[Preface: 4 years ago I wrote about bootstrapping startups from Vietnam and in recent years we've seen waves of "digital nomads" settling down in Vietnam. The situation for startups in particular in Vietnam has developed rapidly since but it's still a good base for "bootstrappers". The following is one long-term Vietnam expat's view on another trendy digital nomad hotspot.]

Have you heard? Chiang Mai, a city in the north of Thailand, is a top destination for digital nomads. What's a digital nomad? It's those people you see sitting in cafes all day with MacBooks. There are thousands of them in Saigon, at thousands of cafes throughout the city, but mostly around District 1.

When you've been hanging around Bangkok or Saigon, you'll find that Chiang Mai is much quieter. Peaceful. The honking has stopped, and you have space. There's a lot less going on here. And all the travel agencies are encouraging you to trek outside the city where there's even less. This is a small provincial outpost, not a cosmopolitan regional economic hub. But it draws in a ton of tourists.

The heart of the city is the square-shaped Old City, surrounded by a moat, which is still filled with standing water. This area is full of guesthouses and hotels and places for backpackers and tourists to hang out and get their backs rubbed. There are a number of streets in Chiang Mai which could be called "massage districts" due to almost every shop being a massage shop - 100 baht for 30 minutes, 200 baht for an hour. Massage may be the city's main industry. The city as a whole shuts down early, including the Old City. It's the complete opposite of Bangkok's Khaosan Road. But the masseuses stay open until the last bars close. Walking Street is full of white people laying in chairs on the sidewalk getting rubbed down by Thai people until midnight.

Contrast this with Saigon. Saigon is the kind of city that stays up late. There's always someplace to go eat and drink that's open. It's loud and noisy. You can get your massages here too but the masseuses will always be young women, not the aunties (or grannies or sometimes even male masseurs) who pull your limbs in Chiang Mai. So Chiang Mai is good for saving money by not going out, and maybe not dating local women.

Cafes with wifi, air conditioning, power outlets. And coffee. This is the natural habitat of the digital nomad. Chiang Mai's cafes are clustered in the Nimmanhemin / Nimmanheminda neighborhood outside of the Old City. This is a trendy area with shopping and trendy eateries as well as a handful of cafes. It's not a big neighborhood, but it's outside of the tourist circuit. Chiang Mai has a more artsy feel to it per capita / square meter compared to Vietnamese cities, and this street is a mix of hipster and yuppy, although such concepts just don't really apply in Southeast Asia.

Ploen Ruedee Night Market

But another great hangout spot (for white people) in CM with a similar creative-consumption vibe is Ploen Ruedee Night Market, "international food park", by the night market / bazaar. But it and the whole area are closed / dead on Sundays.

I've gotten used to cafes in Saigon having a certain standard of size to accommodate lots of customers, availability of power outlets, free iced tea, and fuss-free wifi. And there are more cafes in Saigon which fit this bill than any other city in Southeast Asia. For people settling in Chiang Mai's Nimmanhemin neighborhood and seeking cafes, it's not hard to find one. But they will be smaller and easily already full, or won't have any power outlets (this is common), or the wifi will be limited. Saigon has more quantity and variety when it comes to cafe styles.

Nimmanhemin cafes

Internet speeds in Chiang Mai can be decent. But a lot of the wireless networks have problems - being oversubscribed, being owned by telecom providers and requiring a subscription from them, being free to guests but only for an hour or two, and you'll only be able to connect to wifi with one device instead of both your laptop and your phone, etc. As cutthroat as Vietnamese businesses are, Saigon wifi providers aren't sophisticated enough to make you pay to access them, ever. A lot of Chiang Mai wifi networks are open as in unencrypted, whereas almost all wifi in Saigon will use WPA, just no login. As a consumer, you don't want to access wifi networks which are open but require logging in with an account tied to your passport or phone number.

Punspace coworking in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has a few coworking spaces. For digital nomad noobs and gurus alike. Here you'll find community. Chiang Mai has a small fraction of the population of Bangkok or Saigon. If you "nomad" here, your community will be people just like you, not local people. While Vietnam and Saigon in particular has a community and ecosystem of internet / technology professionals who are not nomads, Chiang Mai does not. Saigon has "real" expats, people sent there by multinational corporations to work there, as well as all the smaller companies who still need or desire to hire foreigners (and not just for teaching English). Saigon is economically diverse, providing both access to a workforce with skills which a business may need, as well as being a market for selling services to. If you are developing products and need developers or marketers you can hire from the millions of young people working in Ho Chi Minh City, and their salary will be affordable to bootstrapping startups. You might even meet investors who fund your project in Saigon. Chiang Mai is more like a resort for internet forum dudes, some who are "killing it" and others who have no idea what they're doing but are keen on experience "Southeast Asia lite". Also, apparently working at Chiang Mai coworking spaces puts you at risk of being rounded up by the immigration police who have recently raided them looking for foreigners working on tourist visas.

There is no "digital nomad visa". And most of us aren't eligible for work visas. Visas are an issue, but the visa situation is better for Westerners in Vietnam than in Thailand. People are frequently denied visas to Thailand which is rare for visitors to Vietnam, although you need to arrange a tourist visa (3 months) before you arrive in Vietnam instead of upon arrival. There are agencies in Chiang Mai explicitly advertising "visa run" services, which you'll have to do after 30 days or so. They take you by bus to a bordering country - Myanmar or Laos. You might be refused at the border returning to Thailand for staying there too long. Thai immigration might deny people who've done multiple consecutive visa runs. Vietnam, despite its bureaucracies and unclear regulations, is much more certain and easier in this regard with no requirement to stay outside the country for months before being allowed back in.

But Thai people are pleasant and friendly. It's the Land of Smiles. Vietnamese people can learn a lot from Thais about attracting global tourists by providing better customer service instead of turning them off through rude behavior (which the Vietnamese person won't realize is rude) and through blatant overcharging or scams. I can't emphasize enough how nice and not rude Thai people are (generalizing). Thai people know how to queue.

Saigon is no nomad paradise. But it still manages to attract all kinds of people who stay for a long time. There are various communities and it's still really cheap. Living here is comfortable. Chiang Mai is also a comfortable place for new nomads. It's open to newbies, and is an "Asia-lite" compared to the edgier environment of Saigon. The digital nomad to local population ratio is quite high. There are more options for employment, entertainment / nightlife, dating, events, diaspora communities, etc. in Saigon, but more choice can also be confusing or distracting. Saigon can be more stressful whereas Chiang Mai promotes stress relief in its scenery, less hectic traffic, and massages. Chiang Mai can be a few degrees less hot compared to the hottest times in lower altitudes. Does "digital nomad" define who you are? Do you need to be a member of a digital nomad community above all other concerns? Then maybe Chiang Mai is sufficient. If you seek more, and want to be exposed to variety, insanity, and unexpected things daily, then start discovering Saigon.

Some other comments:
1. Chiang Mai is a clean city, but there are random poop smells. Saigon has random urine smells (where guys pee on the street).
2. Chiang Mai has an uncomfortable "burning season" from February til April when the air is full of smoke from fires in the surrounding farmland and people leave the city. The smoke in the air is so bad that there are days the planes can't fly in Chiang Mai causing the airport to shut down and stranding anyone trying to leave, so it's best to stay out for that season.
3. Thailand uses Thai script to write their language, a script similar to Khmer, but undecipherable to most foreigners. Signs are often not translated into English. Chiang Mai street names are hard to find. Vietnam is the opposite in that even Vietnamese names can be written and read (letter by letter) by foreigners and every building on every street has its address marked outside making it easy to always know where you are (this mostly works).
4. Chiang Mai is a small and compact city, but increasingly full of cars. The traffic isn't too bad yet but can still back up at intersections. There is basically no bus system or public transit, besides individual trucks. There are also few taxis (making it unreasonable to hail one on the street) but many tuk-tuks.

What is FOSSASIA? | Nerds of a feather flock together | Where is FOSS found? | Why you should go to FOSSASIA | Why you should care about Free Software | Why open source matters to Southeast Asia | Open Source is more than just software. Open Source Everything!

I've been doing a lot of traveling for nerdy reasons lately. A month ago it was BarCamp Yangon. This past weekend it was FOSSASIA in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I'll get back to writing about living in Vietnam soon, since I'll be traveling around the country.

What is FOSSASIA?

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BarCamp Yangon

Submitted by tomo on February 26, 2014 - 12:12pm

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Summary

Size matters. Size doesn't matter.

Yangon, Myanmar holds the largest BarCamp in the world. Or so they say, but who's counting? I can confirm that it's a two day affair, like BarCamp Phnom Penh (where a few of my compatriots were from) and of similar size to Cambodia's main and largest BarCamp. Even our homely one-day BarCamp Saigon is roughly the same in crowd size according to my eyeball count. The number of sessions, at around 160 over two days, is also about the same per day as are the popularity and attendance in the classrooms in which they are held. There were even many sparsely attended talks (such as my own!) But size isn't everything.

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My Vietnam Startup Report

Submitted by tomo on September 6, 2013 - 3:43pm

Last Wednesday night, @Bowei Gai of the World Startup Report made his stop on his year-long globetrotting tour to the center of the Vietnamese startup scene at Saigon Hub in Ho Chi Minh City. He gave a talk that had been honed over many months and included lots of interesting bits from startup scenes around the world, from the amazing size (trillions!) of Chinese e-commerce companies, to the equally impressive adoption of mobile payment in Sub-Saharan African countries (30%!). Later, in private, we heard of the incredible arrogance of French startup people and corruption around the world. But we were also humbled by the recent multiple-hundreds of million dollar exits of Nepalese technology companies. And perhaps secretly identified with the conditions of economic crisis under which Argentinean entrepreneurs had to run their businesses - 20+% annual inflation driving up business costs, a local currency constantly losing value leading locals to buy dollars when they could...

Bowei has been flying to a new country every few days to study a brand new local startup scene. Originally with the intention of writing up the local report as he was traveling, that was clearly impossible. And so it'll be at least a few months before we see his Vietnam Startup Report. So let me share my own thoughts while they're still fresh.

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On Vietnam banning chat apps

Submitted by tomo on August 28, 2013 - 5:30pm

Here are some random thoughts on the news of Vietnamese ISPs/ministries colluding to ban mobile chat apps like Line/KakaoTalk/Viber/Whatsapp. The story so far has been that Vietnam's mobile networks, losing more and more money from people using free chat apps instead of SMS (which senders pay a little money for in Vietnam) which is pure profit for them, would like to put a stop to this trend.

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Learning Spanish in Ho Chi Minh City

Submitted by tomo on August 28, 2013 - 11:23am

I've had several friends ask me where they can learn Spanish in Ho Chi Minh City, especially since the University of Social Sciences and Humanities canceled their Spanish language course. There aren't that many people who want to learn or speak Spanish in Vietnam since there is less trade between Vietnam and Spanish-speaking countries (compared to Japanese, Korean, Chinese) but it's a hobby for some.

My friend let me know about an open course at her Spanish school:

The school is called Jaleo (Escuela de Espanol) in Phu Nhuan district at 38 Hoa Su Street, Ward 12, Phu Nhuan - near Phan Xich Long street. Telephone: 08 3517 1288 or you can call 01649922169.

They have a basic class starting September 5th on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6:30-8:00PM. The 8 week course is 2.4 million. Other courses are listed on their website.

The teachers are native Spanish speakers.

Besides Spanish language they also have courses on Spanish/Latin American culture and also do private tutoring. Basically, it's a small operation from people who want to make Spanish teaching possible in Vietnam, not a big corporate language center. Open to both Vietnamese and expats.

Hacking Your First Hackathon

Submitted by tomo on June 8, 2013 - 2:13pm

Today I'll be speaking, mentoring, then judging at Keewi's Hack Day event.

Over a decade ago I joined a group of "hackers" in developing an open source ultra-secure UNIX operating system called OpenBSD. As the most secure OS in the world, it was designed to keep out hackers, as in crackers, those seeking unauthorized access to computer systems. But we were also hackers, a type of "artisanal" programmer. OpenBSD hackers are spread across the world and they gather themselves together periodically into one place to be super productive on a common goal over the course of several days. OpenBSD invented the hackathon, even coining the word itself.

I attended my first hackathon back when I was still in school, which I graduated from over 10 years ago. It was organized by our university's open source club, the only extracurricular activity I was involved in. We got permission to use one of the classrooms overnight and even got funding to buy a couple pizzas and pop. That was it. There were no corporate sponsors. There were no spectators watching us code except for our confused girlfriends. There were no headhunters or suits looking for geeks they could make use of. And there was no prize money because we were just there to see what hacks we could pull off in a night and then show each other.

Nowadays, hackathons are more and more common and are seen by corporations as something they can take advantage of.

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There is debate over the term 10x developer which is the idea that some developers are ten times as productive as other average programmers. This was popularized by some research which was subsequently refuted but the idea lives on. And if true, how can we all become "10x developers"? From the time I began taking programming classes in school, which is when I was first exposed to other people's programming abilities, I knew that skill level varied and varied greatly. In an arithmetics class, the best student might score 20 or 30 percent higher than the average. But there's no way to score 100 times the average as that level of ability isn't measured in class. But in a programming class, there will be a number of students who can't complete a working program in a given amount of time, and a student who is a slow coder but eventually gets something functioning is infinitely better than the student who doesn't. Those who can't typically don't go on to become career programmers, but they might need to pass the class for some IT-related business management degree and go on to become Excel wizards.

But among profressional programmers what is a good standard deviation in productivity levels?

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[Are you an investor interested in investing in Vietnam, especially in startups? This blog post comes from conversations with visiting investors from other countries and answering a lot of questions they had in common.]

For years, tech startups in Vietnam operated in a sort of vacuum, with no local ecosystem to help them.

Of course, this didn't stop them. Maybe there were even benefits with less scene distractions.

Now there is something we can call a scene, like a subculture of startup. There are wannabe entrepreneurs (wantrepreneurs), kids who dream of startups or want to experience working for one. There are serial events (Startup Weekend Ho Chi Minh City, the Start Me Up series, even Barcamp Saigon which I'm most personally attached to) as well as larger traditional conferences with international involvement. There are hackathons. There are training programs. There are incubators. There are angels and venture capitalists, although so few that finding appropriate investment among them is challenging for many reasons. There are online forums (in Vietnamese) and there is now coverage of the country in the three largest regional tech news journals out of Singapore (e27, SGE, TechInAsia) as well as local PR mouthpiece Action.vn.

And there are even some startups within Vietnam's startup scene!

(Though there is confusion about what is or isn't a startup)

What kind of startups you'll find in Vietnam

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Boulder's big VC investor dude Brad Feld has a house in Kansas City now. He doesn't live there, even for just part of the year, but he owns it. He's letting YOU live there. For free. FREE!!! But should you live in Kansas City (a mid-sized town in the American southwest midwestern state of Missouri) to bootstrap your startup? If the rent is free?

Awhile back I talked about bootstrapping your startup in Ho Chi Minh City on the cheap. And what's better than cheap besides free?

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