Workforce Wanderlust

Digital nomads are bringing their e-work to places where others go on vacation. For these young people, Saigon is one of the top destinations

As technology becomes an essential part of our lives and the business world changes accordingly, fewer people are required to be in a fixed location to earn a living. Sure, it’s the dream for many, but very few people actually take the plunge. Of those that do, it seems a fair portion base themselves here in Saigon.

Recently, Vietnam’s southern capital has lit up on the nomad radar as a lowcost solution in a continent of rising prices. According to Nomad List, a crowdsourced database of cities for digital nomads, Saigon is number six on the list of top cities to live in. The same database also reports that the average cost of living in Saigon is USD724 per month. Combine these low living costs with Saigon’s café culture and you have one of the best locations for those seeking a remote working lifestyle.

Oi managed to catch up with two people from different backgrounds living the location-independent lifestyle here in the city to understand what it’s really like to be a digital nomad in the southern hub of Vietnam.

For Justine Lopez, a freelance writer and editor from California, the digital nomad life came about almost by accident when she was looking for jobs in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2014. “I had recently graduated with a Masters in Communications and Journalism and had been working as a magazine editor in California. Despite being qualified, I didn’t realize that it would actually be possible to work in my field in Asia.” A few applications here and there led to a freelance contributor position for the Jakarta Post. Fast-forward four years of Justine building her skills and client base and she has since lived in Phnom Penh, Beijing and now Saigon, while taking the opportunity to travel parts of Southeast Asia whenever she chooses.

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Saigon’s growing popularity among location-independent workers drew Devin Gray, a web developer from South Africa, to Vietnam. He describes the life of a digital nomad as “living outside of the borders, away from the average.” Devin has been working as a coder remotely for the past three years, covering destinations such as Bali, Germany, Switzerland and currently, Saigon. His approach to beginning a location-independent working life was fuelled by a desire to travel to places where people usually go on holiday, “I just wanted to travel, and one thing lead to another… There were no actual steps taken, I just did what I enjoyed and it all happened.”

In recent years, Vietnam has been recognized for its growing tech culture and has seen a number of large companies investing in the start-up community here. For Devin, basing himself in Saigon has only enhanced his entrepreneurial lifestyle, “Living here gives me so many opportunities to meet other developers and nomads from all walks of life. I love the culture around tech.” With plans to set up his own open-source start-up company this coming year, Devin revels in the buzz surrounding Saigon’s technology market.

Grievances
While digital nomads like Justine and Devin get to enjoy the freedom of choosing where they work, where they live and when they travel, they do recognize that there are drawbacks to living this kind of lifestyle. Devin finds it hard to regularly save money: “When moving around and making use of multiple payment methods, it’s difficult to keep track of where the money comes from and plan for the future.”

Justine adds that being a digital nomad takes a lot of effort. “Between freelancing, finding new clients and expanding your skill-set, there is always work to be done.” Being a digital nomad and having freedom doesn’t mean it doesn’t require hard work; Justine often finds herself working over 40 hours a week in order to maintain her lifestyle.

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Loneliness is also one of the most common grievances for digital nomads like Justine. “Instead of socializing with co-workers day in and day out, I have to make a very concerted effort to meet and socialize with people,” she says. Luckily, groups like Saigon Digital Nomads, Female Digital Nomads, and Vietnam Creative Circle on Facebook and similar platforms provide some much-needed comradery for those working remotely in Saigon. Justine, who also has a travel blog called Travel Lush, finds that the connections she makes through social media provide great support and enable her to ‘virtually’ meet likeminded people.

While speaking to Justine and Devin, it becomes apparent that it takes a lot more than just desire to live the nomad life. Justine believes that it takes motivation, determination and discipline that not everybody has. “So many people I know need the structure of being in an office, having a specific routine and having a boss who enforces deadlines in person. I’ve always been the type who works well independently, and I am super reliable when it comes to getting the job done well and on time.” She also acknowledges how important it is to be both persistent and resilient when looking for freelancing work and following up on quotes.

“The main thing is the want to be different. When you really want something, you will make a plan otherwise, you’ll find reasons why it isn’t possible,” she adds. Devin’s approach is particularly poignant for those who want to take the leap but don’t know how. He doesn’t believe it takes certain personality traits, just a pure desire for that lifestyle and, of course, focusing on what you do best in order to make a living out of it. Both acknowledge the importance of switching up your work environment when working remotely. Whether it be poolside or from a shared office for Devin, or taking advantage of Saigon’s many cafés for Justine, they both stress the importance of keeping your work environment fresh.

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If you seek a little more regular structure in the way of an office-like environment, Saigon is teaming with co-working spaces, all offering unique benefits for their members. Citihub (93 Nguyen Van Thu, D1) is an intimate, open-plan working environment that hosts a number of local start-ups, freelancers and entrepreneurs. A VND150,000 day pass includes a drink, Wi-Fi access, a quiet working environment and a motivating atmosphere. For others looking to meet a few more expats, The Hive (94 Xuan Thuy, D2) is a friendly hub, beautifully designed to accommodate anyone from hot-desking freelancers at VND1.2 million per month to small businesses in need of an office for VND5 million per month. Not all digital nomads are fans of these kinds of working environments, as Devin says, “Co-working spaces tend to have a lot of noise and high coffee prices.” This certainly isn’t the case for the majority of co-working spaces and, with over 20 to choose from in Saigon’s city center, there will be one to suit every type of remote worker.

Saigon offers a good quality of life and a simple set-up process, so it’s no wonder why more and more entrepreneurs and freelancers are gravitating here. Devin, who’s achieved this lifestyle at the tender age of 25, has some words of advice: “Focus on what you do best, make that worthy of investment and then sell your time as if it were the only thing of value… minutes of your life are the product.”

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