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Vacation is Serious Business

Guilt-free time off should be planned – and required.

A Week of Beaches in Central Vietnam

“Where are you flying to for $25?”

“A beach town in Vietnam.”

“I didn’t know tickets could be that cheap.”

I didn’t either, but this was during Covid-19, and Vietnam, where I live, had shut its borders. Airlines had slashed prices to jumpstart domestic tourism. This $25 one-way ticket was on Vietnam Airlines, Vietnam’s premiere carrier, and included 40kg of baggage. Not that I needed it.

My credit card wasn’t working though, and now I was talking to my bank’s customer service rep in Texas.

“What’s life like out there?”

“Pretty much back to normal as we haven’t had any local cases of Covid-19 for 2 months.

I still couldn’t pay online. I’d have to visit a travel agent tomorrow.

“Sorry we can’t help you. Enjoy your trip!”

I would, just in a different way than usual.

I hadn’t left Saigon for four months, a long time for me. I yearned for the beach. After monitoring Covid-19 for months, I finally felt safe to travel.

I secured a flight to Tuy Hoà, a small city on the central coast. From there I would motorbike up to Quy Nhơn, another beach town engulfed by mountains. I’d have 7 days to make the journey.

Beaches, roads, and the motorbike. Loose, empty days. Heaven.

The night before leaving, I couldn’t sleep. I was excited to discover two new cities and the undeveloped central coast. But what I craved most was to unplug. I was tired of the onslaught of media covering Covid-19, Trump and police brutality. Tired of too many chats on too many apps. Tired of a rough first quarter for my business.

I needed to clear my mind. Reboot.

I considered doing a “think week” like Bill Gates, who spends one week every 6 months secluded in a cabin pondering the future.

But that sounded way too productive.

There would be NO goals this week.

Just unadulterated, guiltless exploration.

Although I only had 2-3 weeks off / year as an employee, I could leave work behind – a luxury I took for granted. You can never forget about your business when you’re self-employed. For the first time I was giving myself permission to do so.

I set two rules:

  1. No daytime texting or social media. I hid WhatsApp & Messenger, and deleted Facebook & Instagram off my phone.
  2. Wifi from 8-10pm. I’d limit texts, emails, and social media to after dinner.

I hoped this break from inputs would refresh my mind and body, and give me clarity for the next decade.

But I wouldn’t make this a goal to accomplish. I’d just set it as an intention.

Tuy Hoà

  1. I arrive in Tuy Hoà and head straight to the beach. Clear skies and not a soul in sight.
  2. My favorite way to discover Vietnamese towns is to rent a motorbike and get lost, which I do with glee. This looks interesting, but what’s that? I might bookmark the day with 1-2 sights, but otherwise follow my curiosity. Tháp Nhạn, a Champa tower from the 12th century, overlooks Tuy Hoà. 
  3. Spring rolls for dinner. A table of grandmothers eat together. A family of seven spanning three generations tease each other. I love how easy and normal it is to gather, and hope this doesn’t change as Vietnam modernizes (Quán Chả Dông on 92 Nguyễn Công Trứ).

Quy Nhơn

  1. Enjoying local food and the ocean breeze (Bánh Bèo Kim Đình, 18A Đường Nguyễn Huệ).
  2. Wandering through the mysterious village of Quy Hòa, a former leprosy hospital established by French Christian missionaries in the 1920s.
  3. Greeting the sunrise on Quy Nhơn city beach. Crowds arrive around sunrise and sunset, otherwise it’s empty.

Snapshots from the Road


1. Take a vacation from social media too

I would like to share two lessons from this week unplugged.

The second day of the trip I arrived at Bãi Môn, a gorgeous parcel of beach.

I couldn’t believe my luck. How did I have this all to myself?

My first impulse was to send photos to friends. Look where I am!

But I reminded myself of Rule 1: no social media or chat apps until 8pm.

I ascended a seven story lighthouse with soaring views of the coastline and beyond. Incredible! Again arose the impulse to post a picture. Nope. Not until 8pm. Realizing this bad habit, I made another rule: no posting until the trip ended.

How does social media rob us of the present moment?

  1. Photographing or filming removes us one level.
  2. Choosing, editing, captioning, and posting media removes us further.
  3. Anticipating and reacting to the drip of likes and comments, removes us even further, and for an extended period of time. 

Twenty years ago when traveling, I’d visit Internet cafes to send family and friends updates. I’d have to pay a few dollars per hour to access email.

To reboot our attention during vacation, and truly soak in another place, I think we need to reinstitute time limits and friction to our technology. There is a real cost to using all these free apps: we can’t ever break away from our normal world and routine. Social apps should be deleted, or at the very least, hidden three layers deep on our devices. And if used, they should be time-boxed. 

I spent 7 days and nights on the beach. Next to me friends, couples and families would scroll on their phones, head down, oblivious to the gorgeous coastline in front of them. Our devices make us God-like, able to reach anyone and access lifetimes of knowledge and entertainment. But I don’t think the addiction is worth it. 

Each night I tracked my email, social media and texts for important missed messages. After 7 days, here’s my report:

  • Email (Gmail): one customer could not access my online course
  • Social Media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube): nothing
  • Chat Apps (WhatsApp, Messenger): one night I had 250 notifications on WhatsApp; none were important. During the week, I sent three messages I considered important: one to a girl I liked, one to inform friends about my location, and one to my mom after hearing a cousin had cancer.

I came to a sobering conclusion: I wasn’t that missed. My business didn’t fall apart. And no one really cared what I was doing.  

The flip side? I could check social media once a week, and emails/texts once a day. That would free up so much time!

By the end of the week, I had lost the impulse to check my phone during a dead moment, alone at a restaurant or while waiting. I understand why businesses need social media, but for my personal life, I experienced a much richer, relaxing week without it.

Moving forward I could replace all that screen time with meeting friends, exercising outside, or planning more adventures. I could be more self-directed and less reactive. I could use ALL my human senses to soak in everything this amazing life had to offer.

2. Take time off seriously

On the fourth day I rode out to Kỳ Co Beach for a morning swim, and then Trung Lương, a remote fishing village, in the afternoon.

Atop Trung Lương, overlooking the coast, sits a giant Buddha, which can be seen from miles away. I resolve to pay him a visit.

The drive takes me past windmills 30 stories high, things of science fiction. How did we construct these?

After a few wrong turns, I end up before the Buddha.

I’m exhausted but relish a physical challenge. I count steps but lose track around 230. At each level more stairs seem to appear. I finally get to the top, winded, and enter a pagoda with thousands of buddhas inside. I return outside to enjoy the birds-eye view.

I forgot to make a wish to the Buddha. But as I look down at the windmills that now look like dandelions, I realize what I want most is perspective. How different reality appears from the road and from the mountain, from one person to another.

And that’s what time off brings: perspective. A chance to exit our routines, and hopefully, experience the world a bit differently.

I vow to schedule more time off and create deadlines that signal stress and recovery. 

Half way through the trip I journaled the following:

What a full 4 days so far. One of the benefits of working virtually is that you can live outside societal constructs and constraints. Human beings aren’t meant to work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, like machines. Our energy ebbs and flows, like the wind and waves, a feather, a storm. It feels great to align with this more natural rhythm, to just be, float on that ocean, nowhere to be, nothing to do.

Scheduling time off is just as important as scheduling work

For me this means, no work after 7pm, no work on Sundays, and now, after gaining so much peace and perspective from this trip, at least one week off every quarter. Periodic time off to reboot and gain new perspectives on business and life.

There will be exceptions: late night sales calls, working through the weekend to launch a new product or a monthly push to improve systems. Working for extended periods should then require correspondingly longer periods of rest and recovery.

—-

Timothy Ferris’ 4 Hour Work Week has inspired millions to become digital nomads, to work from a hammock on the beach, as on the book’s cover.

But there is a trade-off. Yes, you can work from the beach. But your work follows you to the beach too.

Here I think we can borrow from the corporate world. We should plan our vacations months ahead, and take seriously the idea of not working during these times.

Even better, we solopreneurs can take advantage of our flexible schedules and be more intentional about when, where and how to break away, often for much cheaper too.

Michael Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, asked thousands of people when they get their best ideas, and most people responded “in the shower,” “resting in bed,” “walking to nature,” or “listening to music” – leisurely activities.  Almost no one replied, “at work.”

This week on the road reminded me that guilt-free play scheduled during the day, week, and months, is necessary for peak performance – and a richer life.

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2 replies on “Vacation is Serious Business”

Great write up! I didn’t realise I was following in your travel footsteps a week later. Did you return to Tuy Hoa or go one-way? I was looking for a one-way bike rental from Tuy Hoa to Quy Nhon but it would be a small to non-existent market for that service.

Thanks James! I flew into Tuy Hoa and then flew out of Quy Nhon. I wasn’t able to find a bike rental service to rent in Tuy Hoa and drop off in Quy Nhon. So I ended up making day trips to beaches from each city. It sucks to drive to beaches and then return. But the benefit is you can avoid most of Highway 1! That said, it’s only 87 km between the cities, so it’s still doable. I missed the Xuan Thinh Peninsula and Vinh Hoa Beach (because my bike rental situation) which looked gorgeous. How was your journey?

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