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

Haifa, Israel

Haifa was a bigger city than I expected. I also was surprised by the mountain in the middle of town that makes it hard to get anywhere without walking straight up hill or taking buses everywhere. We rented an apartment on airbnb.com that was near the train station. The location was really helpful for taking day trips from Haifa but the area seemed to shut down at night. The German Colony was not too far away (a 10 minute walk) but it seemed very touristy with its chain restaurants. We took the bus around town to save our legs and at 7NIS per ride, it was well worth it. We also took the cable car up to the top of the hill for 28NIS round trip, but I would not recommend doing this unless you want to go to the Stella Maris Monastery.
View of  the Bahai Gardens in Haifa
 
Haifa, Israel

Crossing the border from Jordan into Israel

As I left Jordan, I had to say goodbye to my travel buddy, Katie, as she had to return to the States, but I gained another travel companion in my sister-in-law, Kim, who had joined us late on our Jordanian adventure. Together, we made our way to Israel. Crossing the border from Jordan to Israel was more time consuming but not nearly as frustrating or unnerving as we expected. We took a pre-arranged taxi from our apartment to the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge (which is not really a bridge). This cost JD20. We got dropped off at what looks like a bus depot. We went in the gates and around the corner into the office to fill out paperwork to exit the country. We handed over our passports and were asked to pay JD10 each for the exit tax. Once we paid, we waited for enough people to amass so that a full bus could drive us over to the Israeli side of the border. The bus ride cost a total of JD8 per person which included a fee for our luggage. On the Israeli side, we were given two stickers, one for our bag and one for the back of our passports. Our luggage (not our personal bags) were sent through security while we went through security in the adjoining building. After security, you will show your passport to a border control agent. This is where you can ask that your passport not be stamped. They will ask for a reason and you must provide them one, but the officer I spoke with didn’t seem to take issue with my reason (a future visit to Kuwait). After this, we went through another checkpoint in which someone looks at our passport again. Note that this is the point that if they want to hand check your luggage, you will be asked to take a seat and wait until your name is called. They will already have your passport if they are going to hand check your luggage. We were not subjected to the luggage check, so we went on to grab our bags off the carousel. We’re almost there, I swear. We walked outside to buy tickets for shuttles that will take you to either Jerusalem or to Jericho in the West Bank. There are two ticket stands, one for each. We were heading to Jerusalem so we paid a total of NIS42 per person which covered our luggage and our ticket. The ticket takers will accept any type of currency you have (technically you cannot bring Israeli shekels into Jordan therefore we had no shekels. We paid in US dollars) and they will give you appropriate change in Israeli shekels. We waited around for the shuttle to fill up and started off on the 45-minute trip to Jerusalem. In total, the border crossing journey took seven hours.

Here are two other sites that I found helpful in my own research for this border crossing and trip.

Crossing the border from Jordan into Israel

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

We visited the ruins and were pleasantly surprised at how well preserved and expansive they were. We were also surprised that we were allowed to climb up most of the ruins. 
The cost to get in is nominal but know that outside of the ruins, everything gets pretty expensive compared to the other areas of Chiapas we visited. In the restaurants near the hotel area of town, entrees start at around $100 MXN. We stayed at the Chablis Hotel which was fine but at $60 USD a night, it was standard for the area but still more than I would have liked to spend. We ate in the gringo area a few times but also went into town across the bridge and ate at some of the small restaurants there. They were much less expensive, about $12 MXN per taco. 
If I were to retake this trip and were on an even tighter budget, I would have taken one of the tours from San Cristobal to Palenque to see the ruins and visit Miso-Ha and Aqua Azul in one day. We took the bus from San Cristobal to Palenque for $112 MXN, then took a colectivo to and from the ruins for a total of $80 MXN, the two entrance fees for the ruins (one for the park, one for the ruins) for $87 MXN, a tour that took us to Misol-Ha and Aqual Azul for $150 MXN, and finally the bus ticket back to San Cristobal for $176 MXN. So all of this comes out to $605 MXN per person. There were tours from San Cristobal that included Palenque, Miso-Ha, and Aqual Azul for $450-600 MXN. I think by staying in Palenque for three nights (so that we would have two full days to visit the ruins and the waterfalls), we actually spent more money than if we would have just crammed it all into one day. But at least we could take our time at the ruins and have time to relax. I guess that’s the trade off.
Misol-Ha waterfall
Agua Azul waterfall
Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

San Cristobal is a lovely colonial town that also feels like an acutal town. While there are more tourists (English speakers are more prevalent here), and there is some of the bothersome focus on selling things to tourists, there is something about the town that also feels normal; locals just going about their day.
Ominous clouds over San Cristobal
We spent a lot of time wandering around the regular, everyday market (food, housewares, etc.) not to be confused with the craft market (ceramics, textiles, souvenirs, etc.). It is a never ending maze of stalls.
 
We also ate lunch in the market most days we were there; taco and caldos (soups and meat dishes that sometimes include rice and beans, but always include corn tortillas) were the main choices. Once again (see blog entry Chiapa de Corzo), speaking Spanish is a must. But the food was good, plentiful, and cheap. The average meal we had in the market was around $25 MXN. I am not sure what the custom is on tipping at these food stalls but we tipped a small amount, maybe $5 MXN each time. Knowing how much we were saving, we felt that we could afford to be generous.
Carne asada tacos con cebolla
We chose not to visit the nearby Mayan villages after reading on other blogs that the locals in those villages were not always interested in people coming to stare at them. So instead, we went out to a park called Archotete and it was well worth it. 

We took a taxi most of the way to the park which cost about $60 MXN. We had read online that the taxi would be closer to $30 MXN but since there were two of us, maybe the cost was per person. We walked the rest of the way, about a mile down a gravel road through a small town.

Me crossing a shaky bridge in Archotete park.

The entrance fee for the park was $10 MXN per person. We were two of four people visiting the park that day so we had the trails to ourselves. We paid an extra $10 MXN to go into a cave and we made friends with the local stray dog. After a few hours of hiking, we decided to take a taxi back from the park instead of walking down to the main road which cost $80 MXN.

The grotto in Archotete park
We named this dog Omar.
There are a lot of beautiful churches to visit in town and some great bars and restaurants to relax in. One of the cheapest bars we encountered was on Real Guadalupe called La Vina de Bacco. It’s a wine and tapas bar with their cheapest glass of wine starting at $18 MXN. They also serve beer and mixed drinks. There also seems to be a lot of live music venues around town.
San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico