Hoang Anh Le is a certified public accountant and tax specialist living in San Francisco Bay, USA. When she travelled to Vietnam in March 2020, it was intended to be a flying visit for her wedding.
But the pandemic had other ideas. Just as they were setting out, the Vietnamese government enforced a rule requiring all visitors to quarantine in government camps for two weeks.
The story didn’t end there. Anh ended up staying in Vietnam for six months, working remotely, and exploring the vast and beautiful country with no tourists around to crowd the experience.
In this interview, she tells all about the highs and lows of the adventure, the challenges of working remotely in a new environment, continuing her travels in Mexico, and returning to start a new life of remote working in the USA.
Anh has spent years helping students master their interview skills and secure jobs through her coaching program. After travelling to over 30 countries and working remotely in four countries during the pandemic, she runs the blog Luxury Under Budget.
What was your career situation before your trip to Vietnam?
I had worked as a tax specialist at one of the ‘big four’ accounting firms in Toronto, Canada. In January 2020, I secured a job offer to transfer to the United States and notified my firm that I would be leaving in March. My plan was to have my wedding in Vietnam and move to San Francisco after. Turns out that the pandemic had a different plan for me!
There was a Covid-19 case in my apartment building, so I started working from home in Canada at the end of February. In March, I was heading to Vietnam for my wedding when the government required all incoming visitors to quarantine at government camps.
Shortly after, all the US embassies and consulates started closing for visa appointments. At the same time, Canada closed the border. That left me with no choice but to reside in Vietnam and work remotely.
Can you walk us through what happened during those first couple of weeks in Vietnam?
When I was in the sky flying from Canada to Vietnam, the Vietnamese government enforced the new quarantine rule that required all visitors to quarantine at government camps for two weeks. That absolutely took me by surprise. I had completely no preparation for the quarantine!
It started with the officers taking our passports and dividing us into different groups for different camps. I was transported to a camp that was converted from a dorm, but I have heard that there were people going to military camps.
I was assigned to a room with three other passengers from the flight. We had no Internet and no cell service. There was practically no way for us to have any contact with the outside world.
It was very difficult for us the first couple of days. It felt like forever when life was contained in a small room with strangers and nothing to do. Our comfort was the three meals that came on time every day at 7am, 11am, and 5pm.
Luckily, on the third day, they started selling us a Vietnamese sim card that allowed us to get on the Internet.
How did you make arrangements with your employer to work remotely from Vietnam?
My employer was very accommodating, and allowed me to work remotely because of the uncontrollable situation. I ensured clear communication with my team and worked around the clock to deliver to clients.
“In order to be working at the same time as my teammates, I had to work at night and went to bed in the early morning.”
I had absolutely no plan to work remotely in Vietnam, and I wasn’t sure how long I was going to be there, so my setup was rather simple. I basically worked with just my laptop and even felt lucky I had a mouse.
What challenges did you face in adjusting to living and working in a new environment?
The most difficult challenge for me was to adjust to a different time zone. In order to be working at the same time as my teammates, I had to work at night and went to bed in the early morning. That was somewhat good in a way that it enabled to have more time for myself during the day.
However, my biological clock didn’t like that and decided to go on a strike after six months. I had a health emergency when my body broke down and that led me to take a sabbatical leave. It ended up enabling me to have more time for travelling and exploring the country.
What was it like to travel in Vietnam with no tourists around?
Vietnam was like a heaven for travellers at the time. Because the government enforced a nationwide one-month lockdown and didn’t allow any commercial flights to enter the country, all the Covid-19 cases were under control.
For a couple months, there were actually no Covid cases in Vietnam. After the lockdown, the country was promoting travel among locals. There were a lot of deals and much less crowd.
After Vietnam, I spent one month resort-hopping in Cancun and Riviera Maya, Mexico. Unlike Vietnam, Mexico was in the orange (second-highest risk) category. Most hotels, all-inclusive resorts and tour operators had to put Covid-19 safety measures in place.
Tours and parks were only allowed to operate at 50% to 70% capacity. There were no cruise ships and fewer tourists, but there were several restrictions in Mexico. Nevertheless, I was able to enjoy several parks and Mayan ruins in Mexico with much less crowd.
What were the biggest life lessons you learned from your experiences in Vietnam?
Always be positive and look at the challenges as new opportunities!
It’s impossible for me to describe how frustrated I was when I had to quarantine in Vietnam, and then work remotely without knowing how my future would pan out. However, looking back, it gave me experiences that would have never happened otherwise, and I’m thankful for that.
How was your job transition from Canada to remote working in the United States?
Because Vietnam was able to contain the Covid situation as of January 2021, I was able to make a visa appointment with the US embassy in Vietnam. Shortly after, I came to the United States and started my job remotely.
Working remotely is one thing, but starting a new job remotely is another thing! There is no one to help you set up your laptop, do orientation, answer your questions, or walk you around the office and introduce you to people. I had worked remotely before, but still, starting a new job remotely was challenging.
The best decision I made during that time was to schedule online meetings with other team members and introduced myself to them. After that, I checked in on them weekly and constantly asked for work assignments. After a couple weeks, I started to feel more comfortable with my new job working remotely.
Have any of your travel experiences been helpful in your career?
Travelling has enabled me to meet many inspiring people, learn from different cultures, and improve my language skills. I can speak four languages, one of which was Mandarin Chinese.
When I was in a coffee shop in Amsterdam, there were three Singaporean businessmen asking me for the time in Mandarin. I politely answered them but stated that I wasn’t Chinese. They were very surprised and impressed.
“My keys are planning ahead, setting up a schedule, and sticking to it.”
We continued our conversation and exchanged contacts on LinkedIn. A couple years later, I was thinking of working abroad and reached out to them. It was amazing that they still remembered me and were willing to give me a job referral.
Although I ended up choosing Canada over Singapore, I think that widening my professional network was very important and impactful in my career.
How do you manage the balance between working remotely, travelling and running a travel blog?
I have to admit that it is sometimes very difficult to manage the balance working remotely, travelling, and running a travel blog. However, it is also very fulfilling and that keeps me motivated every day. My keys are planning ahead, setting up a schedule, and sticking to it.
What is your number one piece of advice for anyone who wants to work remotely and travel?
My number one advice is that you should work on building trust and communicating with your employer. You have to prove that you are capable of working remotely and producing the same or even better results than if you were in the office.
Show them that it would actually be more beneficial for them to let you work from home. After that, plan your travel around your work schedule so that it doesn’t affect your quality of work.
Last but not least, make sure that you don’t overwork yourself with too much stuff on your plate. Plan to have time for resting as well!
Are you inspired by Anh’s story? Read more stories of remote work, sabbaticals, career breaks and travel in our interview series.