Saint Michael's College is known for offering a spiritual path, adventures of a lifetime, passion for a job and sometimes a fiancé - which is true on all accounts for 2009 graduates Meg Sedlak and Danny Robbins.
But a gold mine?
There's a story there, and many more, which the couple recently shared via Skype from their home in Hoi An, an ancient and attractive Vietnamese port city of 120,000. They've settled there since 2011 into a happy and fulfilling life, and say Saint Michael's had everything to do with it, directly or indirectly.
Robbins is making a go of freelance writing for travel magazines, agencies and websites, while Sedlak just launched a promising art cooperative shop and business that she hopes to keep expanding, perhaps to the United States.
Vietnam Suits Them
They seemed an improbable couple at first. Sedlak majored in business management and accounting, while Robbins studied philosophy and religion, with a special attraction to Eastern spirituality— particularly Buddhism. He was inspired by professors Robert Lair and Joe Kroger, along with the Edmundites' Rev. Michael Cronogue, and Toni Messuri of the student support staff.
Yet those divergent backgrounds played a role in their odyssey, which found Sedlak not long ago doing management accounting for a gold mine company in Vietnam run by New Zealanders. That firm also hired her fiancé to be an underground miner in the inland jungle, the only Westerner among Vietnamese and Filipinos.
"I have an affinity for physical labor," says Robbins, a onetime carpenter and painter from Cape Cod, whose first trip to Asia focused mostly on travel in India and visiting a Buddhist monastery/school in Nepal. That's how the region first appeared prominently on the couple's radar as a possible longer-term destination, though there had been earlier inklings.
While still in college, Sedlak started babysitting for a former Saint Michael's French adjunct, Jennifer Borch, who did a year-long teaching stint at a school in Hoi An, their eventual home. Today, the couple laughs about a comment Sedlak made after attending Borch's send-off party. "Who would move to Vietnam?"
they remember her exclaiming in disbelief as they walked to their car from the party.
Yet, soon after, they took important steps on their own path to that very country. Sedlak explains: "Dan had just gotten back from the first time in India, right around when Jennifer was leaving, and he said, 'I have to go back.' So I left my accounting job, which I basically hated, and we left right after Christmas for India."
Seasoned Global Travelers
The idea of traveling together felt natural to them because they both had studied abroad as Saint Michael's students in Europe, she in London and he in Prague. They spent most of their weekends exploring that continent together, then staying on to see more after their studies.
In India together in 2010, they traveled down the west coast, all the way around the southern tip and back up the other coast to Calcutta. At that point, Borch heard they were in the same part of the world and got in touch. "She told us, 'You guys have to make it to Vietnam. You're relatively close enough, so make your way here," Sedlak says.
They had saved for months to pay for the trip, backpacking and living cheap to make it last. They determined plane tickets directly to Vietnam were too costly. Instead, they found the cheapest flight from Calcutta to Bangkok. "Then, we bussed and trained and boated from Bangkok through Cambodia, down the Mekong by boat into Vietnam, then traveled up to Hoi An" Robbins says.
"We were only supposed to be there a week, and I stayed for two months," says Sedlak, who was charmed by the city. "It's beautiful and somewhere safe you can travel as a single female, which is nice, since Dan was booked into another meditation course in Thailand. So I said I wanted to stay here on the beach, with these beautiful walking streets—it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The food is great, the people are great, and it's extremely affordable to live in Vietnam."
Short Return to U.S.
Before long, however, they needed to return to the United States for Robbins' sister's wedding. Sedlak went back to her accounting firm in Burlington for audit season, with the understanding it was temporary. For half a year, they worked and saved.
"The following Christmas, in 2011, we moved and were in Bangkok for New Year's, determined to make a go of it and find jobs since we'd fallen in love with Hoi An," she says.
By the time they returned to Vietnam, Borch was leaving. After a month with no real prospects, and not being trained as teachers, they were thinking they might have to go home for lack of work. But first, they would treat themselves to a nice lunch while making the decision. On their way back from lunch, Sedlak says, "A woman was flagging me down from the side of road." She was the mother of one of Borch's former students,
a New Zealander Sedlak had met on her first trip. "She said her husband had been eager to meet me since he's an accountant, too."
He worked for a gold mine company and needed accounting help, the woman told them. "I never wanted to do accounting again, and was starting to say no, but Dan pinched me—you know, 'What could it hurt to go talk to him?" Sedlak says. That day she met the accountant. "I ended up working there for the next two years," she says. "I actually loved it because rather than financial accounting it was management accounting, which suits me better."
Meanwhile, things were looking up for Robbins, too. He'd started writing for a magazine. "One thing led to another, and all of a sudden I started accumulating these contracts, and have spent the last two and a half years writing for websites, magazines and travel companies," he says.
For a three-month stretch in that period, however, he decided to give gold-mining a go since they now had a connection. "Three hours away in the mountains, working underground; it seemed like a cool experience to have. It was really hard work and a crazy experience, but a lot of fun."
They've adjusted quite well to the new culture, they say, learning enough language to communicate, shopping at the local market for fresh groceries every day or two, riding bicycles, acclimating to 100-degree humid heat and typhoons—three came through while Robbins was at the mines, so Sedlak had her own adventure home alone, but came through intact.
A World of New Experiences
They found their three-bedroom, four-bathroom modern house through a French broker who helps expatriates from the West. The $500 monthly rent is amazingly low by Western standards, but typical there.
They have a small community of Western friends who have become close, along with many Vietnamese. Some Saint Michael's contemporaries have visited—among them Linda Tran '09, Michelle Wood '08 and Peter Knapp '08, along with some siblings. Sedlak grew up in Troy, N.Y. with six siblings, while Robbins has three sisters.
About a year ago, Sedlak left the gold mine for another opportunity that felt like a realized dream for her. They had travelled a lot through Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore throughout their years in Vietnam, and on a trip with New Zealand friends to Myanmar (Burma) just over a year ago, they happened upon stunningly beautiful fabrics in a market there. Seeing them, Sedlak had an epiphany.
"I said, 'This is it. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.' I've always admired gorgeous fabrics, whether in U.S. fashions or in India," she says. "My mind has been trying to figure how to get away from accounting and do something like that."
She decided to launch an artists' cooperative/shop. The idea has been to put Vietnamese art
on modern products, with nine local artists involved so far. She figured out the licensing
and permits and rented space in a high-traffic Hoi An location near a tourist attraction. Her hopes for expansion include marketing opportunities in the United States and with luxury hotels in Vietnam, for whom they've already made products. "The ideal would be living half the year in Vietnam and half in Vermont," she says, adding that their wedding is set for this October.
"Dan's passion for Eastern religions and meditation brought us here, and now my passion for business is keeping us here, which is all St. Mike's," Sedlak says. "It's been
possible because Saint Michael's doesn't try to keep you in a box, and that's what we'd tell current students: Don't let someone tell you no. Just keep growing from every opportunity. Do something different, because cool things will come out of it for sure."