Lesser Ury [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
HO CHI MINH CITY – The chair I’m in wasn’t made for adults, at least not those pushing six feet tall. But here we are, ten of us, knees jammed up under a rough pine table, crowded in amidst dozens of others beneath a billowing canvas tarp. Everything I own (at least for the next few months) is stuffed into the bag between my knees. There’s a steaming plate of okra directly in front of me next to the BBQ squid (with spicy miso paste) and a dish labelled “Fat Snail” on the menu… or is that the fat snail, squashed against the spring rolls on the dish in the middle of the table?
It’s a sticky question I have no way to ask. My entire Vietnamese repertoire to date consists of the phrase Cam on, or “Thank you.”
A waiter comes over to refresh our chilled mugs of iced beer, blasphemy back home but, an exquisite luxury in the tropical heat. As we toast, all I can think is:
“This is Paris!”
Paris around the turn of the century was a Mecca for artists,writers, photographers, film makers, philosophers and the avant garde. Modigliani, Picasso, Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, the list goes on and on; the greats of modernism brushed elbows and traded ideas in Parisian cafes and salons. They ate drank and danced together from dawn until, well… dawn the next day. Artists and writers poured in from all over the globe to live and work shoulder-to-shoulder in what became one of the greatest outpourings of art and literature in history.
How did Paris become a magnet for so many of the greatest minds of the 20th century?
Geoarbitrage:the strength of the dollar and the pound relative to the franc allowed struggling artists to take advantage of a lower cost of living while pursuing their work. They could meet their daily needs, find studio space, and enjoy a rich social and cultural environment in a beautiful setting for much less than what it would have cost back home.
The same is happening in Saigon and other pockets throughout Southeast Asia, South America and the wider world. The group I’m clinking mugs with tonight are product guys, designers, developers,bloggers, copywriters, SEO experts, and event marketers, even a podcaster or two; creators of products and services as well as a culture all their own. Sometimes known as digital nomads, they are the new wave of location independents who’ve gone beyond the tech-vanguard before them and turned the fantasy escape of coding-in-a-beach-hut into an actual lifestyle, community and network.
They no longer think of themselves as short-term backpackers on holiday. In fact, they don’t think of themselves as backpackers at all.These are serious professionals earning in a strong currency and spending where their cash goes furthest so that they can invest more in their businesses and accelerate returns. Not content to eke out a living on the margins, they’re building micro-multinational companies and turning real profit instead. In the face of job-poor economies back home, they have taken the reins to create opportunities for themselves,for each other and for employees both at home and abroad. Rather than converging for an event or meet-up in cities like Saigon, Chang Mai and Berlin to network and hang out with like-minded peers once a year, they cycle through these cities year-round working, living, and collaborating with friends they’ve met on far flung continents.
Tonight, I’ve joined them, in the balmy heat with their motorbikes and sweating mugs, part of a whole new fin de siècle movement, and already they’ve taught me something.
In Vietnamese the word for “Cheers,” is Yo!