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About Vietnam

by: Erika Visser, Associate partner of Hofstede Insights

Overview

Currency: Vietnamese Dong (VND)                             
Capital: Hanoi                                      
Time Zone: UTC +07:00
Official Languages: Vietnamese
Religion: 85.5% Buddhist; 6.8% Christian; 2% Indigenous Religions; 0.8% Hindu; 0.5% Muslim
Ethnic Make-up: Kinh (Viet) (85.7%); Tay (1.9%), Thai (1.8%), Muong (1.5%), Khmer (1.5%), Mong (1.2%), Nung (1.1%), others (5.3%)
Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia and shows great promise as an emerging market in the region. Vietnam is a one-party communist state and it is important to understand that Vietnamese people, especially from the north, greatly respect their late leader, Ho Chi Minh, who unified Vietnam in 1975 by seizing the south. Foreigners are also expected to show respect in this regard. The unification of Vietnam was followed by three decades of wars including colonisation by the French. Today, we can still see many cultural influences from France including architectural structures and food. Vietnam’s culture is predominantly Viet with traditions and beliefs that are mainly derived from buddhism.
As a hierarchical society, respecting the elderly is very important, family is central to Vietnamese life and in general the society is male-dominated. Harmony is essential for successful business relationships, and thus conflict and showing anger or negative emotions can erode trust.

Some cornerstones of Vietnamese culture

Family is central to Vietnamese society, resulting in a great emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly. The family structure provides emotional and financial support with each member contributing their time or money.

When in Vietnam

Good to know

  • Never point your feet at someone or at sacred figures
  • You will be shown where to sit, always wait for the oldest person to sit first
  • Queuing is usually not respected or part of Vietnamese society
  • The head is seen as the most sacred part of your body, never touch the top of someone’s head
  • Always take your shoes off when you are entering someone’s home
  • Never beckon with your forefinger, this is extremely rude
  • Avoid topics about politics and war
  • Never publicly display anger of frustration, this is extremely impolite and will make your Vietnamese counterparts to lose face

Body Language

Never beckon to an adult as this is how small children and dogs are called, it also shows that the person that you have beckoned has a lower class to you. When you want to communicate ‘no’ shake your hand instead of your head. Avoid crossing your fingers as it is a sign of disrespect to females. Crossing your arms can be seen as a sign of respect rather than showing you are not interested.

Dress Code

Dress modestly to avoid offending locals. Usually dress codes are fairly conservative, however, more relaxed in bigger cities. Usually the rule is to cover your shoulders and to wear trousers or skirts covering your knees.
 
Keywords to describe Vietnamese culture:
Family / Respect / Religion / Harmony / Hierarchy / Relationships / Pride

 

 

Expert’s Recommendation

Be patient with Vietnamese counterparts and strive to build long-lasting relationships when doing business negotiations as Vietnamese people like to do business with someone they know. Always respect the hierarchy by using the appropriate titles, and make sure that older Vietnamese business counterparts are greeted first and treated with the utmost respect. You can ask for a list of people that will attend a business meeting or social event to help you establish who are the most senior people you are dealing with and how you should address each one. A third-party person can help culturally translate these business interactions and the appropriate etiquette required when greeting older Vietnamese business counterparts. Foreigners usually do not have the basic understanding to give face to senior or older Vietnamese and thus a third-party connection is highly recommended. Translations will most likely also be needed. A qualified translator with ample experience in the industry and a good record should be appointed to help translate conversations and any written documents such as meeting agendas, contracts (if appropriate) or business proposals. Social events can be used to get to know your business counterparts and build rapport - this takes time, patience, and multiple interactions. Be aware of nonverbal communication and that ‘yes’ does not always mean ‘yes’. Saving face is important to help maintain good standing relationships.

The Concept of Face

‘Face’ is the most important concept to understand to successfully conduct business in Vietnam. Face describes trust, confidence and respect that is expected from a person in Vietnamese society. Giving face has to do with being culturally sensitive through always honouring the hierarchy and never disrupting harmony. If your Vietnamese counterpart is embarrassed for any reason, for example, by being singled out or criticized in public, they will lose face which will result in a deterioration of trust. Foreigners have to learn to be culturally sensitive, and what can be perceived as a good intention can have a very negative effect on a Vietnamese employee or business counterpart. For example, praising a Vietnamese in public can cause a loss of face as you are singling out an individual from the group. Another example can be to ask direct questions, placing blame or scolding a Vietnamese. These can all cause Vietnamese people to lose face. Polite lies should be accepted as this will help to keep their dignity intact. Vietnamese will also give face to their boss by not questioning instructions and never criticizing their superiors.

Communication

As in most cultures in the world, nonverbal communication is key in Vietnam. Nonverbals can sometimes reinforce the spoken word or replace words and speaking without thinking it is negatively perceived. Vietnamese sayings that reinforce this belief: " Fold your tongue seven times before you speak" and "To eat one must chew; to speak one must think”. Vietnam is a high context culture where very little information is coded as the context is evident for most Vietnamese. However, foreigners are not part of this context and will need help to understand what is being said ‘between the lines’. Third party persons can be employed to help culturally translate what is being said.
 
Examples of nonverbal communication:
 
Respect and relationships are cornerstones of Vietnamese society, and one way to convey respect can be through nonverbal communication, for example, avoiding eye contact with superiors or listening to a teacher or a boss without interrupting. Prolonged eye contact can be a sign of disrespect and show that you are challenging someone. A smile is another nonverbal that can be used in different situations as an expression of an apology or an expression of embarrassment. Other nonverbal cues include bowing or nodding.

Meeting and Greeting

Shaking hands is common in Vietnam, however, you should avoid shaking hands with the opposite sex unless initiated by that person.

Introducing Yourself

Titles are very important and most Vietnamese will have a western nickname that you can use as their names might be too difficult to pronounce. Business correspondence should always include formal titles and full names, however, in conversations a nickname may be used if it has been offered by your Vietnamese counterpart.

 

Dimensions

Vietnam scores high on the Power Distance dimension (score of 70), which means that Vietnam is a hierarchical society with unequal rights between power holders and non-power holders. Leaders have to be paternalistic, caring for staff in the workplace and they should always be aware of issues at home and give guidance when needed. Bosses need to be directive, giving instructions on what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, always checking, inspecting and delegating tasks (not power) ensuring that there are adequate resources and skill to complete tasks within a reasonable timeframe. Without checking and inspecting, staff might not ‘respect’ the task at hand and thus might not complete what they were asked to do. Power is centralized and managers count on the obedience of their team members in return for protection from the power holders. Vietnamese people believe that their supervisors have been chosen because they have more experience and greater knowledge than those they manage, and it is therefore unnecessary and even inappropriate for them to consult with lower-ranking individuals when making decisions. The manager/boss is expected to make decisions. Titles play an important role and they help Vietnamese people place their colleagues or counterparts in the hierarchy, allowing them to give appropriate respect to superiors.
 
Vietnam, with a score of 20, is a collectivistic society that is organised and centered around relationships (in-groups) rather than tasks. Family is central to Vietnamese society, resulting in a great emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly. Loyalty to the in-group in a collectivist culture is paramount, and overrides most other societal rules and regulations. In order to preserve the in-group, Vietnamese are not confrontational, and in their communication, a “Yes” may not mean an acceptance or agreement. Communication is indirect and negative feedback hidden, staff do not want the boss to lose face and will share information a boss wants to hear rather than volunteering bad news which creates bigger problems in the long-run. A trusting relationship and showing that a boss can patiently receive staff questions, objections and opinions can help to extract bad news. A boss should create a good working environment; social and business relationships for staff are mostly blurred and thus a boss should avoid competition between staff and create group incentives rather than individual bonuses. The focus should always be on relationships and not the task, and time should be invested to strengthen relationships with staff in return for their loyalty. The boss should never single out or embarrass employees as this will erode trust and disrupt the harmony.
 
Vietnam scores 40 on the Masculinity dimension and is thus considered a Feminine society. In Feminine countries, the focus is on “working in order to live”, managers strive for consensus, people value equality, solidarity and quality in their working lives. This lower level is indicative of a society with less assertiveness and competitiveness, as compared to one where these values are considered more important and significant. In Vietnam, status and visible symbols of success are important but it is not always material gain that brings motivation, but rather consensus and a good quality of life. Conflicts are resolved by compromise and negotiation.
 
Vietnam scores 30 on the Uncertainty Avoidance dimension and thus has a low preference for avoiding uncertainty. This means that Vietnamese people have a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles and deviance from the norm is more easily tolerated. Vietnamese people believe there should be no more rules than are necessary and if they are ambiguous or do not work they should be abandoned or changed. Schedules are flexible, hard work is undertaken when necessary but not for its own sake, precision and punctuality do not come naturally, innovation is not seen as threatening.
 
Vietnam scores 57 on the Long-Term Orientation dimension. When establishing relationships, the focus is on building long-term trusting relationships and not on short-term gain. This can be seen by the long-term relationships required in order to successfully conduct business in Vietnam or by the way that longer-term business plans are created looking not only at the past or present but at opportunities in the market in the future.
 
A low score of 35 on the Indulgence dimension is  indicative of a culture of restraint with a tendency to cynicism and pessimism. Vietnamese society does not put much emphasis on leisure time and Vietnamese control the gratification of their desires. Vietnamese people have the perception that their actions are restrained by social norms and feel that indulging themselves is somewhat wrong.

For a more detailed analysis on the Cultural Dimensions, and how Vietnam compares to other countries, please visit Hofstede Insights’ Country Comparison tool.
 

References & Links