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

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

In March of this year, my husband, Kyle, and I and our friend Rheanna snagged cheap tickets to Vietnam on China Eastern Airlines. We had never been to Southeast Asia, but were excited to jump in starting with Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). Since we were arriving in the middle of the night, we booked a hotel ahead of time. The Ailen Garden Hotel, located in District 1, was a great fit for us. Much like the hundreds of other budget friendly hotels in the area, it had a private bathroom, wifi, air conditioning, and no view. At $36USD a night for a triple room, it was definitely on the expensive side for our trip. Booking ahead of time definitely raised the price.

We spent the first few days wandering around the city trying not to get hit by motorbikes and cars. We visited the Ben Thanh Market, which was more touristy than we had hoped, and the Chinese Market, which ended up being more of a wholesale market than we thought it would be. We also checked out the War Museum and the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

When we needed a break from the heat, we visited one of the local breweries in town. Pasteur Street Brewery Company offers six beers served in a small upstairs bar. We ordered the flight of beers and for around 175,000VND. It was expensive but tasty. We also visited The View Rooftop Bar on Bui Vien. The bar and restaurant has multiple floors, good drink prices (around 45,000VND for a mixed drink and 12,000VND for a local beer during happy hour), and cool breezes to help you unwind.

pastuer

While in the city, we spent most of our time looking for delicious food and then eating that food. We didn’t have to look far when it came to street food and small restaurants. When choosing a place, we looked for busy spots and always asked for the prices up front if they weren’t posted. We ate phở, bún, meat on a stick, and every rice and meat dish we could find. We could usually find dishes between 25,000 and 45,000VND. When in doubt, we would check out the small streets (like alleyways) for delicious food. We ate a few times on one specific small street; To find it, look for an Indian restaurant called Taj Mahal . We ate at Taj Mahal one night when we needed a break from Vietnamese food, and then headed down that alleyway and ate whatever we could find that tickled our fancy already back in the mood for a local treat.

taj mahal

pho
My first bowl of pho in Vietnam but definitely not my last.

At night when we were ready to grab a drink or two, we headed to Bui Vien street. It’s a backpackers haven and a great place to find cheap drinks, but be cautious. We stuck to the small bars and restaurants with listed prices and red or blue chairs out front. There are definitely more expensive bars on this street and they are looking for a way to separate you from your money.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Northern Italy

On our most recent trip, we decided to take the road less traveled in Italy, skip all of the major cities, and head to Parma, Alba, and Cogne. Italy is hard to visit on a budget, but it can be done. What we found while doing research was that hotels and apartment rentals for September were about the same price in the towns we visited, around 80-100€ a night. This is above our regular budget, but we would not have saved much money staying in private rooms in hostels. Also, for budget reasons, we did not rent a car which added to the convenience pricing of staying right in town.

The first thing I need to explain/share is the idea of aperitivo in Italy. I googled this before we went and the information I found was not as accurate as I would have liked. Aperitivo or aperitivi (plural) is when bars and some restaurants give you a small plate of snacks with every drink you order. Generally, this takes place between 5pm and 9pm. Sometimes, the drink is more expensive because it comes with food, but others charge the same price, about 3-5€ per drink. With each drink ordered, another small plate of snacks (potato chips, small sandwiches, etc.) come to the table. But, unlike what I read before we went, we saw no “buffet” from which we could eat. Aperitivo is a great way to have a few drinks and snacks and therefore be able to eat a smaller dinner or no dinner at all. Watch the drink prices because it could become more expensive than just going out to dinner.

On to the trip itself. In Parma, we rented an apartment on the west side of the river. Nothing special but the kitchen came in handy for breakfasts and snacking. We were lucky enough to be in Parma for the Prosciutto Festival. We toured the Fontana Ham factory which was very informative and interesting. The town itself was beautiful and full of great restaurants (a foodie’s dream). The prices were not out of control and we never felt pressured to order both a first and second course as is sometimes the case.

Fontana Ham Factory tour.
Alba was a lovely little town with a wonderfully preserved city center. It is also in the heart of the Piedmont wine country. Surrounding Alba in every direction are towns that must be explored and visited for their sites as well as their wines. We went to Barolo, Novello, Barbaresco, Guarene, Roddi, Bra, and Grinzane Cavour.
 
Here are my warnings about the wine region of Piedmont. Attractions (castles, museums, enoteche) are closed on odd days and at odd times of the year that are not always predictable. Also, while I was very excited to visit the enoteche (wine tasting centers) around the region, I was disappointed in what I found. I read that the enoteche were great places to try different wines from the region without having to make reservations at the actual wineries. (click here for website I referenced). While the enoteche regionale were nice and usually housed in historic buildings, they only offered a few wines for anywhere between 1-4€ per tasting. Knowing this, I recommend looking around town for the privately run enoteche, as well as visiting the enoteche regionale. Also, look for the sign “gratis degustazione.” We found shops that offered free tastings in hope that you would buy wine from them.
 
In Cogne, we were able to rent a small apartment for about 60€ per night right in town. While we waited for the bus in Aosta (the only public transportation to Cogne), we made a quick trip to Billa (grocery store) and picked up meat, cheese, bread, etc. for breakfasts to come. This was cheaper than buying food in Cogne. We took full advantage of the Gran Paradiso National Park while visiting. Entrance is free and, while the trail distances are a bit misleading, the scenery is beautiful. We took sandwiches and some fruit with us and had a picnic at the waterfall near Lillaz.
We also took a journey (two buses and a one mile walk) to see the castle in Fenis. While we had heard it was one of the better castles in the area, I would recommend seeing other castles closer to where you are staying. The castle in Fenis was fine but it was a hassle to get to without a car and the guided tour that you must take is only offered in Italian. Valle d’Aosta has a great tourism site with a list of all the castles in the region.
 
Finally, here are my last two recommendations on visiting Italy and trying to save some money while doing it. When wine tasting in northern Italy, drink everything. But if you are on a budget, check out the Nebbiolos, the local Pinot Noirs, and the Torrettes. They are, in my opinion, delicious bold, red wines but are cheaper than Barolo. Also, in our experience, the public transportation system through smaller towns and cities is not great if you are (a) on a tight schedule (b) are not comfortable with Italian, or (c) have little patience. Most trains don’t run into the mountainous areas. For this, you must rely on buses and most inter-city buses don’t run during lunchtime (approximately noon – 3pm). Buses also don’t seem to run very often, on average less than once an hour. Meaning, if you want to go somewhere, do so early with the understanding that you might be there until the afternoon. If you are one with little patience (as I sometimes am), I would recommend looking into renting a car especially if you want to set your own schedule and move from town to town freely. That being said, the buses were extremely affordable, on average 2-3€ per hour on short bus trips. While we got lost, almost stuck, and accidentally rode the school bus to the wrong town, the views were amazing and well worth the money saved and the time “wasted.”
Northern Italy