the pizza was delicious. Just past the Flightless Bird Bar there is a little Vietnamese place with phở, bún, and rice dishes that were really tasty and the prices were great, about 35,000-40,000VND per bowl.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

General Notes on Australia

–While in Australia, keep in mind that pedestrians do not always have the right of way in crosswalks. Cars will not stop for you when you crossing in a crosswalk unless it is striped. If driving there, be aware that the driving lanes seem to be more narrow than in the U.S. I felt like we had a few close calls with semi-trucks while on the highway.
 
–Lunch is served from around 11:30am – 2pm in most towns and cities. As you get into smaller towns, most restaurants and cafes close or stop serving food after these hours. We ran into this more than once. Thankfully, we had snacks in the car to sustain us. Also, Tipping is not necessary but is always appreciated. I only tipped when I felt that the service was better than normal or if the server was very attentive.
 
–Alcohol is quite expensive in Australia. I recommend bringing some with you. Allotment information can be found here.
 
–Pharmacies (chemists) can provide you with many over-the-counter options for basic medical issues (colds, aches and pains, etc.), but these remedies are not cheap. A bottle of cough suppressant can cost around $20 AUD. Obviously, illnesses cannot always be predicted but taking a basic first aid kit and OTC medicines with you can save you some money.
 
–Each state has its own tourism website which has lots of helpful information. Be aware that each Australian state is rather vast, so sometimes the site will recommend towns or attractions that are nowhere near your chosen location. Still, it was a great resource for National Parks, accommodations, and attractions. Here is the website for New South Wales.
–For those of us with credit cards issued by American banks, beware of Australia’s rules regarding credit cards. Most credit cards have a chip and a PIN making them more secure for the credit card companies, the merchants, and the users. Currently, the United States does not offer chip and PIN cards, rather we use a signature to validate our use of the card. While visiting Australia in November 2014, I had multiple merchants deny my credit card because I did not have a PIN. It seemed as though this was a new rule change because I did not encounter it everywhere. Eventually, I began asking if my credit card with signature would be accepted before the purchasing process began. U.S. banks are slated to offer credit cards with chips by October 2015, but most will be chip and signature, not chip and PIN. Check with your bank prior to travel and be prepared to use cash. Click here for a news article discussing this issue.
General Notes on Australia

Roadtrip from Sydney to Canberra

We headed out of Sydney and drove down through the Royal National Park. We were hoping to get close to the coast on this route, though that turned out not to be the case. The drive through the park was green and lush, but no sea view was had. I think if we were to do this again, I would take the M1 to the town or Waterfall or Helensburg and then cut over to the coastal road from there. Once we made it to the coastal road, we drove through quaint little towns right on the water. Most had beaches and parking tended to be free.

Enjoying the tidal pool

We eventually made it as far as Wollongong before we looked for a place to stay. Along the way, we searched Airbnb.com and were lucky enough to find Jack’s place right near the beach. At $161 USD per night for four people, the apartment was a great deal. Street parking was free and we were right across the road from not only the water, but also from a public pool and a man made tidal pool.

For dinner, we ate at The [M]eatery. We decide that if we couldn’t be home for American Thanksgiving, we would gorge ourselves on multiple meats instead of the traditional turkey. We had been told that is was a pricey restaurant, but I thought it was reasonable for what we received and how full we were when we left. At about $40 AUD per person, we ordered a shareable platter of meats, a few appetizers, desserts, and drinks.

While we weren’t in town long, but we did enjoy some time at the Crown Street Mall. In the afternoon, we stopped in a little bar and restaurant called His Boy Elroy for happy hour. It’s a small joint with great drink options and a diverse menu. We returned to the mall the next morning (a Friday) for a craft fair which was set up right between the two main buildings of the mall. I thought combining a traditional shopping mall with booths for handmade crafts and produce was a wonderful idea.
 
Also while in Wollongong, we visited the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple. This is not just a single building, but an entire complex of breathtakingly beautiful structures. As I was not dressed appropriately (I was wearing shorts), I did not go into the prayer halls or other buildings. Instead, I peered in from the doorways and wandered the grounds which are beautiful and serene. The visit was free and was a calming change from the hustle and bustle of Wollongong.
Nan Tien Buddhist Temple in Wollongong

Continuing south along the coastal road, we finally made it to our first real destination of this roadtrip-Murramarang NationalPark. This park is off the main road and is not so much a national park as it is a publicly owned coastal area. When driving in, keep an eye out for kangaroos bouncing about. This is one of a few places where you can see kangaroos grazing on or near the coast, sometimes even hanging out on the rocks near the water. Keep in mind that kangaroos are nocturnal so going early in the morning or in the early evening is best. We arrived around 4 p.m. and were able to watch them hangout in a large grassy area behind some homes. We got as close as they would allow (about 50 feet) though we kept in mind that they are wild animals. According to Wikipedia, they don’t tend to be aggressive, but we didn’t want to take a chance.

Roadtrip from Sydney to Canberra

Sydney, Australia

While visiting Sydney, a local told me, “Sydney is a great city to be in if you have some money in your pocket.” Without it, it’s a tough city to enjoy since your money doesn’t go very far. We stayed in the Rocks area of Sydney for our first few days. We used points to stay at the Holiday Inn on George Street. We only stayed one night here and since it would have cost us a pretty penny (about $400 USD a night), we took advantage of being so close to the action and the sites. We also took at advantage of their rooftop pool and hot tub with amazing views.
View from the rooftop pool at the Holiday Inn

While in Sydney, we took a free walking tour which was advertised everywhere. It took about 3 hours starting in Hyde Park and ending just under the bridge in the Rocks. It was informative and helped us to understand the area. Our guide also gave us recommendations on things to do, things to skip based on price, and an overview on how the buses, trains, and ferry systems work.

I also took the tour of the Sydney Opera House and while the building itself is inspiring, I don’t think the $37 AUD tour was worth it. You are told of the history and shown a handful of the theaters inside but I think my money would have been better spent towards a ticket to see a show.
The Sydney Opera House from afar
After two days of sightseeing, we headed south for a few days but returned later in the week and stayed this time at the Holiday Inn in Pott’s Point. While the hotel (paid for on points again) was further from the Central Business District and some of the sights, it wasn’t too far from Hyde Park and had much more affordable restaurants and bars that actually honored the practice of happy hour. The average bar offered $5 AUD beers and glasses of wine during happy hour. There were also a lot of lunch deals for around $10-12 AUD. Once of these was Boca Grill on the corner of Victoria Street & Liverpool Street. I ordered a glass of wine and an empanada that was enormous for a total of $10 AUD.

We took the obligatory trip to Bondi Beach which is beautiful and the place to be seen. Public parking at the beach costs $7 AUD per hour. When we headed back into town a few days later, we also visited Manly Beach which was much more laid back and not as built up.
Sydney, Australia

General Notes on New Zealand

–While we were excited to visit a country where English was widely spoken, there were still a few things that tripped us up and that we had to learn along the way. We found that most causal restaurants did not have servers, but instead, customers ordered at the bar and meals were brought to your table. Tipping is not necessary but is always appreciated. I only tipped when I felt that the service was better than normal or if the server was very attentive.

–Pedestrians do not have the right of way when crossing at a crosswalk unless there is a traffic light indicating your right of way. There may be some crosswalks where pedestrians can cross safely but we didn’t find them. Once we figured this out, we were much more cautious and only crossed the street at a traffic light. Also, cars drive on the right side of the road so I tried to train my brain to look both ways whenever I crossed a street. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

–Finally, most lakes in New Zealand have a pathway around the perimeter for wonderful views of the area. It’s also a great way to take in the beauty and get a little exercise.

Enjoying one of New Zealand’s beautiful lakes
General Notes on New Zealand

Roadtrip from Christchurch to Queenstown, New Zealand


On the route to Queenstown, we made a few stops to enjoy the scenery. At Lake Tekapo, there is a stone church just on the banks of the lake. It’s a great place to stop for photos or have a picnic lunch. We then drove down around Lake Pukaki and north up its western edge to reach Mt. Cook.

Lake Pukaki
Mountains overlooking Lake Hooker

From the parking lot and visitor’s entrance of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, there is a well maintained trail to Hooker Lake. It takes about three hours and is 5.5 miles round trip. I would categorize this as an easy hike as it’s not very hilly. The trail goes through the valley and not up Mt. Cook. There are a few suspension bridges over a river and wooden walkways built over grassy land. When we hiked this trail, it was cold, windy, and rainy but the views along the way were breathtaking.

After our harrowing hike to Lake Hooker, we needed to find an affordable place to stay for the night. We had not booked anywhere in advance, so I Googled a few hotels while en route to the towns of Twizel and Omarama. We settled on a hotel in Omarama called the Countrytime Hotel. Walking into the lobby and the rooms was like stepping back in time. This was probably THE place to go in the 1960s. Since then, not much has been updated. There was a radio built into the wall near the bed, and the counter top, which held a small fridge, was carpeted. Despite the hotel’s dated appearance, the staff were very inviting and accommodating. There is a dining room for meals and a bar and lounge area where we hung out most of the night huddled around a roaring fireplace. The views from this gem were amazing and at $98 NZD for a double room on www.booking.com, it was a great deal. It was definitely one of our favorite places we stayed during the trip.

In the morning, we went down the road for breakfast at Ladybird Hill Cafe, a place known for allowing you to catch your own fish and then pay $38 NZD for the restaurant to cook it for you. We did not choose this option. Instead, we ordered from their regular menu and were pleasantly surprised with delicious sandwiches options. At around $10 NZD per meal, it was a great deal and awfully filling. We also did a wine tasting while we were there. After breakfast and wine, we headed farther south to the town of Wanaka. We stretched our legs by walking around town and then along the lakefront for a few hours. It’s a wonderful little town to visit. If I had more time, I would have liked to stay a few days to explore the town, the winery up on the hill, and to enjoy all of the water sports they offer on the lake.
On the shores of Lake Wanaka
Later, on our way north back from Queenstown, we detoured to St. John’s Observatory. The observatory has amazing views overlooking Lake Tekapo and houses the Astro Cafe. We did not eat at the cafe, but the views from the top were well worth the slow winding drive up.
Roadtrip from Christchurch to Queenstown, New Zealand