Taking a Mini-Retirement
This week I have a guest blog post from Pete. I ‘met’ Pete when he dropped me an email telling me he had found my podcast and “burned through both seasons”. As you will read below, Pete and his family have plenty of time to do this because they have currently taken a year away from New Zealand to hang out in Vietnam with their two kids. He said, “We're loving it over here and couldn't have ever dreamed this was possible without implementing many of the strategies the people you interviewed promote on your podcast and blog.” Having just travelled there with my own family, hearing about his journey has me wanting to go back NOW.
Pour yourself a coffee or a wine and have a read of this one, but I warn you in advance you are pretty likely to get to the end of this blog post and decide to pack your bags and give living overseas for a year a go yourselves. As Pete explains, it’s extremely doable and incredibly worthwhile. Take it away Pete…
As an introduction, we're a family of four from Christchurch, New Zealand. My wife Jen and I met 18 odd years ago at University and got married in 2008. Now we have two kids, Milla (8) and Cade (5). Jen and I first lived together as students and as such lived pretty frugally, a trait that has stayed with us to this day. We both always had part-time jobs at University which funded our living costs but as we left Uni and got jobs our lifestyle remained pretty consistent and as our income increased we tended to be pretty good savers. We bought our first home at the age of 24 for $205,000 with a $10,000 deposit and we quickly set about paying it off. We rented it out and travelled to France in 2006 to work in vineyards and then travelled around Europe. Upon our return to NZ, we knew we wanted to move to the countryside so started looking for some land and in 2008 we sold our first house for a nice profit and with a mortgage bought a 25 acre bare land block in Darfield (just out of Christchurch), built a three bedroom house and moved in with a new baby in June 2010. As it turned out this was three months before a decent wee earthquake hit just 10km down the road. Luckily the house was fine and over the next few years as the property got established the land outside of Christchurch went up in value and we eventually sold it in 2015 and now with two children we bought a three-bedroom place back in town again. This downsized our land and with a much smaller mortgage we put everything we could towards it and paid it off in full at the end of 2016. It was about this time we started thinking that our dream of travelling for a year with the kids might actually be achievable.
During 2017, Jen was finishing up her Primary Teaching qualification and we were saving hard to go away. We decided that 2018 was the year we would go and that South East Asia was the destination. We'd travelled previously with the kids to Copenhagen and San Francisco for six week periods before so knew they'd be fine on the road and although SE Asia would be completely different to the relative comfort of both those places, we were pretty confident we'd be fine! After five years with my employer I resigned from my Commercial Manager role, Jen finished her study and we were off! Our only real plan was to use the first six months travel to find somewhere that we'd like to settle down for the second six months.
Now for some nitty-gritty details (and some of the "why's") of how we managed to free ourselves up for the year:
As a longtime Tim Ferris follower the concept of "mini-retirements" was not foreign to me - How to Take a Mini-Retirement: Tips and Tricks
We'd had a couple of short stints before but we really wanted to go for longer and to spend some actual time with our kids before they got too old to want to spend time with us and before being away from school became a problem! We also didn't want to wait until retirement to travel for a longer period again as it just seemed so far away, by which time we both might be far too old to actively travel and do the things we enjoy doing. We also had a few close friends and family, hit the magical retirement age and almost immediately fall victim to cancer and this really cemented to us both that there are no guarantees in this life and while there would never be a "perfect" time to go, we just had to set a date and do it.
Financially, we were in a pretty good position. We had been mortgage free for a year. We had a household income of around $165k because of Jen working part-time while studying and my full-time wage. We did have to do a large amount of renovation work to our house to get it up to a rentable standard and we cash flowed this ourselves. The work, while arduous and often done very late at night, allowed us to get a much better rental rate for our house which definitely made all of the hard work worthwhile. All up we also saved around $50,000 in those 12 months and this was to be our travel fund. We rented out our house at $550 per week which covered the insurance, rates and rental fees and we then bought our plane tickets well in advance and prepaid our first 3 month visas.
A rough itinerary:
Initially we planned to begin in Sri Lanka and India but the visa's we could get didn't really suit our time frame and 'slow travel' plans so instead, we left NZ with a three-month visa to Vietnam starting in Ho Chi Min City.
We spent our first two weeks adjusting to the chaos that is Vietnam. HCMC or 'Saigon' to the locals, was chaos! We stayed in an Airbnb about 30 minutes out of the central city which was perfect and meant we could leave the hustle of the city and relax a wee bit and the kids could swim as we all adjusted to the heat.
We then jumped on a train for an eight-hour ride up to Nha Trang. Being at the beach was great but the place is dominated by Russians and we decided that it probably won't be a place we rush back to. After a week there we took a 12-hour train up to Da Nang, a nice city with a great beach. It's weird in that it doesn't have a city centre so it all feels a bit disjointed but we've been back there half a dozen times, as its only 45 minutes on the bus from Hoi An where we are currently living. Each time we visit, we like it more.
Hoi An is a UNESCO world heritage site that's probably one of the prettiest places we've visited and rivals the quaintness of any of the villages in North East France that we lived near on our OE (overseas experience when we were younger). The one downside is that from 3pm each day it's overrun with tourists and as such we tend to spend most of our afternoons and evenings out of town amongst the expats and locals. We initially stayed in Hoi An for two months and loved it but we then flew up to Hanoi (no more slow trains for us) and spent a week there before our Visas ran out and we had to leave the country to renew them.
Our plan was to then head to Chiang Mai in Thailand as it has an excellent reputation as a great place to live especially for those with kids. Jen's Mum was meeting us in Bangkok for a few days and we took the overnight train north with her. After two weeks in Chiang Mai, we knew it wasn't going to be our long-term home and decided to spend the rest of our two month Visa in the South of Thailand. It's a great place to base yourself but not nearly as easy to travel around on bikes (our preferred method of transport) and was also noticeably dearer than Vietnam.
After three weeks island hopping the beaches of southern Thailand, we flew to Cambodia and spent a month between Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap. We loved Angkor Wat and would recommend it as a must-see for anyone, especially with kids, in this part of the world. A prearranged visit from some friends from NZ took us back to Chiang Mai for two weeks and then we got back to Hoi An as quickly as we could, as by now we were keen to settle down and become part of the community there.
Visas that give you the right/privilege to visit and stay in a country are a constant consideration. For New Zealanders, the process to enter Vietnam is pretty straightforward. Apparently, there are some dodgy websites around but we have always used www.vietnam-visa.org.vn and have never had a problem. You can get a one or three month visa with either single or multiple entries but we've only ever used three-month single entry visas. We’ve had three of these in the 12 months we have been here. They cost $50 USD ($73 NZD) per person for each three-month stay. To enable us to stay for six months straight we had to do a "visa run" to Bangkok at the end of the first three month period where we flew there on a Saturday afternoon and got back to Hoi An 24 hours later. The cheap flights ($600 NZD) made it far cheaper doing this than using one of the agencies that can arrange an extension for you where you don't have to leave the country.
I'll focus this on our time living in Hoi An. Our costs when travelling are always way higher than when we are settled somewhere. The cost of hotels and not knowing where the best food and shopping is always made fast travel significantly more expensive. In Hoi An we live pretty well and don't really miss out on much and our costs are broken down as follows:
Rent - Our largest expense. We pay $600USD ($883 NZD) per month for a three bedroom, four bathroom freestanding house which was built last year and is super tidy. We live in an area called Cam Châu which is by far the best area to be. The location is awesome and walking distance to dozens of restaurants, cafes and shops. A great resource for finding longer term rentals is Nha Toi Real Estate www.hoianhousevillage.com and all the expats use this rental company. The normal process is to book an appointment for a day or so after you arrive and they then take you around to look at as many places as it takes and you move in the next day. It's super easy and there are always heaps of places as you'll see on their website. They look after all the paperwork, viewings and problems just like a letting agent in NZ would.
Food: Right, the fun stuff...
For breakfast, we make porridge and fruit at home every day and we have all our fruit and veggies delivered once a week. Our standard order costs around 300,000 VND ($19 NZD) for a week's worth of amazingly fresh pineapples, mangos, bananas, passionfruit, dragonfruit, tomatoes, kale, ginger, avocados, watermelon, cucumber, lemons and anything else that we might need.
For lunch we probably eat out about four days each week, eating Banh Mi, which is a local sandwich, famous in Hoi An or Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup. The other three days we tend to eat at home having avocados and tomatoes on toast. Eating out costs us 80,000 VND ($5 NZD) and a loaf of rye bread for lunch at home is ($1.50 NZD).
For dinner, we haven't cooked a dinner at home since we left NZ! Eating out is so cheap and delicious here that there is just no reason to cook at home. There are literally 1000 restaurants to choose from covering every possible type of food and our favourite places are run by locals, serving local food were typically we spend between 200,000 - 250,000 VND ($12 - $16 NZD) per meal. This includes four main courses, water and a few beers. Hoi An has everything from cheap street food to high-end luxury restaurants and everything in between. We normally have a "treat night" once a week where the kids can choose the restaurant and this will often be burgers, Thai, Indian or at a beachside restaurant. For these meals, the price might get closer to 450,000VND ($28 NZD).
We couldn't spend 24/7 with the kids without a source of excellent COFFEE! In Hoi An we are spoiled for choice because Vietnamese coffee is grown and roasted here and is typically served strong and sweet, drowning in condensed milk. We tend to stick to espresso and have dozens of top-class cafes to choose from. An Americano costs around 30,000 VND ($1.90 NZD) and a latte 35,000 VND ($2.20) and we normally get the kids a fruit smoothie as well which costs about the same as a latte. With the heat here beer is an essential daily item and it ranges in cost from 3,000 VND (20c NZD) for a local beer to 20,000 VND ($1.20 NZD) for a "premium" beer served in a restaurant.
Other costs we've run into include:
Gym - $40 NZD month
Power - $60 NZD month
Home Internet - $15 NZD month
Phones - $4.50 NZD month for 3GB data plans. Free and super fast wifi is EVERYWHERE here and we have never come close to using 3GB and only really have the plans to use Grab (same as Uber) and occasionally to Google something while on the run.
Water - We get 3 x 20L containers delivered once a week or so. They cost 20,000 ($1.20) each so $3.60 total.
Babysitting - We have an amazing babysitter who is also a teacher at a local school. The going rate is 100,000 VND ($6.30 NZD) per hour.
School supplies - Books cost next to nothing and pens, pencils crayons etc are super cheap as well. We may spend $6 NZD per month total on this.
Bus - There is a local bus to Da Nang that goes every 20 minutes all day/ every day which costs us 160,000 VND ($10 NZD) for the four of us, return. The trip takes about 45 minutes.
Travel Insurance - We went through our NZ broker who got us great cover through Allianz and it cost us $1700 NZD for 12 months cover in Asia.
Bikes - We bought two brand new commuter-style bikes with locks, rear seats for the kids and baskets for $95 NZD each.
Motorbike - We also bought a Yamaha Nuovo 110cc scooter (which all four of us can fit on like the locals!!) for $270 NZD and it costs us 70,000 VND ($4.40 NZD) to fill up every few weeks.
Overall, our monthly running costs are around $2200 - $2400 NZD. Things we haven't included in this are flights, insurance, visas or any NZ costs associated with our house but it pretty much covers everything else. We've had to fix phones and laptops, do bike repairs and even buy clothes for a wedding we were invited to and I’ve included all of those costs in the standard monthly running costs.
Jen's now a qualified teacher so we are schooling the kids ourselves. They spend about 60 - 90 minutes each day doing the basic reading, writing and maths in a semi-structured way. After that we incorporate as much learning as we can throughout the day by learning about history, geography, language, money, culture, art, travel, food and anything else that comes up which we think ensures that they are always learning something and should be well ahead of the game when they get back to the NZ schooling system.
The language here is Vietnamese. We have found that it’s almost impossible to learn as it is a tonal language so it's not just the word that gives it meaning but the tone used when saying it, meaning a single word has multiple meanings determined by the tone with which it's delivered. Suffice to say that we know the basics and that's about it. Being a tourist based town means that all of the locals have some English capabilities but this varies wildly and the translations are more often than not, hilarious. Through a range of hand gestures, broken English and pointing we can always get by and the process, especially if the kids are involved, normally ends in smiles and laughs. The Vietnamese people are the friendliest people we have ever come across and coming from kiwi's (who are widely known as a friendly bunch), the Vietnamese are on another level. Often shy and unassuming on first contact (or the complete opposite if they are selling something to tourists), they love talking to foreigners, especially kids and we have lost count of the times we have been given gifts or freebies from restaurant owners in our time here.
We have been to a Vietnamese wedding, our kids play with the local children every day and we have a great babysitter who loves playing games with the kids when Mum and Dad escape for a few hours.
We often get asked about safety while we travel because SE Asia has a reputation for not being the safest travel destination. The reality is that if you aren't a 19-year-old backpacker, getting hammered in dodgy bars and leaving yourself open to dodgy locals you are probably safer here than in your own hometown. Tourist traps are everywhere and I reckon you get one free pass at getting ripped off, be it for an airport taxi or a local scam for a boat ride or photo, but if you get caught a second time that's on you! If you do fall for one of them you aren't going to lose your life savings and the couple of dollars you lose is probably worth the cost of the smile you'll see on the locals face as you walk away with a confused look on yours and the story you'll have to tell when you get back home. When you see how the locals live and the amounts they get paid, you can hardly begrudge them for looking to part a comparatively rich foreigner with an extra US dollar or two that they won't even notice they've missed.
As far as the kids go we haven't ever felt they have been unsafe. We allow them out into our lane by our house, where they play unsupervised every night when the local kids get home from school. It's the highlight of their day and we often have local kids banging on our door looking for the white kids who steal their bikes and ride them!
The only real danger we've experienced in Vietnam is on the roads. The road rules aren't an exact science but rarely do you see any crashes. Scooters outnumber any other form of transport by a million to one and it's not uncommon to see families of four or five loaded onto one. After a few weeks, you come to understand when you are expected to be on the wrong side of the road, who you need to toot at and when riding on the footpath is required. Despite the chaos, 'road rage' is non-existent and if every NZ driver adopted the Vietnamese's attitude towards driving I think our roads would be a much friendlier place.
During 2018 we have spent money at varying rates. While "travelling" we ate through our funds a lot faster than we'd hoped. Here in Hoi An, we are able to live really cheaply and could stay much longer if we chose to.
With two months of our year to go, we envisage returning to New Zealand with between $10,000 - $15,000 of our original amount still remaining. This will help us get through any period before I can secure permanent employment again but Jen will start work at the beginning of the school year so the timing works very well for her.
And finally, what do we do all day?
It took a little bit of time to get used to the fact that we are 'living' here not just holidaying. Initially, when we were in holiday mode we were flat out doing things and making sure that our days were 100% full. But just like at home, this isn't really sustainable, especially with kids. We still have the chores to do and normal life things that have to be done. Once we settled into a slower pace we found we enjoyed living locally a lot more and could easily just spend our days in our neighbourhood.
As far as our days go, we try and keep them relatively structured mainly so the kids don't kill each other in the downtime! It'll also be easier for them to return to school if they haven't had a year just mucking around in holiday mode. I start the day at about 7am by going to the gym. As far as SE Asian gyms go this one is pretty great www.superfit.vn. We then have breakfast when I get home and following that the kids get straight into their school work. This usually goes from 9am to around 10 or 10.30am depending on what they are up to. Jen sets all their work the night before so for us it’s just a case of walking them through it and keeping them on task.
We jump on our bikes and leave the house around 11am and go straight to any one of our favourite cafes. The kids usually take some artwork to do or we play cards. This is when Jen and I do most of our planning etc and typically we go straight to lunch after this. After lunch, we do any jobs that need doing like buying food or school supplies. In the afternoon we always try to do an activity. It can be anything from going to the beach, swimming pool, soccer field or a bike ride. Given the heat over here, this is normally followed by a stop at a bar for a beer or two. The local kids get home from school at 4.30pm so our two always want to be home by then to play with them. They come in when it gets dark which is between 5.30 and 6pm. Then we head out for dinner. Most nights we come home and watch part of a movie or Netflix show and the kids are in bed by 8pm.
That's a standard sort of day that we run 7 days a week. Most weeks there are days that day trips or different for some reason. We take the bus to Da Nang to do some shopping or go to the movies, we go and visit a local tourist site or neighbourhood or as we did recently, we head off for a few days on a mini-holiday to another part of the country. www.hoiannow.com is a great site for keeping up with what is happening locally and anything new that might be kicking off.
This is definitely the way we prefer to travel. Arriving somewhere, spending three days ticking off the "10 must-see attractions of X City" isn't really our thing. Getting to know the locals, finding the best cafes and restaurants to return to and get to know the owners of is far more fun for us and we hope it'll mean that we can return here regularly in the future and slip back into this way of living.
Thanks so much, Pete, Jen, Milla and Cade for packing 10 months of adventure into this single blog post. I don’t know about you but I’ve already Googled every link (especially the house renting one) and had a chat to Jonny and our daughter about doing something similar. I think a three-month stint would be absolutely perfect and if we could rent out our house while we did it, as they have done, it could offset the cost of such an adventure. You can tell from Pete’s writing style that he is just a laid back guy who takes an opportunity when he sees it and although there are always reasons why you should not do something, the reasons why you should often outweigh them. With two months of their adventure remaining, 2018 will go down as an incredible year for this family but I strongly suspect that in the years to come there will be similar adventures too.
And just to finish, here is my favourite photo of the trip to Vietnam I took with Jonny and our daughter in September this year. Look very carefully, can you see anything unusual?