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

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

Santorini, Greece

My friend Rheanna and I spent two days on Santorini. We were skeptical about our visit because of the high profile of the island. We stayed in Fira because it is so centrally located and we had limited time on the island. It’s definitely not a beautiful town, but it worked for our needs. We stayed at the Fira Backpacker’s Place. We booked a private room through Airbnb.com. For $71USD a night, it is one of cheapest places to stay on the island.

The town of Oia is worth visiting and is the quintessential Greek town. If you are going for the day, I highly recommend going early in the morning before it gets too busy. Keep in mind it is incredibly expensive compared to other Greek islands and towns. The rest of the island has a lot to offer so don’t spend all your time and money there. We visited a few of the wineries (check opening hours if you’re there outside of the tourist season), hiking trails, and beaches. The bus system was very helpful, somewhat easy to use (with little help from the drivers), and was the only cheap thing on the island.

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We used the buses to get to some of the wineries on the island as well. We took the bus towards the airport/Kamari. On the route back, it stops near the town of Exo Gonia. There are a handful of wineries that are walking distance from each other. We visited Art Space Winery and Estate Argyros as well as Artemis Karamolegos, which also has a restaurant. Here is a link that helped us find all of the wineries.

 

 

 

Santorini, Greece

Buses in Mexico

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

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

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

Buses in Mexico

Jerusalem, Israel

My sister-in-law Kim and I stay in Jerusalem for three nights. We rented an apartment through Airbnb.com just off Jaffa Street (also spelled Yafo Street) about a 15 minute walk northwest of the Old City. We saw the sites of the old city which are mainly free. We also took a tour of the tunnels under the old city that cost about NIS22. It was a wonderful way to learn more about the history of the city.

We also visited the West Bank with Abraham Tours. The tour took all day visiting the River Jordan, Jericho, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the Taybeh Brewery. And at US$105 per person, it wasn’t a bad deal though we expected our guide to share more information than he did.

The West Bank Barrier covered in local art.

Many people who visit Jerusalem might be on a pilgrimage of one type or another. The pilgrimage experience can be sullied if you expect to have a personal, spiritual experience while visiting religious sites. There seem to be crowds everywhere and you should expect long wait times to see the most “holy” shrines like at the Sepulcher Tomb and the Temple Mount. I highly recommend visiting any sites inside the Old City in the early mornings for some peaceful time. Also, visit the West Bank. It’s well worth the journey.

View of the Old City from the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, we took the tram up to the Mahane Yehuda Market. It’s a great place to grab some fresh snacks or a cheap meal. There are a few little restaurants in the market. The one we loved is called Topolino. It’s an Italian place where the pasta is made on site and all dishes are made to order. At about NIS25 per dish, it’s a great deal. To get to the restaurants, enter the Market from Agripas Street. Most of the restaurants are in between the two main aisles.

Wifi is free and available on most major roads in Jerusalem. It is wonderful being able to check email and update social media from so many public places. But because the public wifi is available, the apartment we stayed in and some of the cafes we visited did not offer their own wifi. If the public wifi signal is not strong where you’re staying or eating, you might be out of luck.

We rode the buses and trams around the city and tried to avoid taking taxis, as they get expensive quickly. Keep in mind, all taxis have meters, so don’t ask how much a trip will cost. Taxi drivers will quote you a flat rate which will always be higher than what the meter would run you. 
Jerusalem, Israel