An old Romanian proverb states that “the people bless the place” and good old town of Hoi An, is living proof of the blessing its people – locals and expats alike – have brought upon it.
Vietnam is increasingly modern and bustling, working hard to catch up with the neighboring Asian tigers. Hoi An, however, seems to be more interested in preserving its two thousand year old fame as the “peaceful meeting place” (the meaning of hoi an) while benefitting from all the perks of modern civilization.
Slow paced, homely, and scented, with the heart of a grandmother and the smile of a kid, a mere 30 kilometers from the metropolis of Da Nang (and its airport) and a few clicks away from the virtually endless An Bang beach, dotted with fancy restaurants and cafes. Hoi An is the perfect meeting place for those who seek a tranquil, yet culturally dense holiday, as well as for those who want to work online, far from the European or North American winter.
The one thing that was missing from Hoi An until recently was a quiet co-working space. This shortage was promptly solved by the 32 year-old German digital nomad Sarah Kuhlemann who, on her second visit to the town, decided to create such a place. The predictable result of her painstaking effort was Hub Hoi An, what I would call a co-being space.
Its members do work hard, but they also help each other, learn from each other, and most importantly, have a lot of fun together.
On my first night in Hoi An I was invited to join the Hub’s ad-hoc team to a local trivia competition. We won by a difference of 40 points, my only humble contribution was to answer a question regarding a very specific dish from the Balkan region, the mici (pronounced like Mitch).
The credit for assembling this dream team should go to Sarah for her amazing ability of bringing people together and blessing every place she touches. If you want to learn how she does that, better read on.
The Kuhlemanns are a family of travellers. They’ve lived almost everywhere in Germany. Sarah’s father has always been an adventurer and he took his two daughters traveling since they were very young. These early trips gave Sarah the bug at a very early age and ever since she has kept on looking for adventure.
At the age of 16, when all her high-school mates took the compulsory semester abroad to US, UK or France, Sarah chose a school in Kodaikanal, Southern India. She spent 6 months studying there with no TV, smartphone or internet connection; just classes, books, a plethora of new friends and one phone call per month to tell her mom that she was fine.
Actually, she was way beyond fine. She was fascinated by the colors, the scents, the food, the people and the tropical weather. She fell in love with Asia, a love that guided her throughout her life.
After high school she chose to study Tourism and Event Management and wrote her bachelor thesis on Myanmar. She quickly found a job with a German tour operator specialized in Myanmar and Indochina, and spent the next 5 years traveling to Asia, inspecting sights and designing tours. It seemed like the dream job, but…
“It wasn’t real traveling”, she recalls. “I didn’t have time to immerse myself into the culture, to meet the real people on the streets. I was working from 6 AM to midnight, going through long business discussions and 9-course meals with local operators, inspecting hotel after hotel. It was a great job and I enjoyed it, but it was not enough.”
By now you’ve all guessed that she eventually quit and, soon after, she sold her car, packed up her things and went to travel by herself, no strings attached, around the world.
First stop: Kodaikanal, where she met her former Indian roommates after almost 15 years. The reunion was generously sprinkled with tears of joy. South East Asia was next, and then off she went to the Pacific Islands, South America, Cuba, US and Canada and New Zealand. How did she fund such an amazing round-the-world-and-back journey? Initially, she lived off her savings, and later on her craving for new horizons pushed her into becoming a digital nomad.
“I had some savings because I dreamed about this trip since childhood. I wanted to travel and work, but picking fruits on an Australian farm was not my thing. I love to work on my laptop. I love researching and writing,
I had a degree in tourism and a passion for Asia, so I left thinking that I could live off of writing articles for tour operators and magazines. But I didn’t have a client at the time of my departure.
The first 3 months were super-exciting. However, the savings were draining up quickly and I realized how difficult it was to find clients while on the way.
Then, by some kind of fortunate accident, I made my first contact at the DNX Conference in Bangkok (Brad’s note: remember Aline’s story?) He needed a business plan writer. I had done that before a couple of times, so I thought why not? It went well and I am still writing business plans for that client. I love researching various industries and perspectives.”
That one big business plan; the story of Hub Hoi An.
Finally, Sarah was living the dream: free as a bird and with a decent flow of cash into her bank account. The next months were an inspiration. Meeting so many innovative and helpful digital nomads along the way taught her how to improve her writing skills and better organize her life and travels. And then she decided to turn one business plan into reality.
“On my first visit to Hoi An, early in 2016, I fell in love with the place and made good friends here. Hoi An was one of my best experiences during the world trip. Everything was here: nice people, beaches, islands, mountains, amazing weather and a cute UNESCO heritage town, all topped up by a very affordable cost of living.
What I could not find was a good place to work. There were a couple of venues with fast internet, but they were noisy and crowded. And let me tell you this: you cannot work at the beach unless you want to brush sand out of your keyboard 5 times a day (Brad’s note: oh, myth buster you, Sarah).
I went on traveling and hopped from one co-working space to another across the region and so I came up with the idea that it would be great to give digital nomads in SE Asia an alternative to Thailand and Bali. I wanted to create a place where people could work, meet, have lunch and fun together, chat, laugh and go on excursions as a group of friends. I wrote my own business plan for a co-working space in Hoi An and I came back here in December, before my savings were too low to start a business in Vietnam. I asked around, did a lot of scouting, and found the right people to help me with the paper work and the physical work.
Everything you see here is built from scratch according to my plans. I even did my own research and design for the furniture.
Shortly after I found the house and set things in motion, I shared my plan and my progress on Facebook and Instagram. All of a sudden, I had people coming to help me with gardening and cleaning. Most of them were digital nomads traveling to Vietnam. They were happy to see a co-working space being built from scratch and to be a part of the story. The word then spread out to Chiang Mai and Bali and I had more and more nomads coming to be part of our community. So far, I am very blessed and happy with how the Hub Hoi An is growing.”
How does technology impact on your work and life?
“Technology forms the basis of my lifestyle. I could not work without technology and software, apps and equipment that make my life so much easier. I book my trips from my phone. TripAdvisor gives me hints on the best places to stay. Headspace helps me with my meditation routine, which I do every morning. My laptop is the most valuable aid, as it enables me to work and earn money. I realized how important it was after it broke 3 times during my world trip, every time in tricky areas: Yangon in Burma, Suva in Fiji and Noumea in New Caledonia. It feels like a nervous breakdown when the screen blurs due to humidity. I’m giving my laptop a very hard time, I must admit.
Technology is also at the core of a co-working space. There’s a huge difference between the Wi-Fi in a café and the one at a working hub. We must offer the best speed – at all times – and also provide our members with equipment such as mice, chargers, keyboards, laptop stands and other things that are not easy to carry around the world.”
What makes you do your thing, and feel protected?
“I am an optimist. I wake up every morning in a good mood. Doubts, risks or worries don’t have too much space in my life. Sometimes they try to tackle me, but I think life means good to me and that whatever happens, there is always room for a new beginning. I don’t think in failure or mistakes, I think in life-lessons and experiences.
For a more down-to-earth answer, I would say that I have an emergency fund in my bank account, which allows me to fly back home if I really hit rock. I also have travel insurance. For everything else, I take the risks and face challenges inherent to this lifestyle. The reward in freedom offsets all worries and doubts.”
Here’s a glimpse of the Safe Nomad journey in Vietnam: