San Jose, Costa Rica

We headed down to Costa Rica for our nephew’s Spring Break which also happened to be Holy Week. While we would not have chosen this time frame, it’s what we had to work with. Over the next few weeks, we bounced back to San Jose to say goodbye to family and say hello to a friend who was joining us for the second half of our trip. In total, we spent six nights in San Jose.

We spent our first two days wandering the city and getting a feel for the place. We ate in the central mercado which was pretty tasty. It’s not a huge market but was fun to wander through and find a crowded soda to eat in. We also wandered through the artists’ mercado a few blocks away which was worth a look.

We took the free walking tour that begins in front of the National Theater at 9am, rain or shine. It was not one of the best free walking tours we have been on, but we received some interesting history about Costa Rica and the capital.

For our first few nights in the city, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Aurola on reward points and while the hotel was incredibly nice and we really enjoyed our stay there, I cannot comment on its cost and value. Note to those who might stay at this Holiday Inn; there seem to be multiple hotels in San Jose called ‘Holiday Inn.’ When we typed the name into the Uber app, multiple locations popped up. I would recommend using the location of Park Morazan which is in front of Holiday Inn Aurola.

We we returned to the capital a week later and checked into a small hotel called Kekoldi Garden Hotel. It is located a few blocks north of the Holiday Inn. We had a lovely stay with a cost of $50USD for a double room. Our room was modest but comfortable. The real draw of the hotel is the enclosed garden which most of the rooms face.

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The garden is a small oasis in a bustling city.

I think the only draw back to staying in this area of the city is that most restaurants and shops closed around 8pm leaving very few options of things to do at night.

On our last visit to San Jose, we chose to stay in the upscale barrio of Escalante. While the bars and restaurants in the area are not budget friendly, it was a nice change to have somewhere to go in the evenings. We stayed at the Hotel Finca Escalante which is located just steps from some amazing bars and restaurants.

Of all of the options in the neighborhood, I definitely enjoyed Impar and Apotecario the most. While neither were what I would call cheap, they both had delicious options and were a nice change from standard Costa Rican food. At Apotecario, we had the chile con carne, a deliciously flavored soup, the Mediterranean plate, and a round of drinks for about $20,000CRC. We grabbed lunch at Impar and shared a few appetizers. And while the food totally hit the spot (octopus tostadas, mushroom lasagna, and meatballs with spinach), our meal cost about $17,000CRC.

We also decided to splurge a little more and check out some of the many beer bars around Escalante. I think our favorite was Casa Brew Garden as the setup was pretty interesting and the beer list was very extensive. We also visited Wilk Craft Beer and Lupulus Beer Shop. We stopped by the Costa Rica Beer Factory but left when we looked at the menu. The prices were just too astonishing for us to stay. We drew the line at an appetizer of bacon wrapped dates for $11USD.

We also checked out Mercado Escalante. It’s a collection of stalls serving different foods and drinks. I definitely recommend the pork sandwich stall in the back corner. Just pay attention and order under the Orden Aqui sign. There is another similar “mercado” down the street called El Jardin de Lolita. Both places are worth a visit.

While walking around during the day, we did notice that there were a lot of small restaurants with menu del dias on 9th Avenue right around a hospital. If I had more time, I would definitely check out some of these small coffee shops and restaurants as well.

Getting around San Jose is pretty easy on foot and Uber does operate in the capital. Now, if you want to leave San Jose, here’s where things get tricky. The bus system is incredibly decentralized. It seems like every bus line or destination has its own terminal which becomes very confusing. We took a bus out to the town of San Isidro and had a hard time finding the bus station because the bus that goes to San Isidro (in the province of Heredia) is not the same bus station for the buses that goes to Heredia.

map san isidro bus station

We wanted to visit the Toucan Rescue Ranch which is just outside of San Isidro. While the center itself was very interesting and the animals were well cared for, I’m not sure if the cost ($35USD per person) and the frustration of getting there were worth it. But I will pass on my knowledge so others can make their own choice.

Once we got off the bus in San Isidro, we grabbed a quick lunch at soda La Amistad. All the food was delicious but the server did not speak English. After lunch we asked a few people in town if there is a bus that goes down the main road, 112, so that we could take a bus closer to the rescue center as it is located about a 1.5 miles from town. Multiple people told us that no bus goes down the main road which seemed odd. We ended up taking a taxi which was about $2,000CRC. But of course once the tour was over and we started to leave, we realized that there are buses that go both ways down this major road. Here’s what I figured out: The route to and from San Jose to San Isidro is a loop. You enter town from one direction and the bus leaves going another direction. The buses that go toward the Toucan Rescue Center eventually make their way back to San Jose. So, when you take the bus to San Isidro, you can pay again and head down Route 112 in the direction of the rescue center and San Jose. If you are at the rescue center and want to head back to the city, just stand on the opposite side of the street and a bus will come get you.

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Note that the star in the top left corner is the actual location of the Toucan Rescue Ranch. The two stars on Route 112 are bus stops for the bus that will take you back to San Jose.

To get even more complicated, the bus terminal to get to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of the country is the North Atlantic terminal. This should not be confused with the bus station that is called Gran Caribe. Because it was Holy Week we bought bus tickets a day in advance. I am not sure if this was necessary but the schedule posted showed there was a bus every two hours but when we arrived at the bus station 20 minutes early, there was a bus leaving for our destination.

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If you’ve done any other research on Costa Rica then you have already read that every bus trip will take longer than expected. This is exactly what we experienced. Our 4.5 hour bus ride ended up taking 6.5 hours from San Jose to Puerto Viejo with only one bathroom stop. On the way back, the bus broke down for two hours with no information from our driver. I secretly think Pura Vida acutally means have patience.

 

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San Jose, Costa Rica

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.

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

Hoi An, Vietnam

After a couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City, we flew to Da Nang on Vietjet Air and grabbed a taxi to Hoi An. We had researched how to take a taxi or bus to the bus station in Da Nang and then hop on another bus headed to Hoi An, but once we did the math, it was only an extra few dollars for the three of us to take a taxi (410,000VND) and avoid the hassle of a bus station transfer.

We had planned to stay at the Hoi An Travel Lodge. It was on the higher end of our budget, but we were ready to try to negotiate the price down. Unfortunately, due to the Full Moon Lantern Festival being in full swing, the hotel was completely booked. We went in search of another comfortable, clean place to stay. We ended up at the Village Homestay on one of the smaller islands that makes up Hoi An. The room was spacious, had a small balcony, refrigerator, air conditioning, and cable TV. We were able to negotiate with the owners and paid 400,000VND per night. The family who runs the homestay was very helpful and really made us feel welcome.

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The lanterns displayed all over town were so cheerful. We were lucky to catch the end of the Lantern Festival.

After settling into our room, we walked around to scope out the town and, more importantly, the food. Many of the restaurants are more expensive than what we’d found in Saigon because Hoi An is a tourism hot spot. Ultimately, we were able to find some delicious, reasonably-priced restaurants both off the beaten path and right in the heart of the tourist area. We ate a lot of street food while we were there. Much like anywhere else in Vietnam, we would ask the price before we ordered just in case a high price was being quoted. We ate in the market a few times as well and found delicious phở and bún soups for about 20,000VND per bowl.

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Here a woman in the market prepares a tasty meal.

boats

While in Hoi An, we did not visit any of the museums or cultural sites, so I can’t comment on them. We did, however, rent bicycles one day (20,000VND per bike) and it was the best decision we made in Hoi An. We looked at a map and found some nearby islands that were connected by bridges and rode around for most of the day enjoying the countryside and taking in its beauty. The only issue we had with the bike ride was when we stopped in a town to get lunch, we were routinely turned away or were quoted prices that were ridiculously high. I’m not sure why we receive this treatment but it definitely put us off. Thankfully, we had brought snacks with us and eventually did find a small restaurant that would serve us phở for a reasonable price.

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Our ride through the rice paddies was a great experience and one of our favorite days while in Vietnam.

In the evenings, we went looking for cheap drinks. We found a few places that were much cheaper than others and frequented these over other bars that were more centralized and more expensive. One bar called Chips ‘N Fish had super cheap “draft” beer. We figured that someone in town had a keg of beer and would dole the beer out to multiple restaurants. The beer was a little flat but for 4,000VND a glass, it would do (at least for awhile). The concept of happy hour has definitely caught on in Hoi An but the specials can range from 20% off to half price to a discount off drink prices so inflated that it’s not really a discount at all. Shop around before settling in.

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The lanterns stayed lit until around 9:30pm during the festival.
Hoi An, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

In March of this year, my husband, Kyle, and I and our friend Rheanna snagged cheap tickets to Vietnam on China Eastern Airlines. We had never been to Southeast Asia, but were excited to jump in starting with Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). Since we were arriving in the middle of the night, we booked a hotel ahead of time. The Ailen Garden Hotel, located in District 1, was a great fit for us. Much like the hundreds of other budget friendly hotels in the area, it had a private bathroom, wifi, air conditioning, and no view. At $36USD a night for a triple room, it was definitely on the expensive side for our trip. Booking ahead of time definitely raised the price.

We spent the first few days wandering around the city trying not to get hit by motorbikes and cars. We visited the Ben Thanh Market, which was more touristy than we had hoped, and the Chinese Market, which ended up being more of a wholesale market than we thought it would be. We also checked out the War Museum and the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

When we needed a break from the heat, we visited one of the local breweries in town. Pasteur Street Brewery Company offers six beers served in a small upstairs bar. We ordered the flight of beers and for around 175,000VND. It was expensive but tasty. We also visited The View Rooftop Bar on Bui Vien. The bar and restaurant has multiple floors, good drink prices (around 45,000VND for a mixed drink and 12,000VND for a local beer during happy hour), and cool breezes to help you unwind.

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While in the city, we spent most of our time looking for delicious food and then eating that food. We didn’t have to look far when it came to street food and small restaurants. When choosing a place, we looked for busy spots and always asked for the prices up front if they weren’t posted. We ate phở, bún, meat on a stick, and every rice and meat dish we could find. We could usually find dishes between 25,000 and 45,000VND. When in doubt, we would check out the small streets (like alleyways) for delicious food. We ate a few times on one specific small street; To find it, look for an Indian restaurant called Taj Mahal . We ate at Taj Mahal one night when we needed a break from Vietnamese food, and then headed down that alleyway and ate whatever we could find that tickled our fancy already back in the mood for a local treat.

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My first bowl of pho in Vietnam but definitely not my last.

At night when we were ready to grab a drink or two, we headed to Bui Vien street. It’s a backpackers haven and a great place to find cheap drinks, but be cautious. We stuck to the small bars and restaurants with listed prices and red or blue chairs out front. There are definitely more expensive bars on this street and they are looking for a way to separate you from your money.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

General Notes on Visiting Greece

–Throughout our three week trip in Greece we noticed that the Greek people working in tourism do not make things easier on you when it comes to explaining how things work or posting signage. For example, we arrived on Santorini and went to the bus station; at the station, there is a kiosk with a person sitting inside. It appears that this is the person from whom you would buy tickets or to whom you could ask questions. When we asked this person questions, he seemed annoyed at having to answer them. Another example is that all the local buses on Santorini begin and end at the bus station in Fira. One would think that putting a sign in the front window of the bus listing the route would be helpful, but they do not do this. It begs the question: if Greek people are frustrated by having to help tourists repeatedly, why would they not make travel clearer and easier for tourists and locals alike?

–Greek house wine is cheap, but it is usually young wine and not amazing. Also, Greece is known for their white wines, not their reds as I would have hoped.

–Most restaurants charge around 1 per person for a basket of bread. If you do not want it, you can usually say so and not pay for it. However, if you are going to eat it, don’t let the charge bother you and eat up. It’s usually delicious. We tended to ask for olive oil, salt, and pepper if they weren’t already on the table. Also, if we didn’t finish all of the bread, we would take it with us. If we paid for it, it’s ours.

–Sometimes, at the end of a meal in a restaurant, you get a free dessert or a shot of ouzo or raki. This seems to happen in the less touristy areas and restaurants. This definitely did not happen on Santorini, ever.

–Here is the rule of thumb I used when it came to drinking tap water: If restaurants serve you glasses of water (as many do and it’s free), it’s generally safe. If restaurants serve you bottled water (it is not usually free), it’s unsafe to drink the tap water. Generally the tap water on the mainland is drinkable and the tap water on the islands is not drinkable, but ask to be sure. We also tended to ask for tap water on the mainland to save some money. All of the waiters we asked either gave us tap water or gave us a reason why they only serve bottled water.

–Water (tap or bottled) is generally given for free with the purchase of coffee but not tea.

–My friend Rheanna and I found that we could easily share one appetizer and one entree and still be stuffed after eating at most restaurants.

–I would recommend visiting Greece in September or early October. We were there is late October and early November and while we really enjoyed ourselves, we definitely missed out on restaurants and shops that were already closed for the season. And after talking with locals, I cannot recommend going during the summer months. Everyone I spoke with said June through August is so overrun that it’s not as enjoyable for tourists as it could be earlier or later in the year.

–Learning about 50 words of Greek was very helpful. As usual, it endeared us to locals and helped us visit restaurants and bars that were off the beaten path.

–Here is a link to the ferry schedule. This site was much more accurate than we had expected even in the off season.

General Notes on Visiting Greece

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