Hitching a Ride on the Digital Nomad Express

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Hitching a Ride on the Digital Nomad Express post image

Late last year, my friend James Clark wrote me to say that VietJet intended to open a direct flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

He dubbed it “The Digital Nomad Express.”

I LOL’d.

So when it recently came time for a visa run, I decided to buy a ticket.

I was excited for my first return trip to Saigon since 2015. I’ve spent a lot of time in the city over the years, and I wasn’t surprised to find that many things are changing for the better (check out James’ suggestions for the future).

Not surprisingly, the Digital Nomad Express wasn’t so full of digital nomads. The flight was mostly made up of tourists, travelers, business people, students, and monks.

But here’s the thing, even if Digital Nomads were onboard, I’d be having an increasingly difficult time trying to identify them. The remote work lifestyle is starting to go more mainstream.

Nomads are amorphous, transitory, and easy to confuse with entrepreneurs, or expats, or ya know, people doing their thing.

What is it, anyway, that makes a Digital Nomad?

Here’s an idea:

The archetype at the core of the digital nomad identity is that of the backpacker or traveler. So you might say: earn like an entrepreneur or freelancer, and live like a backpacker or traveler and boom: digital nomad.

This helps to explain a lot of things: like why digital nomads generally don’t stay digital nomads for long, or why successful entrepreneurs who simply travel often or live somewhere strange often loath being lumped in with the label. There are many downsides to living life like a traveler.

A lot of digital nomads would make their lives a lot easier if they simply thought of themselves as expats and declared – and invested in – a home. Pick up a book or two about the local history, find a friend or hobby that has something to do with the place you’ve come to, and when somebody asks you how long you’re sticking around just saying “I live here.”

The truth is behind most traveler’s facade there is some kind of home– it’s where they store their stuff and where they go when they’re sick. Maybe it’s their parents place or a friend’s. They’re moving around to fun and cheap cities for a high quality of life, but are still ultimately anchored to somewhere they’re confident the mail will turn up.

Digital Nomads vs. the Location Independent Entrepreneur

The location independent entrepreneur, who lives outside of their home country, takes cues from an expatriate. And those who’ve stayed in their place of birth are simply carving out a way of life that looks much like wealthy people would live a generation before – snowbirding, doing 9 then 3, or simply traveling a great deal for business or leisure.

Anyway, for this one weekend, I wasn’t worried about categories. I was going to digital nomad my face off.

I was in full on travel mode. I traded in what has become a laughable camel caravan of luggage for a sleek carry-on digital nomad setup:

Of course, Saigon and Chiang Mai have long been pillars in the community of readers here at TMBA. They both have a lot of the things entrepreneurs and digital nomads (and now, increasingly, remote workers) love:

  • Great value for the money.
  • Easy to get an apartment and basic life amenities setup.
  • Strong local entrepreneurial culture with cosmopolitan elements to the city.
  • Nice coffee shops and bars.
  • And perhaps most importantly, other digital nomads.

Saigon is something of a shrine to capitalism. You can see and feel it everywhere. The energy of the city is hustle. It whispers “make something of yourself.” 

You can see it happening in front of your eyes. Look around and you can spot loaves of bread moving through the streets, from baker, to bike taxi, to vendor or restaurant. Look up and you’ll see ambitious construction projects dotting the city.

It’s a funny juxtaposition given all the communist symbols everywhere.

Saigon changes so fast…

Most co-working spaces around the city are populated by locals (at the time of writing, this is much less likely to be the case in Chiang Mai).

It’s only been three years since I left, but so many things in Saigon have changed.

The first thing I noticed: District 1, the central area, smelled different.

I guess some people might be tempted to say it smells better, but not me.

For me, Vietnam’s cities smell of a unique mix of incense, exhaust, waste, and food being prepared and distributed on the street. In my mind, it’s inextricably tied to career freedom itself.

I know that might sound nuts, but Vietnam was the theatre of a formative travel experience for me in 2001. When I returned to the U.S., it was part of what I dreamed about when peeking over my cubicle wall in 2006, wondering if I’d ever get out.

(I did.)

What started as an adventure in 2008 – returning to Vietnam to source products, hire remote workers, and EAT – has turned into a life. Some of the folks who I went on adventures with have gone on to prove that it’s possible to build wealth and interesting careers while having a great deal of location and time freedom.

The businesses and careers they’ve created would have been very hard to even imagine 10 or 20 years ago, let alone execute. It’s encouraging for me to see so many old friends doing so well, doing things their own way. When you’re building things that are unprecedented – say, insisting that even though you’ve got 100+ employees, you’re going to stay 100% remote, it’s easy to get tempted to replicate the way “experts” did before.

But these folks, some of whom I first met in HCMC, are proving that in this day and age it’s possible to build things on your own terms and, in a small way, contribute to what work and career might look like for others in the future.

***

I spent my first day in Ho Chi Minh city strolling around. I’d missed this. Chiang Mai, for all it’s virtues, isn’t the nicest place for a stroll.

I was excited to see somebody thought it was a good idea to dedicate an entire walking street to book sellers and cafes.

And that the options to caffeinate your journey continue to expand on the already impressive cafe culture:

This was a hot chocolate that had spicy bits and cinnamon.

And of course, I ate. I’d bet the average truck driver in Vietnam is exposed to more delicious food than the average upper middle class American.

My first meal was perhaps, fittingly, my favorite dish of all time. Simply, Pho Bo.

We ensured to stay hydrated.

* **

That evening I caught up with somebody TMBA listeners will be familiar with, David Hehenberger the founder of Fat Cat Apps and Landing Cube.

David was one of the first TMBA Apprentices back in the day, and has since gone on to found 3 successful companies, grow a team, and serve as a mentor for apprentices in his own companies. David’s been based in Saigon for 6 years now, and is one of my favorite people to hang out with. We joked about all sorts of things, and had the nerdy conversations that only internet entrepreneurs can appreciate.

ME: “Have you considered just SWASing your SaaS?”

DAVID: “Funny you mention that, my apprentice suggested such a move last week.”

That evening, instead of going home at a reasonable hour, I took a motorbike taxi to the nightlife walking street of Bui Vien, ground zero for backpackers and travelers in Southern Vietnam. I’m glad I went. It’s changed dramatically, but it’s still the lovable crazy melting pot it’s always been.

The next day, James and I took a walking tour of the Tao Dien area in District 2.

We went in style.

We got to see so many new buildings going up across the city.

When I first moved to Saigon, District 2 was known as the place where expat families who had fancy jobs located to ensure their kids got a access to good schools and lived in large homes in gated communities. What started as a suburb with good housing has gradually morphed into something resembling Seminyak in Bali.

I noticed whiffs of La Jolla, California as I walked past the swish spas, beauty salons, cafes, and eateries with food offerings (Poke, Vegan, BBQ) that Westerners would be well familiar with. James pointed out a Yoga Teacher’s Training School, indicating once and for all that District 2 intends to make Western expats feel right at home.

We (that’s James in the photo) opted to have a fancy brunch with some other entrepreneurs.

I drank a double shot of espresso and three glasses of Champagne. It cost me an arm and a leg! That’s Tao Dien living I suppose.

After a siesta, that walk was hot!, I snuck in a few more bowls of Vietnamese food, which were priced more reasonably. Here’s one of my favorites, a dish from the center of the country called Mi Quang. It’s the “Dac Biet” or special version, meaning in most cases they pull out all the stops. In this case, all the stops were all the fun bits from a chicken plus some delicious Viet style sausages.

James sent me off early on Sunday with a classic breakfast of rice dumplings called Bahn Cuon. We discussed future plans to meetup and spend a week together with other bright folks. I walked with a full stomach and a good deal of insight into the projects I’m working on.

For me, it’s easy to get caught up in a routine and day to day of running a business. Often, I resist the idea of taking a weekend away. My mind often prefers the idea of staying on plan.

In the end though, I rarely regret shaking things up and hopping on a plane.

Sure, I got a little behind on some projects, but what I got was so much more valuable. Adventure, ideas, inspiration, and consolidating friendships.

For me, these are the best part of being a digital nomad. If we agree that the DNA of the nomad comes from generations of travelers, adventurers, and backpackers, then the MO of the digital nomad shouldn’t be finding great places to open a laptop, but finding great places to close them.

Dan

PS, it’s never been easier to live and work remotely. Check out our newest project, Dynamite Jobs.

Published on 12.11.18

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