For Loc Nguyen and Marie Leblanc, sleeping in Walmart parking lots or rest stops in their van is a dream come true. Sure, they don’t often get to shower for days on end but for these two, a dip in the ocean is one and the same.
Nguyen and Leblanc purchased the van about four months ago at the beginning of the summer after a year and a half searching for one. They had original plans to buy one used, gut it and build it all themselves but when this van came along already ready to live in, they couldn’t pass it up.
And while the couple was quick to point out that the build isn’t perfectly straight and there are some cosmetic imperfections, Nguyen and Leblanc both concluded that none of that really matters; making the most of what you have is the key to surviving a life on the road.
“You don’t have to spend a fortune; it doesn’t have to be perfectly straight. I think the point is just to start with whatever you got,” the couple agreed. “We started “van life” in a Honda Fit some years back. We couldn’t stay in it per se but it allowed us to take surf trips,” explained Nguyen.
And so, with the purchase of their van, the two ditched the Honda and set out for a summer on the road trying to escape the comfort of their apartment in Montreal, Quebec. With a goal to make the most out of the long days and the warm weather, the two have found themselves driving up and down the east coast searching for waves and their next adventures.
The past four months for the couple have been everything they expected and more, waking up before sunrise every morning and welcoming in the new day as they open the van doors, feet away from the beach.
Nguyen is a 38-year-old designer from Montreal, Quebec and Leblanc is a 33-year-old doctor who works at a clinic in Montreal. They met roughly ten years ago surfing but Nguyen was too shy to express his interest.
Five years later, they got to talking one afternoon. Now they live in a van together, go figure.
“Weirdly we started talking and she told me she was going to El Salvador by herself in a week and at the time I was planning a trip to Costa Rica but then I was like ‘sure yeah, I’ll go with you.’ 10 days later we were together in El Salvador,” Nguyen explained.
Despite their jobs, the two like to prioritize fun over work and the van enables them an opportunity to do just that.
“We prioritize play, work is just a means to fund our play,” Nguyen explained. “We normally wake up at 5:30 and surf for a few hours and then come back to eat breakfast, leave the van and bike to work.” For Nguyen, a good Wi-Fi connection is all he needs to clock in.
Leblanc added that her jobs flexibility is accommodating to the lifestyle she likes to lead.
“I like my job, but I like my job more if I can surf at the same time. I work at a community clinic in Montreal. It's mellow and I’m not there to make money; neither are my colleagues. But I can get vacation whenever I want and if I show up post-surfing, they don’t care,” she said.
The two still have an apartment in Montreal but have spent almost all their summer trying to make the most out of their new van, traveling along the Eastern Coast of Canada and New England, cherishing the long summer days before they vanish.
“The problem with having an apartment is that you feel so comfortable in it that you don’t want to go outside. In here, it’s so small that if you want to really enjoy something you must step outside,” Nguyen explained. “The van is pretty much just a place to eat and sleep, otherwise we are outside 90% of the time.”
With two 10-gallon water tanks that last them up to two weeks, solar power and ample cabinet space in their living area, the two have no complaints so far with their experience. They also have access to a community garden back in Quebec where they grow their own vegetables. Where they cook these vegetables? A simple camp stove set up on the countertop.
Luxury, am I right?
And while the two don’t have a shower and might have to pee in a bottle from time to time, they still get the opportunity to pursue this passion of surfing and the freedom to figure out how to enjoy and maximize their lives.
And while there are good surfing spots in Canada, the van was purchased to enable the two to pursue new surfing spots and adventure. Even with just a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Montreal to the New Hampshire coast, the two have just recently started to surf here due to the negative attitudes surrounding people from Canada coming down to surf.
“It frustrates us too when we see people [from Canada] coming down and surfing and not respecting the rules," Leblanc explained. "I’ve been surfing for over ten years and just three years ago was my first-time surfing at Rye.”
Surfing is a sport driven by respect and awareness. While the seacoast is often regarded as a great place to learn, there are certainly days when beginners or even intermediate surfers shouldn’t be paddling out, especially that of a beautiful 4-6-foot fall swell. When people paddle out and haven’t experienced waves of that magnitude, they not only put themselves in danger but also other surfers around.
While it isn’t always Canadians that don’t think twice before paddling out onto a big day, for many locals the sight of a white Quebec plate parked along the Wall in North Hampton, brings about a slew of negative emotions.
“We just try to respect the rules and although sometimes mistakes happen like you may drop in on somebody. As long as you say sorry and pull out and it doesn’t happen multiple times in a session, these problems can be avoided. I think it’s just as simple as try to be nice,” Leblanc said. “Yeah, just don’t be an asshole,” Nguyen chimed in.
In the four months living in the van, the couple has only faced one issue. One night while camping at their usual campsite, "Habitat 67" in Montreal, an individual broke into the passenger side front window while they were sleeping. Nguyen and Leblanc were woken by the glass shattering and scared the intruder away after opening the slider door that separated the driving area from the living area. Nguyen, distressed and angry of the repeated break ins in the surrounding area, took off after the intruder with the only weapon he had, his cleaver from the kitchen.
"He tried to make a break for it and I got hold of him. I held onto him on but he broke off and started running away so I ran after him and tackled him again. I don’t know what happened, but the knife flew out of my pocket when I made contact with him and landed on my arm. It all happened really fast,” Nguyen said.
Little did Nguyen know that his weapon of choice would end up doing more harm to him than good.
“I didn’t even notice at first, I picked up the knife and kept running after him. It was then that I noticed I didn’t have a grip on the knife anymore, only my middle and pointer fingers were working," Nguyen said. "At this point, I also noticed the blood pouring out of my arm and I gave up on running after him.”
The cops ended up surrounding the intruder at gunpoint and were able to get Nguyen to a hospital to get his arm checked out.
“The knife cut through three tendons and all the way through to the bone. On the x-ray, you can see a cut line on the bone. I was pretty lucky that it wasn’t my fingers or the opposite side of my arm where all the veins are,” Nguyen said.
Luckily, Nguyen just needed a small procedure to repair the damage done by the blade. The worst part of it all? Nguyen being stuck watching from the van as Leblanc makes the most out of the autumn swells of the east coast.
Even so, their first four months in their van has been everything they expected and more. Van life for these two has opened the doors to so many new opportunities, experiences and connections. It’s something they don’t see themselves getting sick of any time soon.
What’s next for the couple? Well, surfing in the fall along the seacoast normally entails warm waters and big swells so you can expect to see their van parked somewhere along the coast. But big picture, they have two places marked to try and get out to in the near future.
“We’d like to travel to Mexico and Nova Scotia soon with the van,” Nguyen said. While also explaining that they plan on leaving the van behind this winter and take a trip somewhere a bit further by plane to escape some of the winter.