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.

 

IMG_3789
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.

20160328_080533

– 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.

Advertisements
General Notes on Vietnam

Akko, Israel

My sister-in-law Kim and I took a daytrip from Haifa to Akko (sometimes called Acre). It’s a wonderful old city with winding paths and streets that seem to lead you nowhere, but maybe that’s the point.
 
We took the train from Haifa which cost about 19NIS for a 25 minute ride. The Akko train station is about a 20 minute walk from the old town, but with the help of GPS, we made it.

We made two specific stops and other than that we just wandered around. First, we went looking for a hummus place called Said’s. We had heard that it was the “best hummus in the Middle East.” We were sorely disappointed by these claims. The waiter was very rude and the hummus wasn’t even in the top ten during our trip (and we ate hummus at least once a day for three weeks). Thankfully, after this disappointment, we found a little restaurant in the Turkish Souq called Kukushka. They had very inventive and interesting snack foods, delicious wine by the glass, and local beers. I ordered the veal sausages, fries, and a glass of wine. At about 70NIS, it wasn’t cheap but it was well worth it. 

Table and chairs at Kukushka

Our other destination was the tunnels under the city. It cost about 15NIS and included less than we expected. The brochure for Akko shows the tunnels as if they are part of the citadel. They are not; we were fooled. But we were having such a great time wandering around this amazing city, we easily gave up looking for the entrance to the citadel and just enjoyed Akko itself.

Also, there is a cheese shop in the Turisk Souq (which is really just a long hallway with shops inside). Once again, it was great to see a shop trying something different. I tried a few of their cheeses and each was better than the next.
 
Akko, Israel

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

Madrid, Spain

Madrid is the place for eating, drinking, and wandering. There are great tapas bars, wine bars, and restaurants all over the city. My favorite was El Tempranillo in La Latina, C/ Cava Baja, 38, west of the La Latina metro stop. Their wine selection was amazing and their tapas were delicious (especially the roasted veggies with melted goat cheese). On this same street, there are a handful of other great tapas bars. Check out this other blog for lists of great tapas bars in La Latina and around Madrid: http://tapastalk.wordpress.com/tapas-bars/

There’s a great restaurant called Bazaar, C/ San Marcos, 35, just south of the Chuenca metro stop (http://www.restaurantbazaar.com/). The food has an international flavor to it; some Spanish, some Asian flavors but all around good. The prices aren’t too bad either, about 6-10€ per plate, and they have great wines (including house wines).

Last recommendation. San Antón (http://www.mercadosananton.com/) and San Miguel (http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es/) markets are great places to eat some delicious food, but it’s an even better deal to take some to go. If you are staying in an apartment or going on a picnic in Retiro Park (which I highly recommend), pop into either market. Buy a little of this and a little of that and you will be amazed at the quality of food you get for just a few euros. American readers, please remember that one pound equals 453 grams, so 100 grams of cheese is enough for a good snack for a few people or to last a few days. Add a bottle or two of wine from a grocery store (for as low as 1€) and you’re good to go.
To get in and out of the city, there is an express bus from the airport to Cibeles (Banco de Espana metro stop) and Atocha (Atocha metro stop) for 2€ each way. It’s easy and quick, the driver can provide change, and, best of all, you don’t have to transfer in any of the many metro stations. Check out this site for more Information:  http://www.esmadrid.com/en/barajas-airport-express

Also, one other tip about Madrid’s metro system: when you look at the system map, the city seems quite spread out and possibly unmanageable. In actuality, the metro stations are closer to each other than one would think (some as little as 3-5 minutes on foot). I recommend that in the first day or two you are in Madrid, don’t buy the 10 ticket metro pass. Figure out where you think you want to go in the city, how much walking you are willing to do, and go from there.

Madrid, Spain