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.
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 sale1 and 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.
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 Uber2 offered 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.
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.
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.