We stayed in a collection of pre-fabricated, albeit poshly decorated, holiday rentals right in John O Groats. Natural Retreats has a great location right near the coast, though their website makes it seem like there are far less of these rentals than in reality. This means some of the rentals don’t have the best of views but being so close to the water was a perk nonetheless. The rental was $58USD per person per night and though that is a little higher than my average nightly budget, it was a lovely apartment with everything we needed.
There isn’t much in John o’ Groats other than tourist shops (knicknacks, a coffee shop, and a fish n’ chips shack), but the scenery was lovely and it’s a great base to explore the area from. There is also a ferry dock within walking distance that can take you to the Orkney Islands. There are a handful of ferry ports near John o Groats so make sure to pick the one that fits your needs and schedule best.
-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.
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.
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.
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.
–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.
We took a ferry from Kea to Naxos. We had planned to stay five nights and use Naxos as a base camp to visit one or two of the small Cyclades Islands. Neither of these plans went accordingly. The first night we were there, we stopped into the travel agency (which is also where you buy ferry tickets). I asked about getting to and from one of the small Cyclades Islands. I was told that, at this time of year, I could not get to and from any of these islands (Iraklia, Schoinousa, Koufonisi, etc.) in the same day. When I tried to ask more questions, I was rebuffed and simply told no. This was not the helpful or positive information I was looking for. Then, on the fifth night of our stay, we discovered there would be a ferry strike for the next two days. However, between these two unfortunate pieces of information, we thoroughly enjoyed the island of Naxos.
We stayed in the Old Town at an Airbnb.com for about $89 a night. While this was more expensive than I would have liked, it was a great location. We felt like we were living in a piece of history as the apartment was built into a structure that is centuries old.
We found some amazing little restaurants and bars in the Old Town of Naxos. One such restaurant has a logo of two fat men drinking. Even though we had dinner there three times, I never learned the name of the restaurant, but it was consistently delicious and I can highly recommend the meatballs and the carbonara pasta. Follow the signs; you’ll be happy you did. We also frequented a bar called Elia. It is in the Old Town and has a red door. It may look closed, but keep trying. The wine options are lovely and not your average young, Greek wines, especially when it comes to the reds. Also, the bakeries around town, even near the port, are great spots to grab a filling snack like spanikopita for around 2-3€.
When we ventured out of the Old Town, we found Nostimon Hellas among many other shops and restaurants. The restaurant takes a creative spin on Greek food and the service was very friendly.
We rented a car for two days while on the island. We drove to a few other towns and spent an afternoon hiking between five towns. We used this link to plan one of the hikes.
The hiking route was well-marked once we were on the trail. When looking for other hiking trails and information on things to do around the island, these two websites were very helpful.
Solta is a rocky island with a laid back attitude and lots of laid back locals. We spend two nights on the island in the town of Stomorska. We rented an apartment on Airbnb.com and were pleased with our apartment ($53 USD a night) and the view it afforded us (though the long climb up the hill was less desirable). We ate in the restaurants, lounged at the seaside, and wandered around the tiny town and neighborhoods. My husband even rented a bike for a day and rode around the island. He had to take a bus to another town to rent the bike. But for $10 for the day, it was an hilly adventure for him to enjoy while I relaxed at the beach. There’s also a bee farm on the island that makes its own honey and helicopter rides offered along with other tours if you are so inclined. It was also a popular place for yachters to park for the night, plugin, and drink.
View from our apartment above the town of Stomorska.
Split is a very touristy city, but still worth visiting; but a warning would have been nice. Split is a hub for cruise ships and bus travel so during the day it is filled with people from cruise ships and people staying in town. I think if we were to visit again, we would visit more islands in the area via ferries during the day and enjoy the quieter evenings in Split. For this, the ferries work well as their prices were relatively inexpensive. Getting to one of the islands (Solta) was only about $6 USD for about an hour’s ride.
The beaches near the Marjan were nice and not too crowded. There aren’t really long stretches of beach but instead access to the water is broken up into different areas. It works out so you can choose the area you want to hang out in (more shade or deeper water or stretches of large rocks to sunbathe on). Note: The walk to this area takes about 20-30 minutes and there is not a lot of shade.
Like the rest of Croatia, getting an apartment (apartman) in Split was pretty common. They tend to cost less than a hotel room and we were able to rent a small studio apartment for about 50€ per night which seemed to be the going rate for a studio or one bedroom.