The Most Fun You Can Have for Fifty Cents

What can fifty cents buy in today’s world? It all depends on where you spend it. Luckily, paradise is real and it exists somewhere on the better side of half a dollar.

You’ve probably heard about backpackers trekking through the well-worn trail of Southeast Asia by this point. And if you’re unaware, there’s good reason to get the lowdown. So ditch your other destinations (at least temporarily) and head to this side of the world. Island hop the East Indies or travel the huge swaths of Indochina. You can’t go wrong.

There’s the natural beauty among the coral reefs of Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. Some species of animals and flora among these countries can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

There’s tantalizing food at every turn, including markets for sampling fruits I’m almost certain you’ve never seen or heard of. The coffee isn’t so bad ether…! Sumatra and Java come to mind. 

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Using sweetened condensed milk makes Vietnamese iced coffee so damn good
And because the region is made up of 12+ countries and is home to over half a billion people, there’s huge variety of ethnic groups, language and religion.

But, perhaps the most widely cited reason for the often cash-conscious traveler—cost. Compared to many other destinations in the world, SoutheastAsia is on saleand has been for quite some time. This isn’t a one-off, temporary Brexit sale, either. Rather, one reason this area of the world continues its domination atop would-be backpackers’ bucket lists is because prices have remained low (relative to other destinations) over an extended period.

I’m going to use Vietnam, specifically Saigon, as my point of reference because this where I spent the most time. Here you can:

  • Drink beers for under a dollar—the ever present green label Saigon Bia provides a temporary method to remedy the relentless heat and humidity of a tropical climate.
  • Eat overflowing meat-filled baguettes for $0.75—bánh mìs are ubiquitous, usually stuffed with pork belly, layered with pâté and then topped with veggies. They’re awesomely crunchy too, thanks to the French bread.
  • Slurp huge bowls of noodles for two dollars or less—a bowl of pho is great as is, but toss in some hot peppers and prepare to sweat.

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Some of the hottest peppers I’ve had
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First pho of the trip…look at that face!
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Fresh baguettes delivered by motorbike
The food in Vietnam is something to write home about. And the prices are (almost) as good. I knew this much going in. However, one aspect my friends and I overlooked was transportation. And could you blame us? Ordinarily this isn’t something to get psyched about. But in Vietnam, specifically Saigon, YOU SHOULD. Let me explain…

As you exit the airport and make your way into the city, the flurry of motorbikes creates a chaotic first experience. The traffic appears to overtake when possible but yield when necessary. You will see families of five riding together by motorbike. And you are almost guaranteed to spot multiple dogs huddled on a bike and balancing on all fours while their owners weave through other motorists.

This could be you (not the dog part)! But you can forget the typical taxi or bus. You’re going to be riding in style. And you’re going to be doing it every opportunity you get. The moment my friends and I discovered that Uberoffered motorbikes as a transport option, we were hooked.

Because Saigon is a city of shared motorbike rides, the option to shuttle people around via UberMOTO comes as second nature to the drivers. They’re experienced, so adjusting to your extra weight seems effortless. I even ended up taking a 20-minute ride to the airport with about 30 pounds of gear in my back—no problem. That four-mile commute only cost 26,000 VND, or a little over USD $1.10. Another 10+ rides around Saigon cost 10,000 Dong each (or about USD $0.50). Hands down–pun intended–this is absolutely the most fun you can have for $0.50.

Speaking of hands, it may be tempting to hold on to the back of the motorbike or the driver when riding. You’ll see some doing this, but for the vast majority, the rider simply places her hands in her lap or on her thighs and allows gravity do the rest. I was actually told a few times to saddle up a bit closer to my driver. So don’t be shy.

Due to the overcrowded streets and number of intersections, motorbikes rarely exceed 25 mph in short commute city driving. Also, the majority are greatly under-powered too, so there really isn’t an instance where I feared flying off the back when accelerating.

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His first ride of many
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$0.50 ride! (driver’s picture & name hidden)
Pro Tip: if you’re caught in the rain while riding, see if the driver is using a poncho and has an extra spot for you. I made the mistake of not sharing the rain jacket when offered and got a little wet…

SuperProTip: spend $10 and get unlimited data on a SIM card. It’s worth it to avoid being at the mercy of cafe or hotel WiFi and makes linking up with an Uber a non-issue.

Find a way to get to here, strap on a helmet, and take a tour of Saigon while zipping by motorbike. It will be an experience you won’t soon forget.


Footnotes

1. Cost comparisons are all relative. I am sure a portion of people native to Saigon and the greater part of Southeast Asia may not find the region quite so cheap. But, based on an index representing the world as a whole, SE Asia (except Singapore) remains one of the cheapest places to spend time.

2. I am not affiliated with Uber. The service was available, so I used it.

How I (Almost) Got Scammed in Bangkok

Google Bangkok and you will likely find touristy things to do, monuments to visit and most definitely Pad Thai recommendations. But, scratch the surface a little further and you may uncover a whole slew of scams that takes many tourists for a ride (literally)!

It’s my first day in Bangkok and I’m traveling with the usual suspects—three of my closest friends from college days. We’ve been around the block enough to know a con when we see one. At least, that’s what we thought. Maybe it was the heat frying our jet-lagged brains, or maybe it was a genuine interest in the well-spoken Thai man on the corner, adjacent to the Grand Palace.

We were ready to cross the street, which lead to the Grand Palace, as that was our first landmark we wanted to visit. A man approached us, told us he was a teacher and asked us where we were from, where we planned to go and how long we’d been here. That last part is usually a good indication that they want to get a feel for how fresh and naïve you are to the city and its tricks.

He informed us the Grand Palace was closed (this is a VERY prevalent scam in Bangkok) and told us we should visit a few other temples in its place. Red flag number one. He even conveniently had another map and was all too eager to share it with us. He marked a few spots, all of them legit monuments or temples. But he also made it a point of mentioning a promotion going on for suits at a specific tailor shop and for a limited time. Red flags number two, three and four.

At this point he flagged down a tuk-tuk (the little three-wheeled taxis that get you around the city) and told us not to pay more than 40 Baht a person for the whole day of rides. The drivers would take us to the sights, wait for us to finish, then shuttle us to the next ones.

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We agreed, mostly because 40*2 baht is only about USD $2.30 for a whole day of rides.  Seemed like a steal. The two drivers we had took the four of us to the first temple, which was a legit spot. We climbed up, explored a bit, took a few ultra-touristy photos, lit some incense for Buddha and made our way back down.

One of our drivers motioned for us to return so he could take us off to the next landmark. He said he needed to use the restroom so we waited by our rides. A man approached our spot and was about to get into his SUV, but it was blocked by our tuk-tuks. Red flag number five. He said he wasn’t in a rush and would wait. He engaged us further, once again in near perfect English, and enquired about our plans, much like the first person.

Apparently, he was visiting his Buddhist monk brother in the temple nearby and was actually from New York, where he was a lawyer. He mentioned that he went to Cornell and even dropped the name of his law firm in the conversation. Looking back, the name of the firm was actually a combination of a consulting company and a law firm—the sixth red flag.

We discuss our plans for the day as he looks over our map. He confirms we picked the best spots to visit and also backs up the teacher’s info on the tailor shop, evening telling us in great detail how we could get Armani suits for less than $400. He says, “They even take credit cards!” HAHA.

As our drivers return, we all looked at each other and discussed these wild “coincidences”, namely the closed temple, helpful teacher, limited time sale, blocked car and friendly lawyer. But seeing as though we already had a ride lined up, we jumped back in and agreed that when we arrived at the suit shop, we’d simply tell the driver we weren’t interested and ask him to take us to the next temple.

This didn’t go over particularly well. Upon arrival, we hopped out and told them we did not need suits. They seemed very put off by this and continued to insist we go in and have a look, even if we didn’t want to buy. At this point we saw they wouldn’t be taking us any further and decided to end our “tour” there. I can’t remember the exact number of Baht they demanded, but I ended up giving them 50 for myself and the friend riding in the tuk-tuk with me—about $1.50 total.

As we walked away and headed to the next temple by foot, we all began discussing what just transpired and debated the possibility of all five people we met being in cahoots just to sell us some suits.

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We were lucky in that we realized pretty early on what was taking place. But unlike us unfortunately, many people didn’t have a good laugh about their experience. Turns out 50 Baht was a great price to pay, as we began Googling and reading about people being taken for a ride to tailor shops or gem shops and spending hundreds of dollars.

These scams are pretty convincing to the unsuspecting. They have the first person pose as a teacher, probably to establish some trust. He mentions he doesn’t want any money from us, just to help. He offers up a bigger and “better” map of the sights—we even found out these maps are altered and don’t accurately reflect the distances between monuments. They then conveniently use our tuk-tuks to block in someone’s car. This someone is another well-spoken Thai man who poses as a knowledgeable lawyer, and furthers the credibility of the teacher’s choices of the sights, as well as the tailor shop.

I’m actually curious what would’ve happened if we had entered the tailor shop and not bought anything, came back out, and wished to go on to the next sight. Would the drivers even be waiting? Would they have another scam up their sleeves? The details and steps involved in planning these are actually quite impressive and almost make me regret not continuing to play along. Almost.

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Suffice to say, Google ‘Bangkok scams’ if you plan on going so you can be prepared for ALL the possibilities. Definitely don’t miss out on taking a tuk-tuk, as we found all of our other drivers to be friendly. Negotiate the fare before you take off and you won’t have an issue. Be sure to visit the Grand Palace, too! It’s definitely something you don’t want to miss, even if the teacher tells you it’s closed.

 

How I Financed My Ticket to Vietnam

The end of April will come to mark my third trans-Pacific trip for Asian exploration. Instead of discussing the destination of Vietnam as a collection of descriptions about the food, history, culture or even country itself (I’ll do this in May), I’d rather focus on the how. How I afforded Vietnam. It’s not a crazy scheme involving sneaky travel hacking or anything similar—though diligence is always a priority here. Rather, it’s based on perspective and trade-offs.

Someone told me I was cheap the other day. Although this really doesn’t bother me from an outsider’s perspective, it is somewhat disappointing that this person did not understand my motivation behind some of the decisions I’ve made in terms of personal finance. What she calls cheap, I call frugal and purposeful. Save dough in aspects which aren’t important to me, and spend gobs, like a rookie NFL youngster with a newly-signed, multi-million dollar contract, in other areas I do value. Yeah that doesn’t really have a ring to it…but the point is I put money into things which give me the most satisfaction and then prioritize accordingly.

New furniture? Meh. I’ll check Craigslist for a deal, or ask a family member or friend, as it is very likely something used and in decent shape can be had for at least a 75% discount off the original price. To me, it’s woefully unimportant if the items match or if they go with the décor (which I don’t really have), so long as they serve their functional purpose. I’m not inviting you over to impress you with my new leather sectional.

New car? Please. Drive that off the lot and WHAM, a few thousand bucks disappears into thin air. Go for a used, older model. Does it get from A to B reliably? Is it reasonably efficient? Done.

Forego clothes shopping every few weeks or even every month. Check your wardrobe. The typical American consumer has way too many clothes…some still with the tags from years ago. Younger me is definitely guilty of this, but I’m improving. Besides the recurring costs of always having more this and new those, the decision of what to wear ends up costing “mental money” in the form of time and decision anxiety. Decision anxiety is like never being satisfied with the cereal you chose from the staggering 167 available options on the shelf.

How about going out for lunch every day? Being a bad cook shouldn’t excuse your penchant for eating out a majority days of the week. Your wallet gets slim, but your waistline expands.

Eat lunch out every day: $50-60 (5 day workweek)
Bring your own nomz: $15-20 (5 day workweek)
Average difference: $150/month and approaching $2,000/year!

Do you have cable? Pshht. Better cut that Comcast umbilical cord stat! You don’t need it. Everything you want is online, or most can be accessed through a lower-priced alternative like Netflix or Amazon. If your cable bill is $100 bundled with internet, but could be $40 with just internet, that’s a savings of $720 per year or about $600 in savings if you can’t quite stop your addiction and substitute a $10/month Netflix subscription.

This $600 brings me to my plane ticket. Roundtrip from Chicago to Ho Chi Minh City I paid $564.66. This is the trade-off: cancel cable (and even substitute in Netflix) and I can afford another plane ticket this year..and an international one at that. This is what I’m talking about in terms of values. If I really valued TV, sure I could get the extra channels. But I don’t. I hold the value of travel, cultural experience and discovery much higher than I value the ability to flip on the TV and watch Seinfeld reruns for hours on end…and I LOVE Seinfeld.

So when my friend said I was cheap, I in turn could’ve responded that she too was cheap. She was cheaper with her money towards plane tickets than I was, but she was less cheap with regards to a more expensive car. We have different values, giving both of us an appearance of being cheaper in different areas.

A lot of people fail to understand this concept. When you accept one thing (expense) you trade off the ability to afford another expense. By choosing to say yes to a bigger apartment, you’re essentially saying no (or saying no more often) to going out to dinner with your friends. And if you’re not trading off, well you’re gonna have debt coming out your nose and then AMEX is going to take your firstborn daughter as collateral.

Your income and time are finite. Therefore, trade-offs are essential.

There’s actually a really great quote to express this idea more succinctly than I ever could and it’s from a real estate/personal finance blog called Afford Anything. As the blogger Paula Pant puts it, “You can afford anything, but not everything.” And I think this captures the idea pretty well.

The Price of Coffee in Venezuela

It’s all about the Benjamins! Er, uh Burgermins? What if, instead of evaluating a country’s inflation using good old fashioned economic data, an everyday consumable was used in its place? You may have heard of the Big Mac Index. If not, this indicator basically compares global prices for the McDonald’s original two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – on a sesame seed bun.

The Big Mac Index is proudly served by The Economist, and was created in 1986 in order to assess “whether currencies are at their “correct” level. It is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity (PPP), the notion that in the long run exchange rates should move towards the rate that would equalise the prices of an identical basket of goods and services (in this case, a burger) in any two countries.” Yada yada yada.

But today (well last year) Bloomberg created a similar index, except focused on Venezuela specifically. If you have a Netflix addiction akin to heroin, have abandoned cruel reality for the latest in VR or otherwise find yourself treading water in a world of ridiculous and absolutely senseless memes and are unaware, Venezuela has been experiencing what some economists are referring to as runaway inflation. Exact figures are difficult to pinpoint but most sources put the rate well into the triple digits.

So, a new Big Mac Index substitute was born: The Bloomberg Café con Leche Index. The index tracks a cup of coffee (with milk) in eastern Caracas. Bloomberg states its price has spiked to 1,800 bolivars, up from about 450 bolivars during a span of 29 weeks. This index would then peg Venezuelan inflation at a staggering rate of 1,155% during that time.

The approximation reflects wide variation and remains a “best guess”. Other estimations I’ve come across for inflation in 2016 range from here at 290% and cap here at 800%, while most mainstream financial outlets trend north of 700%.

The index is admittedly unsophisticated, but it does track a product which is consumed every day and is monitored regularly.  It’s not an attempt to liken the situation in Venezuela to a cup of coffee (or burger), but to provide a more tangible method of assessing the financial pressure that has been unfolding in Venezuela over the last few years.

Binge-learn Spanish by Watching Narcos

Narcos on Netflix is my latest obsession in premium television and actually, contrary to most the other non-essential shit I consume, Narcos serves a valuable purpose for me—Spanish practice. I’ve been a Spanish learning hobbyist? for quite some time. Always intensifying practice around an international trip, then making honest attempts during subsequent months utilizing new podcasts or maybe reading Spanish newspapers online. Wherever my abilities lie, the rhythm of the language and memories of past trips to Spain and Central and South America have cemented my desire for improvement.

As far as Narcos is concerned, I think the reason this show has fueled my latest Spanish binge is threefold:

  • Centers around drug trafficking
    Drugs are bad, mkay? Most shows centered around drugs tend to include a combination of money, violence and corruption. These ingredients lend themselves to an addicting cocktail of a TV series, much like those found in The Wire or Breaking Bad.
  • Grounded in historical details
    The wildest and most devastating part is the series’ focus on historical events—they’re often tragically depressing and almost inconceivable (see Palace of Justice siege or Avianca Flight 203 for examples). Absolutely there is narrative stringing some episodes along, as this is a Netflix original, but Narcos does establish historical characters and presents them in a moderately neutral tone.
  • Primarily Spanish dialogue
    Since it centers around Pablo Escobar and the influence he played in Colombian life generally, and the cocaine trade specifically, it is likely to be best told in Spanish. Obvious, I know, but would you believe the actor playing Escobar is Brazilian?

A few hours a week I am transported to another country, thrown into the fascinating, yet tragic history that unfolded around cocaine in Colombia and the profound impact it carried forward for more than two decades. The producers filmed much of the series in Medellín and Bogotá, and throughout they weave together bits of authentic photos and videos. Since you’re seeing actual footage and archived documents, the series appears more genuine as you see haunting videos of the aftermath of street shootouts and major bombing campaigns. 

The first season chronicles the brutal rise to Escobar’s dominance. It explores the ruthlessness of his empire and the ensuing exchange of violence between rival cartels, the Colombian police and populist guerrilla fighters. You see both sides of the law—a view from the Colombian government and its hired help from the DEA, as well as Escobar’s family and business associates. Throughout, the Colombian people find themselves caught in the middle, powerless to the situation. 

Season two begins to look into the decisions which lead to the slow unraveling of Escobar’s Medellín empire.  As crazy and utterly brutal as his rise to the top is, the downward spiral of his reign is somehow even more riveting, especially once the viewer begins to get a glimpse “inside the mind” of Escobar during his last months on the run. 

Narcos makes it difficult to not want to improve (or learn) Spanish during/after watching. The series is addicting. The language is alluring. A planned season three and four are in the works, which no doubt makes it even more appealing as a continued alternative to the more conventional, and let’s be honest, less inspiring, language learning methods.

 

Original Index of Airbnb’s Most Hospitable Cities, Explained

Superhost to the rescue! That’s the Airbnb designation of an extraordinary host. They know better than anyone that bad reviews can kill you.

From my experience in booking an Airbnb (or hotel or any other accommodation) one of the things at the top of my checklist is a highly-rated experience from previous stays. If given a choice between a host with low average reviews or a newbie host with no reviews, I would likely roll the dice and stay with the unknown…and cross my fingers he or she is not a looney.

So where can you go to have the best luck with a stay? Read on, sister.

Back in 2013, and with just under one million trips completed in the United States (four million worldwide), Airbnb set out to find which cities contained the ultimate hosts. For reference, as of 2017, Airbnb guests have completed more than 150 million stays in over 65,000 cities worldwide.

Dessert first. Then the unexciting methodology will follow.

US Most Hospitable Index:
 (Mid-2013)

  1. Tampa, FL
  2. Mendocino, CA
  3. Eugene, OR
  4. Bend, OR
  5. Raleigh, NC
  6. Memphis, TN
  7. Madison, WI
  8. Nashville, TN
  9. Tucson, AZ
  10. Lake Tahoe, CA

Whattya’ see? Most are concentrated to a few regions across the U.S.

Maybe it’s the favorable weather in places like California, Florida and Arizona. Or perhaps it’s the proximity to outdoor activities in Tahoe, Eugene and Bend. Does sand-castle-making-access equal pleasant hosts, from Mendocino or Tampa? As pointed out by Airbnb, perhaps a college town like Madison, Raleigh or Nashville make for great reviews with laid back undergrads—host or guest. Are small towns friendlier? Four of the ten cities had populations in 2013 of under 160,000 and all cities are outside the top-20. Mellow hosts? By 2013, half the cities’ states allowed medical marijuana, which could make for a pretty easy-going host.

Those are just my fun facts mixed with an ounce (up to 8 in California) of speculation.

I posted Airbnb’s methodology in pretty lay terms below for the curious.

Index Methodology:

  • Used reviews to assist in determining most hospitable cities in U.S. (to quantify data)
  • The reviews are made up using the following categories:
    • Cleanliness
    • Check-in
    • Communication
    • Value
    • Accuracy
  • However, all reviews (1-5 stars) are NOT what make up the index*
    • The Index is determined by the percentage of trips which resulted in a 5-star review for all the previously mentioned criteria
  • Cities are limited to those which hosted a minimum of 500 trips in last two years
  • Only stays in which a guest booked a private room were used
  • The index also tried to control for guests by taking into account the guest’s origin

Airbnb Host Predictive Factors:
Airbnb tried to figure out which factors might be able to reliably predict a host’s score. To do this, they came up with a model based in probability. The full charts are interesting to see, but I’ve tried to cover a few highlights:

  • Younger guests (age 25-29) gave the most favorable reviews; older hosts (age 50-69) provided the best experience to guests
  • Guest factors based on gender weren’t much different, but female hosts tended to score a bit higher than the guys did
  • Stays under 2 nights or over 10 nights reviewed less often than the stays in the 3-9 range
  • The smaller the group, the more favorable the review
  • The further in advance a trip was booked, the more positive the review

Yes, the data was analyzed about 3.5 years ago. Things have definitely changed since then, as more cities have become available and Airbnb’s accommodations continue to outpace the growth of hotel chains.

The ten most hospitable is a great indication of where to stay, but it does leave me wondering where NOT to stay. A top-10 Least Hospitable Index would be perfect in order to avoid a disastrous weekend away.

You can read through the original data set that Airbnb provided here and draw your own conclusions.