May 27, 2024


Built General Tough

How I Used a Trip to Vietnam to Build a Marketing Business

  • Sarah Lempa graduated with a marketing degree in 2018 owing $35,000 in student loans.
  • She took off to Vietnam, where she scaled up business as a writer and media strategist in months.
  • The business then made $41,000 in a year. She explains how she did it.

After graduating with a marketing degree from the University of Minnesota in 2018, I did a summer internship where I napped on lunch breaks. I knew 9-to-5 wasn’t for me.

During a particularly uninspiring day, I was browsing Nomad List: A crowdsourced guide to the best cities for remote workers and entrepreneurs. 

I booked my one-way ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam the same day. My student debt was $35,000 but I deferred that until further notice.

I told friends and family my $3,000 was enough to stay six weeks.

When I arrived that September, I was living out of a hostel for $9 per night. Dinners and lunches of pho and banh mi sandwiches only cost $1.25. Alongside Vietnam’s enticing culture and landscape, the affordable price of living gave me time to find my feet.

Before setting off, I bought for $50 a year and built an extremely basic website calling myself a “creative marketer.”

I narrowed down sellable skills I could offer remotely: Social media management, copywriting, and WiX website design.

Through my existing network from university and a handful of part-time jobs, I forged connections with two businesses based back in Minnesota. I signed one small media contract and a website project. In total, I had roughly $400 projected income for that first month.

One month in, I sat in an $8-a-night hostel dorm creating profiles on Upwork and Fiverr, platforms where freelancers can sell their skills.

By then, my bank account actually had more money in it than when I arrived. 

My lifestyle may have appeared lavish on social media, hopping from one beautiful sight to the next. But I was living off of $15 to 20 per day.

I spent most of my time sending out proposals to prospective clients online. Most went ignored, but slowly, I started to see some traction.

Gradually, I snagged more contracts, many of which were on-going. Growing my portfolio meant I could pitch myself to bigger clients and publications.

I trailed on like this for months, eating the simplest meals and walking everywhere to keep costs low. I was already quite good at living off of very little.

I even used to boil my own water for purification instead of buying bottles.

I had to come back to the US after two months in Vietnam for personal reasons – the business was slowly growing and that time in Vietnam showed that I could scale it if I kept going.

After three weeks back home, I took off again, this time to Colombia and Ecuador, still working off my laptop wherever I went.

I went home again for Christmas and, by the beginning of 2019, realized I had been underselling my skills. By then, I had established ongoing contracts with multiple clients on a retainer basis.

But I had previously written for as low as $0.03 per word. I increased this to $0.20, realizing I had undersold my skills. Media packages went from as low as $150 per month up to a minimum of $500, with some more than $1,500 per month. 

Having scaled the business in four months – almost entirely while travelling on the fly, I began earning between $3,200 and $3,700 per month for a total of $41,000 that year, while working around 30 hours per week on average.

Without a commute or corporate meetings, I devoted all of my time to client work and growing business. I could cut out the noise one might have in a “normal” job.

I still can’t recall the last time I worked on a weekend.

I went to South America in February 2019, traveling most of the continent while continuing to work.

After a summer detour to France and Morocco and a stop back in the United States, I set off to Australia that August. I traveled throughout there and islands in Oceania until early 2020.

White woman in active wear stands at lookout point over a tropical vista.

Lempa in Indonesia, one of the many locations she can work from.

Courtesy of Sarah Lempa

When the pandemic hit, I found myself locked down in Indonesia. I ultimately decided to stay put amid border closures. When restrictions eased up stateside this past spring, I finally returned for a visit.

This year, I launched my own digital content agency. I used to hop to different countries each month, but now I’m looking to cultivate bases around the world that I can move between seasonally.

While it hasn’t been an easy ride, I never feel driven to nap on my lunch breaks anymore.