-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.
– 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Having the visa in our passports when we arrived saved a lot of time, energy, and confusion.
Due to our somewhat tight schedule, we had planned on only staying in Veliko Tarnovo one night. We were going to visit the fortress and wander around town. But when we got to our room at the Hotel Comfort and looked at the view from our balcony of the valley below, the fortress, and town, we thought, “what if we stay two nights?” And that’s what we did.
We walked over to the Tsaravets Fortress in the afternoon and paid 6BGN per person for a ticket. The surrounding ruins are more expansive than we originally thought. We went into the church at the center and then wandered the ruins for another hour or so. We also inquired on how to reach the other fortress, Trapezitsa, across the river. We were told that it was not open to the public right now, so we just admired it from afar.
We spent two wonderful days wandering the town. We had dinner at the somewhat famous restaurant called Shtastlivetsa. While I am usually skeptical of TripAdvisor recommendations, this one lived up to all of its reviews and the local hype. The menu was ridiculously extensive and our food was very delicious. Although it would be considered expensive compared to other options, it was totally worth it. We ordered one beer, one glass of wine, pork medallions with cheese and mushroom sauce, and risotto and the total bill was only 30BGN.
After dinner, we wandered farther down the main road away from the fortress and turned down a small road toward a few bars. We picked one at random (the location coordinates are 43.083808,25.635271). There was a European league volleyball game on TV that everyone seemed really focused on so we joined in watching. We each grabbed two drinks (12BGN total) and while we tried to blend in, we definitely got called out as Amerikanskies when I asked why they didn’t serve Black Ram whisky. It was good, solid bar with food available.
While in Veliko Tarnovo, we spent an afternoon wandering farther into the actual town, away from the fortress. I searched Google for ‘bakery’ and found a little dessert shop called Luchia. It’s a 20 minute walk from the tourist area of town but well worth it. We grabbed four small sweets and paid 2.50BGN. They also have cakes and coffee if you want to eat there. We took our sweets and walked towards the river and Park Sveta Gora. This park is a lovely area to wander through, but beware that to get to the heart of the park you have to climb about 346 stairs (I counted). At the top there are benches, picnic tables, and walking trails heading in all directions. There are also many types of playgrounds for children including rockwalls, a zipline, and jungle gyms galore.
There’s a great restaurant called Bazaar, C/ San Marcos, 35, just south of the Chuenca metro stop (http://www.restaurantbazaar.com/). The food has an international flavor to it; some Spanish, some Asian flavors but all around good. The prices aren’t too bad either, about 6-10€ per plate, and they have great wines (including house wines).
Last recommendation. San Antón (http://www.mercadosananton.com/) and San Miguel (http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es/) markets are great places to eat some delicious food, but it’s an even better deal to take some to go. If you are staying in an apartment or going on a picnic in Retiro Park (which I highly recommend), pop into either market. Buy a little of this and a little of that and you will be amazed at the quality of food you get for just a few euros. American readers, please remember that one pound equals 453 grams, so 100 grams of cheese is enough for a good snack for a few people or to last a few days. Add a bottle or two of wine from a grocery store (for as low as 1€) and you’re good to go.
To get in and out of the city, there is an express bus from the airport to Cibeles (Banco de Espana metro stop) and Atocha (Atocha metro stop) for 2€ each way. It’s easy and quick, the driver can provide change, and, best of all, you don’t have to transfer in any of the many metro stations. Check out this site for more Information: http://www.esmadrid.com/en/barajas-airport-express
Also, one other tip about Madrid’s metro system: when you look at the system map, the city seems quite spread out and possibly unmanageable. In actuality, the metro stations are closer to each other than one would think (some as little as 3-5 minutes on foot). I recommend that in the first day or two you are in Madrid, don’t buy the 10 ticket metro pass. Figure out where you think you want to go in the city, how much walking you are willing to do, and go from there.
I am currently in Hall in Tirol, Austria; A cute, little down just down the train line from Innsbruck. We, my husband Kyle and I, had planned on staying a few nights in Innsbruck and maybe take a day trip to Hall but we threw caution to the wind this afternoon and took a chance. It paid off. While the hotel we are staying in is a bit over our regular budget (Gasthof Badl for €74), its a nice place just outside of town and breakfast is included. We got here in the afternoon with no reservations and made a beeline for the information center. There we found a nice man who gave us a few options of hotels and called to see if rooms where available. We made it to our hotel, then headed back to town to wonder the narrow streets of Hall. We found a small restaurant called Geisterburg that had great pizza and a salad bar and drinks. Dinner, dessert, and multiple drinks for €30 doesn’t seem too bad for Austria, so far. We then stopped in Bar Centrale near the main square for another round of drinks. Tomorrow, we plan on biking around the area for a few hours and then heading to the next stop.
A note about the beginning of this trip: We started this trip a few days ago flying out of the States heading to Zurich but connecting in Madrid. For the first time ever, we missed a connecting flight and spent a few hours in Madrid. Now, I have been there before (and will be there again in a few weeks) but my husband had never been. So we spend our few precious hours walking around the Royal Palace grounds, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, and having lunch at a wonderfully located cafe near the “suicide bridge.” While there are many other places, I would love to take him, I wanted him to see the highlights of the city and what is is known for (and we did not have time for a tapas crawl). There will be time to return there, I’m sure. After we made it to Zurich (a city which is lovely, yet too expensive for this trip), we took a train to the town of Bregenz. Now, we had read some not so nice things about Bregenz but we found it to be a wonderful city and much more affordable than Lindau, Germany across the lake. We stayed at the Ibis hotel which, while it is a chain hotel, it was one of the most affordable and well located hotels we found. If you just need a bed and a shower and don’t plan on spending a lot of time in the room, it’s a great deal (at about €107). We wondered around Bregenz and enjoyed it. There are a lot of outdoor activities to do and a lot of bike paths. While there, we took the train over to Lindau which is a picturesque German town. With hindsight, we probably could have walked or biked the bikepath from Bregenz to Lindau (the train took about 10 minutes and the bike path seemed to go all the way from one town to the other).
Random things I have learn about Austria/Austrians so far: While our guidebooks told us to hand our tip to the waiter and not to leave it on the table, the waiters don’t seem to wait for the tip and then are not always easy to find in the restaurant. So, we have been leaving the 10% tip on the table. Also, no one seems to bless you when you sneeze.