Doing Business in Vietnam: Understanding the Cultural Differences

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Introduction

In today’s global business environment with your business it is important to have some understanding of the people and the culture that you have intentions of doing business.

The better prepared you are, the more successful your business negotiations are likely to be, “to be forewarned, is to be forearmed”, it’s your choice.

I have included some basic strategies and options that if properly used will enhance and improve your level of success. These suggestions are based on a number of years of personal business experience, in the real world with real people. Taking this approach works and I can assure you, it works well.

Topics

1. Family Culture

2. Reputation – “Saving face”

3. Name Structure

4. Greetings

5. Bribery and Corruption

6. Gift Giving

7. Standard Working Practices

8. Business Meetings – preparation

9. Business Meetings – what to expect

10. Business Culture – communication

11. Asking Questions

12. Festivals/Holidays

13. Compliments

14. Social Gatherings

15. Superstitions

16. Other – Traditional Vietnamese customs

17. Summary

Although with today’s technology we can conduct much of our business online, in this type of scenario, it can only take you so far. There is no substitute for actually being there, in person and immersing yourself in the local environment.

I believe we often lose sight of the fact that technology is just a tool that can help us to do our job, the true nature of business, is all about people.

1. Family Culture

The first step in getting a handle on how to do business in Vietnam is to understand what the prevailing dynamics are that defines the parameters of their social structure. By having some familiarity with these basic cultural aspects of Vietnamese society and by using a little empathy, we can start to understand the key elements that are the mainstay of their society and in turn how it defines and influences their business culture.

– Chinese Confucianism plays a very big role in their philosophical beliefs and in their daily life

– Elder’s are generally revered and their life experiences are held in high esteem within the family

– It becomes self evident why you see a number of generations of a family living under one roof

– The male makes the final decision for most, if not all matters, the traditional ideal of male superiority is still in place today

– The eldest son of a family is seen as the head of household, and in this case, the elder is usually seen as a role model

– Worshipping of ancestors is common place, as they are seen as the source of life, fortunes, and a key tenant that upholds their family culture

– Their ancestors are honoured and on the day of their death they often perform special ceremonies and rituals, to the Vietnamese their deceased elders are considered the wellspring of their very existence

– Birthdays are not generally celebrated by traditional Vietnamese families

– Vietnam is basically a collectivist society in which the needs of the group are often placed over that of the individual, this holds particularly true in the family values context

– Family and community concerns will almost always come before business or individual needs

– The family ethos plays a very important, central role in Vietnamese society

– Families, extended families and communities can have a major influence on an individual family members behaviour whether they be children or adults

The essence of “family” is one of the most important characteristics of Vietnamese culture, “family” is everything. And it’s worth keeping in mind that Vietnam is also a patriarchal type of society in regard to the family ethos. A similar sort of hierarchy is in place in most Vietnamese companies to varying degrees.

Vietnamese society is rapidly changing, as the country opens up, as the society becomes more affluent, the Vietnamese are over time becoming more “western-like” in nature. Some of the long held family traditions are starting to slip away.

As the younger generations are exposed to more and more western culture, some of those long-held traditional family values are being eroded and the western mind-set and culture is fast becoming more prevalent.

2. Reputation – “Saving Face”

The concept of saving “face”, occurs all over Asia, in some cases it is the overriding factor in everything they do. Today in some of the more developed Asian countries this mind-set is not as strictly adhered to as it once was.

– The concept of saving face is still extremely important

– Reputation confers dignity and the prestige of a person and by virtue that persons family

– Particularly with the Vietnamese it is ingrained into their very psyche, “reputation” is seen as the only thing that can be left behind for one’s family after death

As the younger, more educated generations, start to make their presence felt in their own cultures, these changes will become more pronounced. Some of these types of traditional beliefs are starting to take a small step back, however do not underestimate how much impact; “reputation” will have on your business negotiations in Vietnam.

3. Name Structure

– Names are written in the following order: 1. Family name. 2. Middle name and 3. Given name (Christian name)

– The family name is placed first because it emphasises the person’s heritage, the family, as mentioned previously, “family” is everything

– The middle name “Thi” indicates that the person is female, “Van” indicates that the person is male

4. Greetings

– For more important occasions, use the family name, middle name and finally the given name

– Using the word “Thua” which means “please” being polite rates you more highly in their eyes

– Addressing a person older or higher ranking than you just by name is considered disrespectful; even within the family or in relative relationships, always include their title with their first name

– Generally women do not shake hands with each other or with men; they bow slightly to each other

– If it comes to age versus rank, higher ranking people are usually greeted first

5. Bribery and Corruption

Be aware that various forms of it exist at all levels within Vietnamese society; it is an integral part of their culture and has been for a long time. One of the main reasons this occurs, is that the “standard” wages in a lot of business sectors in Vietnam is very low, this also includes government departments. At the lower end of the scale, monthly salaries can be as low as $100 (US) per month.

– Recommended resource: Transparency International

Corruptions Perceptions index for 2012, which covers 174 countries, the higher the number, the more corrupt a country is perceived to be:

o Vietnam – 123

o Cambodia – 157

o Laos – 160

o Myanmar – 172

– Recommended resource: Tuoitre News (English language news site for Vietnam)

This is generally acknowledged to be a sensitive area, from an ethics point of view, you will need to make your own decisions. Some sectors of business are different to others, it pays to be informed. All I can suggest is to do a decent amount of research, from that you can draw your own conclusions and make informed decisions.

I suggest that your research be focussed on understanding the “how” and “where” of commissions. Somewhere along the line, you will be paying commissions, whether you know it, or not. You need to know where this is going to happen, how it is going to happen, and most importantly, what it is going to cost, be prepared.

Ensure that when you do business in Vietnam you get as close to the source as possible, if you are sourcing products, only deal with the manufacturers.

The further away you are from the people that can actually do the job, the more it will cost, as everybody involved has to get their commission, which you will be paying.

6. Gift Giving

Gift giving is a common practice in Vietnam and is not seen as any sort of bribery; these thank-you gifts do not need to be expensive and should be seen as a small token of your appreciation.

It can be surprising how genuinely thankful the Vietnamese can be when you present them with small gifts, it puts you in good stead for further negotiations, there are a few options available.

– Flowers

– Chocolates/candy

– Fruit

One of the most effective gifts that you can give them, are small souvenirs that represent your home country. For example if you are from Australia buy a dozen or so, small key-rings, with kangaroo’s, koalas, boomerang’s etc, they only cost a few dollars each.

Go to the lengths of wrapping them up in a box with bright wrapping paper. This sort of approach will earn you loads of “brownie-points”, far more than what it cost you to purchase these types of gifts, it is a terrific investment for the future

7. Standard Working Practices

Standard business hours apply, 8am-5pm, Monday to Friday in the larger cities. Some corporate offices and Government departments are open for a half-day on Saturday. In regional areas, hours may differ and shops may close over the lunchtime period for an hour or more.

– When conducting your business in major cities in Vietnam, English is quite widely spoken by Vietnamese business people. Do not automatically make the assumption that their English is going to be good enough to give you the all information you require

– The further out you go into the regional areas and provinces, the more difficult it is to find these small family run businesses and the less English is spoken. Therefore plan your trip well to cover any eventuality

If in any doubt, hire a translator and save yourself a lot of headaches. Finding the right translator for you is very important and it is not an easy process. I would suggest here, that you get your translator to sign one of your company confidentiality agreements.

One copy in English and one in Vietnamese, get them to sign both copies and make sure you give them a copy of both and keep the originals for your records. You need to be absolutely certain that the translator you have hired is on your side, not theirs (commission).

8. Business Meetings (preparation)

Vietnamese business people prefer to schedule business meetings well in advance, several weeks ahead is not uncommon, this holds especially true when they know you are visiting from another country. They will do a lot of preparing for these types of meetings; you should be doing the same.

– The 1st meeting in many ways, is the most important, you can use your agenda, as a starting point for your key discussion items. Minutes, take notes, document all decisions, actions, timeframes etc

– Prior to the meeting I would recommend that you also supply a written agenda in point form (a list), outlining very specifically your objectives, the how, what, where, when, who etc

– Within 24 hours of the meeting taking place, send your official business minutes to all the individuals that attended the meeting

– Keep in mind you have the option of arranging your initial meeting(s), at the hotel you will be staying. This can save a lot of hassle if you don’t know your way around. You also have the advantage of being on “neutral” territory and you may not have to deal with as many people in your first round of discussions

– Later on, when you’ve narrowed down your selection, you can then arrange meetings at their premises. This is absolutely mandatory, before you make the decision who to do business (How will you know that the business they are showing you is actually theirs?)

– Find out beforehand exactly who will be at the meeting, find out their names and titles and try to send your agenda to them directly from you. Rather than relying on one person in their organisation to distribute your agenda to the right people internally

– If you really want to impress them you could; a) get the agenda translated into Vietnamese, and/or b) bring a translator to the meeting. If you do this, do not tell them beforehand you are bringing one

– Always assume that the other parties’ command of the English language (conversation) will not be as good as their ability to read English

As they say, “the-devil-is-in-the-detail”, by taking the time and effort to go to this level of detail you will achieve a lot more, in a shorter time frame.

1. It will give you some control over the events taking place

2. You will impress them and as a result gain much respect (“face”)

3. You will be able to move your negotiations along a lot faster

4. You have made a framework that both parties understand and can work within

Most importantly, you have provided a “non-confrontational” way to tackle any ensuing issues or delicate problems, its now about the issue, not the person.

9. Business Meetings (what to expect)

Punctuality is extremely important; it pays to be on time to meetings, do not take any chances. Some places can be very difficult to find, plan to be at the location of the meeting 15-20 minutes beforehand. It gives you time to focus and allows you to take in your surrounding environment.

– When first at the meeting watch carefully the seating arrangement, this will give you some indication of the internal pecking order

– Do not be surprised if the most senior person at the meeting does not chair the meeting. If you have taken the approach I suggest, at this point you have a subtle level of control, make the most of it, and handle it very delicately

– The person most likely to conduct the meeting is the person that speaks and understands English the best, but it is highly unlikely that this person will be the actual decision maker

– When at the meeting, never a say a flat “no” to anything, the best response is something like; “yes, I’ll have to go away, and think about that one” or “yes, but I will need to confer with my work colleagues back home” or “I don’t have the authority to make that decision”

– When they ask, “How long are you here for”, do not divulge this information. Answer the question with something like, “When I have concluded all my business, I will then return home”, or “When I have completed my assignment, I can return home”

Always smile, even when you’re saying no, or if you’re confused or not sure. If anything “out of the blue” suddenly appears, something completely unsuspected, take careful note of what it is. Make sure you ascertain the ramifications of this new information, before moving on to the other items in your agenda.

10. Business Culture (communication)

Vietnamese companies tend to be very hierarchical in nature; the most senior person in the business usually carries the most influence in the decision-making process. Titles are very important in the Vietnamese business culture as status is gained by education and age.

There is great deference and respect paid to fellow work colleagues, supervisors and managers, some key points to keep in mind.

– Business relationships in Vietnam are relatively formal and tend to take time to develop as Vietnamese like to get to know their foreign counterparts before conducting business

– Vietnamese may be suspicious of those who they do not know very well at first, so be sure to spend the time during the first few meetings to get better acquainted

– It is important to use titles whenever possible, you are showing respect and you are gaining “face” while doing it

– When referring to one another, Vietnamese people use a person’s title followed by their first name, not their surname (e.g.; Mr John)

– It may be advisable to have all written documents translated into Vietnamese as your business counterparts in Vietnam will not necessarily indicate that they do not fully understand you. If you are not sure what their true English language capability is, hiring a translator may prove a very worthwhile option

– Like most Asian countries business cards are a commonly used in Vietnam; it is considered good business etiquette to have your business cards printed in both English and Vietnamese

– When offering your business card for the first time, present it using both hands with the Vietnamese language side facing up and towards the person you are offering

– Negotiations can be quite lengthy and time-consuming as the Vietnamese will want to examine everything as well as consulting their own group before reaching any agreement

– Doing business in Vietnam can also be quite slow as there is often a lot of bureaucracy to go through before a deal can be finalised. Make sure all official (government) documentation is correctly filled-in, it is stamped and certified by all the relevant government agencies

– Most Vietnamese tend to hide their feelings, avoid conflict and confrontation, in order to avoid hurting or embarrassing anyone. For example, a ‘Yes’ may not actually be an affirmative answer, but it could be a polite reply used to avoid hurting the feelings of the person in question (You really need to be able to tell the difference)

– The Vietnamese usually smile when they do not want to answer an embarrassing question or when they do not want to offend the person involved

– The Vietnamese will smile when being scolded by a person senior in age or status to show them that they still respect the persons scolding and do not hold any grudge. (This pattern of behaviour can be interpreted as challenging or insulting to a westerner, but the reality is, it is part of their nature and it is a cultural norm)

A word about non-verbal communication be careful when interpreting Vietnamese body language, hand gestures, tone-of-voice, and facial expressions. The assumptions and deductions you may make as a westerner based on your prior experience, are in all likelihood somewhat off the mark.

They may use the same sort of gestures, but some of these gestures you are familiar with, may mean something altogether different to the Vietnamese.

Finally, when wrapping-up a meeting, always end on a positive note, a little bit of well placed flattery goes a long, and always remember, smile, smile, smile… ï��

11. Asking Questions

When a Vietnamese person asks you questions, for them it is not considered offensive or rude in their culture to ask personal questions regarding age, marital status, salary, religion, etc.

Make the opportunity to find out whatever you can about the people you are dealing with, have some informal, casual conversations and ask the following types of questions.

– Single or married, do you have children, ages, sex etc?

– What qualifications do you have, degrees, where did you go to Uni etc?

– Have you been overseas, where, what did you do etc?

– How long have you been working for this company?

Keep the discussion light and breezy, this sort of inquiry serves a number of useful purposes; you are establishing some rapport and comfort with the other players, you get some idea of their capability, and you can subtly find out who speaks the best English.

12. Festivals/Holidays

Tet, around this time of year the country practically “shuts-down” and although it’s officially a four day holiday, these holidays can start earlier and they can go on longer. I would suggest that a week prior to “Tet” and a week after, there is little point in attempting to schedule meetings and conduct business.

For Many Vietnamese, this holiday is extremely important; they all try to get together under one roof as a family unit to celebrate the “Chinese” New Year.

– Lunar New Year, is the most important yearly festival

– This is the first day of the lunar calendar year

Tet Trung Thu

– Tet Trung Thu is held on the fifteenth day of the 8th month, the mid-Autumn festival

13. Compliments

The Vietnamese do not say “thank you” very often, because it is considered insincere. When they do, they really mean it, and this form of gratitude can last a lifetime. They will not be happy until they can somehow find a way to repay the kindness you have shown them.

14. Social Gatherings

In the social context, when referring to one another, the term “brother” or “sister” is often used.

This term is a sign of respect; it is the younger members in the group that are subtly acknowledging the people older than them, by referring to them as their “brother” or “sister”.

If a Vietnamese person refers to a westerner as a “brother” or “sister”, in casual conversations at social gatherings, you have by your very actions earned their respect. That in itself is a huge win; you need to congratulate yourself, because you’re doing exceptionally well.

In social situations and informal gatherings, whoever is the oldest present, is the person that is automatically considered the leader.

15. Superstitions

The Vietnamese are very superstitious people; a good example of this is the “owl”, in western society it is usually perceived as a symbol of wisdom or being wise. To the Vietnamese the owl is a bad omen, a harbinger of death.

Whatever happens do not become a “bad” omen to them; if the Vietnamese business people you are dealing with see you as being “lucky”, they will go to great lengths to secure not only your business, but your friendship as well.

16. Other Traditional Vietnamese Customs (useful to know)

Friendships are highly valued, especially between close friends, they are often regarded as blood relatives; overall most Vietnamese are warm, friendly and hospitable.

– When a child is born, it is considered to be one year old

– When women marry, they don’t change their name

– It is the eldest sons filial duty to perform ancestor worship at home

– If a parent dies, the children customarily wait three years before marrying

– If a spouse dies, one should wait one year before remarrying

– If a sibling dies, the other siblings should wait one year before marrying

17. Summary

If you have serious intentions of doing business in Vietnam, there is no substitute for actually being there “in-situ”, viscerally in touch with the local environment. Take a little time to get acclimatised, get the “feel” of the place, the sights, the sounds, the smells.

It pays to explore and move around on foot, stopping here and there and watching the Vietnamese people going about their daily lives. It’s not just what they do, but far more telling, is the actual way that they do it.

Finally, don’t forget the networking, get out on the streets, and find westerners that live or work in Vietnam. Strike up a conversation with them, you will be amazed the wealth of knowledge and experience these sort of people have accumulated. In the right circumstances you may be able to tap into their network, now that’s time and effort well spent over a beer.

Wishing you, dear reader the best of luck with your business negotiations and I hope that this article has provided you with some useful insights that will make your business negotiations in Vietnam easier and more effective.

Many thanks for reading this article.