Mérida, Mexico

I spent a handful of days with friends in Mérida and really enjoyed the town. We stayed at the Nomadas Hostel to save a little money. If the hostel didn’t have a pool, I can’t say I would stay there again. The rooms were acceptable but the free breakfast was not good and the customer service at the front desk was poor. Also, we had to wear wristbands while staying there. People kept asking us if we were staying at an all inclusive or if we’d been at a rave.

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Wristbands, seriously?

We spent our days wandering around town, eating and drinking, and lounging by the pool at the hostel. We visited Mercado San Benito a handful of times for some cheap food.

We also took a cooking class with Urban Adventures. We toured the market with Gustavo then went to his aunt’s house for a cooking lesson. Once all the food was ready, we ate an amazing meal together as a group. This was definitely a highlight of my time in Mérida.

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Photo credit: Pamela Dawn

Thanks to the lovely and talented Pamela Dawn for sharing her amazing photos with me. Find her Instagram feed here.

Along with the cooking class with it’s delicious local dishes, we kept eating (and drinking) our way around Mérida.

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One of the many delicious spreads while visiting Mérida.

We stopped by Huevos Motuleños twice for breakfast. The food and the service were outstanding. The main dining room is small but there is additional seating and an outdoor terrace upstairs.

We popped into La Negrita Cantina for drinks and enjoyed the lively atmosphere. We also visited Mercado 60 for a drink and some food. It was fun but more expensive than I think it’s worth.

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When we needed a light snack or meal, we’d walk down to Gorditas Doña Gorda. The gorditas are small; one is a perfect snack, 2-3 work for a light meal. Each gordita costs around $15MXN. Also, they have a handful of vegetarian options on the menu.

For delicious tacos, we visited Wayan´e. There are a handful of locations but we went to the one on Calle 59. I ordered three tacos and a Coke. They were filling and my lunch only cost $42MXN.

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In between eating, we visited the cathedral and learned about the city and its history.

We stayed in town for most of our visit but did spend an afternoon at the beach in Progreso. We hopped on a bus ($38MXN roundtrip) and were there in about 45 minutes. The beach was clean and not too crowded for such a hot day.

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Buses to Progreso leave from the Auto Progreso station.
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Mérida is filled with color and texture.

When I started planning my next move, I wanted to know all of my bus options. As I’ve mentioned in a past blog, the bus companies in Mexico (ADO and and it’s subsidiaries) are getting organized and a little more expensive. In Mérida there are two different bus stations one for the 1st class buses; another for the 2nd class buses. They are near each other so that makes it easier. And while they offer the same routes, the departure times, trip lengths, and, of course, prices are very different. To get from Mérida to Campeche, I chose to take a 1st class bus (but not the Platinum option) which cost about $127MXN one way. ADO also has an app that you can download but the ticket prices are a tad higher, maybe an extra $1-3USD per ticket. This is also true of purchasing tickets through their website. If you have the option, I recommend buying tickets at the bus station so you can save a little money and this way you know exactly where you need to be. I found another blog that covers the ADO bus system in more detail. I recommend checking it out if you plan on taking a lot of buses around Mexico.

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Choose your bus station; but choose wisely.
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Mérida, Mexico

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent had so much more to offer than I was expecting. I thought it would be a sleepy, little town where I would get bored after a few days. But that definitely was not the case. After five days, I kept finding more places I wanted to check out and I couldn’t fit everything in. I also found that the tourism website was very helpful, more so than I expected. I recommend visiting it for practical information as well as recommendations around town.  

For the first two days, I was on my own and stayed at the Kaba Hostel. While I had a great stay there, it was further from the city center than I would have liked. But it also gave me a chance to check out the Southeast side of town before I moved to an Airbnb with a friend on the North side of town. 

While in town, I took advantage of the good weather and wandered and meandered everywhere. I also took a boat tour, a free walking tour, and even rented a kayak from Hostel Uppelink.

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Kayaking the calm canals of Ghent. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

I also took a free night walking tour. The guide, Ben, had a lot of very interesting history and knowledge about the city. And he timed the tour to end just at midnight.

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I visited all of the churches in town and, of course, the Ghent Alterpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb). For art lovers, this is essential. For everyone else, it’s also essential. Pay the €4, listen to the audio guide (offered in a bunch of languages), and learn about the incredibly interesting history of this artwork. 

I also visited the Museum voor Schone Kunsten for an exhibition called Women of the Baroque. The entrance fee for both the permanent exhibit and the temporary exhibits was €14. All of the exhibits were wonderfully curated. I was also able to see the panels from the Ghent Alterpiece that were being restored. 

But more than anything, I enjoyed the food in Ghent. The city has fully embraced the local and organic food movements. There are food co-ops, farm to table restaurants, and vegetarian options galore. My favorites where Lokaal, Soep Plus, and Le Botaniste. Note that Le Botaniste looks really fancy from the outside but is actually very casual.  All three of these restaurants were affordable, healthy, and delicious. 

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I ordered a trio of hummuses at Le Botaniste. Yum!

I also checked out a few of the organic markets. My favorite was the Beo Markt. They do have a restaurant thought I didn’t eat there, I did buy delicious fruit and vegetables.

For drinks, I found a great little wine bar called Baravins. I liked the place so much I stopped by a second time during my visit. The bartender was friendly, helpful, and generous with the snacks.

I also ate some delicious Italian food while in Ghent. My friend and I had dinner at Shazanna after grabbing drinks at Baravins. Our pizzas were amazing and filling. My dinner and a glass of wine cost €22. I ate more Italian food a few days later when I visited Firenze for lunch. It is a cozy restaurant with a great family feel. If you are in the area, check it out.

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Firenze was a delicious place to pop into after a visit to the art museum. The olives and wine tided me over until my pasta arrived.

On my way into town, I didn’t use public transportation when leaving the train station and hoofed it all the way to my hostel with my backpack in tow. But on my way out of town, I decided to take the tram to the train station. The cost for one ticket on the Lijnwinkel tram was €1.60. Later, I found out that this same transit system is in Antwerp, and possibly other cities in Belguim. 

Ghent, Belgium

Postojna, Slovenia

We drove from the Venice airport directly to the Skocjan Cave in Slovenia. We were lucky to arrive just before the next scheduled tour started (see their website for tour times). The tickets cost €18 per person but was well worth it. The guided tour was very informative and the experience was amazing. Note that there is a lot of walking as well as stairs involved in visiting this cave. 
 
We stayed at one of the many guesthouses in Postojna. The owners of Grmek Apartments were very hospitable and the room was delightful at a cost of €48 per night. The apartment was a bit of a walk from town but close enough to walk to dinner at Štorja pod Stopnicami. This was one of my favorite meals in Slovenia. Though not budget friendly (dinner for two with drinks cost about €62), I can’t recommend it enough. The food was delicious and the service was friendly and inviting.

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Octopus over roasted carrots and pureed potatoes with a green pea sauce.

 
The following day, we visited the Postojna Cave which is more built up and fantastical than the Skocjan Cave. They have installed train tracks and small trains to take you through the cave. It was a fun experience but definitely more expensive at €28 per person. If mobility is an issue, I recommend visiting the Postojna Cave as there isn’t nearly as much walking as in Skocjan Cave.  
 
After visiting the cave, we drove back into town to get a kebap. This little restaurant has delicious, cheap, and filling kebaps for about €5 each.
 

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Kebap with all the fixins.

On our way out of town, we visited a small park which has two natural bridges. If you enjoy hiking, this is a great place to explore nature. 
 

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Kyle posing in front of the larger of the two natural bridges.

 

Postojna, Slovenia

Glasgow, Scotland

I recently spent a handful of days in Glasgow with my cousin David. We didn’t have much planned but definitely found things to do to occupy our time; mostly eating.
The city itself is not what most would call beautiful but it has an edgy, raw feel without the hint of crime. We walked through George Square, toured the City Chambers and visited the Kelvingrove Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art (all for free, no less). But I think what really made me enjoy this city was the food. I did not have a bad meal while I was there. From the kebap shop to Ubiquitious Chip; everything was delicious, fresh, and relatively affordable. Here are some of the highlights.

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A view of the Cathedral from the Necropolis.

It serves some tasty, strong cocktails as well as some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had.
This was the perfect Italian style thin crust pizza. It was worth the wait at the West End location. You can also check out their other location in the city center. At about £9GBP per pizza it’s an affordable and delicious lunch or dinner option.
Check this place out in the West End for live music and an amazing array of whiskies to taste. We spent an evening drinking whiskies that the knowledgeable bartenders recommended.
They serve up a tasty and authentic bowl of pho but I also heard very good reviews for a place called Hanoi Bike Shop.

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A delicious bowl of pho.

This is an elegant, yet affordable restaurant which was lovely as expected. Right in the heart of the city center is this traditional gem that has stood the test of time. We had the set lunch menu and at £25GBP (which included a glass of wine), my two course meal was delicious and worth the splurge.
This place is actually two restaurants in one. I had lunch in their upstairs terrace restaurant. I did not choose from their set lunch menu but opted for the delicious mussels and a small pork pie which was wonderful. At about £15GBP, my lunch was cheaper than the set lunch in the downstairs restaurant.

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Mussels with chorizo and hearty bread to soak up the savory broth.

I am still thinking about this place and it’s food. It’s another restaurant worth the wait (or make a reservation). I had two dishes and a glass of wine for £20GBP. I highly recommend the beet hummus and whipped feta dish. I even tried to return later during my trip. Part of me was sad because I couldn’t get a table but the other part of me knew that there were other amazing places to try instead.
This is where I ended up when Ox & Finch couldn’t take me and I was not disappointed. I had their Thyme for Gin cocktail to whet my appetite followed by a beet salad and a gnocchi dish. I could not have been happier nor fuller. Once again, a delightful meal for under £25GBP.
After all that eating, we spent a few of our days wandering the streets of Glasgow, grabbing a drink at a few local bars (my favorites were Inn Deep and the bar in the Centre for Contemporary Arts), and enjoying the comfort of our room at the Charing Cross Guest House. What I really liked about this was the location (walking distance to both the city center and to the West End), the free breakfast (with your choice of continental or full Scottish breakfast), and the hospitality of the front desk staff. At $54USD a night for a double room, it was well within my budget.
While staying in Glasgow we took two separate day trips. The first was to Loch Lomond. It only took about an hour by train to the town of Balloch which is walking distance to the water. We choose not to take the scenic ferry ride but went hiking along the water’s edge instead.
We also took a train and ferry to the Isle of Arran. We spent our day hiking around the isle. If given the chance, I would love to return to see more of this beautiful part of Scotland.

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Here I am at the top of our hike on the Isle of Arran.

Glasgow, Scotland

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.

General Notes on Vietnam

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

During our stay on Cat Ba, we stayed in two separate hotels. First, we stayed at the Hai Long Hotel. We had a spacious room with a view of the water and breakfast was included. At 600,000VND (for a triple room) per night, it was one of the more expensive places we stayed yet still under budget. This hotel was really nice by Vietnamese standards but it still had some oddities. For instance, our bathroom had a bathtub but no shower curtain, making it essentially still a wet bathroom. Also, the elevators smelled like gasoline and the hot water was heated with coal brought in by the employees through the lobby. Overall, it has a great location in town and was a better option than other hotels we looked at (and better than the other hotel we stayed in).

We spent one night at Le Pont. While the amenities at Le Pont are wonderful (great views, 20% off already affordable food and drinks, and a less congested location but still walking distance to town) the rooms were another story. Kyle and I splurged for the bungalow, which was nice since it had its own bathroom, but the bed was really hard (much like most beds we slept in while in Vietnam). Also we weren’t given any sheets and the pillows had mold growing on them. Because the bungalow is located near reception and a lounge area, light poured into our room throughout the night. For $22USD, we expected more given that our usual room cost about $27USD a night for all three of us.

Rheanna had a similarly bad experience with her private room ($10USD). It was separated from the dormitory by only a slatted wall, which did not block sound at all. She was pretty sure that her bedding had not been changed between her and the previous guest. Also her room was located right behind the bar at Le Pont, which sometimes has music blaring into the wee hours. Le Pont has great reviews online, so if you still want to stay there I would give this advice: in the low season, arrive before booking a room and only stay on the left side of the reception area. There is a ramp up to the bar area on the right and that is where most of the dorm rooms and private rooms are located. The left side was significantly quieter when we were there then the right side. The views from Le Pont are beautiful, so if you are going to stay there, spend some time enjoying it. We had two day tours planned and therefore really didn’t get to enjoy the view.

While on Cat Ba, we took two day tours around Ha Long and Lan Ha Bays. We had saved some money by staying on land at night and going on different tours during the day. Plus, the weather was not amazing while we were there, so the overnight on a boat would not have been clear or warm. We took our first day tour with Asia Outdoors because we’d heard they were the best and worth the extra money. On the tour of Lan Ha Bay, we boated for about an hour, kayaked for 1.5 hours, then had a delicious lunch. After lunch, we boated around for another hour and then kayaked for one hour. Our guide for the day was named Fouk and while he was nice and he answered our direct questions, he was not very forthcoming with the history and make up of the nature surrounding us and provided minimal instruction on how to kayak . He also didn’t have a commanding presence over our group. The tour was fun and I felt safe on the boat, but I expected more out of the tour. At a cost of 495,000VND per person for a double kayak and 600,000VND for a single person (which did not necessarily mean you would get a single kayak if you wanted it), it wasn’t the stellar experience I hoped for. Maybe I have been spoiled by great guided tours in the past (see blog entries for Canada and  Maine).

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The scenery of Lan Ha Bay was stunning.

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One of the many floating villages we passed while out on our boat tours.

The next day, we took another day tour (one that was offered at Le Pont Hotel) which included boating, kayaking, a visit to Monkey Island, and lunch on the boat. For $16USD per person this tour did not include an English speaking guide but the plan for the day was just as unexplained as the day before with Asia Outdoors. We were first dropped off on Monkey Island for one hour with no mention of the fact that the monkeys are somewhat aggressive and will try and take your objects out of your hand. Thankfully, we knew this ahead of time and were prepared to guard our belongings closely. We then boarded the boat again and later kayaked for the first time with the guide for about an hour. The afternoon kayaking session was 40 minutes long and our guide did not join us in the water. Lunch was provided and was just as tasty as the lunch we had with Asia Outdoors. All in all, it was roughly the same tour for a lower price. We were just happy to be out on the water for day.

It did not seem like we could haggle the tour price at Asia Outdoors though we definitely had to discuss the price that we saw on their website versus the price they were quoting us. As for the other tour, we definitely got a discount from Le Pont but found out that others on the tour were able to get it a bit cheaper ($15USD per person instead of $16USD per person). I’m not sure what you can get away with in high season, but we definitely tried to haggle down prices everywhere we went.

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Seeing monkeys up close was fun but also nerve-racking as they had no fear of humans and were very interested in taking the things that belong to us.

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Here we are returning from an hour of kayaking. Back to the junk boat for us to eat some tasty lunch.

The Vietnamese food in Cat Ba wasn’t amazing but if you do a little searching (and get off the main street near the water), the options get better and cheaper. We did eat and drink at a restaurant/bar called the Flightless Bird Bar. The drink prices were good (Vietnamese liquor and soda for 28,00VND) and the pizza was delicious. Just past the Flightless Bird Bar there is a little Vietnamese place with phở, bún, and rice dishes that were really tasty and the prices were great, about 35,000-40,000VND per bowl.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Tam Cốc, Vietnam

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.

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I believe we were taken to the new bus station (starred on the map) to catch a bus to Ninh Binh. The taxi driver told us the old one had closed.

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.

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Enjoying the boat ride, the view, and being off our feet even for a short while.

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A walking bridge in the Bird Sanctuary.

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Kyle and I enjoying the view and resting for a minute.

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.

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This is the Ben Binh port in Hai Phong where the fast ferries to and from Cat Ba Island leave. The fast ferries arrive at the port in Cat Ba Town, not on the edge of the island.

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This is where the slow ferry arrives from Cat Ba Island and leaves from Hai Phong.

Tam Cốc, Vietnam