Feedback Loops

If you’ve ever been traveling through Vietnam, then one aspect that is noticeably different between the north and the south is the customer service. For example, when ordering a bottle of beer at a restaurant, the server will usually open it for customers in the south—while in the north, the server might not even bring a bottle opener with the bottle. A few weeks ago, over dinner with some Saigonese friends in Hanoi, the discussion touched upon the better customer service in the south. Not even two minutes later, the waitress (politely) informed us that she felt she was walking around our table too much so we should consolidate our future requests for her convenience. On another occasion, at a cafe/restaurant frequented by tourists in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district, your author requested ice water; the waitress brought over cold water sans ice. After inquiring about the lack of ice in the glass, the waitress cheerfully responded, “I think the water is cold enough for you.”

Among the major reasons why customer service (among other things) does not change is simply that customers are used to bad service (they don’t know better), they don’t complain to someone who can do something about it (a manager or owner), they don’t want to complain (for fear of causing trouble for the worker), or they assume it will be futile to complain. This issue consistently rears its ugly head (for tourists, but also for locals) with taxi drivers who know “special” ways to get to the destination, pretend to get lost, or simply don’t know how to get to the destination. Usually, these drivers are from the countryside who flock to big cities after a holiday. Sometimes, taxi drivers will acknowledge where a fare wants to go and will then proceed to “phone a friend” for guidance (and sometimes more than once). At other times, drivers may try to take advantage of the confusion over the local currency by returning less change to a customer than required. Or a driver might not even want to drive to a particular destination if it is “too close” or won’t provide for a “high-enough” fare. (Before Tet in Hanoi, your author experienced some taxi drivers bypassing the meter and establishing “on-demand” pricing.)

However, with the arrival of sharing economy services in Vietnam such as Uber, GrabTaxi, EasyTaxi, they introduce more accountability, systems efficiencies, and feedback loops to allow service enhancements in the future. Or, as Uber Vietnam put it recently, “less congestion, more job opportunities, safer transportation, transparency, accountability and affordability for riders.” Could a similar impact be made in Vietnamese companies via new and innovative technologies (such as mobile apps)? If so, how would progress be measured?

Set Ways

For a team-building session at a major Vietnamese corporation, the management team watches a new TED talk every Monday. The company’s managing director shares some thoughts on the presentation and then opens it up to the rest of the office; almost always, the response is silence. Why?

After discussion with some foreigners who have experience working with Vietnamese—as well as Vietnamese, there may be a variety of reasons for the lack of engagement:

1. Afraid of giving the wrong answer and losing face;

2. Afraid of not giving the “right” answer and being embarrassed by his/her superior;

3. Afraid of giving the correct answer and looking “too” good in front of colleagues (thus painting a bullseye on his/her back); and

4. Not knowing the answer.

This scene presents a sort of “crisis of confidence.” Often, loyalty is valued over competency, making the critical resource of talent in even greater short of supply. And despite money being the ultimate objective for many Vietnamese workers, even bonus systems can sometimes fail. For example, in one Vietnamese company, the underdog team achieved a bonus (approximately $15 for hitting 120% of their target goal) which upset the atmosphere in the office since other units were expecting to win the cash bonus.

Whether it’s a rating system, or a new way to train workers, or standard training, many plans are tough to fully implement in Vietnam. For example, even a new trainer in a reputable gym requires six months before s/he is “good” and a year before s/he can handle any disruption. Long before then, competitors are offering “sweet” packages because the trainer has had a “brand experience.” The same goes for some of Vietnam’s own cafe/restaurant brands; this phenomenon isn’t new—ask any aspiring software developer in Vietnam, especially in the gaming industry. Training and retaining quality employees can be hard (especially when some Vietnamese companies want experienced workers for low pay), but the alternative is keeping the status quo.

Focused Efforts

The greater issue beyond motivating individual employees is that organizations need to establish a baseline pulse to gauge progress in six, 12, 18, 24 months. For example, what KPIs will be used? What will be your targets? How to increase the self-confidence of the workers? How to smartly increase pay to be on par with market rates (and inflation)?

Timeline: What’s the priority? How to identify current employees with the right mindset/attitude? What do you do first?

There can be a variety of initiatives:

  • Hiring process—establish an independent panel/screening to be selective—improving the way to hire
  • HR reorganization/operations—converging departments into a holistic unit
  • Branding/PR—attracting quality talent, connecting with consumers
  • Training programs—preparing the workforce for advancement in the company (meritocracy); promoting a culture of career advancement; and english tutoring components for managers
  • Intrapreneurship/empowerment of workers—expanding into new businesses and retaining the best talent
  • Welfare—raising morale, giving workers more than monetary reasons to stay

Unfortunately, some Vietnamese companies would prefer “quick fixes” which they would like to use within a three month timeline or sooner. Thus, even if core members of a leaderboard recognize that there is a deep cultural issue, they may not be able to do anything because of on-boarding policies and the need to close ranks (even if they describe some of the talent as “terrible.”)

More often than not, companies here can move too slowly, but on the other side of the spectrum they move too fast without thinking (but believe they are on the cutting edge). An example of this is retooling restaurants weeks before opening and consolidating marketing teams across different subsidiaries into a single unit–and then dismissing half the staff.

Creating a New Culture

The challenge is in the implementation, always. True transformation is never really an option unless it comes from the top and has buy-in at all levels, which is rarely the case. Why? Because Vietnamese companies are already very thrifty, there are set alliances in place, and any international hires on staff have usually been unable to implement recommendations that anyone has put forth to enact change.

Then, what should be done? There are a few options:

1. Organizational change

2. Physical building transformation (if necessary)

3. Team-building

Competition is increasing in ASEAN and around the world; what role will Vietnam and its people take on in the global economy in this century? It’s up to the Vietnamese to decide but for sure it will require a combination of innovation, commitment, and investment in areas even as simple as:

  • Empowering workers
  • Eliminating obfuscation
  • Enacting small cultural changes
  • Eradicating fear-based management

But perhaps most important of all is to establish feedback loops, which allows us to gauge goal realization (or lack thereof) in organizations (and in society). Ultimately, feedback loops allow what works to take off, and what is ineffective to be passed over by management.

Forty Years Later

This week we are at the end of a six-day holiday: Hung Vuong Day (Hung Vuong, i.e., “Hung King” is to celebrate the history and lineage of Vietnamese kings.) on April 28; Reunification Day (also called Victory Day or Liberation Day in Vietnam) on April 30; and International Worker’s Day on May 1, also known as “May Day.” It’s the first big holiday break since the Tet holiday (Lunar New Year, a nine-day holiday) back in February. (Originally, the current holiday vacation was requested to be eight days, but only six days were granted.) Signage proclaiming and celebrating these three special days are all over Hanoi, citizens have their flags out in front of their homes, and nationalist songs are broadcast on public address systems in the streets. During significant year anniversaries (30th, 35th, 40th, etc.) parades are held in Ho Chi Minh City to celebrate the north “releasing” the south and the veterans that led the way.

In general, the atmosphere in Vietnam is quieter between Christmas and the Lunar New Year (one-to-two months). Things pick up between the Lunar New Year and this current holiday, but slow down again as we enter this break—in effect, another “reset.” The last day before the holiday, April 27, was the deadline to push through agreements before the exodus to places like Ha Long Bay, Co To, and Cat Ba islands.

As with Tet, many workers return to their home provinces and the streets in major cities become a bit quieter with less traffic (and less honking but not less dangerous, unfortunately). However, some work still goes on: directly and anecdotally, some construction workers on residential projects, service workers in cafes and bars, and factory workers in Bac Ninh all maintained their posts. The next big holiday is in September when Vietnam celebrates its Independence day on September 2. Thus, there are four solid months where business can proceed, unimpeded by long stretches of holiday. At the same time, Ho Chi Minh City’s rainy season begins, which can slow down travel around town due to flooding, and the weather in Hanoi heats up considerably (also slowing down the pace of things) since the city experiences proper seasons without snow.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Reunification Day, when North Vietnamese forces (NVA) captured Saigon and the Second Indochina War ended. In the US, April 30, 1975 is largely viewed as the final day of a tragic chapter in American foreign policy in Vietnam. For the more than one million Viet-Kieu (and their children) in the US, every April brings renewed memories of hardship, sacrifice, loss—and perseverance in a new land. There is no doubt that the war was a dark period for relations between the two governments at great expense of its peoples, some of which continues today. However, more than 40 years after Operation Frequent Wind, Vietnamese attitudes toward the US and capitalism may raise a few eyebrows.

New Attitudes

According to Pew Research, 76% of Vietnamese expressed a favorable opinion of the US during a 2014 poll. Almost nine-in-ten young people (as well as more educated people) were fond of the US. Of those who lived through the Second Indochina War (the Vietnam War as it is called in the US), six-in-ten over the age of 50 held a favorable view of the US. Perhaps the most surprising figure from the poll was that 95% of Vietnamese respondents believe “that people are better off in a free market economy, even if some people are rich and some are poor.” That’s not a typo; ninety-five percent of Vietnamese believe that people are better off in a free market economy (perhaps because the poll respondents picture themselves as the rich ones).

In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear from successful Vietnamese (with direct or close relations to VVIPs) that “making money is not bad… as long as you don’t hurt anybody.” Now, for those who have not spent much time in Vietnam, it may be surprising that there are so many “pro-American” attitudes in a one-party state, especially in the capital.

But spend some time working with Saigonese and doing business with Hanoians and the Pew Research results aren’t that hard to believe at all. For one, Vietnamese love and voraciously consume American culture. Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, and Terminator Genisys are all films that have been screened or will be screened in Vietnam. Along with KPOP, Vietnamese youth listen to a variety of American music artists such as Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, and Katy Perry. American flag backpacks (as a fashion statement) are an occasional sight in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly and still known as Saigon). Last autumn in Hanoi there was even a American-style prom organized and American-style wedding requests aren’t that uncommon. (In fact there is even an American ordained minister who has performed a ceremonial wedding in Hanoi.)

In terms of American products, the Apple iPhone 6 is perhaps the most desired phone in Vietnam. Getting a gold iPhone 6 Plus is even better. Workers will spend two, three, or more months of their salaries just to have it and show off that they are able to afford one. Silicon Valley is the envy of many Vietnamese entrepreneurs in the tech industry. Even the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) initiated a Vietnam Silicon Valley program in 2013. And later this month the National Agency for Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Development (NATEC), a division of MOST, is the main organizer for TechFest Vietnam, a three-day festival which will be held from May 15-17 at Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

And if you were to directly engage and question Vietnamese about the American War (as they know/learn about it), they would most likely respond with “No problem, it was not me and you who were fighting each other.” With two-thirds of Vietnam’s 90 million population being under the age of 30, that is not a surprising response at all. Other Vietnamese have described the US to your author as a “big and strong country,” a “rich country,” and even as “number one” in casual discussions over beer or coffee. (Of course, there are ideologues and “politically correct” apparatchiks to encounter as well.)

One Direction

But it’s not just people-to-people ties that are being forged; there are ever-growing official ties between the two countries as well. Coincidentally, this year is also the 20th anniversary of normal relations between the US and Vietnam. Looking forward, the US intends to be Vietnams’s largest trading partner (having traded $35 billion in total goods last year, the US is already Vietnam’s largest export market), and the TPP will only reinforce the relationship between the two countries even more. However, the intertwined paths of these two countries started long ago, and came to a salient point shortly after the end of the Second World War.

Thirty years before the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Ho Chi Minh stood in Ba Dinh square in Hanoi and read the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam; it contained a familiar passage: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” “Uncle Ho,” as he also known, has another particularly famous saying that Americans might identify with: “Nothing is more precious than Independence and Liberty.” The American Founding Fathers would almost certainly agree with that sentiment.

Forty years later, Vietnam has transitioned from a war-torn economy to a manufacturing center and serves as an integral part of the global supply chain. Beginning with Doi Moi (“Renovation”) in 1986, the Vietnamese economy has become increasingly integrated with the world economy. There have been and will be other significant milestones as well: the US embargo against Vietnam ended in 1994, Vietnam ascended into the WTO in 2007, the TPP will most likely be implemented this year, and by 2018 all tariffs will be reduced to zero as part of ASEAN integration in the region–not to mention a host of other trade promotion vehicles that Vietnam is involved in at various stages. To some, the changes in Vietnam since 40 or even 20 years ago may be surprising, but as someone who heads a department in a ministry recently stated, “the world is changing so we too must change with the world.”

Michelle Phan and Vietnam

“I am first a creator, but my ongoing objective is to leverage my personal success, to help mentor new and existing talent, and further help them achieve their goals.” —Michelle Phan

Michelle Phan is many things; an entrepreneur, a Vietnamese-American, a role model, a success story, and a phenomenon. Coming from humble beginnings, in 2007 she was rejected by Lancome for a makeup artist position because she had no prior sales experience. Instead, Phan turned to blogging and after two readers requested that she make a video tutorial, she obliged and a week later the video had 40,000 views. Today, Phan’s legacy so far is defined by $120 million in annual sales and 100 employees with brands like ipsy (offering a monthly makeup subscription) and her ICON Network (formerly “FAWN” or For All Women Network). Above all, Michelle Phan seems like she hasn’t reached her peak; just recently she was compared to and proclaimed as the next Oprah—all at the age of 27.

While Phan certainly hasn’t shied away from her roots, she also hasn’t seemed ready to take a plunge into business ventures in Vietnam. Phan’s first scheduled time in Vietnam was in November, 2010 (though she was not able to make it) and by her own account, the last (and first) time she visited Vietnam was in August, 2012. Recently, she celebrated her birthday in Japan, where she seems to prefer spending her time in Asia. However, she might be currently missing out on some very big opportunities in Vietnam.

[Update: Michelle Phan appeared at an event in Ho Chi Minh City on May 12, 2015.]

Investing in Vietnam would allow Phan to tap into one of the fastest growing markets (annual growth between 5 and 6 percent) in the world where Phan has clear and demonstrated cultural and heritage ties. Vietnam is part of the group dubbed “New Wealth Builders” which will outnumber mature markets after 2020. Already, the number of super rich (defined by having net worths over $30 million) in Vietnam has increased to over 100 in 2013 from only 34 in 2003. In short, many people are becoming successful as a result of the growing economy here and the growing middle class is continuously demanding newer and higher-quality products, fueled by their increased purchasing power.

Foray into Vietnam

Exactly how Phan should enter the market here is debatable. Vietnam is a complex market—each region (north, south, central, etc.) has its own quirks and consumer styles. However, there are over 90 million people, almost two-thirds of which are under the age of 40 and about a million babies are born here every year. The common area and interest is in two parts: foreign products are preferred in Vietnam, and young Vietnamese are already familiar with “vlogs” or video blogging—something that Phan pioneered in the US.

More importantly, Phan could be a role model for the country’s youth, especially its girls. In local advertising, White, Korean, or Japanese women are mainly present in ads—bombarding the youth with carefully crafted forms of “acceptable” beauty. But in Phan, young and impressionable Vietnamese women can see something else: themselves, i.e., someone who looks like them, who is successful, and who overcame a variety of challenges that they can directly relate to (gambling and/or absent father figure, sharing sleeping surfaces with siblings, financial troubles, rejection, etc.).

Phan’s makeup tutorials and other media can ultimately inspire and build confidence in young women. And in Vietnam that confidence can take several forms—both in the ability to do something (or try something new) but also to ask clarifying questions without the fear of looking foolish in front of colleagues (a significant problem in workplaces). And it can also provide something that money can’t buy: hope.

Cultural Trends

Even though KPOP, Korean soap operas, and other aspects of Korean culture have huge influence in today’s Vietnam, many young Vietnamese love American cultural products. American flag-themed fabrics can be seen in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City along with “Je t’aime Paris” apparel. Things are more toned down up north but in general, blonde-haired and blue-eyed people are often seen as the archetype of beauty and they are consistently showered with compliments when traversing the city streets in Vietnam.

For many Vietnamese, having white skin is one of their ultimate desires (meanwhile countless White people are trying to become a darker color via tanning—both naturally and artificially). There are entire product lines that are dedicated to skin whitening creams and bleaching lotions—a very different approach to beauty care than some westerners might be used to. In the streets, female motorbike drivers will go to great lengths by covering their entire bodies in order to prevent even a single ray of sunlight from reaching their skin (even in the blistering summer heat). There just aren’t many Vietnamese (role) models who are able to balance their local roots with international expectations (with the exception of some niche Viet Kieu singers) and transcend cultural boundaries.

Again, Phan is different; she is American and Vietnamese and she can help to bridge the cultural and understanding gap between people in both countries—imagine her appearing in a travel blog while going through Vietnam. It would help put Vietnam on the map for her legions of fans (whom she refers to as “Dreamers”). Right now the interest between the two countries is in one direction: toward the US for study (more than 16,000 Vietnamese students are currently studying in the US).

Additionally, Michelle, with her model/foreigner boyfriend would be a surefire hit in Vietnam. Husband and wife/DJ duo Matt (of Poreotics) “Dumbo” and Tessa Nguyen are an example of a cross-cultural couple who has found success in Vietnam (mostly based in Ho Chi Minh City). (They spin regularly at Ace Club in Ho Chi Minh City.)

A Rising Brand

As profiled in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 recently, “She’s also got a line of makeup at L’Oréal, a music venture that promotes artists on social media and a deal with reality-TV giant Endemol for an online lifestyle channel. ‘I feel like this is just the beginning,’ she says.” Indeed, Michelle Pham is just getting started: imagine the brand and licensing opportunities when she gets married, has a baby, and her firstborn goes to school for the first time, etc.

Her “name and fame” would allow her to take smart risks in Vietnam to extend her brand. In the future, the Icon Network could be the roadmap for young Vietnamese: lifestyle, personal interest, comedy, and other advice all intersecting together in unison. Some adventurous Vietnamese YouTubers have started to push boundaries here in cyberspace like An Nguy, DamTV, and Mie Nguyen, but a unifying platform (like Icon Network) does not yet exist.

(What’s the alternative? The most famous private television channel in Vietnam is scaling back its programming and some new experiments like Can Ho So 69 have been tried but have proven to be too risqué for mass consumption.)

Thus, Phan could make an impact here and leverage the Vietnamese diaspora in France, Australia, Eastern Europe, and so on. In other words, first establish a brand in Vietnam and then expand outward again, tapping into those existing networks between Vietnamese and Viet Kieu. An alternative is to form a following then expand into other areas such as fashion— and Vietnam already a has robust textiles and manufacturing industries. Michelle Phan already disrupted the cosmetics industry–what’s next for her?

Into Vietnam

Ipsy (or something like it) in Vietnam can find the right niche (via clever experimentation since most e-commerce here is COD). If not, then Birchbox, Loot Crate, Barkbox, or any other monthly subscription service (most likely after proving it can be done in China) will be the first to break into this and other emerging markets (already Bethany Mota has visited India, a one billion plus consumer market). That’s not to say that Michelle Phan hasn’t attempted to connect more deeply with Vietnam. Em, “a reflection of Me” is Phan’s attempt to mate her culture and her personal brand. “Em” meaning “she” or “her” in Vietnamese (and other things, depending on the  context); but there’s no need to stop there—keep going until something beautiful happens.

So how exactly to build up in Vietnam?

  • Start small: aptly translate YouTube videos for Vietnamese or release special videos for the Vietnamese market (which means videos 30 seconds to one minute in length—any longer and there’s not enough patience/attention span);
  • Make more regular visits to Vietnam (and bring your boyfriend);
  • Expand the Icon Network into Asia, especially Vietnam. There are a number of successful YouTube VJs here but you can also hand-select and cultivate suitable talent;
  • Good quality and affordable makeup is hard to find in Vietnam; explore localization options for ipsy;
  • Develop service learning, social enterprise, or impact investing opportunities—the dollar goes much further in Asia and being a good citizen is good marketing; and
  • Mentor new and existing talent in Vietnam; there’s a lot of talent here. Young Vietnamese people are in the middle of changing times between tradition and modernity and feel like their generation is unlike any other. Start with the 2014 Graduate of the Year.

Vietnam Today

Vietnam means different things to different people—some of these perceptions change every day, every year, or every visit and some of them remain frozen in time.

Tradition. An untapped opportunity. A glorious past. Increasing competition. The Fatherland. Independence. Echoes of war. A bright future. A rising dragon. The party. People of the sea. Resilience. Freedom. Children of the mountains. Liberalization. Home. Happiness.

So, what is Vietnam today? This post attempts to encapsulate daily life in Vietnam as a snapshot of some of the most common sights, sounds, and experiences in the country today. Some items on this list are not exclusive to Vietnam (or even Asia) but they are still noticeable in daily life in a major city like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.

Vietnam is the land of…

1. “Selfies”

If you go out one night in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll probably find people taking selfies or self-captured photos. There are certain requirements for where and when one should take a selfie, including being with a significant other, before eating, being with friends, and generally anywhere and everywhere in between. The ubiquity of smart phones in Vietnam allows for the endless flow of media experiences to be captured, shared, and commented on to form an constant feedback loop.

2. Cafes

The cafe is an important part of life for Vietnamese. They are used for a bunch of core activities including meetings, relaxing, literally sitting around, playing games (multiplayer and single player), and to communicate status. Some common drinks are cafe sua da (also known as cafe no da in the north), xinh to xoai, and tra da. The cafe culture here is strong, rich, and all-encompassing but still very different in parts of the country.

3. iPhones

Not just smartphones, but Apple iPhones. These devices are seemingly everywhere and can be seen used by celebrities as well as (some) shopkeepers and street vendors. One way that the number of iOS devices increase in the country is through family: as people upgrade their handsets to the latest models, they pass on their older models to family members. There are millions of iOS devices in Vietnam but the app marketplace is largely fragmented with third party app portals.


A sea of traffic, clouds of exhaust, and incessant honking. Many Vietnamese drivers seem to use the horn simply because it is there. Another large portion seem to use the horn as if were sonar by sending out “pings.” The horns here seem to be at least 30% louder than US models and we could see custom horns emerge here similar to how there are custom ringtones for phones.

5. Wi-Fi

There is no need to ask if a venue has WiFi since it’s more efficient to ask what the password is (usually 12345678 or some similar variation). Almost every cafe or restaurant provides free Wi-Fi (that works when an undersea cable isn’t damaged). The widespread availability of Wi-Fi could pose a cyber security risk in the future, especially if the lax attitude toward privacy continues here.

6. Motorbikes

Vietnam is the world’s fourth largest market for motorbikes. During rush hour, motorbikes form rivers, which larger vehicles attempt to ford or cut through with impatience. Trying to navigate an intersection with other motorbikes is probably akin to being in a mechanized phalanx. Companies like Yamaha Motors Vietnam need to position themselves carefully considering that the Vietnamese dream is to drive to work in a car.

7. New construction

Drive around Hanoi and you can hear and see the future of Vietnam. Fly into Ho Chi Minh City and you can see the cranes that dot the city from above. Some future projects will be added to an already large real estate inventory (with outrageous prices per square meter) while smarter developers will find ways to differentiate their projects via advanced automation, control, and integration technologies in buildings to benefit end-users (and ultimately, to increase ROI).

8. Recycling

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” here is “Resell, Reuse, Repurpose.” Empty water bottles are collected and sold to recyclers. Anything that is not completely broken or destroyed is used or repurposed until it falls apart. It’s one of the most efficient aspects of Vietnam—especially when contrasted to some western habits of instantly replacing or upgrading appliances.

9. Name Brands

Nouveau riche are rising in status and increasing in numbers. Of course they are flocking to luxury brands but some lack the sophistication that usually comes with style. As they say, “money doesn’t buy class” so there is opportunity for etiquette schooling and training, especially in the north.

10. Youth

Young people are everywhere and although there are far too many banking and finance majors, they are the future of Vietnam (as cliched as it may be). A segment of them are break dancing, popping, locking, and dropping their ways into adulthood while those studying STEM subjects seem to be diving headlong into startups and IT outsourcing. Right now, many young Vietnamese idolize KPOP stars and are hungry for American culture—but they will all eventually craft their own styles.

11. Touch

Personal space does not exist here. Touching, at times inappropriately (from western point of view), is a way to communicate (since much of Vietnamese language relies on context). Couples (not just romantic ones) can be seen walking together in a semi-drunken stagger while talking loudly, laughing, or sharing some inside joke.  Be prepared to “pinball” off some people in crowded public spaces as space is at a premium. Co-workers regularly and playfully slap each other; a sign of affection.

12. Drinking

Drinking and Vietnam go hand-in-hand. Beer Hanoi, Beer Saigon, Beer Truc Bach (the finest beer in Vietnam), Beer Halong, Beer Hue—you get the idea (those are all beer brands, by the way). Then there is ruou, rice alcohol which can come in a variety of flavors. Drinking is an occasion for bonding, building soft relationships with counterparts, and for social (and professional) lubrication.

13. Smoking

Cigarettes, traditional bongs, and hookah. Non-smokers are in for a rough time in Vietnam—there’s always someone smoking nearby (usually Marlboro or Thanh Long brands). Smoking is allowed indoors and is encouraged in nightlife spaces. The air quality already is not great in major cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi—the longterm health implications of these combinations are alarming. Purchases and installations of air and water filtration systems will become more common as Vietnamese seek to protect their children from harmful exposure to pollutants.

14. Music

Music is used to attract customers on the street, to drown out one’s senses in nightclubs, and just because someone is in the mood to blast it. Young people on the street break out into impromptu ballads or sing along with songs in unison. Overall, music here is dangerously loud and Vietnamese will pay the price for these unsafe audio levels in the form of fees to audiologists.

15. Stares

Everyone stares here, especially if you are an attractive woman, a foreigner, or are different in any way, shape, or form—in that case then they stare at you as if you are an alien. A simple smile or wave can break the ice but coming from a culture where staring is considered impolite, it can be jarring to some.

20 Years (+/-)

Twenty years ago this list would have been radically different except for a few items. Most vehicles on the roads were bicycles at that time. Imagine what a snapshot of Vietnam will be in the year 2035 with approximately 110 million people. Unrecognizable? Some parts Bangkok and other parts Hong Kong? Sustainable eco-tourism? A center for innovation in Southeast Asia?

In the early 20th century, the population of Vietnam was about 20 million. Today, Vietnam has over 90 million people. Vietnam is rapidly changing; some changes are positive and while others are unclear. What will be Vietnam’s role as we continue deeper into the 21st century? Only time will tell but one thing is certain—the pace of change here will surely increase.

Phonsavan, Xiengkhouang Province

Phonsavan is the capital of Xiengkhouang Province, arguably the most heavily bombed area of the most heavily bombed country (per capita), Laos, in the world. Phonsavan itself is a relatively new city—the old capital Muang Khoun, about 30 kilometers south of Phonsavan, was largely affected by the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War). In fact, the old capital was so damaged by the bombing that many of the original stupas were destroyed.

Besides these and other artifacts of war (e.g., a crumbling French hospital), the surrounding landscape here is quiet and peaceful; the sun pierces through limited cloud formations to form stunning arrays of light and long stretches of crisp blue sky seem to hang overhead indefinitely. At night stars and other space objects are clearly visible to the naked eye—a rare sight coming from hazy and smoggy Hanoi.

The main strip of Phonsavan has the distinct feel of an Old West town, especially with the backdrop of nearby rolling hills. At times, “Montana” comes to mind, however this thought is quickly squeezed out of mind when the surprising amount of Vietnamese and Chinese signage comes into focus. Throughout Phonsavan there is a healthy mix of Chinese and Vietnamese nationals; the Vietnamese influence is most visible in the form of late night pho restaurants and neon red lit massage parlors (tam quat) dotted on the main strip.

Passing through Phonsavan, it’s easy to spot the Vietnamese—they drive more erratically (locals here drive recklessly enough when compared to Vientiane drivers but Vietnamese-driven buses were described to us as “torpedoes”), speak more loudly, and have more aggressive demeanors (work ethic and attitude) than the laid-back Lao locals. Your author stopped by a banh mi shop on the side of the road and asked one Vietnamese man who had been in Phonsavan for five months what he thought of Lao people; he held out his right hand, rubbed his fingers together with his thumb, and quickly shook his head while grimacing. Nothing more needed to be said.

Interacting with Locals

At a local club called Dok Mai Daeng (“red flower” in Lao) young Hmong people dance in relentless synchronization which eventually morphs into equal parts mosh pit and dance battle as the music picks up in tempo and the MC directs their abundant energy from center stage. Young men lift each other up and attempt to publicly determine who between them is taller, pausing every so often to forcefully crash and jump into young women on the dance floor—who equally seem to enjoy the rough contact. In between songs, all parties return to their respective tables or the young men find suitable partners to dance slowly to, depending on the next song. Interesting as it may be, this excited and loud scene is a far cry from the typical expat experience in Phonsavan.

The consistent westerner expat community in Phonsavan is fairly small with a majority of backpackers and tourists rounding out the western presence; the latter mostly in town to check out the mysterious Plain of Jars or using the town as a rest stop on the way to Luang Prabang. The Plain of Jars (PDJ according to the French abbreviation) is the main tourist attraction nearby, with a different feel from backpacker tubing in Vang Vieng or high-end resort tourism in Luang Prabang. Most nights, longterm expats can be found at Bamboozle, a restaurant run by a Scot named Mark, and perhaps the best place in town to find a quality meal. These “local” expats are almost certainly working for an NGO or doing volunteer work in town related to the continued effects of the bombing campaigns from decades ago.

Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is out in the field on a daily basis and there are a number of other NGOs (such as UXO Lao) that focus on Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), ranging from clearance to victim support assistance. The UXO sector in Laos (“mine action” in the official parlance) comprises three areas: clearance, mine risk education, and victim assistance. These services are badly needed here because an estimated 30% of the more than 270 million cluster submunitions dropped on Laos failed to explode. To put that figure in perspective, an average of one sortie (a roundtrip flight by one aircraft) was conducted every eight minutes for nine years (1964-1973).

Besides UXO, the biggest enemy these days could be boredom in Phonsavan, which can lead to heavy drinking for locals and expats alike in this rural area. Drinking is part of daily life in Lao PDR, and in Phonsanvan the national past time doesn’t divert too far away from its core. Runway Club, the largest nightclub in the area (and nestled in a bus depot), serves as another collection point in the “night life” funnel for the locals. Post-curfew, anyone who is still in the mood to continue the night reunites at one of several late night Vietnamese restaurants, which can also house snooker tables. As in much of Asia, driving is a hazard, but in Phonsavan the activity takes a higher form of danger—especially with drunken drivers careening down the main strip late at night and others making impromptu U-turns without advance warning. It’s interesting to note that at every location we went to in Phonsavan, we were either the only westerners in a venue or we were surrounded by fellow westerners, a highly segregated experience.

A Mix of History, Cultures, and Futures

A local official whom we spoke to at “Beer Party” Restaurant in Phonsavan described Lao culture as the following :

1. Having enough rice to eat;

2. Having a house to live in;

3. Having friends and relatives to come over and drink with; and

4. Having a partner to share life with.

However, this official also spoke about the foreign exchange of technical skills with Lao people, i.e., needing advanced knowledge from other places. This official was the second person out of six or seven who proceeded to come to our table to introduce themselves to us and speak with us in a mix of Lao, English, and Vietnamese (in that order). One constant throughout the entire experience was the warmth and hospitable nature of the Lao people—always smiling, always greeting, and always trying to help foreigners adjust to the local settings.

Even when the subject turned to the Secret War, and the massive bombing campaign carried out by the US government during the 1960s and 1970s, our counterparts seemed apologetic when referencing what had partly transpired where we were standing over 30 years ago. On this subject, we had an experience which ended up being the most sobering of all during the time we spent at this local eatery: one man, a chemistry teacher at a local teacher’s college, explained to us that his father had been killed by the bombing. It wasn’t clear whether his father was a civilian, Pathet Lao, or Royalist supporter, but this man was still visibly affected by events leading up to the revolution in 1975.

Chinese and Vietnamese influence in Xiengkhoang Province during that time took on a different form but presently, the Chinese focus on the commercial development projects while the Vietnamese focus on residential construction; these activities give one the distinct feeling of the area being carved up for neighborly consumption (or competition, depending on perspective). One 27-year-old Chinese national whom we spoke to at Desa Restaurant had been in Lao PDR for about a year; he had learned the language by spending time working in the chemicals sector.

Almost as soon as we had sat down at our own table, we were quickly invited to his table where he had been drinking with three other similarly aged Lao colleagues. Together, we shared several rounds of Beerlao and exchanged questions and answers about our respective backgrounds; at one point, one of the Lao men expressed his desire to visit the US in the future while the others nodded in unison. Our other discussion topics ranged from marriage to work to travel plans. Toward the end of our night, we toasted our newfound friendships with each other: three Lao nationals, two Americans, and one Chinese citizen sitting together in a local hangout in one of the most heavily bombed areas in the world.

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.


Long Van Group

Long Van Group, founded in 1992, is comprised of four companies: Long Van NTV, Loval, ALV, and Hondalex. Through its portfolio companies based in Vietnam and the US, the family-owned group is perhaps best known for its aluminum product manufacturing—which is how it got its start. The other companies include a trading company in Ho Chi Minh City for the domestic market, a trading company in the US for the international market, and a joint-venture with Hondalex. Recently, we sat down with Thy Van Nguyen (Vanessa), whose official title is Operational Director but she is heavily involved with the strategic vision of the group as well as integral in implementing organizational change across the companies.

Ms. Nguyen was born in Ho Chi Minh City and moved to the US when she was 16. After being based in Seattle, Washington and attending university in the US, Ms. Nguyen moved back to Ho Chi Minh City about 18 months ago in order to focus on the family business. She currently spends about 80% of her time in Vietnam between Ho Chi Minh City and Binh Duong Province, where the manufacturing  activities of Long Van Group takes place. Currently, one of Ms. Nguyen’s major initiatives is the transformation of culture in her organization, something that she has successfully done in the domestic trading arm of the group.

Changing a Culture From Within

Ms. Nguyen is a big believer in getting the people doing a task or activity to understand the purpose of it. The people on the front lines are already the best people to do to the job so they will also be in the best position to improve the process. It’s only a matter of getting them used to speaking up and contributing regularly for the reward is improved efficiency and recognition by management and their peers.

That goal is sometimes easier said than done as older managers in a company have a more traditional mindset of top-down management style. Therefore, it’s necessary to first change the managers—either their attitudes or outright replace them (however, Ms. Nguyen didn’t have to fire anybody). If the managers had not bought into her vision at the onset then the project couldn’t have worked. Having the managers on board enabled the culture at the trading company to completely change within eight months but it took six months before she began to see the fruits of her labor. It also helped that Ms. Nguyen speaks Vietnamese in addition to English, and is the daughter of the company’s owner so she did have the power to initiate and implement change. However, despite these advantages it was still tricky for her to balance the right relationship with the workers due to some strong local cultural elements.

Part of the culture in Vietnam revolves around a fear of power which has roots in the royal history of Vietnam and continues in the form of wealth and political power today. Therefore, people in positions of power might need to be more informal, more cheery, and re-emphasize what resources are available to workers who need help, guidance, or any kind of assistance. People aren’t going to ask for help on their own or tell you what problems they have. Vietnamese culture is generally not expressive; a Vietnamese son or daughter can do 1,000 things right and not receive a single compliment. However, if s/he does one thing wrong then they will hear about it to no end. Thus, a lack of a negative response is a positive step. It’s important to praise workers because no one really says compliments from an authority position so it really impacts their subordinates.

It’s interesting to note that Ms. Nguyen was able to effectively change the culture because of gaps in old culture when other senior leaders were focusing on other business lines. Her changes came at the right time because the old system was not effective for expanding beyond the original 20-30 employees since it was largely based on gut feelings.

It may also be that everybody can see the problem at hand but no one wants to do much about it–Ms. Nguyen sought to change that. The interesting thing is that the workers want to hear different perspectives but not necessarily change the old ways of doing things. So even though everyone can point out the problem, no one can suggest a solution because it may be too risky to suggest a potential solution.

This challenge of self-confidence and expression has its origins in the educations system in Vietnam. The educational culture in Vietnam revolves around being told what to do; the teacher tells you the answer and that’s the answer–end of discussion. One way to overcome this element is by tapping into the fact that Vietnamese people love to look good; they want the story to be about them. They love the credit so give them that credit when appropriate. For example, present them with a situation and ask them to help. Then you can follow up with: “I listened to you and it worked.” In these moments you will see how proud the workers are and have just established a precedent. Perhaps the most effective way to connect with workers is to tell them stories, and then get them to be part of the stories. It can be as simple as presenting a scenario to workers and asking them, “if you had to make that decision then what would you do?” Indeed, not all changes are smooth and changing a culture is perhaps one of the toughest tasks to take on but by empowering workers it increases an organization’s operational efficiency overall.

Make no mistake: an organizational transformation is not without friction and conflict—especially when dealing with the “old guard.” Some people quit in the process, in part due to wanting to change the organization in a different way than Ms. Nguyen so they left. Changing the culture required that Ms. Nguyen trust that a real foundation was in place for the company to expand upon itself. To that end, she had to let go of some of the intensive focus she had on certain processes. These days Ms. Nguyen’s 62 workers at the trading company embrace and drive towards her and their vision of change.

Training and Developing Vietnamese Workers

Improvement is a continuous process at Long Van Group. Ms. Nguyen gives training courses once or twice a week for each division in her company in an effort to better prepare them for current and future work-related tasks. She strives to get different workers to select a unit each week based on a set list and give a presentation to the other workers. In her “guide-on-the-side” role, she asks questions and draws opinions from the workers and gives feedback at the end of each session.

During her training sessions, she will also share a story about a work experience, or conduct a workshop, or present a scenario. Then the workers will split into groups and talk about what each worker would have done in the scenario or what to do in the situation in the future.

Example: Your colleague sends an email to an organizational partner who you must coordinate with on a project. In the email, your colleague states that your company is not responsible for a specific portion of scope but that there are related issues that need to be addressed for the client’s benefit. The organizational partner’s vice director simply responds: “If the scope is not your responsibility, then your opinion does not matter.”

Ms. Nguyen will then question the workers on whether or not the logic of the vice director is wrong. Thus, the workers are solving problems with real experiences (the above example is actually used in training by Ms. Nguyen and was experienced by your author in Ho Chi Minh City last year) and are thinking about how to view situations more deeply.

This analysis is important because when responding to allegations some Vietnamese tend to lash out when things start to take a dive and they can take things personally even if they aren’t meant to be from your side. So it’s vital to be mindful of not only what you say (although that is important as well), but about how they feel (and taking care to let everyone save face).

Within Vietnam, southerners rely more on gut feelings whereas northerners are more logical. The southerners present themselves at face value; they want to prove to you that they care about you when they meet you. However, northerners want to compare status levels and act accordingly. Thus, foreigners might have a better time in Hanoi compared to “common people.” Northerners tend to think more before they talk so their use of words is better and more structured which presents them as being clever. Southerners speak more from the heart since they are generally more open and expressive. It’s important to be aware of your counterpart’s feelings because in Vietnam and in life, one can never do something big or grand without building a coalition.

Human Capital in the US and in Vietnam

In the US, people and workers are proactive while in Vietnam they are largely reactive. However, foreigners can learn a lot from Vietnamese people. But first, they must stop assuming and see things in limited possibilities. Ridiculous and downright crazy (from a western perspective) things could and will be possible because it may be the only option for moving forward in Vietnam.

The social structure is more set in the US due to the developed economy and Puritan work ethic. So in the US there is freedom to choose within set choices, i.e., the illusion of freedom because everything is already structured. Life is very predictable in the US so many people want to be proactive, they want to be ahead of the curve. Thus, Americans tend to assume a lot when planning.

On the other hand, Vietnamese are “proactive by being reactive:” they expect the plans to go awry so they bypass the planning stage and when things devolve they are better equipped to salvage the situation. Thus, Vietnamese prepare for certain situations but not for all situations. In that sense, they are able to make unreasonable (or even crazy) positions seem logical because they have developed these skills. They are very adept at framing an arena and taking up defensive and offensive positions and excel when things don’t go right, in part due to the messy social structure. It may be surprising to some that Vietnamese can be very practical because oftentimes there are no other options.

So, Vietnamese are really good at changing situation into their favor but they are also good at making crazy logic sound normal. Some people may believe that if they spot an issue and bring it up, then they will need take responsibility for it. People are afraid of responsibility because of the challenge of getting the task accomplished correctly. Vietnamese people like to look good so they don’t like to put their name on a project or idea in case it fails. But if it turns out good and then they take full credit. For Ms. Nguyen, a large part of the effort to change the organization is by marketing herself through self-branding because the perceptions of the workers will make or break any initiative.

Opportunities for Expats

To Ms. Nguyen, Vietnam is the perfect country to grow something big—but it’s a double-edged sword. Everything is based on relationships, which can be good or bad depending on the perspective. To be successful in Vietnam, one needs to be flexible and open-minded since many problems in Vietnam need to be solved in unorthodox manners. Structure beyond social doesn’t really exist, so if one relies on structure to move forward then s/he is in for a rude awakening (unless those connections are present). Above all, give Vietnam a chance but know where your limits are and what is the extent of your comfort zone for (operational and legal risks).

Expats shouldn’t assume anything in Vietnam and they will have to take on more responsibility to ensure that things stay on track and don’t fall apart. Things that are taken for granted in the west simply don’t exist in Vietnam. For example, the search results of Google, and Google VN are very different. Some people in Vietnam trust the US version more than the Vietnamese version. Also, Vietnamese websites generally don’t have a “how-to” section. For western websites, the product or service offered is described in depth and it is very clearly shown what it is and how it is done.

When explaining something in Vietnam, it has to be simple, clear, and consistently explained multiple times. Then, inverse questions need to be asked in order to triangulate what the actual response is for determining if the receiver understands or not. Communicating processes, requirements, or issues to locals can be timely and frustrating, even when explaining in the Vietnamese language. One way to get Vietnamese people to understand a process or information is through infographics—and in particular, youngsters will understand it better. They like the convenience aspect and the way the information is presented so they are more likely to understand it. If a member of the older generation doesn’t understand something, then s/he will just ask someone nearby or a close friend who will be put on the spot and could just blurt out something that sounds good but isn’t necessarily accurate. Thus, a crazy feedback loop begins where most of the information is wrong as the process continues. Besides, many Vietnamese don’t believe what they read. The older generations do, but the younger (those born in the 1990s and later) ones, no. Cute infographics can help explain things succinctly—and the cuter, the better; think anime characters.

In more general terms, most work fields don’t give newcomers to the country a chance. Connections are part of status which bypasses merit in many cases. It doesn’t matter if you are the best in your field, if you don’t have a good connection then no one will work with you. When arriving in Vietnam, get the connection first. Leverage being sent by a foreign company by learning about the country and forming bonds. Another option is to wait until you have the money to buy status here. In that sense, you don’t have to be the best person in your field—you can be average but still get a piece of the action through connections.

Drinking: Bad or Good for Business?

Still, business can be too much relationship-based; that is to say too reliant on gut feelings and feelings in general. Logic is largely used to make decisions in the US but in Vietnam they need to “feel it” in order to do something. These positive feelings are usually the result of some bonding over alcohol, either bia hoi, ruou, or some imported spirits.

Ms. Nguyen points out that her male employees never get drunk enough to be inappropriate at company functions. And for those who don’t drink any alcohol, while they can sponsor a “drinking nominee,” they could be at a disadvantage with their local counterparts by them not “truly” knowing the person when s/he is drunk. Thus, the best way to establish trust with Vietnamese counterparts is to drink alcohol with them—so if you get drunk easily then you must learn how to control yourself. Vietnamese truly believe that you will be yourself when you are drunk so in a way it’s like peering into your soul.

Everything you say or do shapes their perception about you, especially when drinking. The actual message, while important, is secondary since they are judging you via a gut feeling. It can be quite dangerous since Vietnamese may perceive an offense where there was none. When doing business, Vietnamese generally won’t trust you until you drink alcohol with them and they are able to see the “true you.”

How you are as a person when drunk may be the biggest indicator of doing a deal with Vietnamese. Their perception of you while imbibing will be the baseline for judging you. Once they see you drunk, then that’s how they will perceive you and they will hold onto this image of you until the next time you drink together. If you are a bad drunk, then beware.

The Next Step

Next up for Ms. Nguyen is changing the culture at the factory since it is a special case. The entire production was in the hands of two directors but the current result didn’t turn out so well so the focus is on getting workers to take more initiative and overcome fears of failure. Indeed, Long Van Group is at the forefront of providing high-quality products and driving organizational change in order to provide a better customer experience. Vietnam is becoming an even more prominent destination for outsourcing and manufacturing and as more projects are implemented here then the technical and management skills requirements will increase as well.

Today, China produces for much of the world but in recent years some factories have migrated to Vietnam, in part due to the fact that wages in China are higher than in Vietnam. However, prices of finished goods in Vietnam can be higher than in China because of other operational costs. The disadvantage that Vietnam has is that the workforce is less skilled than China’s and the economies of scale don’t exist on par with China. Quality control remains an issue in Vietnam as well.

As more foreign companies come to the Vietnamese market, the standards for local workers’ qualifications and skills will rise. A growing trend is for Vietnamese workers to take courses at private institutes to aid in their professional development, e.g., how to be a better manager or CEO. These courses are truly development on an individual level because people are there because they want to be better. For the students, Ms. Nguyen suggests that they seek to understand on a conceptual level and learn to connect everything.

“Learning how to connect things is the tool you need to work in the real world,” Ms. Nguyen advises.

Below, Ms. Nguyen shares some of her favorite quotes:

“Do or do not, there is no try.” –Master Yoda

“If you are a good leader, when your work is done, your aim fulfilled, your people will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’” –Abraham Lincoln

“You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer.” – Alice Duer Mill


Special thanks to Vanessa Nguyen of Long Van Group who shared her time with us and greatly contributed to this week’s post.

First Impressions of Vietnam

Trying to explain Hanoi, and Vietnam in general to someone who has never been here can be quite challenging. For many expats in Southeast Asia, the region and its cultures can be difficult to understand and navigate let alone effectively explain to family and friends at home. And research, while helpful to understand settings, is not a substitute for direct experience.

This week we have a guest contributor who is with us here in Hanoi. Zdravko Tumbovski is an international businessman who has done business in Turkey, Bulgaria, his native Macedonia, and other countries. He arrived in Hanoi for the first time on Tuesday, November 18 in order to take a firsthand look at the Vietnamese market and to gauge its potential for his interest in trading with Vietnam and in Southeast Asia.

His professional experience includes an internship at an insurance company in Macedonia; a Business Analyst position at a family owned company, Info Group Ltd, which made investments in the Macedonian Stock Exchange and the Macedonian Real Estate market. Currently, Mr. Tumbovski is the founder and director of Z&Z Capital Ltd based in Bulgaria, which specializes in transport and logistics services in the European Union (EU).

Additionally, in conjunction with partners in Turkey, he is involved in import-export transactions, mainly in cooking oil, but they are also expanding to other commodities for the Turkish bazaar. His primary role is to find a suitable supplier and to negotiate the payment methods and transportation of the goods.

Zdravko shares his first impressions of Vietnam below:

After constantly moving around between the US, Europe, and the Middle East in the last seven years, I spent a considerable amount of time in Los Angeles this year. About a month ago, I reconnected with director of GKTA Group, whom I have known for several years.

GKTA Group introduced me to some of the many challenges, opportunities, and conditions faced in Vietnam. I felt attracted to learning more about this dynamic market and it didn’t take long for me to decide to come here and check out Vietnam for myself.

Even though I am still in the first week of my arrival, I must admit that I am having a very smooth transition to this country so far. I was already familiar with Asian cultures due to my friendship with Asians in my network that I have known for a long period of time, and also because GKTA Group put a lot of effort to set up at least one meeting per day with a local person where I can get his/her answers to some of my questions about his/her country’s future, his/her point of view toward foreigners, and the changes that s/he has seen the past five years in Hanoi, especially.

Hanoians and Hanoi

Vietnamese people in the capital of Hanoi are generally polite and quiet. It usually requires some time until they start to feel comfortable sharing their views, and begin to realize the goal of my questions because I see that they are not very used to foreigners who are interested in their culture, and who try to understand their values.

Vietnamese people seem to be the loudest on their motorbikes. They are honking at every cross street, and from my findings they rarely show anger with words, but only with menacing stares at the perceived wrong-doer. The amount of motorbikes and the traffic frequency for me was something unseen before; in short, outrageous.

Hanoi is a city with a long history, and it is shown on every corner. Hanoi has the street-selling spirit and it is still done traditionally and mostly inexpensively for locals. However, there is luxury consumption visibility in the younger generations and newly rich populations. For me, this is probably more visible because I was raised in a former communist country, Macedonia (Former Yugoslavia).

The Wi-Fi coverage and the use of internet are quite impressive compared to the expectation of technology in a developing country. The “drinking-coffee” habit is at large range, and the number of cafes is seemingly endless but a favorite of Vietnamese people. One new thing for me is using condensed milk (“sua dac”) in almost every cup of coffee—and I find it tasty—even if it is uncommon for me as a European.

Luckily, I am fan of Asian cuisine, and have been eating it frequently. Compared to other cuisines and the tastes of some westerners, you may remain hungry here if you are very picky with the food. The traditional street foods, or the local dishes in the very basic and not-so-modern restaurants can be tasty for people who are food enthusiasts and open to new flavors; on the other hand, it can be off-putting (even though I aim to be cautious with my language here), because I certainly know many people who would not be able to eat the local food here, and who would not be willing to be seated and served in the Hanoian or Vietnamese way of small tables and children chairs. So far, I enjoy it.

Work Ethic and Exposure

My personal view is that most of people here work hard and long hours. The basic example for that is the staff at the hotel where I stay. They are here every single day of the week, for over twelve hours per day. They are very friendly and very helpful even if there is occasional miscommunication.

When talking to waiters or other people in cafes and on the streets, I have come to realize that many of them have not had a chance to travel a lot. Actually, many have never been outside of Vietnam. The reason for that is first, money and second, time since, as mentioned before, they have to work almost every day, year-round.

There is a sense of trust that permeates through the people here. I had a very unique experience that occurred to me at the border upon arriving at the airport: I had arranged for visa upon arrival and at the bureau the visa was issued and stamped more quickly than what I had estimated, but I had no cash on me to pay. The customs officer asked me if I had any currency equal to the amount of $95 (the price of the visa), but I had none. The ATM was outside the immediate area, after the passport control, so I thought that I couldn’t consider the option to withdraw some money. As a matter of fact, the officer walked me through the immigration border without any checking and without any concern, just to withdraw the necessary money for the visa, and then led me back to her desk in order to pay. That was surprising. Actually, the border control experience in general was more liberal than in many other countries.

If I am allowed a chance or could offer some suggestions to Vietnamese who want to be successful with westerners, it would be:

  • Learn more English, the number of tourists is increasing  and you need it
  • Strive to be more comfortable with foreigners
  • Be more creative for international businesses; this land is rich
  • Act more responsible to the duties and respond to requirements efficiently and faster

Business and Understanding Vietnam Now and in The Future

I haven’t experienced any business deals in Vietnam yet, but I am most worried about the changing industry regulations, the unpredictable law amendments, unfair competition, and the guarantee of quality standards.

My advice to the expats that want to do business in Vietnam is to spend as much time as possible here, but with local people. It is essential to understand the habits of the Vietnamese before starting any sort of business, in order to prevent an organizational mismatch and communication misunderstandings. It is complex and different here indeed.

I can already see that the necessary attributes required to succeed in Vietnam are patience and simple guidelines.

What I would like to learn about Vietnam or the Vietnamese is: until what extent have the ancestors shaped today’s population, and how much is the young generation willing to keep and practice the old traditions? I hope that finding this balance will help me to predict and understand their place in the world for the next decade.

This next decade will be crucial for Vietnam as the country transitions to increased trade with more global partners, the middle class continues to grow, and more foreign investment pours into the economy. Vietnam has many natural resources, a lot of talented people, and a willingness to exceed economic indicators but it will not be without some development friction, conflict between traditional and modern Vietnam, and addressing some major investor concerns. However, the long-term benefits will be far greater than what the shortcut rewards of today will provide. After all, as Jim Rohn says, “You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight.”

Thanks to Zdravko Tumbovski who contributed to this week’s post.

Currents of Creativity in Hanoi

We took off from publishing last week so we are resuming our normal schedule of Sunday posts. Keeping a schedule or routine in general helps to build structure and maintain momentum; for some that means going to the gym, for others it means traveling once a month, and for us it means writing consistently in between projects, meetings, and travels.

However, it’s good to change things up once in a while and to consume content instead of creating it—movies usually fill that role but for inspiration it’s best to turn elsewhere. While it might be hard to find unique institutions of culture in Vietnam beyond museums, a vast assortment of handicrafts, or those visible propaganda art shops in the streets, it does not mean that Vietnam is devoid of other forms of creativity and expression. Indeed, there are coursing currents of creativity in Hanoi and greater Vietnam that can be missed at first glance. This week we will take a look at some emerging sub-culture trends within the last few years.

Tuned In

Music: art for the ears. In general, many of the younger generations of Vietnamese seem to prefer western songs with romantic undertones. However, there are not many high-profile western musical acts that come through Vietnam, which is a bit surprising to consider since western culture can be heavily consumed in Vietnam at times. For example, one could make a strong case for P!nk’s Just Give Me A Reason as the 2013 unofficial theme song of Vietnam. And speaking of anthems, let’s not forget Michael Learns to Rock’s Take Me To Your Heart, which seems to be played everywhere in Vietnam (even though they are technically an Asian-branded band). Some Vietnamese children even learn the lyrics to MLTR songs while growing up—and they probably could have learned their first English words via those popular songs

Some other younger and more hip Vietnamese seem to enjoy rock music more, preferring local bands, or jazz, or rap music. Vietnamese rappers such as Su Boi and Kim (also known as Kimmese) are among two of the most popular acts. Moreover, KPOP has spread its influence to a huge numbers of followers here in Vietnam. KPOP stars have brought everything from new dance moves to novel hairstyles to nascent fashion trends in Vietnam. On a more local level, Hanoi seems to have more charm and is more music festival centric whereas Saigon experiences are more about the creativity and variety in cosmopolitan nightlife experiences in bars and clubs.

On The Move On and Off The Wall

Run, Saigon, Run! Earlier this year, the unique Color Me Run, “based on new ideas for activities” was held in Saigon for the first time. Meanwhile, in Hanoi, Viet Pride, an inclusive equality and volunteer driven parade was first held in Hanoi in 2012, and then subsequently spread to Saigon and beyond. It is interesting to see the divergence between commercial and social mission events within the host cities, especially because some of the more progressive events originate from the more traditional city.

Other than those events, street art and graffiti, in general, have been getting more popular in Vietnam. Whether it is tagging or painting intricate wall murals around West Lake, the interest in street art could bring bigger opportunities for commercial enterprises as Vietnamese youth and other thought leaders turn their attention toward alternate forms of expression beyond the traditional outlets, i.e., “rebels,” if you will.

Speaking of  rebels, Harley-Davidson, the symbol of rebels against society, finally arrived in Vietnam last year. With the opening of the first Harley-Davidson dealership in Vietnam, we can expect to see more western culture absorbed and emulated in Vietnam as more and more brands go east. With the high barrier to entry (entry-levels models like the 883 start off around $16,000), there is a premium for being a rebel leader. A complimentary first year’s membership to Saigon H.O.G. or Harley-Davidson Owner’s Group is included with each new purchase of any model. And what are bikers without tattoos? The first Tattoo Convention in Vietnam was held in Saigon last year as tattoos became even trendier and more mainstream.

Hanoi: For Local and Foreign Artists

Even on an educational level, art is becoming more popular in Vietnam. Some of the most popular majors for Vietnamese students include banking and finance. Indeed, there are institutions dedicated to a banking emphasis since it is a conventional career path option for many Vietnamese. Over the last few years, a small but growing number of Vietnamese students have opted to study abroad in an effort to pursue less “safe” subjects and have chosen to go to art schools in the US—something that would have been even more rare a few years ago.

That’s not to say that there are not any locally grown artists; for example, Nguyen Minh Son is originally from Hanoi and draws most of his inspiration from traveling throughout his home country of Vietnam. In addition to art, Mr. Son also has a passion for Kung Fu, which he has been practicing for over twenty years. Over the years, Mr. Son has experimented with various forms of expression as viewed in his gallery and on his website.

Indeed, one does not need to leave Hanoi to become an artist for there are available local art lessons for anyone to join. Knee Jerk, originally from England, came to Hanoi almost four years ago from Melbourne, Australia. Since then, he started doing graffiti in the streets of Hanoi and has been commissioned for art in retail settings. Currently, he offers classes in his studio for people of all ages; his current students include children of expats as well as adults who want to hone their artistic skills. He regularly collaborates with artists from around the world including France, Hong Kong, and Brazil.

As Knee Jerk describes in his own words:

“I am an Artist and Art teacher creating Art and also running classes from my home and studio, Not Pop Studio. My background is graphic design and illustration, which is what I studied at Salford University in England, graduating in 2003. Most of the artwork I produced before coming to Hanoi was digital based, but almost as soon as I arrived in Hanoi, I revisited an earlier love of painting using hand cut stencils and spray paint.

I quickly learned to combine my digital designs with hand cut and paint techniques and I continue to paint everyday, either working on canvas/mural commissions or more self instigated street paintings. I try to paint eye catching pieces of art that also makes people think and not to have “knee jerk reactions” regarding the subject matter of the piece.”

While these two Hanoi-based (Not Pop Studio in Tay Ho, and Minh Son Gallery in Ba Dinh district) artists have different backgrounds, styles, and inspirations, they have produced and presented art all over the world. Both artists are currently interested in having their works displayed in either New York City or San Francisco—please contact Knee Jerk or Nguyen Minh Son directly for more information. For more information on street art in Hanoi, please see here.

What will be the next step for Vietnam’s art, music, and other cultural scenes overall? It’s anyone’s guess, but if recent interest is any indication then there are exciting times for the tattoo, street art, and motorcycle communities in Vietnam. Surprisingly, to some, Vietnam is a suitable place for creation after all and Hanoi is one of its centers.

Being an Expat

We’re a bit late with the post this week as we spent last week in Saigon. What a change it’s been since last year: massive construction on Nguyen Hue, new buildings, and new faces as some familiar ones have moved on. Saigon is definitely a city in flux–the growing pains are evident trying to navigate around District 1 or District 2–and it seems like it will be that way for awhile as the metro takes shape.

Anecdotally, if an expat in Vietnam makes it to two years in Vietnam then s/he either stays for the long haul or heads to a different place. Thus, there is a staggered mass exodus every two years—which means that the expat community that is present today was largely not around five or more years ago.

In many ways, being an expat in Vietnam is about survival: who can outlast, adapt, and add value in ways that locals and foreign companies will appreciate and are willing to pay for. At the same time, the decision to invest more into Vietnam can be difficult (especially for expat entrepreneurs). Another way to look at it is how integrated should one be in Vietnamese society?

While there are benefits (business rights, visa, and so on) that come with a local spouse anywhere, whatever costs savings by living in a developing nation are wiped out if one is sending his/her child to a quality private school. So there are other considerations for entrepreneurs attempting to integrate into Vietnam beyond learning Vietnamese and moving into a fringe/edge business—especially for older expats. Indeed, it can be hard to change over from a lifestyle business to a scalable business model.

Finding the right balance in Vietnam can be challenging for many people. For example, there is the uninhibited nightlife in Saigon, and there are the midnight curfews in Hanoi. Business meetings can last from two to three hours and even longer if the booze is flowing and the bonds are strengthening. Where does the line for business and personal relationships end? Sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish whether it’s a friend or a business associate who is picking up the check–and sometimes it’s both.

There is a small town feel here—less so than Vientiane or Phnom Penh—but it’s not uncommon to run into the same circle of people in various establishments or at least to meet people who know the same ones that you do. For expats who want to be successful here and in Southeast Asia, Vietnam should be a long term plan. There is no doubt that Saigon, Da Nang (Hoi An included) and Hanoi attract different kinds of expats. But too often, a segment of expats seem to fall into a cycle of complacency, vices, and distractions. Out of those three cities, it’s perhaps easiest to lose a sense of self in the sprawling metropolis of Saigon; the loneliness of being an expat can contribute to a less-than-healthy lifestyle as well.

For certain, mistakes will be made both in business and social settings in a new environment and setting—no one is perfect. The key is to learn from mistakes and to not repeat them again. Even when some people have reached their wits end after being here for years, other opportunities have popped up which have compelled them to stay—but it’s only because they’ve tried and failed previously that they were noticed–and had the reputation to be suitable for a new project. But what drives people to “leave Vietnam for a third time?” Or to stay in Vietnam for years and never learn the language beyond a basic level?

The real opportunity here is to create and shape markets. Vietnam is still in “tree growing” mode. Sure, one day there will be a harvest—but it takes time, money, and other resources to educate consumers, stakeholders, and to build/create a marketplace. To that end, Vietnam needs more entrepreneurial talent, more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) talent that knows what it takes to bring a product to the global market, and more people who are interested in Vietnam from a cultural point of view instead of a bia hoi/bia om focus. But, how to attract such talent?

For starters, lower the risk of coming to Vietnam and doing business here (corporate governance), lower the barriers to raising capital here for startups (beyond incorporating in Singapore and keeping a local team here), and promote finding ways to leverage local talent to create products and services that can be differentiated.

Another major pitfall for expats is to adopt local ways of thinking and doing things. It’s very easy to complain and to succumb to some of the craziness that permeates interactions in the workplace and beyond. Staying rooted, being patient, and remaining steadfast during negotiations are valuable qualities to have ample supplies of. However, also knowing when to quit due to wasting time, the expectation of charity, or unprofessional expat or local counterparts can save many headaches for everyone involved. It’s definitely easier said than done and is a skill that takes time to develop.

Above all, expats should find that their tolerance for healthy and smart risks will have increased after living/working in Asia. Whether it’s riding a motorbike to/from work in the middle of crazy traffic patterns, or dating someone from another culture, or seizing a new opportunity, each experience will help shape confidence and character in future situations.

Living and working in a new country is a risk itself—why stop there? Vietnam is not perfect—no country is. But finding the good in situations and people is more of the result of attitude instead of focusing on all the current problems. Part of the trouble is that the more things change, the more they stay the same—especially here, just with fewer expats that you know. In that sense, finding what’s right about Vietnam can be harder than usual. If you’re in a city that you don’t like, then move somewhere else. If you’ve tried a few cities and still aren’t happy then move to another country. This place isn’t for everyone and staying true to oneself and being ethical/moral seems to be a challenge for many, including westerners. Nothing worthwhile is easy.

For those that stay in this part of the world, have a strong sense of self, and see opportunities, “if a whole country is blind and you have one eye, then you can be king.”