Saigon Serenade

Vietnam is a country with a rich but turbulent history. It’s lived through occupation by the Chinese, the French, and the Americans as recent as two generations ago. Foreign cultural influence and scars from not-yet-forgotten conflicts blend to make Saigon, known at its peak as the “Pearl of the Far East,” a complex and deeply interesting city.

Amongst digital nomads, however, its southern capital, Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), is a polarizing and controversial place: some love it enough to settle here for months or years at a time, while others leave quickly and never give it a second thought. A short walk down any street obviates the reasons for this: one’s senses are swiftly overloaded–motorbikes whiz around, narrowly missing each other and any uninitiated pedestrians who dare to cross; the sounds of horns and honking are present at all hours of day, as are the clarion calls of street side vendors; smells of delicious meals from any number of amazing local joints waft through the air, mixing with and ameliorating the common odors of waste, vomit, and urine; heat and humidity compound with dust and debris to create an often hot, dirty, and uncomfortable environment.

To an outsider, Saigon can look and feel like untamed, unfettered chaos. And yet, in the time I’ve lived here I’ve found myself mesmerized by the energy of this city. It’s chaotic, yes, but it makes me feel alive. So much so, in fact, that I decided early in my stay here to skip spending the month of April in Penang, Malaysia, and instead extended my time in Saigon to two months. (There are, of course, other good reasons for having done this: the time, financial, and mental costs of switching locations every month turn out to make 2-3 months a more ideal amount of time to spend in each place when also trying to get work done.)

Unlike Chiang Mai, which, despite being the second largest population center in Thailand, had a distinctively “small town” feel to it, Saigon is a true, full-blown city, and it turns out to be the first city I’ve ever lived in for any real amount of time. I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy the city lifestyle here–in the past I’ve always preferred sleepy college towns and quiet suburbs with easy access to nature. While Saigon doesn’t have much to offer tourists passing through for

Bánh xèo–a savory crepe-like Vietnamese dish

just a few days, it does have a slew of interesting coffee shops, bars, and live music venues for the slower-paced traveler or longer-term expat to experience. There’s also a lush variety of foods to sample from all over the country–Vietnamese food is, as it turns out, much more diverse than the typical phở and bánh mì sorely under representing this cuisine in the States–certainly more than one could experience in weeks, months, or even years here.

 

Contents:

Cost of Living

Despite being a city, Saigon is quite affordable, making it a prime location for potential expats and digital nomads. A month’s rent in a serviced apartment close to the city center runs typically between $300 and $400/mo, while meals can be found for anywhere between $.75 (street food) and $30/meal (an upscale restaurant). A membership at a good coworking space with a flexible desk runs $90/mo. Braver travelers can rent a motorbike for ~$60/mo or purchase and re-sell for around $250. By my estimation a nomad really looking to save, or an entrepreneur seeking to extend her runway could live a decent life in Saigon for under $700/mo (less, even, if you’re willing to pinch pennies).

People and Community

Frustrated and angry bloggers sometimes give Vietnam and the Vietnamese people a bad wrap. Personally, I’ve had a lot of great experiences with both Vietnamese locals and the expat community in Saigon, so I feel I have a responsibility to set the record straight.

Locals

Some people hear stories about swindlers and hustlers in Vietnam–people who will overcharge tourists because they don’t speak the language, for example–and imagine that all Vietnamese people are liars and cheats. Of course, as is the case anywhere one might go in the world, these people do exist, and one should exercise caution and common sense when traveling. These people are, however, far from a majority. Most Vietnamese people I’ve met–business owners, students, Viet Kieu–have impressed me with their kindness, their generosity, their work ethic, and their optimism. One student even befriended me, showed me around, and came back to help me when my motorbike broke down during a long road trip back to Saigon. I would honestly not have known what to do without his help.

As an American, I find it especially encouraging how little animosity anyone ever showed me despite the fact that the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War) happened so recently–if anything there was a distinctly pro-American sentiment, especially among the younger generation. Though war is terrible, I find myself hopeful knowing that in just a few generations two peoples that were previously in conflict can so easily forgive and forget the transgressions made by their forebears.

To be fair to all involved, however, as an Asian American I likely have a different experience in Asia than other Western travelers do. Everywhere I’ve visited in Asia so far I’ve been mistaken for a local until I opened my mouth to speak, and since most Asian cultures have similar customs and values, my pseudo-Asian upbringing helps me relate to these people more naturally.

Entrepreneurs and Expats

One of the initial reasons I chose Saigon is because I read that it has more of an entrepreneurial community than some of the other hubs for digital nomads like Chiang Mai. Saigon is, indeed,  home to an up and coming tech scene in one of the fastest growing economies in the world. There is, however, still much room for the entrepreneurial scene in Saigon to grow and evolve–it doesn’t yet have the same energy, infrastructure, or prevalence as it does in Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, there are at least a few pockets of very interesting people. In my opinion, Start Coworking Campus, where I chose to both live and work for the majority of my time in Saigon, is one of those places. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Start when I booked my room there in December–I chose them because I wanted to try something new with coliving, and because their marketing promised a heavy emphasis on community, which can be hard to find while moving around. I was super pleasantly surprised by Start, and I honestly can’t rave about them enough. They deliver well on their promise of community, with daily community lunches and plenty of events throughout the month.

Most, but not all, of the people I met at Start were somehow related to tech, though not all of them were actually nomads. Saigon is home to quite a few long-term expats–sometimes former nomads–many of whom form a consistent backbone for community at Start despite a constantly rotating cast of travelers. After just a few weeks there, I really felt that I knew all of the regular faces, and after two months I felt that I had made some cool friends with whom I hope very much to keep in touch. Over lunch and during random breaks throughout the day, I’d often find myself engaging in deeply interesting conversations about a wide variety of topics, including political theory, global economics, philosophy, and current trends in tech. I can’t be sure because I haven’t yet seen that much, but I have a strong hunch that communities like this are pretty rare to find.

Dating

Just as I’ve been searching for a sense of community while abroad, I’ve also been experimenting with dating and romantic companionship. When I left the States to become a nomad, I expected that doing so meant I’d realistically have to put romance on hold until I settled back down in a single place. I felt that the odds of finding someone right for me while abroad, and the difficulty of pursuing something serious or long-term while moving around simply left real romance out of the question, but perhaps there was no reason not to experiment anyway. Much to my surprise, this turned out to just be the latest in what’s becoming a long string of false assumptions I made about traveling and the nomadic lifestyle–it didn’t take me long to fall in love with a beautiful, intelligent, and deeply reflective local Vietnamese entrepreneur.

When I landed in Vietnam, the differences in the dating scene struck me almost immediately–whereas in Chiang Mai and Silicon Valley I’ve often found dating frustrating, I quickly had four dates scheduled for my first week in Saigon. For the first time in my life I felt like I had more dating prospects than I could possibly have time to talk to, a complaint I normally only ever hear from my girl friends. It also felt easier than ever to open conversations and get dates scheduled.

Some of the difference could perhaps be attributed to me and a general mindset shift on dating: in the interest of putting myself in uncomfortable situations and learning more about dating, I decided to be more open-minded about first dates and made it a goal to quickly push for an in-person meeting with any girl I messaged back and forth with. Most of this, however, is likely attributable to Saigon and its particular dating pool: I tend to be more popular with Asian women, and densely populated international cities tend to have more young single women who speak English confidently enough to communicate. (By contrast, Chiang Mai was a much smaller city notably lacking in English-speaking confidence.)

Despite having more options than ever, I met the woman who would become my girlfriend on literally the second night I was in Saigon. In fact, she was the first date I went on in my new city, and probably the first local Vietnamese woman I’d really interacted with.

As is becoming more and more cliché these days, we met on Tinder. My expectations were pretty low, and our pre-date conversation barely had an ounce of substance to it, but I wanted to push myself out of the comfort zone so I asked her on a date anyway. To my surprise, she agreed to a hastily scheduled date for later that same night, and not two hours later I found myself walking anxiously to a craft brewery in the center of town.

I remember being terrified on my way to our first date–not because I felt nervous about impressing her, but because a couple of things she had said and done left me super confused about what to expect. Most of my pre-date anxiety centered around the fears that she wouldn’t look like her photos (this happened to me in Chiang Mai), that I’d get stuck in an awkward conversation with a weirdo or, worse, that I’d somehow get murdered. (Hey, I’m not proud of that thought, but I was in an entirely new city and my brain was running wild with catastrophic worst-case scenarios :P.)

When I walked in I was pleasantly surprised to find a woman whose beauty and personality would be hard to fully and accurately portray in still photography. She was funny and made me laugh easily (she’d later tell me that she thought I was laughing way too hard at her shitty jokes, but I honestly found them that funny). It turned out we’re both tech entrepreneurs–her as a designer and a product manager, me as a jack-of-all-trades software engineer–and could understand each other’s careers and daily job struggles. She shared a lot of my interests as well, and it quickly became apparent that we had extremely congruous mindsets, perspectives, and worldviews.

In short, I wasn’t sure what to expect at first but I was totally and completely blown away by the time I parted ways with her nearly four hours later. In fact, I was so blown away that I was almost scared in the opposite sense from before–things just seemed too uncannily similar and way too good to be true. I felt like either I had been super thoroughly stalked or the perfect woman had somehow just manifested before my eyes.

For awhile now, I’ve professed my belief in the law of “fuck yes or no”–if my gut doesn’t scream “fuck yes” about someone I don’t pursue them further. At that point, however, I’d never experienced a true “fuck yes” after a first date with a total stranger, and I’d been on enough first dates to begin to wonder whether or not the bar for going on a second date had been set too high–after all, maybe sometimes one just needs a couple of lukewarm experiences before a deeper connection can occur. My first date with this girl proved to me that the bar for second dates was, in fact, not set too high. She was a total and complete “fuck yes,” and now that I know that that’s possible I don’t think I’d ever want to settle for less.

Though I did go on dates with a few other women, I very quickly lost interest in anyone but her. She continued to be a “fuck yes” for me for many, many more dates and I’m now proud and excited to call her my girlfriend. She understands, challenges, pushes, and inspires me all in ways I didn’t know I could expect from a partner. Meeting her and choosing to enter a committed relationship with her has also tested some of my self-perceptions and my worldview.

Some of my past dating experiences left me questioning both my adequacy and my competency to meet and charm a potential partner through the silly, awkward dance we call modern dating. In particular, the last time I dated someone with serious intentions, through no purposeful fault of either party, it left me feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing, and like experiencing the kind of connection I hoped for with someone I found extremely attractive might be impossible for me without further growth. With my new girlfriend, though, I’ve come to realize that I am already enough, and that, with the right person, it should always feel that way. I shouldn’t need to feel like I have to constantly pursue someone to win their approval–the attraction can and should be mutual enough that a connection develops smoothly and naturally on its own.

Wanting something real and serious with my new girlfriend does leave me with new questions about where and how love fits into my larger worldview, however. Much of my personal philosophy centers around maximizing authenticity and growth. These are easy things to solve for independently, when one has no responsibilities or other people to consider, but they become complicated when a romantic partner enters the picture. Prior to coming to Saigon and meeting my new girlfriend, I thought that I might travel around the world and work for myself for a few years, chasing growth and adventure wherever it waits to be found. I thought I’d have at least a few years before I might meet anyone serious (I never expected to fall in love on the road).

Having found her though, I find myself faced with the serious question of returning to Saigon to spend more time with her in the near future. I know that successful relationships occasionally require sacrifice and compromise, so I find myself asking what I can and can’t authentically compromise on. If being with her means sacrificing some amount of travel and exploration, can I justify that at this point in my life? But even as I consider giving up on growth from exploration, I find myself wondering how our relationship might allow us to help each other grow and become even more authentic versions of ourselves. If we’re not careful, though, could it do just the opposite?

I also find myself asking questions about the implications of falling for a foreign woman in a land far away from where I previously called home, though I know it’s too early to be thinking super long-term about such a young relationship. Before meeting her I always just assumed I’d probably meet a nice American woman some day, and we’d probably settle down in the States. I never really had a good reason to think this, it’s just one of those assumptions that fills a space and goes unchallenged for a long time. Now, however, that idea is being questioned and replaced with a more globally inclusive idea of what it might mean to settle down with someone someday.

Some of these questions frighten me, and I don’t have great answers to most of them. I am, regardless, excited to find myself and my perspective being pushed in new and completely unexpected ways–ways they never could have when I was just an unattached solo traveler. My girlfriend and I are long distance right now, as I’m back in the States and still have plans to travel to France for at least 3 months before I might consider returning to Asia. Though I know the distance will be hard, and relationships are an art, I’m very much hoping that she and I will have a chance to explore answers to these questions together, one step at a time.

Exploring

Saigon is a large city, organized into 12 numbered districts and several more named ones–this sometimes gives running around the city an oddly Hunger Games-like feeling–but even so is less of an adventure-driven place than Chiang Mai, with fewer grand, iconic, and touristy things to do. It does, nevertheless, make for a great homebase to explore the South of Vietnam, and if you’re willing to dig a little bit there are fascinating and beautiful remnants of a culture extant in Saigon before much of its recent history, which hauntingly feels as if it is slowly slipping away as the younger generations forget. Since I spent a lot of time dating in Saigon, I also found that it can be a very romantic city, though many of the city’s best spots are hidden away off street level, and would have been very difficult for me to find without a local.

The many districts of Saigon

Live Music

Saigon turns out to be a city full of music, and there are quite a few cool places to go for different kinds of music. My personal favorites were the places where they’d sing old Saigonese songs from before the War. Most of the music in this time period is incredibly beautiful even not being able to understand the music, and really creates the sense of haunting nostalgia I alluded to earlier.

Cafe Vừng ơi, Mở ra

17 Ngô Thời Nhiệm, phường 6, Quận 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

In English, the name of this place translates to “Open, Sesame.” My now girlfriend brought me here on our fourth date and it blew my mind. To find this place, one has to walk through a pretty sketchy alleyway, then through a rather nondescript door and up several flights of stairs. I like to joke with my girlfriend that she brought me here to murder me, but then thought better of it and took me to hear some live music upstairs instead. Step through the door here and you’ll be transported to a different world, full of candle light and beautifully romantic music. The artists and the music here are top notch and they play a mix of beautiful Vietnamese classics and popular romantic songs in English.

Le Saigonnais

9 Thái Văn Lung, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

This one’s hard to find because it’s not actually listed on Google Maps, but it’s in the same building as the Bâng Khuâng Café at the address listed above. This place is truly a window into old Saigon, even down to the furniture and decorations. Many of the patrons here are Saigonese people who either lived in the old days themselves, or remember them wistfully. There is almost an underground resistance-like vibe to this place, as if this is where people would meet to plan the second coming of Old Saigon. The music here is, of course, beautiful, and they play mostly classic Vietnamese songs from Old Saigon.

Craft Breweries

Saigon has a burgeoning craft brewing scene, which is heavily influenced by American expats and packed with loads of interesting, delicious beers. My favorites were:

Heart of Darkness

31D Lý Tự Trọng, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

I’m biased because I also met my girlfriend here, and we went back to hang out a few times, but it does have the most cozy, intimate, and well-decorated vibes of any of the breweries I visited in Saigon. My personal favorite here is th Eloquent Phantom Imperial Stout.

East West Brewing Co.

181 – 185 Lý Tự Trọng, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

I actually had their beers here a couple of times before I went to visit their brewery. The venue is nice–a well-decorated and mood lit warehouse with seating on the roof for those willing to climb the stairs. I’m not usually that into Belgian beer styles, but their Belgian Blonde and Belgian Darks are both very good, and their Independence Stout is fantastic.

Pasteur Street Brewing

144 Pasteur, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

Pasteur Street is iconic in Saigon as one of the first craft breweries to crop up there. There beer is quite good, and they try some interesting things there–I tried a dark beer here with jalapeno and other distinctly Mexican flavors. The place itself, though, is, unfortunately kind of sterile, so I wouldn’t personally recommend hanging out here.

Weekend Adventures

Some of my favorite memories from Vietnam are from riding long distances on the back of my trusty motorbike on my way to some weekend adventure somewhere. While I didn’t spend all of my weekends in Vietnam off on adventures, there were quite a few memorable ones.

Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta actually describes a very large region in the South of Vietnam. Many people, myself included, initially make the mistake of thinking that it’s a single place or attraction that one can visit. In reality, you could drive for nearly 8 hours from Saigon and still not reach the end of the Mekong Delta.

That said, one of the most popular attractions in the Mekong Delta are the floating markets–markets run on clusters of small boats in wide rivers connecting trade between villages that until very recently had no easy road access to each other. The most widely publicized place for tourists to see the floating markets is Cần Thơ, though many of the locals will express that they feel the markets here are overly commercialized for tourists.

I personally didn’t have time to venture further into the Delta than this–Cần Thơ is already a 5 hour drive out of Saigon–but I enjoyed both the drive there and the tour I took of the markets. I would love for my tour to have spent more time moving in and through the market itself so that we as passengers could participate in it a little bit more, but it was nevertheless a very cool experience to have coffee and phở made and then served to me on a boat.

If I had more time, I would have considered going to An Giang province, further into the Delta, in search of a more local floating market and the Trà Sư forest.

Đà Lạt

Đà Lạt is an old French vacation spot nestled in the mountains to the East of Saigon. It’s a ~7 hour bus ride to get there from Saigon, but it’s a worthwhile break from the city routine. Temperatures in Đà Lạt are usually quite a bit cooler than Saigon, and this time of year a typical day in Saigon is humid and hot (90+ degrees F). People are much more laid back in Đà Lạt, and if you plan for it there’s plenty of nature to explore.

Cu Chi Tunnels

The tunnels are an old remnant of the war located about an hour north on the outskirts of Saigon. It’s interesting to experience, and it’s one of those

A cramped entrance to the Cu Chi Tunnels

things that you “should” do while you’re in Saigon, but I honestly felt a bit

underwhelmed by them. I got the idea pretty fast after 20 minutes, did find the engineering behind the intricate tunnel systems fascinating, but then was quickly over it. If traveling on your own by motorbike, however, one can keep driving north to find more interesting and less staged things. I ended up at a very colorful buddhist temple overlooking a large lake and had a good time.

Work

Having fewer touristy things to do in Saigon did help to make it a more productive setting, though this was perhaps balanced out by wanting to spend time on my new relationship. My overarching goals have not changed much over the past couple months: the aim right now is to launch a functional product and create product offering that might net me recurring paid customers or money in the bank. As expected, my previous consulting engagements have mostly wound down, leaving most of my time available for my own projects.

On average,

Serious mode: engaged.

I spent about 6+ hours working each day, and though I do think I’ve accomplished some important things in the last couple months, I am feeling more and more behind on the actual feature development required to launch my initial product offering.

I had a Facebook Ads credit expiring at the end of March, so invested time in a marketing experiment to spend the credit on. My goal was to create the marketing site that I think I will use when the MVP of the product launches–past versions of the site advertised moonshot feature sets that likely would not exist for many months past my initial product offering. Doing this required me to think very critically about what will and won’t be in my MVP, and raised a lot of concerning questions for me about how I will differentiate my product from my competitors in its early stages. (I won’t have a mobile app for some time, and don’t plan for one in the MVP, and whether or not to include some of the cool differentiating features before launching the product has been a topic of some internal debate.)

In the process of doing research on my audience to improve my marketing copy, I concerningly learned that the potential market for my product is much smaller than I originally thought. Unfortunately, in total, the number of people interested in Getting Things Done on Facebook in the US is below 50k. For English-speakers globally, that number is still only about 200k. Unexpectedly, the largest market segment for my product appears to be Italian women

Facebook Audience Insights for GTD in the USA

(600k), so I may actually want to consider translating my product into Italian in the future. (For those wondering, I used Facebook Audience Insights to find this information.)

Given the success of Getting Things Done and David Allen, I previously just assumed that my total market was somewhere in the millions, which meant I hadn’t been thinking super critically about market saturation for my ads or other experiments. With millions of people potentially interested in my product, I didn’t care much if I alienated a few thousand in the process of refining my product offering. My thought has also always been that I would really only need Serenity to hit 1000 paying customers for it to be a huge success, a number which I previously thought would be a very small percentage of the overall market. Now that I know the market is an order of magnitude smaller than I thought it was I need to think more carefully about how I expose the product to the market at every stage, and I’m a bit more pessimistic about the lower and upper bound earning potentials for this project.

Regardless, once I had a pretty a good idea of what my product roadmap looks like, I completed a design overhaul of the Serenity marketing website, split tested some of the information on the page, and added pricing information to the email sign-up page to loosely validate the price point I’ve proposed for my product. I wish I had thought of enticing people to give me their email addresses in exchange for a free month of hypothetical product usage before–this has turned out to be the simplest and most effective way to test my early pricing model.

The results of this experiment were positive–the ad click-through and on-page conversion rates were very reasonable, and I collected a fair number of email addresses despite the inclusion of pricing information. In retrospect, however, since Serenity is a product in an already crowded space, I could probably have just trusted my competitors’ pricing models (most of them do have recurring paying customers) and foregone explicitly validating pricing myself.

At this point it’s clear to me that I can make some money off of Serenity, but it’s not clear how much money, and it’s also not clear how much time I’ll need to invest in the product before the cash starts to flow. Even so, I’ve decided to move forward with the product for a few reasons: 1) the main investment I’m making in the product is my time and runway, both of which are still abundant 2) even if Serenity can’t get me to my income goals by itself, some relatively passive income is better than none and 3) I am actually very excited about the future of the product, and think it could have an important role to play in a larger suite of products I hope to create to help people set and achieve their goals.

My next milestone is to launch the product in public beta. Since the market is small and I don’t want to alienate potential customers, but I do want to start collecting signal about what is and isn’t working, I’ve decided that positioning the product as a free beta is more prudent than just slapping a payment portal on the thing and letting the market decide when it’s worth something. I will, however, be offering beta users the chance to pre-purchase subscriptions for the product at a significantly discounted rate, which should help me detect when the product is truly providing enough value that people are ready to pay for it.

By my current estimates, I’m a few weeks away from being able to launch the first beta version of the product in production. This month is going to be hectic, since I’m taking care of administrative things and spending a lot of time with friends and family while I’m briefly back in the States, but I am hoping to find a way to push to this milestone before the end of May. I’ll probably start reaching out to close friends and family to try out the product and give me feedback soon–if you’re reading this and that sounds interesting to you, please reach out :).

Sanity

Things have been pretty good lately. For the most part, I haven’t experienced much fear related to self-employment in the last couple months. The low cost of living in Vietnam, has helped me to realize that if I live in the right places, I could continue working on my own projects almost indefinitely. While this revelation does wonders for any money- or survival- related anxieties I might have felt, it’s tended to have the opposite effect on self-discipline and self-motivation. Not having external deadlines and not having any real external pressure to deliver means that my motivation really has to come from within. Connecting well with my deeper, internal drive still doesn’t happen consistently, but I think it’s slowly getting better.

Meeting my girlfriend has, for the most part, helped here. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly found myself sacrificing productive time to be with her, and she and I are trying to learn to balance that better going forward. But her belief in me does sometimes help bolster my belief in myself and, more importantly, some of the ideas she’s introduced me to–mainly the more secular sides of buddhism–have forced me to think a lot more about my fear of death.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of myself as someone who fears death, but when I really examined it I realized that my attitude towards the brevity of life is usually to shrug it off in a way that’s so dismissive it’s almost denial. In truth, I think that this is probably how most of us deal with the question of death, but it’s not necessarily the most healthy. Through buddhism, and to some degree through stoicism as well, I’m learning to embrace and accept the reality of my own impermanence, and the reality of the impermanence of any ego-driven legacy I might want to leave behind. While it is terrifying to remember that life is short, and that my stay here on Earth is really just a blink of an eye, it does provide a sobering reminder that, while I am still young and there is still time, there is no time to waste. There is a very real cost to spending my time doing or not doing something even if my savings could last me a decade or more some place in the world.

I’d say I’m optimistic. Most days, fear doesn’t visit anymore, and I do have some good tools for kicking myself back into disciplined focus when I find myself goofing off. Hopefully I can build that into a habit and use it to deliver my first product, and maybe many more.

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