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Published on July 28, 2017

Kekini coworking space in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Mike Aquino.

Borders? In today’s networked, WiFi-enabled world, borders are meaningless.

And this is all to the digital nomad’s benefit: this class of roving professional disdains offices, preferring instead to mix work with travel far from their own homes. Many have made a beeline for cities in Southeast Asia, using them as bases for work while alternating their business days with trips around the region.

But no two cities are made for the same breed of digital nomad, as our two interviewees are glad to tell us. The entrepreneurs and English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) professionals gravitate towards inexpensive cities like Hanoi in Vietnam; location-independent budding CEOs looking to raise venture capital look to financial hotspots like Singapore, despite the higher cost of living relative to the rest of the region.

We asked two digital nomads – Graham Pople of Undiscovered Guide and Gwenda Schobert-Peter of Gwenda Glocalista – to help us parse the difference between the two.

Traffic in the Old Quarter. Michelle Lee / Creative Commons

Hanoi, Viet Nam’s Low Cost…

Graham Pople and his wife Charlie don’t ask for much when working on their businesses, a travel blog and a WordPress SEO plugin; “mainly what I need is good wifi and cheap living costs while I get bootstrapped,” Graham explains. “Hanoi has been absolutely perfect for me.”

After over a year living in Vietnam’s capital, Graham thinks Hanoi should rank alongside Bali and Bangkok as a great place for digital nomads. “It’s got pretty much everything a digital nomad needs,” Graham tells us. “The living is cheap, the wifi is fast, there’s a lively social scene and plenty of work-friendly cafes, and the Vietnamese people are generally friendly and welcoming.”

Graham breaks it down for us like so:

Low cost. “Hanoi can be exceptionally cheap – perhaps one of the world’s cheapest cities to live in,” Graham confesses. This goes for transportation (“My motorbike cost me $270, and $3 fills the tank”, says Graham), housing (“our one bedroom apartment is $400 a month, including 40 Mbps wifi, water and TV, and if we wanted to cut costs further we could be in a shared house for $200”) and food (“A Vietnamese meal is around $2, so cheap that most expats eat out for pretty much every meal”).

Graham and Charlie keep the cost down even further by economizing a little: “I try to stick to local food to keep costs down… if I was really watching the purse-strings it’d be perfectly possible to live here for $400 a month,” Graham explains. “[I use] a motorbike rather than use taxis, and use a $50 per month co-working hub in the summer, rather than work in the apartment running the air-con.”

Plenty of spaces to (co) work. Graham expounds on Hanoi’s co-working scene, enumerating the cafes and other spots that offer the prerequisites needed by digital nomads.

“Hanoi has a fantastic cafe scene, with an ever-growing number offering the air-con, sockets, good wifi, and quiet environment that diginomads rely on to get their work done,” Graham tells us. “There’s also several co-working spaces, including the brilliant Clickspace, which is housed in an old colonial-style building and only $50 a month.”

Considerations. That being said, Hanoi suits a certain breed of digital nomad: solo entrepreneurs like Graham and Charlie who have the capacity to rough it a little.

“You need to have the ability to deal with a certain amount of chaos,” Graham explains. “Hanoi is a busy, developing city with countless motorbikes everywhere, lots of construction noise, and a summer humidity that can really beat you up.”

English teachers also gravitate towards Hanoi’s ESL scene – “that means that the social scene, while active and lively, does somewhat revolve around teachers,” Graham tells us. “Sometimes I wish there more entrepreneurs and bootstrappers here to bounce ideas around with – maybe this article can help change that!”

Coffee shop in Tiong Bahru, Singapore. Image courtesy of Mike Aquino.

Singapore’s Business-Friendly Factors…

For a different (read: more capital-intensive) breed of location-independent entrepreneurs, Singapore may offer a better fit. Gwenda Schobert-Peter, a travel blogger and consultant with experience in marketing and financial technology, explains why.

“Singapore is the perfect location for digital nomads with a high standard of living,” Gwenda explains. “Being one of the key financial cities in Asia, it is the perfect location to live and work from if your business is part of the financial or insurance industry. [And] Singapore is a great business location for Digital Nomads that are looking to raise funds for their location independent businesses.”

Fertile ground for startups. “Singapore is a great business base,” Gwenda tells us. “No taxes in the first three years for start-ups, EntrePass (visa for entrepreneurs), fantastic virtual and registered offices and so much more that help you to run your business empire – even without your own physical office space.”

These factors attract a fair number of startups, who appreciate the government support, lightning-fast WiFi and the easy access to capital. “Many local and global incubator and investors have a presence in this city,” Gwenda says.

Connectedness. With cutting-edge infrastructure and unrivaled connections to the rest of Southeast Asia, Singapore appeals greatly to high-end entrepreneurs who put a premium on mobility.

“Depending on your business model, you can work from a park, a coffee shop, the library or a co-working space,” Gwenda gushes. “One day I will use the Wi-Fi at Starbucks on the university campus, another day I will create content sitting in the botanical garden, another day I take client calls walking around East Coast Park.”

WiFi is literally everywhere, not just in coffeeshops and libraries: “you can use your foreign mobile number to register for Wireless@SG, a WiFi that is widely available across the city,” Gwenda tells us. “If you are looking for a co-working space or would like to connect with other entrepreneurs and the Singaporean start-up scene, you should check out The Impact Hub.”

And if you’re itching to see the rest of the region, Singapore’s Changi Airport makes that a snap: “It connects you to every corner of South East Asia with a quick flight, so that you can savour street food in Ho Chi Minh City, relax at the beach in Bali or dance the night away at a full moon party in Thailand,” Gwenda explains.

Considerations. Singapore’s standard of living costs a pretty penny to keep up: economising digital nomads need not apply. “Life as a Digital Nomad in Singapore is definitely not cheap,” Gwenda explains. “But if you budget well, you can live the high life without burning a hole in your pocket.”

Rent is probably the biggest expense for any digital nomad, says Gwenda – “A room in a shared apartment with gym/pool access will cost you around 800 SGD,” she explains. Surprisingly, food isn’t that costly, thanks to Singapore’s many hawker centers and food courts. “I love the variety of Indian, Chinese, Malay, Western, Japanese, Korean, and of course Singaporean food that is easily available.”

And Everything In Between

Not every digital nomad can afford the high cost of living in Singapore. And not every digital nomad can stand the chaos they find in Hanoi. Choosing a city involves a delicate balancing of several factors, including an active digital nomad/expat community around them; low cost; delicious food; and fast WiFi.

Other cities whose factors might meet digital nomads’ sweet spots include Chiang Mai in Thailand; Penang in Malaysia; Manila in the Philippines; and Bali in Indonesia. One of these cities – if not Hanoi