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.

 

IMG_3789
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.

20160328_080533

– 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).

1DSCF5503
The scenery of Lan Ha Bay was stunning.
1DSCF5496
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.

1DSCF5510
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.
IMG_3953
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.

haiphongbusstation
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.

IMG_3867
Enjoying the boat ride, the view, and being off our feet even for a short while.
1DSCF5454
A walking bridge in the Bird Sanctuary.
1DSCF5471
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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 12.56.19 PM
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.
Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 12.54.45 PM
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.

1DSCF5398
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.

20160329_144144
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.

20160329_090851
This is bún hen soup. It was served to me with a second bowl of fish broth.

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 12.35.51 PM
Find the spots where I starred this map and you will be in food heaven. Ask around for bún hen.
Hue, Vietnam

Daytrips from Kalamata, Greece

We took a day trip westward from Kalamata to see the Messoni fortress. It was so much more impressive than we expected based on the information we had found online. It’s free to enter and the grounds are vast.

DSCF5148-fortress IMG_0662-fortress IMG_0671-fortress

After exploring all morning, we drove back up the coast to Pylos for lunch. We chose one of the many restaurants on the water and, while the service was slow, the food was tasty. Once again, the three of us were able to leave lunch fat and happy (bottled water, bread, salad, entree, and wine) having spent about 15€ each.

After lunch, we headed for Voidokilia Bay. My husband ran up to the fortress on the hill while Rheanna and I enjoyed the view from the bottom as we weren’t sure if we’d have enough time to hike it before the sun went down. We were determined to get to the actual bay for sunset. We took the “shortcut” through the rough roads that Google pointed us towards. It was a white-knuckle driving experience as we took our tiny Suzuki Celerio through muddy ruts and puddles. I would recommend entering the bay from the North not from the West.

The view from the fortress overlooking Voidokilia Bay.
The view from the fortress overlooking Voidokilia Bay.
Voidokilia Bay
Voidokilia Bay
The sunset from Voidokilia Bay.
The sunset from Voidokilia Bay.
Daytrips from Kalamata, Greece

Rangeley, Maine

Over Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I visited friends in the small town of Rangeley, Maine. Before we made the drive to Rangeley, we started our tour of Maine in Portland. We picked up some friends at the airport and then grabbed drinks and snacks at The Thirsty Pig, where we were greeted by happy hour and an extensive sausage selection.

Happy hour at The Thirty Pig
Happy hour at The Thirty Pig

Afterwards, we piled into the car to make the 2.5 hour drive to lakes region of Maine. We stayed with friends in the village of Oquossoc, just a ten minute drive from the town of Rangeley. Both town and village are on beautiful Rangeley Lake and are a great base for exploring the region. While in Oquossoc, we visited a few bars in town, including the Four Seasons. It was a casual, laid back place with friendly bartenders and great deals. We had high hopes of checking out Moose Alley, the local bowling alley in Rangeley, but we never made it. We’ll have to go there next time as we heard good things about the friendly staff and great food.

The beauty of Lake Rangeley
The beauty of Lake Rangeley

While in Rangeley, we were introduced to the owners of the Farmhouse Inn. They have  hostel-like accommodations for hikers trekking the Appalachian Trail as well as private rooms with kitchen facilities. The entire property is so lovingly built and maintained by the owners. They are remodeling the existing structure and building new structures with reclaimed materials when possible. For photos and more information, please check out their Facebook page. Though we did not stay there, I cannot express how impressed I was with the projects they are working on and their warm hospitality during our visit.

We also enjoyed the outdoors as much as we could and took in all of the natural beauty Maine has to offer. We hiked up Bald Mountain (worth the climb). We also hiked Cascade Falls (also locally called The Cascades) and crossed paths with a young moose! Both locations are part of a local land trust and therefore are free of charge.

We had to slowly walk by this young moose to continue on the trail while also keeping an eye out for the mother moose.
We had to slowly walk by this young moose to continue on the trail while also keeping an eye out for the mother moose.

We also took a boat tour on Rangeley Lake with Kevin Sinnett, Captain of the Oquossoc Lady (rangeleylakecruises.com). Lounging on the boat while taking in all the beauty was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Mr. Sinnett also offers a few private suites right on the lake. Check out the website or you can use Airbnb.com to book a suite. When we visit Rangeley again, I know we have lots of options of where to stay to enjoy this awe inspiring part of Maine.

The view from the boat.
The view from the boat.
Rangeley, Maine

Rotorua, New Zealand

In November 2014, I traveled around New Zealand and Australia with my husband and two terrific friends. We started our journey by flying into Auckland and making a beeline for Rotorua. This area has some amazing geothermal sites to visit. We visited both Waimangu Volcanic Valley and Wai-O-Tapu. For the money, I really enjoyed the latter more because visitors have closer access to the geothermal activity in Wai-O-Tapu. The admission costs $36 NZD and $32.50 NZD, respectively. Both sites can be accessed by car or by day tour. We had a limited amount of time for this trip, so I cannot comment on public transportation options. If you are in the area but do not want to spend the money to enter these sites, visit the mud pits that are just outside of the gates of Wai-O-Tapu.
 
There aren’t a lot of restaurant options in the area of Wai-O-Tapu but we popped into the Wai-O-Tapu Tavern. It’s just a little snack shop with a pool table but it was good, basic food (sandwiches, burgers, and the best wedges we had on the trip) at around $13 NDZ per meal.
 
The town of Rotorua itself was lacking in character and people when we were there. I would guess this is because Rotorua is more of a day trip by tour bus than a town to spend time in. This might also be the case because the sulfurous odor from the geothermal activity can be smelled everywhere.
Outside of town is a great thermal bath called Waikite Valley Thermal Pools. While this type of attraction is not usually a big draw for me, this location had seven pools heated to different temperatures which made the experience much more appealing. For an entrance fee of $15 NZD, I found it to be a good deal especially after walking around in the cold and rainy weather all day.
Rotorua, New Zealand