FIRE movement: young Vietnamese embrace, reinvent early retirement

By Phan Duong   July 26, 2021 | 05:18 am PT
Like many millennials around the world, young Vietnamese have adopted the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) trend. But many have their own opinions and take on this global movement.

Ever since Bien Hoa Town in southern Dong Nai Province enforced social distancing guidelines, Hoang Minh Vu has spent every morning fishing by the river. But every fish he caught, he returned it back to the water.

"Sitting in one place allows me to reflect and have a clearer overall view of everything around me," said the 37-year-old.

Hoang Minh Vu does some reading while fishing on the morning of July 15, 2021. Photo courtesy of Vu.

Hoang Minh Vu does some reading while fishing on the morning of July 15, 2021. Photo courtesy of Vu.

Vu shared that when he went fishing two months ago, he projected that the price of rubber wood billets would increase by 10-15 percent in the coming time. He immediately picked up the phone and called the owner of a wood company, where he is a shareholder. The two sides agreed to invest and less than a month later, the price increased by 12 percent.

Also while fishing on the morning of July 14, he forecast that with tougher social distancing measures imposed on Ho Chi Minh City, Dong Nai, Binh Duong and other southern localities, many factories would soon run out of wood billets. This prompted him to invest in a new batch of wood billet imports to supply neighboring manufacturers.

Although sitting in only one place, on one side a branch of Dong Nai River and on the other his garden, Vu could grasp what was happening in various locations. Thanks to about 10 closed partners providing him information about land, vehicles and other topics, he gained valuable clues as to whether to invest or not.

"For me, earning a few dozen or a few hundred million dong (VND100 million = $4,340) is just as joyful as catching fish, or discovering a nest of duck eggs in my garden this morning," he said, reflecting on his early retirement two years ago.

Before retiring at the age of 30, Vu was a bank employee. He bought his own house before the age of 30, used the latest phone model, and when single, owned a car and two expensive motorbikes. But deep inside he experienced a lot of stress and pressure.

The more he got promoted, the more insecurity he felt.

"Of my graduation class, there were 50 people working in the banking industry and 30 in stock companies. Now, only three work for banks and five for stock firms, which shows how pressured the industry is," Vu explained.

But the father of two considers himself luckier than his friends since three years before he retired, he started venturing into real estate investment. For him, this job is like "a walk in the park." A few times each month, he takes his wife and children t on a trip from Dong Nai to the provinces of Lam Dong, Dak Nong, Dak Lak to visit the lands he plans to invest in.

But in the past two years, he has spent most of time in a garden about two kilometers from his home, feeding the chickens, fishing and bringing his children to play. During this time, he has also gained a lot of new knowledge.

His wife used to work as an office worker who wanted to quit her job and pursue her cooking hobby. Seeing her hesitate to pursue her dream, Vu told his wife to do what she likes since she only had one life to live.

According to Vu, the definition of early retirement is still controversial since there are two distinctly opposing public opinions on the matter. But while many people are hopping on this trend, he believes early retirement should be more personalized. A person can retire when he or she is old and no longer able to work. But retiring also means reducing working hours, workload so individuals could follow their dreams and passions.

The early retirement movement, or FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early), originated in the American best-seller"Your Money or Your Life" by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez published in 1992. The book urges readers to rethink their relationship with work and money, arguing that spending less time to work helps maintain a person's "life energy." After this trend became popular in the U.S. and Europe, it later spread to Asia.

In Vietnam, there are many online groups where people share knowledge and financial plans on how to use money efficiently. The advice call on people, whether they want to pursue early retirement or not, to become financially independent as soon as possible.

In the world famous book on early retirement "Work less, Live more" by American author Bob Clyatt, the concept of 'semi-retirement' was first introduced. The book explained that taking on a part-time job during semi-retirement helps people avoid depending on their savings alone. In addition, working unpaid jobs could help semi-retirees maintain a more energetic life.

For Nguyen Thanh Trung, a Da Nang City resident, early retirement is also the time to "normalize" life. A series of sad life incidents and health problems had forced him to retire at the age of 31.

Trung graduated in 2013 with a degree in biotechnology. He then left HCMC to return to his hometown to work and support his mother while caring for his three younger siblings. But Trung's father and a younger brother passed away a few years ago. Since then, Trung has worked as a mechanic, a coffee shop employee, owned his own coffee shop, repaired and assembled computers, designed and programmed websites, and become a motorbike taxi driver to support his family.

At the age of 29, Trung achieved his goal of buying his own home. At the time, he was a supervisor manager for two paint companies and a food producer. He had to clock in at the one paint company at 7 a.m. before driving to the other to clock in at 7:30 a.m. Luckily, he only had to show up at the food company once in a while and send in monthly reports by mail.

"Sometimes my friends called me at 9:30 a.m. asking me to come and drink coffee with them. But I declined since I had to drive to Hue to take care of work at the food producer," Trung said.

One day in 2019, Trung received news that his boss had suddenly died. Like his boss, Trung spent too much time working, sacrificing his health for the company. But at the time, he and his partner broke up after 10 years, leaving him emotionally drained and depressed.

But Trung later decided to let go of all feelings and his work to find a new goal in life. From working hard to earning tons of money, he gradually shifted his goal to enjoying and living a happy life.

Nguyen Thanh Trung spends is taking care of a plant in his garden. Photo courtesy of Trung.

Nguyen Thanh Trung spends time taking care of a plant in his garden. Photo courtesy of Trung.

"Many people would disagree when seeing a young person like me decide to retire early. But everyone has the right to determine their life path. For me, retirement means I no longer have to worry about making money so I can have a lot of free time to enjoy a peaceful life in the way I have chosen," he explained.

Currently, Trung starts his day by meditating, taking care of ornamental plants, his vegetable garden and spending a few hours working online in the IT field to earn an income. For him, this is not really a job, but also a passion. Every afternoon, Trung still plays soccer with middle and high school students, even going camping with them.

Although he only works about 15 hours a week, Trung says his life is comfortable. He minimized spending by 90 percent compared to the pre-retirement era. Because his mother is still working, he only needs to occasionally cover his youngest brother's tuition, while the other two are married.

Phung Kim Ngan, a HCMC resident who retired in 2019, has spent the past two years entirely for herself. Her schedule is pretty simple. She goes to bed at 8 p.m. and wakes up at 2:45 a.m. She meditates at home before going to the park to exercise. Between 7-8 a.m. she cooks or eats out, then later spends an hour doing yoga. After lunch, she listens to music, reads books, takes care of her plants and cleans the house.

Before retiring, Ngan was an assistant manager for a production plant of a European vintage and luxury furniture group. Her job was quite busy since she had to take care of production, product development, training, customer service, outsourcing, factory management and others.

"Suddenly one day I had the thought of wanting to live a life without any time and deadline pressure, and free from smartphones. So I took a break," the 33-year-old said. Because she has savings and investment channels, she doesn't mind the cost of living while not working.

After two years of rest and contemplation, Ngan said she had "solved all of her internal problems", which helped her see more clearly what direction to take in future.

"If you want to be loved and give love, you have to have a healthy body," she said.

She advised everyone to focus on their own happiness first, before showing love to others via actions instead of mere words and material offerings.

Two months ago, Ngan returned to work. For a week now, she has joined her friends in providing food relief for people in Covid-19 hotspot Saigon.

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