My Life as a Digital Nomad in Vietnam
11 min read
After years of travel, I finally MOVED abroad when I got a job in China in 2017. However, it was Vietnam that set me on the path to working remotely again. While my time in Vietnam came to an end in 2019, it is still a place I would gladly go back to once it opens up again.
When it comes to food, cost of living, friendliness, and access to other countries, there is lots to love about Vietnam. Technically speaking, Vietnam is still a developing country. But that doesn't prevent it from having strong internet for you to work online. With that said, let's look at some of the highs and lows of my time living in Vietnam.
Why Did I Initially Choose Vietnam?
I first fell in love with Vietnam when I was living and working full-time in Shanghai, China. Vietnam was a welcome reprieve, and it was my first and only trip outside of the country during the year and two months I worked in China. I enjoyed it so much that I almost didn't go back. However, I did have a full-time job and an apartment waiting for me, so I begrudgingly boarded the plane back.
I had a feeling that Vietnam could be my next possible country to live in. Months later, I did get a part-time teaching position there and had a better quality of life on a part-time salary than I did on a full-time one in Shanghai. My high quality of life extended beyond salary - weather, better local food, fun, more free time, etc.
Reconciling The Past In My Own Way
You most likely know about the terrible war known as the Vietnam War fought with Americans during the late 60s until 1975. Constantly, I had to wrap my head around the fact that a generation before, my father and my late uncle did military duty during this wartime.
Just a generation later, I'm living it up on vacation here. This relief would lead to a beloved temporary residency. Due to the previous war, I honestly was unsure what treatment I would receive as an American upon my initial arrival. However, the overall warmth of the people constantly made me feel welcome.
Speaking of warmth, my AirBnB hostess Vee was so sweet and accommodating, I decided to keep my ensuite room in her townhouse instead of seeking out a regular apartment during my three months in Saigon.
In addition to standalone apartments, unique townhouses are very common in Saigon, Vietnam. Many local families utilize them and often have a business on the ground level.
How Did Vietnam Inspire Me To Become A Digital Nomad?
I began my digital nomad journey while I was still teaching at my brick-n-motor ESL gig in Saigon. Cambly approved my application three weeks after moving to Saigon, so I began teaching online around my in-class teaching. This was easy to do since I did not have a packed school schedule.
Because of the low cost of living, I quickly utilized my online ESL income for rent as I awaited my monthly check from my "main" job. My monthly Airbnb averaged about $300 a month. However, I could have gotten a serviced studio or one-bedroom for roughly that price, but I loved my spot. While I am glad to be done with online ESL teaching, it allowed me to travel and earn money with ease abroad.
Whether I was working from my accommodations late at night, early morning, or on the weekends, I ALWAYS had reliable internet in Saigon. Even when I was on my initial Saigon vacation, I noticed how much clearer and reliable my video calls to family back in the US were from my hotel or various outdoor cafes. I only remember one brief power outage in 3 months.
Saigon is hot and sunny with rainy seasons. It is easy to enjoy the subtropical weather there as you sip a cheap cold beer. My skin had its best glow during my three months of soaking up the sun. I must warn you about the humidity - your t-shirt can get soaked in sweat after 5 minutes during the summer.
Coffee Perks of The Country
Saigon has an awesome cafe culture that includes strong locally sourced coffee, unique concoctions, and yes - you guessed it - good free internet. One of my favorite spots to hang out, enjoy coconut milk or egg coffee, and go online was Cong Caphe. This is a very popular coffee chain with walls adorned with old books and vintage photographs that give it a cozy feel that other coffee chains lack. Of course, there are other coffee cafes in Saigon and throughout the country, but Cong Caphe stands out. I never felt rushed out of any spot.
Because Vietnamese coffee is so strong, it perks you up and comes in handy if you are a nomad working late nights or weird hours. It is easy to enjoy vegan coffee options here since coconuts are prominent in SE Asia. So enjoy several lattes or iced coffees without lactose bloating due to coconut milk options (and great taste).
Vietnam does not have a massive subway system yet. You must rely on motorbikes, riding old (but cheap) buses, or attempt to walk on broken sidewalks as you dodge motorbikes.
Many of my students were engaging and fun overall - of course, some made me want to jump out of the school window. Overall, I was able to get the majority of my students to talk and engage in most activities in a way that was impossible in my previous country.
The Vietnamese language is quite hard - like REALLY hard. However, it does not require the mental acquisition of a new character system like other Asian languages. While I am generally comfortable picking up new languages, Vietnamese was too difficult for me to learn, despite my student's humorous attempts to teach me. We often had a good laugh when I tried to repeat it after them.
I walked away feeling more confident about continuing my Chinese language studies. Yes, Chinese is easier in comparison, in my opinion. Sure, those four tones and character memorization are a killer, but Vietnamese has as many as six tones that I simply could not pick up. I do know the words for coffee, soup (Pho), chicken (Ga), and, of course, baguette sandwich (Bánh mì) :). Since I was in Saigon for most of my time, I did perfectly fine with English those entire three months since so many locals speak it quite well. I can only think of a handful of instances where someone had zero English skills.
If you plan to move to Vietnam and learn the language, I suggest you start your language training early and be prepared to give it a good deal of study time.
I must say that the few times I received stares, it would often morph into a smile if I smiled back. I got a mean glare once in Hanoi, and one jerk videotaped me without permission there as well. Saigon did seem more used to foreigners, and my appearance at Hanoi airport caused the level of attention usually reserved for celebrities.
What Is Hanoi Like For Expats or Nomads?
Hanoi is the capital, so it is more conservative and smaller than Saigon. Places close earlier, and there is much less buzz to the city. In other words, it is an ideal place to chill. Frankly, I needed that after my high-octane time in Saigon. However, my overall experience with locals was fine there as well.
I must give Hanoi credit for its plethora of art galleries that spoke to my creative soul. My jaw dropped as I observed the longest mosaic art mural in the world! I lived right by this mosaic for a week. So, creative nomads should take note and make at least a short trip for inspiration. It was also easier to use sidewalks in Hanoi. Most of the sidewalks in Saigon are broken, non-existent, or used as parking spaces for motorbikes.
Hanoi is special in its own way since it was the first city I went to as a full-fledged digital nomad. If you are not into year-round subtropical weather, Hanoi is the place for you - it has all four seasons. It also has the best Pho by far! Please visit My Pho if you are in this city.
Quite frankly, Hanoi may be good for certain nomads since it is easier to hunker down and stay inside compared to Saigon, where the energy and sun make you want to get outside as much as possible. I know I could not wait to go out to the thriving Ben Thanh area in Saigon's District 3 as much as possible. When I was not soaking up the local art, Hanoi allowed me to get a little more cable TV time, LOL.
Unfortunately, I had a hard time finding a good grocery store there and ate out more often than not. Luckily, the food there was so delicious. I even found a vegan restaurant that I frequented several times a week. I never paid more than the equivalent of $1.50 for a fresh Bahn Mi in the city.
I could say much more but will conclude by saying that you should give Vietnam a shot as the world opens up more. The food is delicious, the weather in the south is hot and sunny, the internet is reliable, the social scene is thriving, and the country is still growing. Enjoy a cold beer for less than $2 as you work remotely in this gorgeous SE country. Don't order any wine, though - it sucks there :).