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

Amman, Jordan

We spent four nights in Amman in an apartment rental via Airbnb. The manager of our apartment, Sama’n, also manages many other apartments in the city which are listed on Airbnb and on Gweet which is the Middle East’s answer to Airbnb and VRBO.com. Sama’n was a wonderful host and a very helpful man to know while in Amman. It’s a sprawling city that seems to have no end.
 

While I enjoyed the city and all of its diverse options of things to do, see, and eat, it was a test in patience every time we left the apartment. When we arrived in Amman, the first thing Katie and I did was return the rental car as I had heard nerve-racking stories of driving in this capital city. The tales proved to be true as we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our ride into the city. No car meant that we either had to take the public buses (which we were told were safe, but that as ladies, we would be expected to wear headscarves if we wanted to ride without incident) or we could rely on taxis. We took the taxi option which seemed like the lesser of two frustrations (waiting for buses or trying to communicate with taxis drivers). Every time we got into a taxi, we had issues communicating where we wanted to go and how to get there. Although most buildings in Amman had addresses, they’re not used and the taxi drivers we dealt with didn’t seem to know where major sights or streets were. 

Every set of directions starts with which traffic circle is nearest your destination (there are seven) and you have to direct the driver onward from the circle. Giving directions from the circle was difficult as our Arabic was limited and the taxi drivers had equally limited English. Even when we would show them a map of the city with our destination clearly marked, more times than not, they would tell us that this wasn’t a map of Amman and that they couldn’t get us to our destination. Once we were out and about, getting home became the next issue. Looking back, I wonder if the buses would have been less of a hassle even with the wardrobe change before we left the apartment, the waiting around, and the adventure of finding out how to pay the fare. There is a third option for getting around town and out of town—hiring a driver for the day or for a set amount of time. We chose this option when we visited Jerash, but compared to the taxi fare (about JD1-2 per ride across town), hiring a driver was very expensive (about JD30 for a four-hour time period). Keep in mind that most of these drivers speak more English than your average taxi driver and once you find one you like (and one who knows where you live), it’s understandable why you would keep calling them time and again. We found our driver through another driver we met outside a tourist sight, but you can also try your luck at hailing a yellow cab on the street. 

Once we made it to our destination and shook off the frustration of the taxi ride, we really enjoyed ourselves. We visited the Citadel (JD2) and the Roman Amphitheater (JD1). We ate amazing food that, in more Western-style restaurants, cost about JD10-15 per person without alcohol. We made the obligatory and delicious visit to Hashem and our lunch only cost only JD2 per person. If you read anything about Amman, you will read about Hashem. It’s a small falafel place that is super cheap, super fast, and super tasty. They bring each table a plate of falafel, a plate of tomatoes, onions, and mint, pita bread, and tea immediately after being seated. Hummus, ful, and falafel are available by order. There’s no printed menu, but there may be other foods available as well. Ask any local where it is and they’ll tell you. Hell, this is probably the only place taxi drivers will know when you mention it.

Citadel in Amman.
Everywhere we went in Amman proved to be fun and interesting, but none of our outings would have been possible without a smartphone helping us every step of the way. I hope with time Amman will become more tourist friendly.
Amman, Jordan

Renting a car in Jordan

We rented a car from Thrifty at the Amman airport for just under $300USD for a week. Gas for all of our driving around cost approximately $125USD. Gas stations in Jordan are cash-only and full-service. Overall, our driving experience was positive as the roads were in good condition and usually well signed. Our primary point of concern was other drivers. It seems that very few drivers use turn signals, pulling into oncoming traffic at 5 miles an hour is not considered a hazard, and there is a lot of seemingly random horn honking. 

There are frequent checkpoints along the main highways. A police officer will hold up a stop sign and wave you to the side of the road. When we were chosen to pull over, I would hand over my driver’s license (my U.S. license, as I did not get an international driver’s license) and the car registration card that Thrifty provided. Most police officers spoke some English and would usually ask us where we were from and maybe where we were headed and then we’d be on our way. 

My general advice for others would be that if you are going to drive in Jordan, don’t speed, drive defensively, and know that Google maps is not complete for Jordan. While GPS worked very well, the road map itself was not up to date and many places in Jordan do not use street addresses. If you’re unsure of where you’re going, it’s best to get directions before setting off.

We would not have seen this amazing view of Jordan and the Dead Sea
if we had not rented a car and wandered off on our own.
Renting a car in Jordan

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

General Notes on Chiapas

We chose to go to Chiapas because we had heard it was beautiful, safe and that the food was delicious. All of these things were true and we really enjoyed out time there. But I don’t think this would have been the case if my husband was not a strong Spanish speaker. We rarely found locals who spoke English (even in our hotels which included Holiday Inns) and we are under the impression that most of the tourists visiting this part of Mexico are Mexican. With this knowledge, I would recommend this area as a great destination as long as you know there won’t be a lot of help if Spanish is not spoken. Also, credit cards are not accepted in most restaurants and hotels nor are they accepted by the bus company we used, OCC. But the people are friendly though not very chatty, the towns we visited were interesting and did not seem exhausted with tourism (even the town of Palenque just seemed like a regular town with a few random English speakers wandering around). I can’t wait to go back and explore others parts of Chiapas.
General Notes on Chiapas

Blagaj, Bosnia & Herzegovina

About 20 minutes outside of Mostar is a small town called Blagaj which you can get to by bus. There’s a fortress on the top of the hill there (locally known as Stjepan Grad) with amazing views of the surrounding area. The fortress is overgrown and dilapidated but that somehow makes it more worth seeing. You walk up a road (follow the one and only sign) and then hike up the switchbacks which takes a total of about 45 minutes. The trail is hard to find in the brush but the frustration is worth the view from the top and its free Note: keep an eye out for an arrow made out of rocks. We missed the arrow and spent a long time looking for the trail. 

 
Also, there’s a Dervish house at the base of a mountain. There are restaurants in the area because of the picturesque views of the cold, turquoise waters coming out of the cave at the base of the mountain. You can rent canoes there, but the water level seemed way to low for canoeing in September 2013.   
 
Blagaj, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Isla Bastimentos, Panama

For us, the Panama trip continued to be an adventure. After driving cross country to get to Almirante, we parked the car, and hopped on not one, but two water taxis (also called launchas) to get to Isla Bastimentos. Check out this link for transportation info. While on the island, we stayed at Tio Tom’s guesthouse. It was right next to the public dock which was helpful and not a drawback. The guesthouse is sparse but a good deal at about $25 per night. The owners, Tom and Ina, are a friendly German couple. During our stay, they were very welcoming though opinionated about life on and off the island.

 
Two restaurants on the island that I recommend are Roots and Kesha. Both have great, affordable food around $6 per meal. Also, drinks are pretty affordable most everywhere on the island, $1-2 per beer and $3-4 for the ever-popular cuba libre.
 
We were only on Isla Bastimentos a few days so we had limited time to see the island. We thought about taking a day tour (average $20 per person) to snorkle, fish, etc. but decided against it and chose to walk to Wizard Beach instead. Be wary of our choice. We were told that there was a trail from Bastimentos town to Wizard Beach and that it was “kind of muddy.” This was the understatement of the trip. We walked uphill to get out of town (it looks like you are walking through someone’s backyard at times) and finally found the trail. But the trail was not a little muddy, it was a lot muddy. There were points where we were walking in mud a foot deep. This would not have been a problem had we not worn flip flops and been concerned about what lies underneath the mud. Once we got use to the idea of being muddy, sweaty, and possibly lost, it went a bit smoother. Once we passed through the land of mud and abandoned flip flops, we made it to Wizard Beach which was quite deserted (the only way to get there is to walk as the riptide is too strong for a dock). To get back from Wizard Beach, you have two options; walk back the way you came (about 45 minutes and, did I mention the mud?) or another 45 minute walk down the beach and through the jungle to Red Frog Beach. From there, you can get a boat back to Bastimentos town for $4 per person. We arrived on Red Frog Beach as a band of ragamuffins; sweaty, muddy, exhausted, and with stray dogs in tow. We celebrated at the bar as all good explorers should.

 
Isla Bastimentos, Panama