Vietnam increasingly popular with 'digital nomads'

By Ngoc Ngan, Quynh Nguyen   November 7, 2023 | 03:28 pm PT
Sitting at a cafe on the Mui Ne beach, a 33-year-old Brit named Sam opened his laptop to teach his remote English class for four students.

First having visited Vietnam four years ago, Sam immediately "fell for" the country and has returned several times since. His last visit was earlier this year, when he expected to stay for two months, but he kept extending the duration.

His job allows him to work from anywhere in the world as long as he has an Internet connection, so Sam elected to work in Vietnam for the past six months.

Renting an apartment in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Phu District, Sam spends five hours a day teaching English remotely for students all around the world.

He spends the rest of his days riding his motorcycle to explore the city’s neighboring provinces and towns and sometimes takes longer trips to Hanoi or the coastal towns of Mui Ne, Nha Trang, or Da Nang.

Sam talks to a local resident during a trip to the northern mountainous town of Sapa in Dec. 2022. Photo courtesy of Sam

Sam talks to a local resident during a trip to the northern mountainous town of Sa Pa in December 2022. Photo courtesy of Sam

He estimates his monthly living expenses at US$1,000, of which around half is spent on his rent. He said that figure was "too low" compared to what Vietnam has given him.

Iranian Soheil Asghari relocated to Vietnam after spending eight years in Malaysia. Working in communications, Asghari said he knew many people in his field that were relocating all over the world to work remotely online.

And he mentioned several times that Vietnam was a destination "worth experiencing" in the conversations he exchanged with these people.

Asghari has also met many other foreigners working while residing in Vietnam in his neighborhood, something he had not expected, he said.

Sam and Asghari are typical examples of "digital nomads," a loose definition of expats that work remote jobs, and thus, are not bound by their physical locations. This allows them to have a more flexible lifestyle, which gives them the chance to explore the world more easily and freely.

During the pandemic, this group of population, once an obscure group of globetrotters, became a large and normalized mass of 17 million people in the U.S., according to a report by solutions provider MBO Partners.

Thanks to the boom in remote work’s popularity, over 50 countries are offering a special visa type for digital nomads, which allows holders to work remotely for a foreign country and receive foreign income. The list includes Norway, South Korea, Thailand, Germany, and Italy.

Dr. Nguyen Duc Loc, president of the Social Life Research Institute in Vietnam, said working as a remote consultant while moving through different countries started emerging as a popular trend among foreign retirees before the pandemic.

But the trend attracted a massive boom in young professionals when Covid forced remote online work on many employees and employers.

A report by Nomad List, an online community for those leading the nomadic lifestyles, stated that Vietnam is one of the destinations most favored by remote workers.

Among the local destinations that experienced the biggest rise in digital nomad residents this year were three major cities: Da Nang, Hanoi, and HCMC, which ranked second, seventh, and ninth in popularity on the global list respectively.

Loc said this was not a surprise, given Vietnam’s safety, cheap cost of living, beautiful landscapes, internationally renowned food, and the country’s new convenient online visa application process.

In addition, the three aforementioned cities are Vietnam’s largest cultural and economic centers with the most developed infrastructure and transport systems in the nation.

Sam’s views fall in line with these trends: he said Vietnam’s high quality of life, social safety, delicious food, and scenic landscapes were his motivations for residing here.

"The comfortable life, the safety, and the friendly neighbors are what are hard to find elsewhere," he said.

For Asghari, traveling by motorcycle, the affordable costs of living, and friendly local residents always willing to help foreigners like him are the facets of Vietnam he appreciates most. Among the countries he has visited, Vietnam is one of the few that offers stable Internet access nationwide, which helps him work his job effectively, he said. His income allows him to enjoy a high standard of living as well.

Soheil Asghari in his apartment in HCMC’s Binh Thanh District in Oct. 2023. Photo courtesy of Asghari

Soheil Asghari in his apartment in HCMC’s Binh Thanh District in Oct. 2023. Photo courtesy of Asghari

Nguyen Tran Hoang Phuong, director of the Institute of Social Tourism Research, considers the desire to shed the constricting burdens of office-bound work, the yearning to enjoy nature, and the urge to explore different cultures are the biggest motivations for digital nomads.

To fulfill those goals, professional expats that work online remotely in Vietnam often choose to stay in serviced apartments instead of hotels, and they spend around 50% of their time traveling to other tourist attractions.

They tend to stay between three months and a year to fully absorb what the foreign country has to offer, and because of that, they’ve enjoyed taking advantage of the recent loosening of Vietnam’s visa policies.

Having visited Vietnam three times, 32-year-old Jon Connell is planning to move to HCMC at the beginning of next year to work and travel across Vietnam at the same time. His decision came largely from the changes in Vietnam’s visa policies.

"I used to suffer having to cross borders and then come back to Vietnam to have my visa extended every month, but things have become much more convenient now," Connell said.

"I look forward to having wonderful days in Vietnam."

Experts believe this wave of foreign digital nomads hitting Vietnam can bring various benefits to the country.

Loc said domestic businesses may take advantage of the trend to attract highly-skilled foreign talent to their companies.

Meanwhile, Phuong said he believed that businesses managing to develop products and services targeting the digital nomad demographic will experience booms in business performances.

On the other hand, improving the quality of Vietnam’s infrastructure systems and services still needs to be done to further motivate remote workers to establish themselves here, according to analysts.

Sam said his life would be flawless if the city’s traffic congestion and air pollution were reduced, as well as the risk of having his cell phone stolen.

"I will settle in HCMC if those things are solved," he concluded.

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