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

General Notes on Australia

–While in Australia, keep in mind that pedestrians do not always have the right of way in crosswalks. Cars will not stop for you when you crossing in a crosswalk unless it is striped. If driving there, be aware that the driving lanes seem to be more narrow than in the U.S. I felt like we had a few close calls with semi-trucks while on the highway.
 
–Lunch is served from around 11:30am – 2pm in most towns and cities. As you get into smaller towns, most restaurants and cafes close or stop serving food after these hours. We ran into this more than once. Thankfully, we had snacks in the car to sustain us. Also, Tipping is not necessary but is always appreciated. I only tipped when I felt that the service was better than normal or if the server was very attentive.
 
–Alcohol is quite expensive in Australia. I recommend bringing some with you. Allotment information can be found here.
 
–Pharmacies (chemists) can provide you with many over-the-counter options for basic medical issues (colds, aches and pains, etc.), but these remedies are not cheap. A bottle of cough suppressant can cost around $20 AUD. Obviously, illnesses cannot always be predicted but taking a basic first aid kit and OTC medicines with you can save you some money.
 
–Each state has its own tourism website which has lots of helpful information. Be aware that each Australian state is rather vast, so sometimes the site will recommend towns or attractions that are nowhere near your chosen location. Still, it was a great resource for National Parks, accommodations, and attractions. Here is the website for New South Wales.
–For those of us with credit cards issued by American banks, beware of Australia’s rules regarding credit cards. Most credit cards have a chip and a PIN making them more secure for the credit card companies, the merchants, and the users. Currently, the United States does not offer chip and PIN cards, rather we use a signature to validate our use of the card. While visiting Australia in November 2014, I had multiple merchants deny my credit card because I did not have a PIN. It seemed as though this was a new rule change because I did not encounter it everywhere. Eventually, I began asking if my credit card with signature would be accepted before the purchasing process began. U.S. banks are slated to offer credit cards with chips by October 2015, but most will be chip and signature, not chip and PIN. Check with your bank prior to travel and be prepared to use cash. Click here for a news article discussing this issue.
General Notes on Australia

General Notes on New Zealand

–While we were excited to visit a country where English was widely spoken, there were still a few things that tripped us up and that we had to learn along the way. We found that most causal restaurants did not have servers, but instead, customers ordered at the bar and meals were brought to your table. Tipping is not necessary but is always appreciated. I only tipped when I felt that the service was better than normal or if the server was very attentive.

–Pedestrians do not have the right of way when crossing at a crosswalk unless there is a traffic light indicating your right of way. There may be some crosswalks where pedestrians can cross safely but we didn’t find them. Once we figured this out, we were much more cautious and only crossed the street at a traffic light. Also, cars drive on the right side of the road so I tried to train my brain to look both ways whenever I crossed a street. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

–Finally, most lakes in New Zealand have a pathway around the perimeter for wonderful views of the area. It’s also a great way to take in the beauty and get a little exercise.

Enjoying one of New Zealand’s beautiful lakes
General Notes on New Zealand

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

San Cristobal is a lovely colonial town that also feels like an acutal town. While there are more tourists (English speakers are more prevalent here), and there is some of the bothersome focus on selling things to tourists, there is something about the town that also feels normal; locals just going about their day.
Ominous clouds over San Cristobal
We spent a lot of time wandering around the regular, everyday market (food, housewares, etc.) not to be confused with the craft market (ceramics, textiles, souvenirs, etc.). It is a never ending maze of stalls.
 
We also ate lunch in the market most days we were there; taco and caldos (soups and meat dishes that sometimes include rice and beans, but always include corn tortillas) were the main choices. Once again (see blog entry Chiapa de Corzo), speaking Spanish is a must. But the food was good, plentiful, and cheap. The average meal we had in the market was around $25 MXN. I am not sure what the custom is on tipping at these food stalls but we tipped a small amount, maybe $5 MXN each time. Knowing how much we were saving, we felt that we could afford to be generous.
Carne asada tacos con cebolla
We chose not to visit the nearby Mayan villages after reading on other blogs that the locals in those villages were not always interested in people coming to stare at them. So instead, we went out to a park called Archotete and it was well worth it. 

We took a taxi most of the way to the park which cost about $60 MXN. We had read online that the taxi would be closer to $30 MXN but since there were two of us, maybe the cost was per person. We walked the rest of the way, about a mile down a gravel road through a small town.

Me crossing a shaky bridge in Archotete park.

The entrance fee for the park was $10 MXN per person. We were two of four people visiting the park that day so we had the trails to ourselves. We paid an extra $10 MXN to go into a cave and we made friends with the local stray dog. After a few hours of hiking, we decided to take a taxi back from the park instead of walking down to the main road which cost $80 MXN.

The grotto in Archotete park
We named this dog Omar.
There are a lot of beautiful churches to visit in town and some great bars and restaurants to relax in. One of the cheapest bars we encountered was on Real Guadalupe called La Vina de Bacco. It’s a wine and tapas bar with their cheapest glass of wine starting at $18 MXN. They also serve beer and mixed drinks. There also seems to be a lot of live music venues around town.
San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Barcelona, Spain

Recently, my friend Katie and I traveled to Barcelona. When we travel together, we tend to focus mostly on wandering around, eating, and drinking. Here are some of our finds and a few tips.

We stumbled across a great little tapas bar in Barri Gotic called La Cala del Vermut, Carrer de les Magdalenes, 6. It’s not far from the Cathedral de Barcelona, but it’s tucked away enough that the tourist crowds can’t find it. We had a small lunch of a few tapas and a drink which cost about €6 per person. The staff was very friendly, answered our questions, and tolerated my poor Spanish.

La Bodegueta, Rambla de Catalunya, 100 is a delightful little tapas place usually full with patrons. It’s too small for standing so grab a table and order something wonderful from the menu. We really liked the Manchego cheese, the tiny pimientos de Padrón (grilled peppers) and the pan tomàquet (bread rubbed with tomato and garlic, then drizzled with olive oil). We ate here twice and both times the bill was under €10 a person.

Taktika Berri, Carrer de Valencia, 169 is a great pinxtos bar. At €1.45 per pinxtos, it can get expensive if you eat a lot but you can also try a handful of great items and keep it under budget. The general rule is to let the bartenders serve you unless its very crowded; then you can take what you’d like for yourself. Also, remember that when you are ready to pay, your toothpicks will be counted (usually at the register) and you will need to tell the bartender who many drinks you had. It will all be tallied up. Side note: It seemed that most people did not tip at pintxos bars. I’m not sure if it was because you kind of serve yourself, although they are filling your drinks and bringing around new pinxtos. We decided to tip when we felt that the service was exceptional.

We didn’t only eat and drink, if that’s what you are thinking so far. We also took a bike tour of the city (bad idea), went into the Cathedral de Barcelona (which is free before 12:45 p.m. and supposedly free after 5:00 p.m.), and we made the pilgrimage to La Sagrada Familia. Do not wait in line to get into Gaudi’s church. Tickets are available online via Ticketmaster (for a fee) or you can buy them at one of the many yellow ServiCaixa ATMs and skip the fee. The machines are tricky and don’t seem to work with all credit and debit cards, so try more than one card, pick a date and time, and skip the line at La Sagrada Familia.
We also made more than one trip to La Boqueria, the large market just off La Rambla. It’s a good place to buy produce, cheeses, and ready made snacks, but it is also over-run. Watch your bags while you are there.
Barcelona, Spain

First Blog, Ever

Greetings from Austria. This is where my blogging life begins. I have been travelling for years now, just here and there when I have vacation time and and an idea of where to go, so I thought I would share my insights with the interwebs. I hope I can be helpful to others who want to see the world (and maybe some parts of the world lots of others have not seen), learn about other cultures, and do so on a budget. In future blogs, I will revisit places I have been in the past and write about recent trips. But for now, let’s start in the present.
 

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.



First Blog, Ever