Communicating in Vietnam

Coming to Vietnam and doing things the way you did them back home simply won’t work. The best case scenario is that your local staff will undermine you at every opportunity, and the worst case scenario is that you will lose money, time, and an opportunity to build a relationship. Make no mistake: you will get figuratively smacked in the face if you come here with a western attitude and approach to solving problems.

Vietnam is notoriously difficult for doing business; the cards are stacked against foreigners. The laws favor locals, contracts don’t hold nearly as much value as back home, and you are a walking Euro or Dollar sign to many people here.

Many business deals in Vietnam are done in a venue: a bar, karaoke, restaurant, etc. But to get to that point any lasting relationship in Vietnam begins with a coffee meeting, usually after an introductory meeting through mutual friends in a comfortable setting.

Another route to that initial coffee meeting might be through a networking event usually run by a national Chamber of Commerce. These are relaxed settings for meeting anyone who has business interests in Vietnam. Business cards rule in Vietnam; you can get about 200 quality cards for $15 in Hanoi. You may find that at networking events people might pay more attention to your title than your company’s name. They are either sizing up decision makers as potential allies or trying to decide if you are older or younger than you look.

Vietnamese society is built on age differences and age distances. Whether someone is older or younger than you determines how you address them and how they address you. Vietnam is a patriarch-oriented society so the most revered member of every family is the grandfather.

This patriarch authority/respect is reflected in the business world by the relationship between a manager and his/her subordinates: it is a one-way downhill street. Vietnamese workers are almost wholly submissive to leaders and managers. A teacher, boss, or whoever is in a position of power is almost never challenged by their subordinates. If, as a stakeholder, you point out a potential problem don’t expect any pats on your back. The response you might get is more of an antagonistic one for pointing out problems where there were seemingly none before.

Schedules, for the most part, are guidelines unless you have a different prior experience with the schedule presenter. Furthermore, contracts don’t really mean anything either which is part of the reason why the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is preferred in Vietnam. A contract here is an acknowledgement of a relationship that both parties agree to put effort toward maintaining. Why? Because enforcing them is much easier said than done in this legal environment and usually, whoever is better connected wins the case if it’s brought before a judge.

For one, Vietnamese don’t like to email—they prefer texting, and in-person meetings most of all. Therefore, it can be tricky to establish a “paper trail.” Even if you get your local partner to sign off on something, it is not guaranteed because the task might not even be done. Communicate requirements via email, text, phone, in person, and demonstration and the other party will almost always say they understand. Ask if something has been done and the response will almost always be yes. But if you go and check the task’s status, then it might not have even been started yet.

The best way to spot problems is during the process not after. Don’t take deadlines or statements at face value here.  Vietnamese are generally shy—especially in groups. They won’t ask questions if they don’t understand something unless they absolutely have to—which means often things are not done correctly the first time. And no way would one Vietnamese ask another coworker for clarification of a certain process for fear of looking stupid.

Motivating local workers is a challenge: some companies try to communicate family/work life balance, reasonable hours, and opportunities for advancement (based on meeting goals) to their workers. But for the average Vietnamese company, there isn’t much training or development available other than “learn as you go,” if at all. Expect to have lots of interactions “lost in translation” unless you have an awesome interpreter or your counterpart understands your language fairly well. The challenges presented in doing business will be the culmination of differences—differences of visions, standards, expectations, languages, culture, and ultimately, opinions. At times you will be frustrated. However, it will be a learning experience and a valuable education for doing business in Vietnam. The onus will be on you to respond to misunderstandings, unreasonable requests, and perceived rudeness with grace since you are a guest in Vietnam.

Finding a trusted local partner is perhaps the biggest challenge of all in Vietnam because through him/her all things are easier. There are several circles of expats in Hanoi and Saigon: NGO, Diplomatic, English Teacher, Entrepreneur, and Startups. Find someone who has been here longer than you to help guide you toward potential trusted partners or else you may be burned on your first or second time around.

Understanding the Vietnamese mentality is a major part of making sense of the responses here. They are generally risk averse for formal businesses unless gambling is involved. If your audience has not seen something done before in Vietnam then it is not possible for that business model to exist no matter how much you try to convince them. “If it was possible then someone would have done it so since no one has done it before then it’s not possible.” That’s why there are so many copycat retail stores on the same street.

The other reason they are risk averse is because failure is shunned so much as a result of losing face. Disagree in private when possible and explain that you cannot give in on that particular position. Vietnam is not the place to point blame and determine who is rightfully responsible if you want a deal to stay on track and relations to stay positive. It will take working together to move forward for everyone’s benefit—and it needs to be a win, win, win situation or else you will lose.

Needless to say, you will save time by learning the language—although it is very hard with a western tongue. Some expats rely on their local wives or a personal assistant to translate. Try to at least be proficient with the numbers and guidebook Vietnamese.

Overall, Vietnamese are proud people—they have a long history of self-assertion and self-determination. Learning the language is one way to get a better understanding of Vietnamese. They will respect you for it and give you the benefit of the doubt more often than not if they know you took the time and effort to learn their language.

Even though Vietnam is changing and modernizing, an element of “traditional Vietnam” still exists. Keeping an open mind and keeping politics to a minimum is a pretty prudent way forward. Don’t get discouraged by setbacks or partnerships falling through—it happens everywhere. Learn from your mistakes and be better prepared for the next time in a similar situation. Above all, keep knocking on and opening doors in Vietnam to see which one fits you best—if you stay here long enough then eventually one will.