Cultural do’s and dont’s in Vietnam

Personal relationships and trust are crucial when doing business in Vietnam. While a good network of contacts can facilitate access, it takes time to build a strong personal relationship with your partner. Vietnamese companies are strongly hierarchically. Consequently, all decisions are taken at management level if not by the director. This also means that directors are very busy and it can take a long time for even small issues to be solved. Be patient and do not put your partners under pressure. If you do not hear back on a business matter, remind your contact person about your inquiry and ask for an update on the situation. Do not understand silence as a sign for disinterest or laziness: whereas you will most likely not realize it, it is very well possible that things are being organized in the background. Language and language barriers are a big challenge when doing business in Vietnam. Few directors speak English at a level that makes conversations or even business negotiations possible without translation. It can also be that the company you are working with cannot provide an interpreter with the necessary skills. It is more likely that meetings will be attended by people with content and technical skills and they might be less willing to speak English. Another hindrance is that many interpreters have good language skills, but do not necessarily have other skills and knowledge. This might result in misunderstandings of technical and practical nature. without any of the negotiating parties understanding what really the problem is, only due to a lack for finding the right words. Therefore it is strongly advisable to bring your own interpreter. This should be a person whom you trust and that is confident in the business matter you are going to negotiate. Make sure they have subject competence as much as the necessary social skills to facilitate your mission. Always use simple and clear language, even with interpreters, and do not try to impress with complicated language. Vietnamese are very emotional people and in contrast to other cultures, they will not hide their feelings. If you perceive people as serious, hesitant, or reserved, it might be that your message did not come across properly. Try to repeat your statement with other words. Pride and self-esteem are important. It is not very common that Vietnamese confirm a mistake or easily agree that something needs improvement. Rather, they will insist that they need to do what they are doing for whatever reason. Do not try to insist and do not use pressure. Time will allow your message to be taken into account and you might very well find that at your next meeting, things will have changed in your favour despite apparent hesitation. It is quite common that people use their mobile phones during meetings to talk or text. Meetings can also be subject to interruptions, such as phone calls or staff members walking in and out the room without notice. Do not be surprised if the director you are talking to, needs to sign documents or answers phone calls in the middle of the conversation. These are very normal practices and in no way considered rude. Even if you might have doubts, such interruptions are no sign of disinterest or lack of respect. Some further points to consider:
  • Shaking hands for greetings is not common in Vietnam. While business people used to western partners might be familiar with a welcome hand-shake, do not force it, particularly not with female counterparts. Vietnamese do not bow or make any other sign of introduction either. If you do so, you might most likely earn some laugh of amusement.
  • When addressing someone, it is common to use mister or miss followed by the first name, not the family name. This is also the case if the person you are talking to is older or has a very high position. Names are however somewhat confusing and it can be difficult to find out which is the first and which is the family name. In Vietnam, the family name goes first, followed by the middle name, while the first name comes last. This can be the other way around in emails. Ask your interpreter to assist you finding the right name.
  • Men dress formal for business, with a long pant and a shirt (long or short does not matter). A suit is rather uncommon due to the hot climate and ties are reserved for special occasions. Women dress more casual and there is not really any dress code or cultural don’ts. However women should not wear short skirts above the knees for formal occasions, including access to governmental offices, and men should not wear shorts either.
  • Business cards are often exchanged after the initial introduction. Using both hands to give or receive the business card is a sign of respect.
  • It is very common that you will be invited for lunch or dinner after a business meeting. While it is common for business people to talk business over a meal, Vietnamese never talk serious matters while eating, not even at home. You will earn a lot of credits if you talk about family, your country or hobbies instead. Don’t be surprised if your conversation partners know more about your country than you do about Vietnam.
  • Forget about politics. Generally, few people in Vietnam are interested in politics, particularly the younger generations are not. Besides, Vietnamese politics are way too complicated for foreigners to discuss with those who are interested in the matter.