Na Meo: The Border Crossing From Hell

As a dude who’s crossed five different land borders between Vietnam and its neighboring countries to the west (Laos and Cambodia), I thought I knew the drill: receive the exit stamp, pay for a visa-on-arrival, grease the wheels a bit with a little coffee money, boom, done, good to go. But the checkpoints and border officials have little to do with this story. In fact, they were particularly kind and helpful, and didn’t leverage the fact that my buddy overstayed his visa to extract a few extra dong from him. But that’s neither here nor there.

It all started in Hanoi’s Old Quarter over a cheeky bottle of Men vodka (the cheap stuff that goes down rough and costs less than a bag of chips). I was explaining to my friend, who we’ll call Paco, that I was tired of Hanoi and formulating an escape plan. Serendipitously, he was currently organizing a visa run to, what looked like on the map, the nearest border gate between Vietnam and Laos, Na Meo.

I talked it over with my wife and we agreed that Laos would be a good change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. We packed our bags and left the morning Paco’s visa was set to expire. There is no direct bus to Na Meo from Hanoi, so we had to go through a town called Thanh Hoa. When we arrived, however, we learned that they only operate buses to Na Meo a couple times a week, and only embark during the morning hours. Luckily, a bus was scheduled for the following morning, so we found the nearest “Nha Nghi” and hunkered down for the night.

The next day, we jammed ourselves into the bus, which was packed with both people and cargo. There were two-person seats on either side of a two-foot aisle, in which crammed at least five people, with some standing, some on the floor, and one pushing his ass with great force into my hip bone.

As we were driving along, a Laotian boy who studied English in Thanh Hoa sparked up a conversation. He was going home for the Laos New Year and was excited to see his family. He told us that he didn’t have to pay because his university covered his travel costs. After we were a few hours in to the ride, the ticket boy told us that, due to “insurance” reasons, the price would be more than what they told us on the phone. As a Vietnamese, my wife was charged the usual VND200,000 (a little under $10). But a foreigners, they demanded that Paco and I pay five times that amount each (over VND1 million) — talk about supply and demand. But since we were already en route and no other options were available, there was nothing we could do, even though I only had VND600,000 in my wallet.

We reached the border, shuffled out, and took care of the customs procedures. I said farewell to Paco, who was half a bottle deep and haggling drunkenly with the ticket boy. The rest of the passengers pushed their way back onto the bus and we made our way down the bumpy twists and turns that are characteristic of Laotian highways — stopping frequently to pick up and drop off both people and goods.

Ten hours into the ride — and still miles from the final destination of Sam Neua — they stopped at a dimly lit parking lot to load up with more supplies, demanding that I go to a nearby ATM to get more cash. I obliged, but used my student ID in the ATM and told them it didn’t work. Long story short, we arrived — after more than twelve hours on an uncomfortable, packed, bus — at a countryside bus stop in Sam Neua, late at night, with nobody around. I gave them what I had in my wallet and we started walking towards the city with our thumbs up. We eventually came across a taxi who took us to a hotel and everything was all good. As they say, if you don’t like it, just stay home. But word to the wise, although Na Meo looks like the closest border, unless you have your own means of transportation, take the seemingly longer route in a comfortable sleeper bus and avoid the discomfort and exorbitant “skin-tax” that you will surely encounter with the public shit-shuttle to Na Meo.

Bogata on a Budget

FOOD AND DRINKS

There are many good places in the central Chapinero area priced from 5.1-7.2 thousand Colombian Pesos (around three US dollars). Out west there’s Galerias or even Modelia… for around 9.3 or 8.5, but.if you’re paying that much for food, you may as well go to Zona G, the most renowned area.

TRANSPORTATION

You can do Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Guajira on public buses, but the Pacific Coast is a dense jungle, so it’s better to fly in from Medellin (if you want to go to Chocó). Overground transport from the north coast to Medellin is doable on public buses, but it’s around a 10 hour journey. Road conditions are terrible in Colombia and the mountainous terrain makes long bus rides take even longer. From Medellin to Bogota I would recommend taking a plane, unless you want to stop along the way, as the total ride time would exceed 20 hours. You can rent a car but I wouldn’t suggest it unless you’re familiar with the local roads and driving style.

For getting around the cities, it’s easy to take Uber or taxis. Even if you know how to drive and have the money to rent a car, people drive like maniacs in Colombia, and driving is quite stressful.

Also, you can find domestic flights within Colombia at Wingo and Viva Colombia.

SIM CARD

You can buy plans from most carriers for one day, one week, two weeks, three week, or four weeks. You can choose between a combo pack, which includes minutes and data, or you can just buy data. Facebook, Whatsapp, and Twitter are generally unlimited and free when you purchase the plan. To recharge your phone afterwards, you can go to any éxito (supermarket/convenience store) or certain local “tiendas” or bodegas. When you recharge you need to tell them which carrier you use (Movistar, Claro, Tigre) and then tell them your phone number. To add credits to your phone, tell them “recarga”. I recommend using the Claro network. You can buy a sim card in the airport. There is only one store that sells it I believe. Just ask “donde puedo comprar un chip por aquí?”

 

Living The Cheap Life in Lisbon

The cost of living in Lisbon has been going up in recent years. Blanca/Valbuena’s Guide to how much you’ll pay for things in Lisbon is a great resource to start out with..

TRANSPORTATION

Public transport is very affordable – 36 Euros for a full month, unless you’re based out of zone 1, then it’s a little more. In particular, buses are a fairly inexpensive way to get around both Lisbon and Portugal. For inter-city busses, you can as the station assistants by the Zoo for help or you can research specific routes online.

There’s also sites like CarpoolWorld where you can share a ride somewhere. The only caveat is that if you need a return ride, it could prove problematic.

SHOPPING

There is a cheap, Chinese-owned shop on rua poco dos negros not far from the tram station. They sell everything! There are a few independent stores around the area that sell affordable kitchenware and much more, you just have to wander around a bit.

FOOD

Food is relatively affordable (in line with UK prices). A cheap place to eat out is the RC-Restaurante on Santa Apolonia. Five Euros for good food which includes a 1-2 L bottle of wine or beer, a Coffee, and dessert.

ACCOMMODATION

Renting out a room is way cheaper than have a place to yourself. The average rent for a small apartment would be minimum. 650 Euros. Cheaper places are possible to find but most are far from the centre. OLX is a good website to find rentals direct from owners, but the site is also full of rental-agent listings so you need to look several times daily as there is a lot of competition on the demand side.

Maximizing Value in Vancouver

Officially the most expensive city in Canada and ranked 39th on list of global money holes, Vancouver proves challenging for even the thriftiest cheapskates. But we’ve managed to get our cheap hands on some priceless information for you and your trip to Van-city.

 

CHEAPTAIL THERAPY

Get thrifty at the stores

Walmart–This giant of the retail industry is well known for always being super well-stocked and fully staffed. In simple words, you can get pretty much anything there, and most  importantly – CHEAP!!!. Check out Walmart North Vancouver in the Capilano Mall over on the north shore and also the one on Marine Drive for that thrifty shopping experience.

Value Village – Also known as Savers in some parts of Canada and most of America, Value Village is the old dog of the thrift business, having been founded even before Walmart, and with good reason. It’s impressive portfolio includes second hand shopping. Sure to whet the appetite of all cheapos out there. There are two in the city, one on Victoria Drive and the other Hastings Street.

Superstore– With a TV sitcom now sharing the same name, Superstore is becoming increasingly everyday as another go-to-place for bargain prices and a varied selection. Additionally, Superstore has a splendid selection of British friendly foods, including the goodol’staple of bacon.

Joe’s No Frills – Only 17 years young, this newbie to the retail industry is yet another place to check out for cheap goodies. Go to Denman Street, which is downtown just over the beautiful Lion’s Gate Bridge. It’s opened every day from 9am to 10pm.

A few honorable mentions include the Facebook page Community Closet and the free classifieds website Buy Sell Trade BC.

Online Cheaping

One great traveler tip that is often not given enough is online deals and eve giveaways. Take a 5 minute break from taking that selfie-stick assisted picture for your Insta and sign up for some of the local buy & sell sites and FB pages. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with the loads of people who are selling stuff at uber affordable prices because they are moving away.

 

CAR HIRE SERVICE

Taxis or cabs are usually much cheaper to hire from the airport than downtown (even if it’s the same company). Check out comparison websites like the one below when booking, so you can easily tell if you are getting a good price: https://www.travelsupermarket.com/…/canada/vancouver/

It’s usually even cheaper to rent from North Vancouver. Summer rates are always extremely high though, but it gets way cheaper in winter.

For rentals, Costco membership holders can get great deals. Don’t forget to look out for the always trusted Avis Rent a Car on Broadway for super-low prices as well.

 

CHOWDOWN TOWN – CHEAP FARES ONLY

On Granville street you can find  a few restaurant and bars that do proper portioned meals for as low $5. They’ll also throw in some good yet reasonably cheap beer to wash it down with. Check out The Famous Warehouse, there is one downtown and one on Hastings street. While still on Granville, for a little dose of some exotic cuisine, walk through the doors of Jamjar, a Lebanese restaurant serving folk Lebanese and Mediterranean dishes. There is also one more on Commercial Drive.

 

THE BUDGET PHONE

Freedom Mobile, formerly Wind Mobile, is offers some of the cheapest plans in the land. With decent coverage, a monthly plan is about as cheap as it gets. At only $35 per month for unlimited calls to the US and Canada, 5 GB of data and unlimited texts, this deal is a steal. The bonus is it’s also monthly, whereas many other providers only offer 2 year contracts. Step 1 for the Freedom mobile plan – open a basic bank account and they are crazily easy to set up. Try CIBC (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce), as opening an account there takes no more than 40 minutes. Forty minutes is often considered too long to the good people of CIBS, so don’t be surprised if you’re given me a Tim Horton gift card as an apology for the “long” wait. Yes a FREE Timmies gift card.

 

Live Rich on a Budget in Rome

TRANSPORTATION:

Rome has a fabulous and inexpensive public transit system. Buy a weekly or monthly pass and you can use the tram, buses, regional rail, and Metro (subway)… all on one pass. Rome Vacation Tips has a great guide detailing the best ways to use the public transport system in Rome.

Scooterino is a cool app you can download for on demand scooter ride sharing — like Uber with scooters. The MyTaxi app is like Uber as well, except they only use officially licensed and registered taxis.  Get €20 off on your first ride with the code “moonlight.inn”.

Need to get somewhere but want to drive yourself? Enjoy and Car2Go are great vehicle sharing platforms that allow users to find nearby vehicles on the street that are available for rent. Their respective apps enable users to find unused vehicles near their location, no need to book in advance. After driving to their destinations, users simply park the vehicle in a legal spot for the next guy to rent.

For longer journeys, try Flixbus for a superior overland trip.

FOOD & DRINKS:

Check out Rome Wise’s guide on where to eat well in Rome on a budget. An American in Rome also published an article which gives recommendations for the 7 best places to eat in Rome for seriously cheap.

As far as cheap drinks and nightlife, Bar San Calisto is among the cheapest. San Lorenzo is up there as well, with 3€ drinks that are pretty high quality for the price. Visit Spotted By Locals to find many more budget-friendly places in Rome.

Living Cheap in Lima

SHOWS & NIGHTLIFE:

Brisas Del Titicaca is very good just off Brasil Av. The production is excellent, showcasing authentic peruvian dance. The food, however, is a bit pricey. Juanitos bar in Barranco District is quite cheap. The show is not real… but it’s a classic “Lima bar” nonetheless. Wherever you go, ask if the show you want to see includes “Baile De Las TIjeras“, a justly famous dance.

SEAFOOD MARKETS: 

The Magdalena Market is usually not very expensive and is pretty centrally located. Playa Pescadores in Chorrillos district also great. They have a big variety of freshly caught fish and shrimp. Local fishermen go there to sell their catch every morning. Better, bigger, and cheaper then in Wong, Metro, Tottus, etc. You have to go early in the morning or everything will be sold out.

Cheaper still are the pescadores (fisherman) in Villa El Salvador. Worth the adventure for Lobster and a wide variety of great, freshly caught, fish. This is where all the big super markets and best restaurants buy, starting around 4am every morning. After 5.30am the prices start going up — so being a morning lark really pays. The only caveat is that it’s located in Villa Maria — which is not the safest district at that hour. It is recommended that you get a driver, as getting there and orchestrating a return ride at that time may prove to be difficult.  

HOUSEHOLD SHOPPING:

Like for seafood, the Magdalena Market is also a good place to shop for household and kitchen supplies. You can also try the Surquillo Market, Makro, Tottus, and Sodimac, which sometimes have really good offers and discounts. These stores are cheaper than the ones in the center for many kitchen and household items.

TRANSPORTATION:

To get around, you can hire a driver, get taxis, use Uber, or take public transportation. You can download phone apps like Moovit and TuRuta to help you organize and use public transportation.