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

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

Hue, Vietnam

We went to Hue anticipating that we would check out the royal palace and visit a few of the tombs in the area. While we did end up doing these things, and they were enjoyable, the entrance fees for these sites were expensive in comparison to other things to do in Vietnam. If you purchased a ticket to only visit the royal palace the price is 180,000NVD. We chose to purchase the combination ticket of the royal palace and three tombs for 360,000VND per person.

Our first day in Hue, we visited the royal palace. It is an expansive, interesting site, but a lot of the buildings were being worked on during our visit.

The following day, we took a private boat to visit only the three tombs which were included in the ticket we had purchased; Tự Đức, Lăng Khải Định, and Minh Mạng. We were able to negotiate a price of $7USD per person for a private boat. There are numerous travel agencies throughout town. We checked out a few and negotiated as we went. We chose this option instead of paying 180,000VND per person for a bus tour to visit the three tombs and other sites. The entrance fee for each tomb is 100,000VND (though we had already paid for the combination ticket, saving ourselves 30,000VND per person) and the entrance fees for the other sites included in the tour cost on average 50,000 to 100,000VND per person. In addition to saving ourselves the extra entrance fees, we were able to tour the three tombs we wanted to see on our own schedule.

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This was our own private dragon boat to visit the tombs outside of Hue.

The private boat we took was fun, but the operator did hassle us to purchase lunch and soft drinks, to rent motor bikes once we got off the boat, and for just about anything else they could think of to try and make a little extra money. This was a little frustrating, but we just kept telling them no and they eventually got the point.

Lăng Khải Định is a 20-minute walk from the river’s edge. If you are on a group tour your transportation would be included but if you go on your own, like we did, the walk is a little far. Also, Lăng Khải Định is the most ornate (albeit the smallest footprint) of the three tombs.

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The Lăng Khải Định tomb is by far the most ornate tomb we saw outside of Hue.

In Hue, we stayed at the Sunny B hotel (not to be confused with their other hotels-Sunny A and Sunny C). We were able to negotiate the price down to 325,000VND per night for a triple room. Thought the room was dated, it had a nice balcony and a non-wet bathroom. Overall, it was a good room, a great location, and the staff was very welcoming and helpful.

Hue was a bigger city than we expected. While I was disappointed at how pricey the entrance fees were, the city made up for it with delicious food. We ate more than once in one particular area with a lot of street food and a small street-side market which was close to our hotel. This is where I ate the delicious soup called bún hen. For 20,000VND, this was definitely my favorite soup in Vietnam. The rice noodles (búnare a little thicker than the rice noodles in phở and there were baby clams and roasted peanuts in the soup. When planning this trip, I found a blog entry about food in Hue. I found it really helpful and recommend checking it out for your visit.

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This is bún hen soup. It was served to me with a second bowl of fish broth.

 

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Find the spots where I starred this map and you will be in food heaven. Ask around for bún hen.
Hue, 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.

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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