Two years ago, I had lost my job and was working a temporary position to buy more time before I could figure life out and decide on my next steps. Deep down I had already made a conscious decision that I would never work a corporate 9-5 job again. I just couldn’t deal with the office politics, working for managers and bosses I detested, pushing papers by appearing busy during down times, and not having the freedom to pursue my own agenda. I knew there was more to life and a better way to make a living than having a traditional office job.
Since college, my dream was to specialize in Asia, in particular, China and engage in international trade, manufacturing and importing and exporting. I had started several businesses along the way, all with varying successes, but nothing extraordinary. During my months in transition, I found myself watching more and more YouTube videos and came across Johnny FD who’s life living as a digital nomad in Chiang Mai, Thailand quickly inspired me. The story goes: About 10 years ago, Johnny quit his corporate job and moved to Thailand to pursue his Muay Thai boxing and scuba diving passions. By 2013, despite getting by and living cheaply in Thailand, he found himself broke and not having the funds to purchase a ticket back home to California. Shortly thereafter, he came across Anton Kraly (founder of Drop Ship Lifestyle) who shared his ideas about ecommerce and drop shipping. After building his online stores, Johnny started seeing financial success and then started blogging about it. Through his www.JohnnyFD.com blog, today, Johnny has become the undisputed leader of the digital nomad movement, offering advice on how to make money online through his Travel Like a Boss podcast as well as organizing the annual Nomad Summit in Chiang Mai.
Johnny’s lifestyle—living in warm, low-cost locations abroad, traveling the world, and making over 6-figures in online income—-spoke to me. I thought to myself, “This is what I have been looking for.” I wanted Johnny’s lifestyle of freedom from the 9-5 grind and believed I could combine it with my passion for international trade and sourcing products from China and Vietnam. After listening to all of Johnny’s podcasts, watching his YouTube videos, reading his books and blog, by January 2017 I came up with a 6-month plan to get myself to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Since I owned a small house and a vehicle in St. Paul, Minnesota, it would take until summer before I could get the home prepped and listed properly for sale. Finally, by July there was an offer for the home, which I sold for $115,500; later, I was able to sell my 2010 Toyota Tacoma for $8,500. With cash in hand, I purchased my one-way ticket to Chiang Mai for August 1, 2017.
Arriving in Chiang Mai, Thailand, The Digital Nomad Capital
Chiang Mai, located in northern Thailand, is surrounded by mountains and is blessed with warm weather year-round. Right away, I discovered what most people boasted about this small town utopia to be true: a well-developed digital nomad community, a plethora of low-cost living options, cheap food and nice cafes and coworking spaces to work online.
Here’s a breakdown of my monthly living costs:
1-bedroom studio apartment: $270
Coworking membership: $120
Overall, I really liked Chiang Mai and think it’s the best place to start one’s digital nomad journey. Its foreign expat community make making friends easier and less of a lonely journey; it’s walkable enough so one can live car-free (many people rent motor scooters or take Uber or Grab); its convenient and low-cost housing options make arriving to town on a whim or accommodating one’s flexible travel schedule a breeze; and cheap street food and the restaurant options will just about satisfy most food palettes.
For apartments, I stayed at Baan Thai and The Vanilla Residence and recommend both. Baan Thai is a good budget option, if you’re just starting off and The Vanilla Residence is more of an upscale boutique apartment made especially for bike enthusiasts. Expect on paying about $170/mo. for a basic room at Baan Thai and about $270/mo. at The Vanilla Residence. One big plus for Baan Thai is that it’s centrally located just off from Nimman Road, the main drag. You can find more information about Chiang Mai living arrangements through YouTube; Chris The Freelancer and Dane & Stacey are two of my favorite channels on the subject.
You’ll find good food options pretty much anywhere but in Nimman, the busy tourist area filled with foreign expats, I particularly enjoyed The Salad Concept , The Flying Pig, and Nong Bee’s Burmese Restaurant.
Arriving in Da Nang, Vietnam
By February 2018 I had moved to Vietnam’s fourth largest city located on the central coast. Da Nang is known for its beaches, resorts, friendly people, warm weather, and relatively low-cost of living. Unlike Chiang Mai, Da Nang has a much smaller nomad community and housing and services are not as digital nomad-friendly. Expect to pay a little higher in housing costs than Chiang Mai, but local food prices seem about the same or just a bit cheaper. The majority of the foreign expat community is made up of English teachers and long-term residents.
Here are my living costs:
1-bedroom studio apartment: $305/mo.
Though Da Nang is not as accommodating to digital nomads as Chiang Mai, I still think it has a lot to offer. Being that it’s not too big or spread out, one can easily get around the city in about 10 minutes by motor scooter. Likewise, the newly built international airport is just minutes away from everything—I once had a friend walk from the city-center to the airport to catch his flight!! Being surrounded by mountains and ocean is another added plus. Da Nang, and just about every Vietnamese city, offers convenient restaurant and food options at nearly every corner. You can literally walk down the street and be able to get something to eat or drink for just a dollar or two.
Since Da Nang is becoming more popular with foreign tourists, especially Chinese and South Koreans, prices are steadily increasing. There is currently a real estate boom and one downside of living here is the constant construction noise, especially in and around An Thuong, the foreign expat community near the beach. And just like Chiang Mai which has its burning season, Da Nang is hampered by its raining season, starting in October and leading up through December, where the skies are mostly overcast, cool and wet.
Of course, leaving Minnesota to come to Asia wasn’t all about travel and enjoying life abroad. I came here to build my businesses by creating multiple online income streams. So, how did I do? In sum, I am making some progress but, truthfully, I’m nowhere near where I expected to be. In fact, my $30,000-$40,000/monthly income goal is wildly off (though I reached it during the summer). I had done very well on my Amazon FBA business but sales have gradually declined. As for my drop shipping business, I was hampered from the get-go by choosing a bad product niche and wasn’t able to turn things around. However, I am close to authoring my first book and I have established www.GlobalTrade.Pro, my global economy and product sourcing website selling my import and export course. I would be the first to admit that I do have a lot more progress to make, before I call my move a success.
On the plus side, since moving to Asia, I have attended several trade shows and conferences, including the Canton Fair, the Vietnam Furniture Fair, Drop Ship Lifestyle Mexico Retreat, and Asia Affiliate World. I’m a firm believer that by continuously attending industry events, one will be able to enhance one’s knowledge and skill sets as well as make lasting friendships through networking—all, inevitably, leading to greater financial success.
In January, I was also able to host my parents in Thailand for nearly 5 weeks and took them throughout the country from seaside resorts, picturesque northern Thailand to bustling Bangkok. And this October, I was able to complete a 500 kilometer, 9-day, northern Vietnam bike tour with my friend, Justin. Making this trip helped me understand northern Vietnam’s unique ethnic hill tribes, appreciate the spectacular mountain karsts and rice patties, as well as rejuvenate my love for the charming and historical city of Hanoi. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do these two trips had I had a traditional 9-5 job.
Was it all worth it? Looking back, I would say a resounding, “yes.” Moving to Asia has automatically given me my freedom back, especially my time. I am no longer bounded by someone else’s agenda, priorities, and schedule. Instead of trading in what MJ Demarco, author of Millionaire Fastlane and Unscripted calls, “trading 5 days, for two,” I have all the time to work on my priorities and goals, providing me inner joy and contentment. Has it been easy? Certainly not! There are endless days where I lack the motivation, question if my current city is the right fit, and have to deal with the frustrations which come with living in a Third World. Living far away from family and friends as well as the inherent lonely path of entrepreneurship can also be difficult. At the very least, I know that I’m pursuing my dream on my own terms, and in a world where “life is short” is the common mantra, that is hard not to ignore.