This week’s post comes from loyal reader, and fellow Saigon expat, Bill from NomadStorage.co and is a true rags to riches story… well for Vietnam at least. My commentary is indicated [Neo: with brackets and italics.].
Saigon is a great place to live a hedonistic and debaucherous life, as Neo has reminded us countless times. But what many people may not know is it’s also a great place to find direction and get your life in order.
We’ll use myself as the perfect example.
At the tail end of 2015 I was a washed up, and formerly well-paid, white collar financial services professional from a major east coast US city.
Anyway, I hadn’t worked full-time since the summer of 2014 and had over $20,000 worth of debt. I had $10k in cash to my name, no plan, and no idea how I was going to get out of that predicament.
No direction. No plan. No goal. [Neo: That’s how 95% of people end up in Southeast Asia.]
All I knew for sure was I was NOT going to start another year in the US. Asia was screaming my name for many reasons (Neo: Hmmmm. I wonder what reasons?) and I was giving in to that temptation.
I was deciding between teaching in Korea, Japan and China. As I was weighing each country’s pros and cons, I made my decision:
Move to Vietnam and let everything play out.
First, I sold or donated all my possessions. This left me with four pieces of luggage. And with no plan and no idea what I was going to do with my life…
I hopped on that plane.
The first few weeks were amazing. I had to pinch myself a few times each day: “I’m in Vietnam right now!”
I was wide-eyed and curious, saying yes to every possible invite and opportunity that came my way.
“Do you want to come to my hometown in the countryside and join my family for Tet?”
“Do you want to take a ride out to Hóc Môn to pick up some obscure herbs for some secret illness I’d rather not tell you about (Neo: It was probably AIDS.)?”
“Do you want to do a 96-hour water-only fast?”
“Do you want to work as the marketing and customer experience head for my language-learning startup?”
“Do you want to try stand-up comedy for the first time in your life?”
I originally planned to start teaching when I arrived in Vietnam, but I realized teaching sucked and wasn’t for me after teaching for a few days. [Neo: Join the club.]
My interview for a project manager job went well, but they passed on me. They probably went with a local who spoke better Vietnamese (I spoke none at the time) and that would work for peanuts.
Fortunately, I quickly found a network of entrepreneurs, digital nomads, and business people here in Saigon. Some of them were killing it.
I soaked up as much knowledge as I could and tried to emulate them. This meant pursuing various entrepreneurial avenues:
None of that really worked out.
Trouble on The Horizon
Fast forward to September 2016 and I was down to my last few hundred dollars and my debt had grown to $25,000.
I had no path out and confided in the one person I thought I could trust:
My Vietnamese girlfriend. [Neo: Check out my article on finding a Vietnamese girlfriend.]
I revealed my financial pressure to her and told her I didn’t have much money left.
I expected her to say something like, “That’s okay, you’ll figure it out. And I’ll stay by your side while you do.”
Instead, she became quiet and distant, so I ended our relationship a week later. Within six months she was married to a rich Malaysian guy in Kuala Lumpur.
Funny how that worked out.
So what was I going to do? Return to the US and live in my cousin’s basement?
Heeellllll nah. (Neo: It doesn’t sound like too bad of a plan tho.)
Climbing Out of Debt
That would only make the problem worse. So I did what any sensible person [Neo: That is white and speaks English] in Asia would do…
Cashed in on my glorious fair skin, white complexion, and masculine good looks, which meant swallowing my pride and teaching English.
I started out as a glorified cheerleader teaching mobs of six-year-olds in a gymnasium-sized classroom how to pronounce the words “triangle” and “square” at 7 in the morning. Though I quickly ascended to teaching middle and high school students–45 students jammed into a space designed for 20–actual English grammar and comprehension.
During all of this I was hustling on my own English discussion group business at night teaching university students and young professionals the intricacies of American pronunciation and grammar [Neo: In other words, teaching them not to sound like a dumbass.].
I was working 12- and 14-hour days determined to get out of debt as quickly as I could.
My diet was mostly eggs, rice, and cheap street food.
My life was work and sleep deprivation.
One day, a gift from the heavens came to me in the form of my neighbor giving me a referral to work at his test prep company making $40/hour.
At my peak, I was teaching at a furniture company in Bình Dương 90 minutes away (I had negotiated a transportation allowance to hire a driver so I didn’t have to drive my motorbike) at lunch time, teaching test prep for $40/hr in the afternoons, and teaching my own speaking groups at night.
I was running on fumes.
Bigger and Better Things
Tet 2017 rolled around and I quit everything so I could focus on my test prep gig.
It paid the best by far.
By September 2017, I was completely debt-free and had enough savings set aside to make my first trip back to the US in nearly two years. I even brought some cash money with me to deposit into my account back home.
By 2018, I had enough set aside to not work for 3-4 months and travel to the US, Peru, Thailand twice, Korea twice, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and China AND still save enough cash that I’ll need to file an FBAR with my taxes in 2019. Oh yeah, and I lost a small fortune investing in cryptocurrency like
a dumbass [Neo: literally every guy under the age of 35… me included.], but that’s a story for another time.
My goal was to pay off my debt in six months.
It took me twice that amount of time, but I swear on my life I’ll never go into debt again. I was living like a pauper: eating 30k bowls of bún bò, working like crazy, even borrowing friends’ motorbikes to keep my expenses low. About all I did for fun was play pickup basketball and meet girls at the Caffe Bene across the street from my apartment (I never ordered anything in probably 50 times going there).
While I make less than half of what I made working my white collar job in the US, and I’m definitely not rich (I know American expat single-digit millionaires living here, and their lives are much better than mine). I do live a comfortable life here and save 75% of my take home pay without having to work terribly hard.
I’ve got a nice serviced studio apartment that only runs me 15% of my monthly income. That could be 8-10% if I wanted to live like a pauper again, but life is short (Neo: and girls laughing at your dumpy apartment isn’t fun. Trust me on that one.).
My only other expenses are food (I like to eat well), a ~$3/mo phone bill, a $35/mo motorbike rental fee, ~$10/mo for electricity and about a dollar a day for the gym. Otherwise, my money sits in a Vietnamese CD making over 5.3% annually compounded monthly. And I only work an average of 75-100 hours per month.
I spend the rest of my time working on my startup (Neo: And having fun): Nomad Storage.
While jobs like mine are hard to come by–I stumbled on mine by dumb luck–you can achieve the same results if you’re in a similar position I was in: loads of debt and no plan to get out.
Come to Vietnam and hustle your ass off. Work as a teacher or digital nomad and live below your means while still having fun. This place is cheap, the weather is great 90% of the time, and they’re basically giving visas to anyone with a pulse.
(Neo: This is all good advice for younger men… unless you hate oppressive heat and humidity. Seriously, you’ll hate Saigon if you hate the heat.)
And if you’re smart and avoid the degenerate path, you can network with other nomads, teachers and entrepreneurs and begin creating opportunities far greater than teaching. As they say, good things come to those who hustle. (Neo: I’ve literally never heard anyone say this… but it’s true and I like it.)
Also, feel free to reach out if you need help getting money back to the States, and I’ll introduce you to my contact who has helped me many times.