Setting Expectations Across Cultures

Lately, we’ve been meeting with university students from Foreign Trade University, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, and Banking Academy of Vietnam—and we’ve also been encountering some newcomers in Vietnam.

We’ve previously covered the youth in Vietnam, in particular how the true potential of Vietnam is embedded in its youth and in finding creative solutions to global problems, e.g., frugal innovation. Overall, we still maintain our high aspirations for the young Vietnamese that we have encountered and even higher expectations for the future of Vietnam because of them. We have also previously covered communication here in Vietnam but this week we are going to set the stage for interactions between foreigners and locals because there can be a lot of misreading and miscommunication between cultures, especially when there is a mismatch of expectations from the onset. It’s important to point out that Vietnam itself is not homogenous–there are great differences (accents, attitudes, allowance for risk) between north, south, and central areas of the country.

From an Outsider’s Perspective

Overall, there are some very traditional aspects in Vietnam to consider; it’s a patriarch society where saving face is crucial and most sensitive subjects are handled indirectly. Social events are a dance of respect, camaraderie building, and copious amount of alcohol. In the Vietnamese language, there are different ways to address the person you are speaking to, depending on if s/he is older or younger than you, your parents, and his/her position in society or environment relative to yours. Thus, a situation that would be normal between colleagues in the west would be very different here as age and relationships would come into play if there was ever a dispute.

The following are advice and suggestions for new expats (compiled from experience, anecdotes, and research)—not all of it applies to every encounter, rather these are themes that seem to permeate through interactions here and that we have reached consensus on.

Everyday and specific problems aren’t fully addressed as they are a sign of weakness (saving face); anything that is perceived as being negative is shunned. For example, we asked a client what their hardware defect rate is for their product line. Their response was, “we aim to have a hardware defect rate of 1%.” However, that response didn’t inform us what the current hardware defect rate is.

A lack of negative points in a discussion needs exposure; things will get swept under the rug. In the worst cases, problems will be actively hidden.

Figure out when yes really means yes; get a commitment from your counterpart. Trust but verify. Don’t believe it until you see it (completion or payment). Often, we find that people here are very good at going from A-Z but they miss the required steps in the middle unless questioned and, in some cases, led down a path of logic. You will have to guide many elements of scope or else they will fall through the cracks.

Don’t listen to what people say, look at what they do.

Your author worked on a project in HCMC a couple of years ago. One of our local partners missed five deadlines in a three month period which caused multiple issues with the client. Who was more foolish? Our partner for continuing to miss deadlines or us for believing him after he missed the second deadline?

If you are working on a project beware of unreasonable timelines and expectations, especially if there is a set date for delivery (such as an event). A common tactic is to give responsibilities away close to a deadline, and then assign blame when things go awry—especially for subordinates. However, those same people will take credit when things go well. Don’t do things for free or deviate outside your scope or else you will be blamed if something goes wrong.

It’s not uncommon for local managers to request an “urgent” item the night before (via text message) for a sub 12-hour turnaround or even as an employee is walking out the door at 8:00 PM before the weekend.

Many local partners will want to proceed ad hoc and may be concerned about “protecting” the end customer. Sometimes, the price of a good or service is secondary when trying to close a deal, especially through an intermediary.

The concept of “allies” and “enemies” within an organization is very prominent in local organizations; this phenomenon can be especially noticeable at the C-level in large or public organizations. Think tree trunks and roots for each position.

Give options but not more than two; there are many masters of “getting you to do work for free” here.

You will be stared at in the streets a lot. Smile back to break the ice.

Common Questions and Phrases

In the course of meeting Vietnamese, you will be bombarded with questions about your personal life and work in Vietnam. In no particular order:

Where are you from?

Are you married?

What do you think of Vietnam?

Do you have any brothers or sisters?

Where do you live in Hanoi?

How long have you been here?

Are you an English teacher?

You’ll also have to diplomatically handle some uncommon statements (in the west), such as:

“You’re handsome.”

“I’m training to be a good wife.”

“You should find a Vietnamese girlfriend or wife.”

“You would make a good wife.”

Above all, your nationality can either be an advantage or a disadvantage—but very few people here are overtly anti-American, anti-French, or anti-Chinese (although last year’s riots are an exception).

Working Effectively with Foreigners

Foreign companies will have increasingly higher requirements for local workers as FDI amounts increase. Local consumers will also demand better customer service or brand experiences as their purchasing power increases. The following advice has been compiled from students, workers, your author, and others who have worked with locals on a variety of projects at different levels—this advice is specifically for students.

Ideas without execution are delusions.

Show up five minutes early to meetings—don’t show up late; every time someone is late then s/he has to get caught up with events that already happened.

Say “I don’t know how to do that” when you actually don’t know. It’s better to ask questions before doing something than to do it wrong the first time. And you will actually save time instead of doing things over and over again.

Be focused in meetings. And be quiet when others are talking.

Listen to the one who is speaking. Again, don’t talk over others; it’s rude.

Actually give your opinion when asked for it—somebody asked you because s/he cares and you probably have insight that the person who asked you doesn’t have.

When everyone is agreeing about an issue, try to take the opposite position—groupthink is how companies are ruined.

Ask: “what can I do to help?” Follow through. The greatest shortage of resources in Southeast Asia is quality talent who can understand “glocal” requirements, i.e., global and local.

Don’t make silly excuses for whatever reason you are late or don’t feel like working (rain or traffic). Illness, a death in the family, and/or caring for an ill or injured family member are not silly excuses.

Think critically. Be skeptical; talk is cheap.

Prioritize. Write down your goals and tell someone. Most people will be happy to help or mentor.

Say no when you actually don’t agree with something.

Work in advance to meet the deadline. Organize work smartly to have time to think, plan, do, and win.

Ask for help when you need to; not the day before a deadline. Don’t wait until the last minute, it shows a lack of respect for a person’s time.

If you see a problem, mention it and try to come up with a solution for the problem.

Don’t think outside of the box, expand your box.

Don’t ever say “cannot” or “impossible” or “so sorry, please sympathize with me.” It wastes everyone’s time, including yours.

Be confident but remain humble, always. People acting like a “big boss” and shouting and screaming at others is not viewed well in the west. Steve Jobs was an exception.

Try to keep things professional; try to keep an open mind. Don’t be sexist; don’t make fun of your teammates.

Think through ideas to the end. How will you do that? And then what comes after?

Everyone has good ideas and no one has a monopoly on good ideas.

Don’t ask people outright for tangible help: money, job, free work. Try to help them first or ask what their biggest problem is and how you can help.

People who cannot follow through cannot be trusted—this goes for expats and locals.

Trust takes a long time to build and can be lost in a moment—don’t abuse someone’s trust.

The Biggest Piece

The advice offered above is non-exhaustive and has western bias according to Hofstede’s dimensions. The best thing to do is to talk to people; if you are a newly arrived expat then you should be talking to someone new every day. If you are a student and want to know more about foreign customs then ask someone from that country. Reading about it and doing it are two different things and the best way to learn something is by doing it.

The first time you do something is the hardest–eventually you’ll get the hang of it and will be more efficient and effective at it, whether it’s communicating requirements, asking to make sure something is done, or conflict resolution (or avoidance). Like the variety of photos in the gallery, Vietnam has many faces, shapes, forms, and settings. Don’t try to stereotype or label what you see, but instead try to understand why things are the way they are–that’s way more important to do than criticizing it or condemning it. Once you understand something, then you can see where the opportunities lie–even across cultures.


2015: A Milestone Year Ahead for Vietnam

Last year saw monumental changes in geopolitics: shifting borders between Ukraine and Russia, the growing impact of ISIS in the Middle East, student protests in Hong Kong reaching new heights, and the Ebola virus wrecking havoc in West Africa.

Another development that caught most of the world by surprise was a change in official policy between Cuba and the US. On December 17 2014, President Obama and President Castro held dual press conferences to announce the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. For context, when Vietnam was unified in 1975 the US embargo against Cuba had already been in place for almost 15 years (since October, 1960). As a result of the recent announcement between the two presidents, almost every barrier to trade and free movement of peoples between the US and Cuba will be removed, with the exception of the embargo—which only the US Congress can repeal. Historically, Vietnam and Cuba have shared a special relationship because of their ideological and independence struggles in the 20th century; perhaps Havana can learn from Hanoi’s experience in transforming into a “socialist-oriented market economy” and beyond. US investors and entrepreneurs will only be too willing to help as well.

2015 is special year, in part due to the number of significant anniversaries; for one, it is the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations between Vietnam and the US under President Clinton’s administration. This year will also be the 40th anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam, the 85th anniversary of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) and the 70th anniversary of Vietnam’s Independence Day. Moreover, this year will mark the beginning of the 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

As we enter deeper into 2015, there are many developments, changes, and policy implementations to look forward to and to make sense of. Above all, there will be increased amounts of competition in Vietnam—both from foreign and domestic players looking to capture a piece of the steadily growing economy. However, organizations operating in Vietnam should be on the lookout for commodity price swings (notably oil), currency fluctuations (as we are seeing with the Euro and the Swiss Franc), and new signs of saturation in certain domestic industries (such as motorbikes), all of which could stymie economic growth.

A Revamped Visa System and New Laws

January 1st brought new visa rules for foreigners with a complete overhaul of the old system. Basically, the number of visa types is increasing from 10 to 20 and there are new entry and exit requirements.

The former tourist visa (C1) is now “DL” visa and the former business visa (B3) is now an “DN” visa. One of the major changes of the new rules is that visa types cannot be changed while the applicant is in Vietnam, which means that tourists desiring to become English teachers (seemingly the majority of westerners) will now have to leave Vietnam and re-enter under the correct visa scheme.

Regarding the exit requirements for foreign nationals, they are listed below.

Article 28. Cases of suspension from exit and duration of suspension

1. A foreigner may be suspended from exit in one of the following cases:

a) He/she is currently the suspect, the accused, or the person with relevant obligations in a criminal case; a defendant or a person with relevant obligations in a civil case pertaining to business, employment, administration, marriage and familial affairs;

b) He/she has to implement a judgment or decision of the Court or a Competition Settlement Council;

c) His/her tax obligation is not fulfilled;

d) He/she is obliged to implement a decision on penalties for administrative violations;

dd) For reasons of national defense and security.

2. Clause 1 of this Article is not applied to people who is serving a prison sentence and taken abroad to provide evidence as prescribed by Article 25 of the Law on Judicial assistance.

3. The duration of suspension from exit shall not exceed 03 years and may be extended.

It will be interesting to see how these exit requirements will be implemented—and if they will be pared back once they are practiced on the first few cases, which will surely receive widespread publicity.

Additionally, foreigners now have rights that are outlined in the same legislation (which wasn’t explicitly stated previously):

Chapter VII, Article 44.1. Foreigners that enter, leave, transit through, or reside in Vietnam are entitled to:

  1. Have the life, dignity, property, the lawful rights and interests protected in accordance with Vietnam’s Law while they are staying within the territory of Socialist Republic of Vietnam[.]

There are other rights and obligations, so you can view the actual legislation here if you’d like to know more about the change in visa law for foreigners.

Additionally, the are a number of other laws that will take effect in 2015 such as the Amended Property Trading Law and the Amended Housing Law which will impact foreigners; they will set new equity capital requirements for real estate businesses and property projects, and allow foreigners to own a house in several specified forms, respectively. Moreover, there are other laws that will have profound changes for foreigners seeking to invest and own businesses in Vietnam, such as the Law on Enterprises and Law on Investment.

Same Sex Marriage Unbanned

Earlier this month, Vietnam repealed a same sex marriage ban, boosting the nation to the head of the pack for gay, bisexual, and lesbian rights in the region. Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have yearly gay pride parades in the past which have been growing in popularity with each passing year.

A New American Ambassador

The change in marriage for same-sex policy couldn’t have happened at a better time, as the new American Ambassador, Ted Osius,  was officially received in Hanoi last month. Ambassador Osius and his partner, Clayton, have a son, Tabo, making theirs a truly multi-cultural family and perhaps an archetype that will be more represented in the 21st century–in Vietnam and beyond.

Your author had the opportunity to meet with Ambassador Osius during a dinner last week in Hanoi–we have both lived in HCMC and Hanoi, albeit during different eras. More importantly, we also spoke about encouraging American students to study abroad in Vietnam as a way to change the perception of Vietnam in the US, which currently has approximately 16,000 Vietnamese students studying at higher education institutions. Overall, Ambassador Osius spoke openly and candidly about his priorities for his tenure here in Vietnam, some of which you can find here. We are excited and look forward to a new chapter of relations between Vietnam and the US.

New Trade Agreements and Fulfilling Obligations

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), once finalized, will set the stage for the US to be Vietnam’s largest trading partner. Additionally, Vietnam and the Customs Union will also be finalizing their agreement later this year. Once both agreements are executed, it will deliver a big boost to Vietnam’s trade activities.

Also this year, Vietnam must fulfill its World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations of permitting the establishment of wholly foreign-owned businesses, including retailers and wholesalers. Furthermore, integration with ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) allows the free flow of goods and technical (highly skilled) personnel this year (and will slash tariff rates to zero by 2018). Vietnamese companies might be woefully unprepared to compete against new products and services from outside of Vietnam coupled with foreign businesses right in their backyard—but it’s still not too late for Vietnamese business stakeholders to change directions.

Industries, Opportunities, and Trends to Watch Out for in 2015

-New mobile game companies, new gaming models, and cyber and physical spaces merging

-Continued and extended education; for workers and students, respectively

-Improving the local tourism/customer service experience for non-Vietnamese speakers

-Vietnamese startups and local companies continuing to go global

-Agriculture and forestry restructuring; organic foods beginning to become more popular

-Developing “smart” ecosystems at city and building levels

-Social media usage by official Vietnamese organizations

"Happy New Year 2015"

“Happy New Year 2015”

Winter in Hanoi, can you believe it?

Winter in Hanoi, can you believe it?

"Thang Long-Hanoi Thousand Years of Heritage Heroic Capital The city of peace"

“Thang Long-Hanoi
Thousand Years of Heritage
Heroic Capital
The city of peace”


Happy New Year; we wish you a healthy and happy 2015.