Bootstrapping in Saigon
Why you should bootstrap your startup in Vietnam
As a startup guy, I’m well aware of the power of community and scenes.
Growing up, I grew up in scenes.
There was the skate scene where bands of misfit skaters would form tribes that functioned as extended families. There was the punk scene where kids of all stripes would get together to explore unpopular ideas and make music around them.
Ironically, these scenes helped form my mental model for being an entrepreneur.
That said, scenes are in a constant state of expansion and contraction.
They morph and change shape. Old scenes die, new scenes emerge.
Lately, a new scene is shaping my perspective here in Vietnam.
A powerful scene is emerging in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam or as locals refer to it by its old name, Saigon. Entrepreneurs from America to India, from Japan to Spain are calling this city home while they’re grinding out their MVPs.
It’s a scene, a location independent startup scene that should be on your radar if you’re a bootstrapping entrepreneur looking to extend your runway.
A scene born out of the promise of the 4-Hour Work Week, seeded with the ambition to do something bigger.
It’s ground-zero of the next wave.
And the next wave will be huge because the world is a startup.
It’s probably not what you think
Mention Vietnam as a bootstrapping destination to most people in North America and you’ll get puzzled looks. Most people have images of war and struggle in their head.
Fair enough, but things have changed. Mostly for the better.
The population here is young. A majority percentage of the population is under the age of 30. Obviously, most have no recollection of the past. If one wants to get a feeling for the heart and soul of a city, it’s trajectory and direction, you must examine its youth culture.
How do young people think and feel about the future?
Of course, my experience in gaining these young perspectives is limited. In my limited interactions with the young, the up and comers here, I’ve walked away with the distinct impression that they are optimistic, extremely self-sufficient, libertarian like, and have hope for the future.
As cliche as it sounds, Saigon, a city of more than 8 million people, has one of the most interesting contrasts of old and new in Southeast Asia. There are modern, packed nightclubs, fancy restaurants, old school markets and cheap and tasty street food galore.
A beer will set you back about a buck.
Aside from the rising shine of modernity that is blanketing this city, it’s attracting a new breed of world class entrepreneurs.
Additionally, what makes Vietnam great is you have access to fantastic beaches that are just a short hop away. Imagine working 70 hour weeks, and then being able to take a short roundtrip flight to a beautiful beach for $60 bucks to clear your head. Yep, you can do that here, and that’s what people do.
A hub for location independent startups
Cities are hives of connectivity and ultimately, the people make the place. The types of people a city attracts, what they’re doing, and how they connect make or break cities.
What I’ve uncovered in Saigon are the beginnings of something special, a movement. A wave of people from around the globe setting up and baselining on the next big thing.
As my friend and fellow entrepreneur Dan Andrews currently living here would say:
In the 1920's you would go to Paris to write your novel. Now you go to Southeast Asia to work on your startup. Vietnam is ground-zero for this movement.
To be fair, this scene is ripe and just getting started. People come and people go, but an impressive amount of people from around the globe are calling this city home to put their heads down and crank out their products.
There are plenty of events, co-working facilities and a few incubators. Monthly events like Web Wednesday regularly see 150+ attendees.
Low Cost, High Value Lifestyle
Housing, food and recharging your brain
My first apartment in HCMC. This is what $700 (usd) per month buys:
You can rent a room for as little as $200 (usd) per month, have your own studio for $400 - $500 bucks a month or better yet, a swank furnished two-bedroom apartment can be had for $900/ month.
Even better, these places are furnished, serviced (housekeeping, most utilities) and simply require you to plop down and open your suitcase for “move-in day”.
The first time I moved to HCMC I found my apartment in one day. You can use a broker to find an apartment (you will pay slightly more), and their services are free of charge.
Alternatively, you can just get a motorbike, cruise around neighborhoods and walk into apartment buildings you like and ask if there are any places for rent.
Street food here is safe to eat, everywhere and cheap. You can get a famous banh mi sandwich on the street for less than a buck. Pho for about the same price, and if you fancy a gourmet sit down meal with a bottle of wine, you’ll have plenty of opportunities for a fraction of the cost back home.
Recharging Your Brain
All work and no play will drain your brain. Some of the most powerful business moments you may have happen outside of your normal work day. If you’re high-energy, you need serendipitous rocket fuel for these moments.
Lucky for you, Vietnam has plenty of places a stone throws away where you can recharge.
One example is the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Just 45 minutes by plane from HCMC with inexpensive accommodations starting at $20/ night, this is an amazing place to blow some steam off.
Recently a group of 7 of us startup types hired a private van take us to the beach town of Mui Ne. Getting there wasn’t exactly glorious. It’s 4.5 hours by van, but the van was spacious and we had incredible conversations on the way there.
Transportation and accommodations at a nice resort there for 3 nights set me back about $200 (usd).
The conversations and ideas exchanged there were priceless. To top things off, the wifi was speedy (30/ mbps down) and we all actually got work down.
Welcome to Your Office
A cafe culture that rivals Paris
Coffee and fast wifi are the lifeblood of startups.
One relic of the French legacy in Vietnam is a huge cafe culture, one that rivals Paris.
Hands down this is the very best thing about Saigon for startuppers.
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of cafes in the city with blazing fast wifi that you can call your office for the day.
A sampling of the places you can call your office:
Beautiful chaos: it just works
I’ll be the first to admit it. I’m extremely impatient.
As an entrepreneur I just want to get where I’m going as quickly as possible, flip open my laptop and start working.
While I love and appreciate the range of public transportation options I had access to while living in New York City, I found the process of walking to the train, waiting on the train, and so on, slow and inefficient. Most days I just preferred walking.
For those that have visited HCMC one of the first things they’ll remark upon here is the traffic, and specifically the motorbike traffic. The sheer insanity of it. At least on the surface.
Getting around in HCMC is a completely different animal that is not for the feint of heart.
On the surface this city looks like pure chaos, and it is, but if you dare to learn to ride a motorbike here it opens up a new world to you. It’s not nearly as chaotic as you might think.
With a motorbike, I’ve found Saigon to be one of the most transportation efficient big cities I’ve ever lived in. In the morning I figure out what coffee shop I want to work from, I simply hop on my motorbike and join the school of fish racing down the streets.
When I get to where I’m going, I pull right up in front of the place, where I’m greeted by a security staff/ valet that manages parking my bike for the equivalent of about 15 to 25 cents.
I don’t want to understate the dangers of riding a motorbike here, it can be dangerous, but the flow of traffic is slow. Motorbikes dominate the road.
Additionally, there is a serious pollution problem due to the bikes.
That said, I’m constantly astounded by how easy and fast it is to get around here on a bike.
Most of my commutes around town are 10 - 15 minutes or less.
You can rent an automatic motorbike here for about $50 - $60 bucks a month. Fuel will cost you about $5 bucks a week.
If riding a motorbike is not for you, taxis are cheap and plentiful. A taxi ride from the airport to the center of the city will run you $6 - $7 (usd). Most short runs will be $1 - $3 dollars.
Some reasons why you shouldn’t bootstrap in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
You’re looking for venture funding.
While there are some Silicon Valley links to HCMC, there are little to no funding opportunities here for your startup. You do have easy proximity to Hong Kong and Singapore with more established professional investors. The chances of landing funding here or there are extremely slim.
The pollution may get to you.
Some people say the pollution here gets to them. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with it.
You don’t like big cities.
If you don’t like big cities you probably won’t like it in HCMC. It’s a big city that feels like a town on steroids. The speed of some things in the city makes NYC feel slow to me.
You fear change.
This city is in a constant state of flux.
You hate the heat.
The climate in HCMC is sub-tropical. That means it gets hot and hotter. There is a distinct rainy season, which is nice because things tend to cool off for the evenings.
Top Reasons to Bootstrap in Saigon
A vibrant community of doers awaits. The community is literally growing by the day.
Extend Your Runway
Simply put, your money goes further here. If you’re boostrapping and trying to keep your expenses down, this is one of the best places to set up shop for a while.
Incredible value for a big-city. A low-cost, high value lifestyle that allows you to focus on what you want to do (building your product), manage the things you don’t want to do that suck up your time in other cities (cooking, cleaning, daily errands), and have a high-quality of life.
It comes as no surprise that Vietnam is one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite places for food. The range of edible delites in this country is astounding.
The Bottom Line
You could easily get by on $1,000/ month. That’s probably quite less than what you’d pay for a shoebox in San Francisco, let alone expenses.
Think your ready to jump in? Here are some basics to get you started:
Vietnamese is the language. The language varies depending on northern and southern dialects. The written language uses English letters that you can learn to pronounce. So memorizing street names is a bit easier.
In the city, it’s very easy to get by just using English.
The national currency is the đồng. The current exchange rate is $1 usd to 20,990.02 vnd. Your money goes a long way here.
Where to Live
Saigon is broken up into districts. Most foreigners and expats live in Districts 1, 2, 3 and 7. It’s no coincidence that the most expensive districts to live in are these districts.
These districts have plenty of amenities that will surprise you. From modern movie theaters to nice gyms, to excellent international food options.
You’ll need a pre-arranged visa on arrival before you get here. It sounds like a big deal, it’s not. You can use any number of services out there, and easily obtain a 3-month multiple entry visa.
They assist in gaining you approval. You print out your approval letter and take it to the immigration desk when you arrive at Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) in Saigon.
When it comes time to renew your visa you can use a service here, and the nicest part is you don’t have to leave the country to renew it.
The START Center for Entrepreneurs is currently expanding to a second location due to demand. You can rent a desk there for as little as $50/ month.
A final note:
It’s impossible to cover all the ins and outs here. Also, people’s perspectives vary, as does their taste levels. My idea of a high-standard of living may be radically different than that of yours.
I’ve tried to paint a realistic picture of bootstrapping in Saigon. If I’m off on anything my apologies.