Step aside, New York. Over here in Vietnam, the evolving city of Saigon hasn’t gotten an ounce of sleep in decades. In the midst of the concrete and jungle is where nomad dreams are made. Adventurous entrepreneurs have been flocking to this critical Southeast Asian hub for years now, for no shortage of reasons. From the rooftops of District 1’s skyscrapers to the plastic tables of street food stalls, Saigon offers the digital nomad some of the most impressive exploration, marvels, and hustle opportunities in the world.
1. Entrepreneur Culture
Photo : WORK Saigon
Forty years ago, after decades of conflict with the French, the Americans, and fellow citizens in the North, the city of Saigon was captured and all power of South Vietnam unraveled. Under communist rule, the reestablished Ho Chi Minh City (still commonly referred to as “Saigon”) and the rest of the South floundered for the next 20 years. Fortunately, market reforms of the mid-90s set the country on the path to the economic 180 of this now hyper-commercial city.
In Saigon today, you get the impression that “entrepreneur” is the second English word Vietnamese students learn after “hello”. In an effort to diversify their work-life opportunities, the young Saigonese workforce had inserted itself into the global startup scene, especially as internet accessibility has skyrocketed. The hustle energy even fuels the expatriate entrepreneur community, which in turn helps locals cultivate new business approaches. It’s a symbiotic urban ecosystem, baby.
2. Cost of Living
That dong, da-dong dong dong. Living in Vietnam allows you to be a millionaire with less than $50 at your disposal. Of course, you’ll need a few million VND to get by, but for $900/month, you can live in the midst of the action at more-than-comfortable Western standards. Accommodation in a shared space can run as low as $300 including bills, and eating out daily at a fair balance of Western and Vietnamese restaurants won’t cost more than $350, which leaves $250 to appease your growing coffee addiction and the other miscellaneous expenses of the spontaneous location-independent lifestyle. Even bootstrappers have been known to flourish here, thin as their laces may be. Costs down, hustle up: that’s the way we get by.
3. Fellow Nomads
Without the camaraderie of the entrepreneur community, Saigon wouldn’t be the treasure it is. The city is truly Asia’s Shire for digital nomads who were anomalies back home. Whether you’re a consultant, freelancer, web developer, content creator, blogger, dropshipper, marketer, or just-getting-started-er, you’ll find talented, fascinating, and encouraging peers trying to live out their location-independent dreams.
Put yourself out there and you’ll be embraced with total support and assaulted with more unsolicited business resources than you know what to do with. As long as you’re not opposed to constant coworking, dinner, and hangout invitations, your transition into the entrepreneurial scene will be as smooth as that first bite of bánh cuốn.
4. Vietnamese Locals
As Saigon has exploded in economic growth, Western tastes have permeated local lifestyle and tradition. The Vietnamese have become more and more accustomed to expatriates living among them and tend to show great hospitality towards foreigners. Whatever your living situation, you’ll find yourself getting acquainted and exchanging smiles with the locals around you – neighboring families, your dry cleaner, even the alley/building garbage collector.
Missed these lovely ladies last week @blairnguyen A photo posted by Anna Wickham (@aewickham) on
Making real Vietnamese friends with excellent English skills often happens to expats even before they’ve established Western ones; the 20-something locals can be very candid in approaching foreigners to offer help or simply to introduce themselves.
5. Ease of Communication
Even as you’re practicing your first words of Vietnamese and reminding yourself how to ask your neighbor to borrow her dù (umbrella) instead of dú (breasts), you’ll find that much of the population speaks English. Naturally, you’ll have plenty of communication mishaps and receive your share of wrong food orders, but overall, you can get by on a daily basis speaking little to no Vietnamese. English has been a mandatory school subject for years now, so most everyone under 30 will be able to speak at least a bit, as well as everyone in the service industry. However, don’t discount the reciprocal delight you’ll feel if you can bust out “where’s the toilet?” or “this food is delicious!” in Vietnamese and be showered with locals’ praises.
Shredded chicken salad with herbs and cabbage and onion. Delicious, giant plate served with a bowl of rice. Stumbled on this place as I walked home from district 3. Very tasty! A photo posted by Jodi Ettenberg (@legalnomads) on
What they say is true: Vietnamese food is phenomenal. Whether on the street or in a restaurant, as long as it’s authentic, it’s darn tasty. Vietnamese cuisine offers dishes to suit any mood – a flavorful bowl of phở to soothe the soul, a zesty, crunchy bánh mì sandwich when you’re on the go, a doughy snack of a sweet or savory bánh bao bun, a satisfying lunch of bún thịt nướng rice noodles with beef to keep you going for the rest of the day, and the freshest of fruits and veggies in solid or smoothie form.
When it comes to other cuisines, Saigon is something of a foodie’s paradise, with an abundance of American, French, Italian, Mediterranean, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Thai, healthy, and vegetarian dining options at all price points.
That’s our kind of lunch @samcchua #lunch #nomnomnom #lusinespace A photo posted by L’Usine Space (@lusinespace) on
Scope out a new joint every night for a year and you’ll still have fantastic eateries to discover. You will, however, find out just how your metabolism compares to that of the ever-svelte Vietnamese people.
7. Coworking Spaces
What would such an entrepreneurially-incline city be without great coworking spaces? Supported in large part by the digital nomad scene, coworking hubs and startup incubators in Saigon have really flourished over the past couple of years. Consistently at the top of the heap are Dreamplex and Work Saigon. Both spaces offer good daily and monthly rates, frequent workshops and events, and the bonus of their strong networking communities. Dreamplex has a designy yet professional aesthetic, with comfortable solo and collaborative spaces. A French colonial villa setting gives Work a more bohemian feel, but its cafeteria is utterly gourmet.
A number of other hubs are dotted throughout the city as well, so you’re sure to find a place that inspires your creative flow.
8. Café culture
Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes
The only thing as integral to modern Saigonese culture as the cuisine many be the extraordinary café scene. Coffee shops are far more than cà phê sữa đa-sipping spots; they’re hangouts for teens after school, work spaces for university students and entrepreneurs, acoustic music venues in the evening, and social hubs for older men catching up on the latest gossip.
Cafe: ID Cafe, D1
Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes
They’re indoor, outdoor, small, vast, crammed, intimate, spacious, dingy, kitschy, sleek, vintage, and modern, hidden up the stairs of mid-century apartment buildings, tucked around the bend of residential alleys, and flaunted right on boulevards if they’re high-end chains.
Cafe: She Cafe
Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes
They’re regularly changing, often closing down, more often opening up, but always present, inseparable from the daily flow of life.
Cafe: La Fenetre Soleil
Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes
For the nomad crew, they’re perfect solo alternatives to the city’s coworking spaces, and those that serve food are mass group brunch spots. Discovering the best of them is just as rewarding as accomplishing a day’s work over the rich, chocolatey flavors of Vietnamese coffee in a converted home.
9. Internet speed
How does a digital nomad prosper in a country whose internet speed ranks 100th in the world second to last in Asia, you ask? Live in the economic capital, of course. While connection speed averages a cringe-worthy 2.5 Mbps nationwide, many cafés, apartment buildings, and especially coworking spaces invest in broadband internet for their customers and residents for upload speeds of 20 to even 50 Mbps. You can always upgrade your existing home internet package yourself if you’re unsatisfied. Save the occasional incidence of curious sharks chowing down on the trans-Pacific undersea cable, your Skype calls will be safe from disruption.
10. Nightlife and Music Scene
Late on a weekend night, it’s easy to default to the shwasty club scene of the Bùi Viện backpacker area. However, there is a huge diversity of nightlife options that add to Saigon’s universal appeal.
There are posh cocktail lounges to chill in, new heights to be reached at rooftop bars, dance clubs that cater to different age ranges and social scenes, and – little-known to most tourists – a thriving live music culture.
The city’s highly talented expatriate and local musicians perform at venues throughout the week, and usually draw a good crowd of loyal fans. From jazz, rock, soul, and blues-funk to hip-hop, R&B, and roots-reggae, Saigon’s live music is one of the most beloved aspects of its nightlife culture.
11. Social Events
The events certainly don’t stop at live music, as Saigon sees its fair share of arts and culture events on a regular basis. Every weekend you can hit a new flea market rife with vintage goods and eager young hipsters. If cosmopolitan Asia begins to release your inner stylista, get yourself decked out for a fashion and lifestyle show. Impress an attending modeling agent and you may even find yourself on the next runway.
Frequent restaurant and gallery openings and swanky weekend pool parties at a high-end hotel offer even more opportunities to see and be seen. And there are plenty of unconventional events for the quirk in all of us.
Featuring some of Vietnam’s most talented performers and lively LGBT youth, VietPride is one of the most whimsical, exuberant annual events for locals and foreigners alike. As attitudes, tastes, and interests continue to diversify, so too do the happenings around town.
If lurching and weaving through unrelenting traffic coming at you from all directions sounds like your kind of trip to the supermarket, you’re going to make a great driver. It would also make you a foolhardy anomaly of a newbie in Saigon. Don’t even think of hopping on a motorbike until you’re out of the street-crossing rookie phase and can discern what a fleeting pause in the traffic onslaught actually looks like. But once you are ready to join the ranks of brave commuters, you’ll never go back.
Alley days. A photo posted by Derek Szeto (@derek__szeto) on
Propelling through the madness of the city on your own terms is completely liberating once you’ve gotten the hang of it. At under $50/month, renting a motorbike is also a much cheaper way to get around than catching a taxi or even a xe ôm (motorbike driver whose waist you cling to as he cuts corners, drives the wrong way, and drops you at the incorrect destination. Traveling your own way is such a fundamental aspect of the nomad lifestyle, it’s no wonder motorbiking is the preferred form of transportation among the community.
13. Invigorating Cityscape
Metropolitan areas in Asia tend to feel more daunting than those in the West. There’s something about the discrepancy between skyscrapers converging against a backdrop of open sky and narrow alleyways cutting low and deep into places unknown. What makes Saigon such a captivating city is the acceptance of foreign culture-seekers in both worlds.
While you may choose to live in the comfort of a modern, sparkling apartment tower, the twisting alleys below are always open for exploration. As long as you approach local spaces with polite curiosity, the ladies of the dân stands, the motorbike security guards, and the residents peeking out from the doors of their slender tube houses will receive you in the same way.
Saigon doesn’t intimidate, but actually emboldens the urban explorer in those keen to comb through its layers. And stumbling upon a little gem every so often does wonders to revive a drained entrepreneurial spirit.
14. Optimal Location
With hundreds of international flights each day, Saigon makes an excellent jumping off point for traveling the rest of Asia. It’s cheap and – usually – worthwhile to contort yourself into the seat of a budget airline for a couple hours to escape the city for a beach getaway.
For more on life in the vibrant city of Saigon, pack your life into a suitcase and go there.
Editors note: also, read this awesome article by the legendary Jon Myers on Bootstrapping in Saigon.