The accessibility of telecommunications technology and global travel has made it easier than ever to work as a digital nomad. As a result, Saigon has a growing community of location-independent entrepreneurs who live here either full-time or for part of the year. Michael Tatarski sits down with a few savvy self-starters to find out what makes the city such an ideal location for this unconventional line of work. Photos by Vinh Dao. Model: Matt Bieber
By definition, a digital nomad is someone who uses telecommunication technology to perform their work duties and generally conduct their life in a nomadic manner. While this unorthodox approach to a career may not appeal to everyone, many people around the world are trading in their high-stress traditional jobs for a more adventurous – and unpredictable – way of life.
Over the past few years, Saigon has attracted a steadily-expanding community of digital nomads. Working in an array of fields and with varied backgrounds, some are brand-new to the location-independent lifestyle, while others have been at it since the Internet began to gain popularity over a decade ago. These new-age nomads are redefining the traditional paths of their predecessors.
The New Arrivals
After finishing graduate school, Matt Bieber began working in teacher training in Colorado. The work was stressful and left him very little time to pursue his creative passions, particularly his writing about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition from which he suffers. Bieber lived in Hanoi for a time about nine years ago and so had prior knowledge of Vietnam, but it wasn’t until visiting friends in Saigon over Christmas 2013 that he decided to make the move. “I realised that all I really wanted to do was make enough money to get by and pursue my creative ambitions,” he said.
Bieber arrived in Saigon 10 months ago and got a job teaching SAT prep. “The plan all along was to come over, work 15 hours a week and then spend the rest of the time writing,” he says. His company has been flexible, agreeing not to schedule him to work mornings, which is when he likes to write. Bieber is certain this arrangement would have never been possible with a job back in the US. While he may not be making any money yet from his podcast or website, MattBieber.net, he believes there is a greater possibility of that happening here than back home. It’s helpful, too, that Saigon is welcoming of digital nomads.
“There’s a community of people who are doing creative things, who are living equally exploratory lifestyles, and it’s nice to feel like you’re not the odd one out,” he says. “I’m not aware of too many places in the world where you can live this lifestyle with this small amount of money and have the motorbike culture. There’s something special about this place.”
Tim Spino, who moved to Saigon in November, works in web design and online marketing using the WordPress platform. Before coming to Vietnam, he based himself in New York, where he freelanced for two years before meeting an Australian woman on the online dating site eHarmony. He eventually chose to relocate to the other side of the world, and Saigon became his first international foray into being location-independent.
Thus far he believes the city is a great place for digital nomads. “You’re never 50 feet from a café, wi-fi is free and you can sit there for hours and no one gives you a dirty look,” he says. He also finds that leaving your comfort zone is beneficial to creativity. “For me, it’s like being outside your own culture and society, your thoughts can sort of flow more evenly, more freely. You’re not constrained by the American mindset or the European mindset,” he explains.
Of course, there are downsides to being a digital nomad, and to working from Saigon specifically. “Internet speed affects me sometimes, especially with Skype calls,” Bieber shares.
Spino, meanwhile, has had other troubles. “The downside is if you’re a really social creature sometimes the isolation can get to you … you can jump on Skype and chat with a friend but it’s not quite the same,” he explains.
Overall, though, both Bieber and Spino seem happy with their decision to go nomadic. “Something about this lifestyle, for me, is that it’s very much about being in the present and taking it as it comes and letting myself live without a plan,” says Bieber. “For me it’s not troubling to not have an answer to the question of what you’re doing next, whereas back home you’re a drifter.”
Unlike Bieber or Spino, Jodi Ettenberg does not call Saigon home but she spends significant amounts of time here. “I’m a former lawyer from Montreal, and I took a one year sabbatical that’s turned into seven years,” she jokes.
When she first began traveling, Ettenberg started a website so her mother could see where she was going. “It kind of just grew exponentially over the years and led to a bunch of other opportunities that I’m still rocking today,” she says. “If you had told me this seven years ago I’d have said, ‘That’s cute, I’m gonna go back to being a lawyer now.’”
Today, in addition to running her website, LegalNomads.com, Ettenberg does social media work and public speaking around the world.
Ettenberg, who has celiac disease, first visited Vietnam in 2012, intending to stay for two weeks. Instead, she ended up staying for five months, hunting down as many types of gluten-free soup as she could in the central and southern regions.
“Food is legitimately what brings me back,” she shares. “It has to do with my site in that I write about food but most of the writing I could do from anywhere, I just like to eat here.” She also finds Saigon a great place to spend time, as well. “Vietnam does have very good internet compared to Laos or other places in the region and I personally love cities so I love the chaos and there’s a million things to explore every day.”
James Clark, who is good friends with Ettenberg, has been self-employed for 11 years. “I started doing web design in my spare time while I was working in Ireland and it kind of just fell into it becoming a full-time job,” he says. Clark opened a design company in his native Australia and decided to continue traveling, spending about half a year in Vietnam, which he fell in love with on a backpacking trip in 2005.
Like other digital nomads, Clark can do his work from anywhere, but Saigon holds a special attraction. “The internet’s amazing, there’s always a lot of people coming through who I can meet, and there’s also this sense that this is a city that’s transforming in front of our eyes,” Clark says. “To be able to say that I’m part of this happening is really amazing.”
When it comes to the benefits of being a digital nomad, Ettenberg made a point to debunk one of the most common misunderstandings surrounding the lifestyle. “The most interesting kind of myth about it is that you’re far away from your family, don’t you feel disconnected? I get so much more quality time with my family now,” she says.
For his part, Clark sees no reason to settle down any time soon. “I go back to Australia once a year … it’s sort of a re-assessment of my life and I’ll ask, ‘Do I want to buy a house in Australia?’” he explains. “I always know the answer ahead of time. At the moment I still love the idea of traveling the world and running my business from wherever I am.”
The drawbacks to being digital nomads, according to both, are few. “As a woman, having conferences to go to or places to speak, I’m not traveling carry-on anymore because I have to look respectable for those things,” Ettenberg says. “The logistics of packing for the myriad anchor points … have probably been my biggest stress point, but if that’s my biggest stress point, life’s pretty good.”
Jon Myers is a user interface designer for web and mobile apps who has also founded a number of start-ups. He was working in Thailand three years ago when he came to Saigon on a visa run and promptly fell for the place. “I really like the motorbike culture, the street culture, a young population, ambitious, hustle-oriented culture,” he says. “There is more integration between locals and foreigners that doesn’t happen in other Southeast Asian countries … in Thailand, you’re always a foreigner.”
Unlike many other digital nomads, whose clients are overseas, Myers does have business connected to Vietnam, although he wasn’t expecting this to be the case when he moved. “If you would’ve asked me when I first came here if I would be doing business in this region I would’ve said they couldn’t afford me, but I’ve closed significant business here that’s made me realise there’s real money being spent here,” he says. “What I do is needed and in demand so it’s been very lucrative to be here.”
Myers believes such location-independent lifestyles will continue to become more popular moving forward, and Southeast Asia has strong appeal.
“The entire region is on an upward trajectory. I’m really grateful for being an American and all the opportunities that’s given me,” he explains, “but the opportunities that are available for bootstrapping entrepreneurs back in America, there’s a lot more competition, it’s more difficult, cost of living is insane and I don’t feel like it’s on an upward trajectory. Here, you can plant roots, and I’ve had amazing opportunities thrown at me just by being here.”
One aspect of the start-up arena in Saigon is its youth. “When I came here three years ago the entrepreneur scene was pretty anemic but I thought, well this place has the signature of a lot of stuff,” Myers says. “Now there’s around 100 expats in my immediate circle. In terms of the network here and the quality of people established here and the people who come through it’s pretty amazing.”
Another benefit of Saigon is one mentioned by everyone: fast, easy-to-access internet, even though many expats seem to gripe about connectivity on a daily basis. “The quality of the internet overall, and the value especially, is very high,” says Myers, who has a fiber-optic connection installed at his house.
Like Bieber, Spino, Ettenberg and Clark, Myers sees the flexibility of being location independent as the greatest asset of the lifestyle, especially when compared to the rigid careers of their home countries. As he, in blunt fashion, summarises, “I can’t imagine if you’re 22 years old and graduating from college and staring down at 20 or 30 years in a cubicle, why the fuck would you go for that? That doesn’t make any sense. The narrative of what’s happening is established, it’s just a matter of whether or not you have the courage to do something about it.”