James working on train

A Decade on the Road: Working Remotely Through the Years

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I’m writing this from a cafe in Saigon, with access to two vitally important things:  speedy internet, and high-quality iced coffee. This is a normal day at the office for me, and it seems only appropriate that I be writing this article about working around the world while in a cafe in Vietnam.

I’ve been self employed combining work and travel for over ten years. In that time I have witnessed the evolution of the work and travel landscape. Here are some observations and thoughts on how working remotely has changed over the past decade.

How’s the Wi-Fi?

In the early days of my location-independent lifestyle, one of the most time-consuming parts of travel planning was finding places that had Wi-Fi. I was spending most of my time in Europe at that point, and it was hard to find accommodation that offered it. I remember always being excited when I saw the Wi-Fi symbol in a cafe window.

These days, even the cheapest hostels provide free internet and most cafes offer Wi-Fi (with exception of my homeland of Australia.) When we’re on the road, trains, planes, airports, and busses are increasingly offering free internet as part of the service.

Life Is a Beach, or Is It?

One of the biggest clichés of being a digital nomad (for want of a better word) is that we are sitting on a beach while working on our laptops. Do a Google image search for “working on the beach” and you’ll see what I mean.

Personally I’ve never understood the appeal of working on the beach, with the sun glare, sweaty hands, and high probability of getting sand in your computer.

It doesn’t help that the most visible digital nomads are travel bloggers who continue to perpetuate this myth (or lifestyle designers who are selling the dream). The reality is we work anywhere we can, whether that’s a serviced apartment, cafe, or even a public library.

Working with a view of the beach is totally acceptable, of course, but that doesn’t mean we need to be sitting on it.

One of my favourite offices in the world, with a view of the beach in El Nido, Philippines.
One of my favourite offices in the world, with a view of the beach in El Nido, Philippines.

I’ve worked from hundreds of locations around the world in varying degrees of comfort. From trains with Wi-Fi and cafes overlooking rice paddies in Bali, to the less glamorous locations such as this windowless box of a room at the Mirador, and Chunking Mansions in Hong Kong.

The Coffin Suite - Hong Kong
The Coffin Suite – Hong Kong

These days my travels have slowed down considerably, and I now spend months at a time in one place, going on shorter trips from this home base.

I am currently based in Ho Chi Minh City which I find a productive place to work. While there isn’t a beach in sight here, the cafe scene is world-class and a pleasure to work from.

The Rise and Fall of Net Cafes

When I first started out there were few cafes/public spaces that offered Wi-Fi, so I would often find myself in a net cafe. If you were lucky there would be a spare desk reserved for the lone customer who wandered in with their own laptop, with an Ethernet/LAN cable for internet access.

Usually, though, there wasn’t a spare table. Instead a staff member would clumsily push a desktop PC to the side to make space for your laptop.

It’s been years since I have had to do that. The last time was in Yangon in 2011, at which point Myanmar was just opening up to mass travel. I found two places in the city with Wi-Fi but it was too slow to be usable, so I resorted to a net cafe.

When I first visited Southeast Asia in 2005, I had no idea what the internet situation would be like there, or even if it was safe to take my laptop. I ended up not taking my laptop on that trip (which was the last time I have ever travelled without a computer!)

I visited Ho Chi Minh City and I stayed in the backpacker street (Pham Ngu Lau) which had net cafes everywhere. You’d find me in one of those cafes every day, tending to business emails and website maintenance for a couple of hours.

Nine years later and I am based back in this southern Vietnamese city once more, but those internet cafes have mostly disappeared. Recently I had to do some printing thanks to clients who still insist on doing deals involving paper, and after walking all over Pham Ngu Lau, could only find one net cafe.

The demise of net cafes is happening everywhere, as internet cafes across the developing world are reporting dwindling numbers of customers. This is not surprising, given the rise of mobile computing and free Wi-Fi.

Smartphones and Tablets

In 2007 the first iPhone was released, and the iPad followed in 2010. Smartphones and tablets have been a game-changer for travellers and remote workers alike.

With a smartphone, I can reply to emails during the day, and do my travel planning without having to go to a net cafe. While there is no way I could do my work using just a tablet, they fulfil the needs of most travellers: email, Facebook, and travel planning can be done just as well on these smaller devices as they can on a laptop or desktop.

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Local SIM Cards

Whenever I am in a country for longer than a week I will always buy a local SIM card with some data. If I am visiting a place that has terrible Wi-Fi, I can at least tether my phone to my laptop and access the internet that way.

Cafes and Co-Working Spaces

With the demise of net cafes, the void has been filled with cafes with Wi-Fi and co-working spaces. For example, here in Ho Chi Minh City you could go to a different cafe every day for a month and still have many more to visit.

Over the past year, several co-working spaces have opened up, where you can work from an office-like environment for a daily or monthly fee.

Ho Chi Minh City has become well known for its community of online workers, and is a great place to work for digital nomads. With the increasing popularity of working remotely, I see the co-working space concept taking hold in more cities around the world in the next few years.

Have you been working from the road for a while? What changes have you noticed?

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  1. Ah, TCP/IP protocols, how I don’t miss you.

    1. Dave Dean Dave Dean says:

      And an almighty 1 to that. Although it could be worse. It could be IPX.

  2. I hate these pictures of people working on the beach. There is no chance to see something on the screen. But I believe that you can be really productive when you work from the place near to beach.

    And the best thing is to combine work with some other activity. I’ve been working from the “surf office” at Gran Canaria and the surfing 2hrs every day really boost my productivity.

  3. Props. I couldn’t even imagine going remote “back in the day” and I still get a little anxious about visiting a new destination without knowing what the wi-fi situation is gonna be like. I’m going on the road soon for the long haul and I’m going to be pouring over this site for tips and info!

    1. Good luck with your wifi hunt – I know that same anxiety!

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