This is the blog of Urban Care, a social company in Ha Noi where we discuss about everything regarding the creation, grow, set up and activities of the company, social entrepreneurship, and hot news from the health & aid sector.

We are recruiting a 3rd IT engineer

We are continuing our expansion. Today, we are looking at recruiting a 3rd IT engineer to help us developing our systems.

Basically, we need an PHP/MySQL developer, with advanced skills in the domain of web development.

You can download here (20130610 IT developper announcement – edit) the announcement we have published on Vietnam Works.

If you would know someone who could be interested, please tell about us!

Talk to you soon!


Urban Care is looking for senior consultants

Dear colleagues and friends of the aid community,

Urban Care is now actively looking for Senior Consultants operating in Asia to join our team and build our new department: Aid and Praxis (, website under construction, to be shipped in January 2013).

We would like to start identifying potential future senior professionals to develop our consulting services in the following domains:

  • Education;
  • Nutrition;
  • Gender;
  • Social-economic community development
  • Public Health (TB, HIV, MCH, NCD, Mental Health, Epidemiology/biostat);
  • Health Economics.

We will recruit 1-2 persons per area. Our point is not to build another consultant database. We are looking at long-term and organic collaboration with motivated persons.

We need autonomous professionals with a high level of qualification and experience who are eager to build. Senior Consultants will take the head of the newly created departments and will be responsible to develop their branch. As a matter of fact, they will benefit from our brand, network, and support services.

There is no deadline for this announcement. Our point is to recruit, step by step, the right persons who will share our vision and dedication to our goals.

Ideally, you would be based in South-East Asia (our office is in Hanoi, Vietnam). If you are based in another region, such as South-America, the Middle-East or Africa, please save this information somewhere in your mind, we will start considering expansion in those continents mid-2014.

Please help us circulating this announcement within your network.

For more information, or to start a discussion, please contact Vincent:

Talk to you soon,



Urban Care is recruiting an Analyst Assistant


Urban Care is continuing its expansion. We are now creating a new position to support our team in the domain of information retrieval and processing. The full details of the position are here:  20121112 Analyst Assistant recruitment.

Deadline: 10th of December 2012

Good luck!



Conztellation is online, operational and ready to support you

It took us one year of development. And now it is online, operational, and beautiful.

What is Conztellation?

Conztellation is an online system. It integrates human service and databases systems that will allow you to access real advanced M&E. Conztellation integrates monitoring and evaluation features, knowledge management functions, automatic reporting mechanisms, and so much more.

And it is very affordable.

It solves once and for all the issues related to information capitalization and sharing. It is stable, very good-looking. You just need to subscribe. You don’t need an M&E officer to operate, nor an IT guy to develop it. It is very ergonomic, and we are all always with you to design the Conztellation that you need. This is not an anonymous and automatic database. It is a full system, with true human beings at your side, always.

For more information on the system, you can either drop us an email here, or visit Conztellation’s website.

Soon, more information on the system’s features.



Urban Care is recruiting an editor/English proofer



Urban Care produces on a regular basis a fair mass of documents in English. We would need to hire an editor/English proofer to revise and correct those.

Although we would prefer to recruit someone established in Hanoi, persons living overseas may apply.

Some criteria for the position:

  • Native English speaker;
  • Familiar to the aid sector and its jargon;
  • availability and reactivity.

This is not a full-time position. We will recruit this person with a consultant contract, with payment made either on a task or a monthly basis.

Please send us a resume and an indication of your rate by the 15th of October 2012 to:



Mark the day: 21st of September 2012: Conztellation goes big

We’re happily making it. On the 21st of September, 2012, we will release the final version of Conztellation.

After months of beta testing, we are now ready to hit the market with what we believe is a real breakthrough in term of M&E, information and knowledge management, and data retrieval for the aid sector.

Conztellation will simply give a new life to your program’s data and information.

Conztellation will comprise 2 major modules:

  • The World suite
  • The Program suite

The World suite

The World suite is a series of functions that will allow to quickly retrieve the most important information and data that you need to carry out your daily work. It comprises simple access to the most important indicators from international databases, international reports, pertinent scientific literature, grey literature from international NGOs and institutions, and documents produced by our community. Everything you need to know on your working environment.

The Program suite

The program suite will allow to consolidate, analyze and share the most important information produced by your program. You will be able to access data from anywhere, share them with your colleagues and partners, and concentrate under a single server your most important working documents from frameworks to presentations. You will access your program anywhere, anytime. You will able to produce instantly reports, benchmarks, and irrigate your entire team with a common source of information. You will even be able to access live costing analysis if need be.

Save the date

On the 21st of September, you will discover an entirely new website, a new price schedule, automatic registration functions, and more, much more.

See you then!

Urban Care is opening a new IT position

Urban Care is recruiting again. You can find our full announcement on VietnamWorks.

Here are the specs:

Junior database designer

PURPOSE: to design and support SQL/PHP online database systems development for our internal information systems and our clients

Reports directly to the IT manager.


  • Carry out assigned tasks to meet all deadlines
  • Research, plan and design for the development of new information systems.
  • Strictly follow working process.
  • Effective work planning.
  • Collaborate with our web designer
  • Maintain and upgrade Conztellation as needed

DURATION: a first contract of 6 months will be proposed, to be transformed thereafter in a long-term contract, based on performance, with the possibility on the long-run to enter in the company’s capital.


  • Hold Bachelor/Master degree in Computer Science or equivalent.
  • web development (HTML 4 and 5, JavaScript, CSS, JQuery) and database development (SQL/PHP and Ajax). Some knowledge of Flex and HTML5 would be an extra asset.
  • Positive, creative, active and independent
  • Professional and ethical.
  • Good teamwork skills.
  • 1st experience may apply
  • Excellent English communication, able to work directly with foreigners (most of the management and our clients are foreigners). Besides, all the communication in our office is in English.


  • Competitive salary
  • Fully declared position with social insurance
  • Build your career in a dynamic and intense environment
  • Modern work station

How to Apply:

Interested candidates are kindly requested to send a letter of application and Curriculum Vitae in English to:

Only short-listed candidates will be contacted.

Closing date to apply for this position: 25th of September 2012 or until the post is filled (which could happen before the end of the deadline)

Getting real: introducing Blue Dragon

Urban Care Active got real. Since last July, we have started a long-term collaboration with Blue Dragon.

About Blue Dragon

Blue Dragon is an Australian NGO working exclusively in Vietnam. It is based in Hanoi, and has been in operation since 2003. It works with street-kids, trafficked children, and disabled youth. It offers inclusive education programs, long-term shelter solutions, and anti-trafficking activities with the active support of the Vietnamese police forces. They are active in Hanoi, Hue, Bac Ninh, and now in Dien Bien.

I sort of love this NGO. They work at the grassroots level, for real, and engage in direct implementation, a bit old-school yes, but so concrete. Its founder, Michael Brosowski, is a strong leader with a long-term vision, and a practical sense of realities.

Blue Dragon is funded through multiple channels, direct individual donations, corporate support, and international donors. It had a stupendous growth over the last 5 years and is now considering options to sustain its action and structure in this new decade.

How we chose Blue Dragon

I’ve known about this NGO for a while now. My first encounter with them took place about 4 years ago, when I was working with Médecins du Monde. We had a program dedicated at kids at risk of getting infected by HIV. At that time, I met an operational manager of theirs, and introduced our activities. We offered a collaboration and possible funding. And they turned down our proposition, because it was not clearly a part of their strategy and felt they didn’t have the means to give us the level of action we were expecting at that time. MdM was a very strong public health operator in Vietnam, and they knew they had too little expertise in that domain to be a fair partner. In short, they said no, because of their work ethic, despite funding opportunities. I was so impressed. If you had any experience with NGOs, you would admit there are just so many “paper”-CBOs and grassroots NGOs chasing funds with a strategy limited to “getting money”, regardless of the line of work. Clearly, Blue Dragon was not one of those.

Later, after Urban Care was created, I continued keeping an eye on this NGO, and others in the city. The plan was at some point to give long-term support to an NGO meeting the following criteria:

▪   Most of the operations have to be carried out in urban settings;

▪   Programs have to be dealing with youth OR the elderly;

▪   Programs have to touch on health, education or nutrition;

▪   The NGO has to have a good reputation in our professional community;

▪   The NGO recognizes a need in terms of technical assistance;

▪   The NGO has to be in a growing phase OR has strong potential;

▪   The NGO operates in South-East Asia.

Well, as a matter of fact, Blue Dragon meets all those criteria, and after we finalized our investigation, we contacted them and offered some help, which was accepted on the spot. They have great programs, steady funding, yet not enough resources to build and maintain a solid information system. So we’ll take on a role in that story.

What we are doing with Blue Dragon

We started 2 months ago by offering a long-term support of at least 2 years. We are going to build for them an advanced M&E system, including information systems, electronic reporting mechanisms, live costing functions, and a web-based knowledge management solution. The first phase of that process has been the initial assessment of their M&E system, a 2-month long task. We will then discuss with their team what to start with, and how to start it.

We want to do that slowly as we want it to be organic, so, well-adapted to their needs and constraints, practical, real, and accepted. Hence the long-term perspective.

More news on that process in the coming months.

In the meantime, if you are interested in Blue Dragon, you can visit their website. If you want to donate, just go there. They even have tax-deductible mechanisms. They are pretty good.


Working in Vietnam 101, a crash course for foreigners, Part 6

Today, we are going to discuss the #1 mysterious subject there is to any Confucian society: the Face.

If you are like me, you may have seen countless kung fu and ninja movies in your pre-teens. And you may have been more interested in practicing your sword and flying kicks abilities rather than your social moves, and didn’t spend too much time exploring the deep and complex social interactions of Hong Kong movies of the 70’s. Yet, today is the time to catch up and to explore this one killing concept of the face.

Well, to start up with, everybody has a face. Everywhere. I mean, this is not only about confucian societies. It is about all of us. Yet, in a cultural system where the key social control is operated through shame, and not guilt as in the West, the notion of someone’s face is way more important, and is over-invested by people. There, your face is your single most important social capital. If you lose it, you’re pretty much dead.

Yet, your face is not exactly a single stable entity, it is dynamic. You cannot really lose it entirely at once, unless you do something weird on TV. Actually, it is like a social attribute that you have with any of your friend, colleague, family members, etc. One face for one person, or one group. I know, it sounds a bit strange, but it’s a bit like being known as the perfect well-educated and well-manered boy by your father-in-law, and as a dubious linebacker by your beer pals.

Your face is something you may lose with someone, or a group of persons. Once lost, there’s no way getting it back. A bit like virginity. But, it would be lost only with this specific person or group. A bit like being a virgin again every time you have a new partner. And you want to stay virgin. You do.

The rules regulating your face are complex and dependent on the person(s) you are dealing with at a certain point. Context matters, age as well, and titles. And those rules will change for every new social interaction. Dodgy, uh?

Not so much. What you need is to consider the following situation:

  • A is a 58 year old holding public office
  • B is a 30 expat full of technical expertise working for a company
  • C is the 27 year old assistant of A

A, B and C are having a meeting to review the progress of a project. B fought quite hard to set it up and is now happy sipping heart-attack-inducing vietnamese tea in A’s office. A didn’t deliver what’s expected in term of administrative support, and B was late in producing a critical report. And C is just C, poor little one.

How to manage this tricky situation without compromising your future work relationship? Put the blame on C. This is why he/she is there. A will do the same, no fear. This is why young assistants are being recruited by the dozens in Vietnam, they have a short lifespan. Sounds familiar? Indeed. But beneath is lying a set of rules that needs to be understood:

  • A, as the oldest person in the room, is entitled to yelling at B and C
  • B is entitled to yelling at C
  • C is entitled to being silent
  • B is a foreigner and a technical expert, so A will think twice before yelling at B as usually Vietnamese people give extra credit to foreigners for being willing to deal with crazy local social rules that they themselves took so much time to master.
  • in the current situation A and B didn’t get drunk together yet, certainly a mistake
  • A knows that he/she missed a point on the contract
  • B knows pretty much the same, but might feel that as a technical supervisor, he/she is entitled to open it up wide, too wide.
  • C is entitled as being silent

Now, imagine that B feels like bringing up A’s mistake too openly. Imagine that B is stupid or ignorant. B is fried. Why? because there’s a witness in the room, C, making A ashamed. It is already extremely dodgy for B to openly criticize A in a very discreet face-to-face meeting (especially as long as they didn’t get drunk together). But there is absolutely no way that A will accept being attacked while C is sitting in the room. In that case, A will lose face, and B is dead, and his/her project if A is critical in it.

Now, if you are in a situation that makes you a C, then get ready at being yelled at, or heavily criticized. Don’t feel bad about it. Nobody in the room will hold it against you. This is your job. You’re the youngest in the place, so your job is to act as a decoy so more senior persons wouldn’t get at each other’s throat. You will see how magic it is. You could be virtually killed during the meeting, and everything would be forgotten right after. This is theater, as any social interaction, and this is a damned well orchestrated theater.

Now you may understand an extra reason why people would rather say yes than no, and why people would rather lie than admitting a mistake in public. It is not about a matter of virtue, it is about a matter of social integrity. You don’t want to lose your face, neither do you want to have someone losing it because of you. So don’t mess up with it, this is the one thing that could really blows back at you. And in the event you would feel clueless about a situation, just shut up. Shutting up is usually a worldwide respected attitude.

Introducing Urban Care Active

We have started the social part of our work. This is great news. We are pretty proud of it, and we hope that through this first baby step, we will do our share in building and renovating our broken social system.

We are many.

The social enterprises movement is wide, growing and complex. There are so many of us, cooperatives, non-profits, mutuals, private business working for the society. Urban Care is just a droplet in that ocean. And we want to be a significant droplet. As we want to work with the financial means and the human power we generate, we have to accept that it will be slow, yet steady.

After 2 years of work, our company is now generating just enough profit to allow us to allocate a part of our resources supporting others. Our big plan remains to set up low-cost, high-quality family care clinics. It will probably take an extra 2 years before we accumulate the necessary capital to start it up. We need 200,000 USD. So, we have decided not to wait. Hence, the social work of Urban Care, under the label Urban Care Active, is starting now. We have identified a first NGO that we will support. We will let you know more about this excellent organization in a few days. As well, we will soon have a dedicated section to this work, under . Stay tuned.

You can’t imagine how happy we are getting real, at last. Setting up a social enterprise is a long-term job. And now, we can start harvesting.

Management per objective: the art of stupid

Here is a video I’d like to share with you. It is a splendid introduction to new ways of managing companies by Daniel Pink at a Ted conference. It sheds a positive light to how to change – may be not the world – but at least the place where we all spend 70% of our awaken time, the office. It applies wonderfully to the little sector we speak from, social enterprises.

What’s the pitch? Basically that management per objectives and incentives are making people dumber, less productive, because it inhibits their creativity. What sort of statement is that? Some pinky wishful thinking? Not at all. It is actually based on science, and a new specific branch to economics, the first real scientific one to my opinion, behavioral economics, a discipline in which economic assumptions are actually being tested, quite a blow in the economic world where ideologies are hidden behind non-experimented complex equations on how economic agents should behave and react, and where prizes are given to authors that would explain of human nature should be changed to comply with their obnoxious theories. And by the way, it is the MIT that is the leader in that new exciting domain.

Working in Vietnam 101, a crash course for foreigners, Part 5

Today, a quick post on the delicate philosophy of Vietnamese road rules.

The first step is to understand that the operative word here is rule, not law or regulation. I would define a rule as a commonly accepted – yet possibly highly informal – way of organizing chaos.

You see, I live and work in Hanoi. Hanoi is small provincial city of 4+ million  inhabitants. Each of those – including me – owns a motorbike. Each of those drives their motorbike all the time. All the time. Few of those have a driving license, and even less have an idea of the commonly accepted and lawful concept of road rules (here I imply the set of laws and regulations defining how one should or should not drive, the result of legislation and law enforcement). As a result, one arriving to Vietnam would observe on the roads a cheerful and spontaneous chaos. Yet, as usual, it is not really true.

You cannot have 1 million motorbikes on the streets at any time of the day without having some level of regulations or group intelligence. And getting it right might be one of those epiphanies that would make you feel you finally understand Vietnam. Sure enough, you might want to start reading on Vietnam history and taking a quick course on Buddhism through the age, yet, nothing would offer you a more efficient lesson than driving one hour on a Honda Wave in Hanoi (or HCMC) during rush hour (from 6.00 in the morning to 11 in the evening). By doing this, you would truly get the essence of this country, and certainly learn a few tricks on how to conduct your business in Vietnam.


Working in Vietnam 101, a crash course for foreigners, Part 4

Today, the interesting power of beer and hard liquor in partner relationship management.

In most of the places of this planet, alcohol is a fair social lubricant. In Vietnam, it is the business fuel. Yet, not in the way you might expect. Of course, as anywhere else, people tend to get reddish, and IQ tends to decrease along the sips. Nonetheless, as the say goes: “In Vietnam, it is different”.

So how is that difference? Beer: same, whiskey: same, hang-overs headaches: same. So how?

In Vietnam, to give a boost to your professional relations, or to close a deal, it is mandatory to use as much your EQ (the emotional bit of your intelligence) as your liver. It is all linked to the complex interaction between the concept of facetrust, and regurgitation. How the hell is that possible? Well, just look at the example below:

A few years ago, we had to work with a very complex administration dealing with drug addiction and law enforcement. If you know something about Asian countries, you would understand how sensitive this issue is. We were looking to establish better working relation with this administration to ease access to treatment to drug-users. After countless meetings, we all happily decided to celebrate our new agreement in the nearest goat restaurant. This is when we really sealed our new relation.

It all started well, in a friendly atmosphere. Dishes were excellent and we each had a good beer (a Hanoi Beer, the meeting was in the North, please look at the ethnographic part at the end of the post for more details). We were celebrating the future, improved health for our patients, and the end of a loooong process. Then came the ambush, which is when we “closed the deal” for real.

When you work in Asia, it is important to understand that the real negotiation starts after contract signature. This is true in business, this also applies to aid and development. And it was our turn to experiment this simple reality when a bottle of Hanoi Vodka (a fair alternative to motorbike gas, could be an attempt to control greenhouse effect) landed on the table. Eyes became bright, our counterparts started to giggle like 3rd graders and reached for smaller glasses. It was tram phan tram time (bottoms up). The bell rang the death of our dignity, and of our hepatic functions. We were caught in an infernal dance of shots and cheers, and in no time we were all drunk, lying on the floor, reaching out for an inexistent bottle of water. And they were all very happy. I mean truly and cheerfully happy. We were drunk, we lost our countenance in front of them. Read: we trusted them enough to show them this poor face of ours. We were colleagues, we were friends, we were brothers in headache.

A bit of analysis? Sure! Losing face is certainly the worst thing that could happen to someone. BUT, accepting to happily losing dignity with persons you want to work with, and hence putting yourself at risk of an acute alcoholic hepatitis is certainly considered as an evidence of trust and brotherhood, elements absolutely necessary to any future collaboration. So the headache. I cannot count the number of times I got yelled at by my wife coming back home, me unable to walk straight or to pronounce a meaningful sentence (for the sake of our program). The worst thing in that? It does work.

Now, some ethnographic elements:

  • First, on the different types of beers: there are 2 main beers in Vietnam: the Hanoi Beer and the Saigon. If you have a minimal understanding of the recent Vietnamese history, you would understand that based on where you work you should consider with the utmost circumspection one or the other. If you would have any doubt, because you have guests from both North and South at your table, or that you’re no longer so sure whether you are in North or South Vietnam, go for a Tiger, it is brewed in Singapore, it is a safe bet.
  • Vodka Hanoi: I love pretty much everything there is in this city, yet I see this vodka as an inhumane attempt at producing unconventional weapon of mass destruction. I strictly recommend to avoid that one unless you had sufficient training and an hepatologist as a close friend.
  • Ruou (pronounced zio): it covers all sort of local wines. Usually excellent, yet sweet, so a big risk to your neural system as you cannot really feel it before it bangs in your brain.

Now, on Vietnamese combat tactics: although most of your colleagues and partners would enjoy being as drunk as you would be, some developed peculiar traps to have you falling under the table before they would. I have identified 2 of those as the most dangerous and common: The Way Of The Ghostly Crystal Glass and the Attack Of The 88 Tigers. Both traps were experienced by your servant, and I can tell they are lethal.

  • The Way Of The Ghostly Crystal Glass is a subtle trick that relies on your level of intoxication. When you start to be pretty much fried, your friend/colleague/counterpart would start to pour himself glasses UNDER the table. This is how he would kill you, as he would pour you drinks OVER the table. The trick? His glass would be filled with water while you would get hammered by Hanoi Vodka.
  • The Attack Of The 88 Tigers: this one is a beautiful trick that relies on your good faith and stupidity, and group coordination from your opponents. So, if you and your party are fewer than your friends/colleagues/counterparts, at some point,  you would see them standing up all together, each of them with a glass, smiling candidly at you, and asking for a quick individual toast with each of them. It took me some time to figure this one out when I finally realized at a countryside wedding that I was the first to need assistance whereas the other guests were still conscious. The math is simple. If you’re alone, and they are 6, you would drink 6 shots while each of them would have one. It sounds stupid like this, right? But I can assure I have since witnessed so many friends falling for it that it is worth paying attention to the trick. Yet, you can easily fight back: whenever you drink ask for the entire group to get one with you. The first time I did that, they all burst in laughter and immediately asked me how long I lived there. Long enough, long enough…
  • As in Street Fighter II, you may have to face combos, such as the Attack of the 88 Crystal Glasses. This one is a bit like facing Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.

Now, go dealing with your friends/colleagues/counterparts. And remember never to go a business lunch on your motorbike as you’re supposed at some point coming back. And be smart, meetings are long enough to land, and business diners long enough to recover from that you should really use your time and liver with parsimony.


Working in Vietnam 101, a crash course for foreigners, Part 3

Today, we will touch on the exquisite art of setting up a meeting in Vietnam.

Vietnam is just as any other country, and from time to time you would need to have meetings with partners, colleagues, and officials. Whether you work in business or in the development sector, you would have a meeting around the corner pretty much every week. Yet, the concept covered by the word meeting is really different from what you would expect in the West.

So what is it about? As usual, nuances come into play. Check it out:

In the West a meeting:

  • is meant to solve problem;
  • is meant to have open discussion to reveal new problems;
  • is a good occasion to kill  some working time while feeling good about it;
  • can be called in a matter of minutes (especially if you have a wide consensus in the office on happily killing some working time);
  • can last from 45 to 90 minutes (or 15 minutes in American businesses, so I heard).

In Vietnam a meeting:

  • is never meant to solve problem;
  • is especially not meant to identify new issues;
  • can be a good occasion to kill working time (let’s bear in mind that Vietnamese folks are human beings before anything else and learned long ago how to kill a morning at the office in a meeting room);
  • needs about 10 to 25 days to be called;
  • can last from 10 to 382 minutes.

Why the differences?

It all boils down to the matter of consensus. A good meeting in Vietnam is a meeting in which EVERYBODY says YES. A meeting in Vietnam is an old social ritual during which a long and hard built consensus is revealed. Remember the first post on yeses? Never say no in public. And certainly not during a meeting. The bigger the audience, the stronger the yes. This is why you would need a fair 3 weeks to set up a meeting (you can add an extra 10 days per extra partner on top of 2). Because all issues would have been priorly scrutinized by your partners, dissected and analyzed, discussed, with countless feedbacks and questions back to your office until you would have a total consensus with your counterparts. Then, you can set up the final agenda of that overdue meeting, which would turn out to be a mere list sorting the yeses that would be openly spoken out by your partners.

A quick recipe:

  1. Identify very clearly why you want to call a meeting;
  2. Think twice;
  3. Once you’re sure about the reasons you want to inflict yourself such a pain instead of having corridor discussions with your partners, throw the idea to your counterparts with a tentative agenda;
  4. Wait for an initial feedback and count the days to the first answers;
  5. In the meantime try to imagine the interactions your partners would have before returning to you and start to freak out;
  6. If it took more than 3 days to get a feedback, your agenda stinks and needs serious revision, more than a week, drop it, you’re screwed;
  7. Collect your partners feedback and start to set up separate private meetings with each of them to discuss the major points of concern directly. Start with the bigger partner, especially if it is a political entity. Don’t forget to drink tea.
  8. Repeat point 7 ad nausea;
  9. Once you have consensus, finalize the agenda and disseminate it to partners;
  10. Cross fingers;
  11. Select a day that is favorable (this would be based on the lunar calendar, there are good and bad days to set up a meeting);
  12. Get confirmation;
  13. Go to the meeting and relax, nothing wrong should happen if you were good enough with points 7 and 8. And don’t forget to thank individually each partner or the main ones if you have an attendance of 200+ persons (a hint, always start with executive bodies);
  14. Thanks everybody for attending and go out for a beer (possibly with your partners);
  15. Consider if it was worth the sweat.

Listen, never push, get patient, and you’ll see that this sort of meetings can deliver wonders. And, as in cooking, a bit of experience would do.

Working in Vietnam 101, a crash course for foreigners, Part 2

The last post was on the difficult, yet precious art of distinguishing the various level of yeses you would have to deal with in Vietnam. Today, a more practical case on how I’ve got crashed by a health care official in Vietnam in my previous job, and how she gave me that one lesson I needed to get it right.

So, I arrived as the Medical Coordinator for Médecins du Monde in Vietnam in January 2007 to help out with the implementation of a comprehensive HIV harm-reduction, testing and treatment outpatient-clinic in Hanoi. First experience in Asia, didn’t know how to read between the lines, a real noob. The first few months were just what most of our colleagues working in the aid sector would experience when filling in a new position in a complex environment: rushing the development of technical guidelines, keeping partners involved, recruiting staff, writing overdue donor reports whilst running for data, well the usual mess.

And then came August 2007. The clinic was directly managed by the local district governmental body. And they had a critical issue with the staffing of the their central preventive center and needed to withdraw staff from the OPC (Outpatient Clinic) that we were supporting. Quite a usual problem linked to overstretched public capacities, but coming at the worst moment for our program. The project was picking up speed and efficiency, patients were actively identified and put on treatment (the Tay Ho OPC soon became one of the most important HIV OPC in Vietnam), and we were already short on well-trained medical staff. And they wanted to withdraw the one most trained MD…. this would have had the medical component of the project coming to the verge of collapse. So I reacted. During a meeting with our joint staff in the OPC, I declared that it would be catastrophic to lose a staff at that point. And I added that it would be even more damaging to the program as they wanted to withdraw the best HIV specialist we had. And we continued debating the outcome of such a potentiality. Well… it was just awful. Can you guess why? Can you tell the huge mistake I made? Well… so obvious to me now.

A few days after, our partners manager, Miss My, came to me with rather a stern face, a bit like a mother coming to her 6-year old after he broke the DVD player while trying to make it float in the family’s fish bowl. She went like “Vincent, we have a problem. Did you say that Dr Phuong was the best doctor we had in the clinic?”, and I answered candidly “Yes!”. And she continued “Well, now the district director wants no longer to discuss the issue with us, and wants to withdraw more MDs, and don’t want to talk with you anymore”. I was stuck and pale in my chair. What the hell did I do??

Well, fairly simple. I singled out someone, yet positively, doesn’t matter. I singled out someone. I mentioned a person as being the best… which implies quite directly that the others team members are more or less worthless. People work as a team in Vietnam, and this team is pretty near to a family. People know who is strong and who is weak. But they would do their best to dissimulate Junior’s lasted mischief. I broke a rule. And they were resenting it. As a result, I infuriated our key partner, Dr Lan, the district director, and the other MD wanted to quit. Instead of securing that one medical position, I put in danger our entire team and our relation to local authorities.

How did we sort it out? In a very simple way. I was 31 at that point. And Dr Lan was 54, the age of my mother. So I played that string. Ms My set up a private meeting with her and the 2 doctors working in our OPC, both and their 50’s. We went there. Dr Lan offered me tea, and let me talk first. I apologized, played the dumb young western guy who doesn’t know well about Vietnamese rules, and I braced for what was up to come. Dr Lan accepted by apologies, and slowly, yet steadily started a rant on what I have done, explaining all the problems she had to deal with in the corridor to keep the team together, and how I hurt the feelings of the entire team, and so on and so forth… And I can tell you, she has a voice that would tear the ear of an elephant. She yelled at me for about 10 long minutes.

I waited for the storm to pass, and all of a sudden, she concluded that it was now behind us, that she sorted out her HR issue and that doctors would not be withdrawn! The 2 other MDs that witnessed my little humiliation smiled back at me really nicely, like aunts sharing the task to educate the youngling. And in a moment of bliss I understood everything:

  • I was a member of a family;
  • they were ready to keep me in that family;
  • I finally understood this concept of the “face”, so critical in Eastern-Asia;
  • I understood she yelled at me to restore pride in the MDs I  put in such a complex position. Right after the meeting and after the 2 MDs left, she kept me for a minute and gave that plain, frank and friendly look saying like “OK, now you’re no longer a noob, you passed the ritual“;
  • and I understood that everything has to be solved in private. You come to public ONLY when you have consensus.

Dr Lan then became my most important partner in the years ahead. She treated me as a key interlocutor and as a son. I treated her as my most important partner and as a mother. We remained both highly professional, each of us with our own perspective, yet with a common goal: to make it work.


Urban Care is recruiting an IT manager

Our team continues to grow. Now we need a new IT manager with the following skills:

  • concrete experience in database design in MySQL/PHP and Ajax
  • good knowledge in: Java, Jquery, HTML 4, possibly HTML 5
  • it would be nice to have some skills in Flex
  • professional English

if you feel you would be interested, please send me an email in the contact page.

Deadline: 3rd of May, but if we find someone good before…

Take your chance!

Working in Vietnam 101, a crash course for foreigners, Part 1

It’s been over 5 years I have been working in Vietnam. And what I can tell is that it is not an easy fit, at least at the beginning, and especially for Westerners. I saw so many people from Europe or the USA coming over to find opportunities, develop new things or join already existing organizations and businesses. And I can guarantee you that quite a few of those would have crashed their dreams on what I would call the smiley-yesy-barrier.

In Vietnam, people smile. They do smile. Pretty much all the time as compared to the West. I would eventually go back about twice a year to France (we have a kid, and she has grand-parents), where I would got hit in the face whenever I would try to smile at people for no good reason (meaning outside a customer relationship involving money transfer). One can tell the difference…

In Vietnam, people say yes. They do say yes all the time. “No” is pretty much a forbidden word. For this reason, foreigners would tend to believe that Vietnamese are downright hypocritical, spending their time lying to their face. This is just so wrong. But it takes a bit of a pain to realize it and to understand that they are a few degrees of yeses in normal social interactions. And it matters a great deal on the workplace.

So why do we have that? Because in Vietnam, preserving your social relationship with your family and network is fundamental. Saying no might alter that future. Looking grim might hamper future opportunities. This is why if you would ask to a pineapple street-seller if she could code for you an online C++ video game retracing the life and tale of King Arthur, she might just say yes, and would smile back very hard at you. And there kicks in the nuance of the yesses you would hear across your journey in Vietnam. And to get those right, you would need patience, multiple failures, a good ear, and to pay a great deal of attention to body language:

  1. The it-will-happen-as-planned-and-in-time-no-problem-it’s-all-good yes: this is what most of us would call… yes. Although it is always a bit of a bet, you can be pretty sure that unless a tropical thunder would just happen just right in your office this very minute, things would be delivered as expected, and on time. In that case the person you’re dealing with would look at you for good, and would establish eye-contact. Yet, you would always need to understand that this person might be subject to uncertainties if his or her yes includes yeses  from other teams members, members from the administration or partners. This is why divination is such a respected art in this country;
  2. The yes-I-guarantee-everything-and-I-make-it-a-matter-of-life-and-death-but…: your counterpart clearly sees that his/her action would necessitate interactions with other persons he/she trusts, BUT that those persons would be confronted to less dependable human beings OR that clearly dark clouds are gathering in your open space, and frankly… How could you get this one right? Well, when this person would give you this yes, you would feel in her eyes and body a sudden mobilization of mental energy as if you were asking him or her to swim across an acid lake to fetch that one medicinal plant that would save the life of a child. She or he will do it for sure, but at a great personal expense.
  3. The yes-I-hear-you-but-I-am-not-so-sure-on-how-to-do-it: here your counterpart definitely wants to please you, because, let’s be honest, you would find plenty of good willing persons in Vietnam. Yet, may be you are asking to a street-based pineapple seller to code a database in Ajax, and that could be a tiny bit of a problem… and REMEMBER? People just don’t want to say no to you. So, it is important to bear in mind that when you ask something to someone, you would make sure that it is feasible and realistic. Otherwise, you might spend a lot of time on that street in Hanoi waiting for your pineapple seller to take out her laptop and start coding your system. How you would spot you are asking something impossible and that you’re making your interlocutor uncomfortable? Well, look at body language: the person would not establish eye contact, might look away or at her/his feet when saying yes, and might be agitated with some minors pre-seizure tremors, and/or look at her/his cellphone wondering who to call to get some help to get ride of this crazy foreigner.
  4. The yes-sure-next-week-or-after-Tet yes: this one is the nastiest one. It will have you waiting for months to have that one thing done and delivered. This one is really easy to recognize. Yet, most people believe in it because when they hear next week, they quite candidly and stupidly hear “next week”, whereas it is a very strict and accepted social code for “well mate, you’re asking for a work that would involve to build consensus among 18 persons from 3 partners and 2 administrations plus a lawyer, you are pretty much screwed if you take it this way, I know you’re a foreigner and don’t get a thing on how to get things done here, so let’s be honest for a second, I’ll try, but let’s face it, you’re just asking me to climb the Everest in pink flip-flops…feasible… yeah… yet might need some preparation”. Or you’re just simply asking someone to do something 2 weeks before or 4 weeks after Tet. Shame on you. How to spot this one? Well it’s pretty plain, just listen.
  5. The yes-but-you-know… yes: if persons are  just kind enough  to use this one with you,  know that you are an inch near to getting a real no. Leave it there and try to figure out where you screwed up and go back to it later. Very important one this one. It’s actually the sort of yes that transformed a one-month registration to a 7-month procedure for the registration of our company.
  6. No: you are dead. This is the one thing you never want to hear. If you feel you’re getting there, then leave a way out to your partner, interlocutor, boss, employee, and throw a clever “may be next week?“. And you’ll see that next time you interact with that person, this one would have thought about your problem and might suggest an appropriate solution. You remember? Preserve the future. The Vietnamese way is way smarter that you would have thought. Use it for yourself, you’ll see, after a while it becomes addictive and fantastic. You’ll be able to next-week away most of your problems and would have time to figure them out. Clever stuff.

That’s it for this one. Oh yes, just one thing, it me took 10 months to figure out the basics… I’m pretty slow.

Next post on the topic: How I’ve got yelled at by a 55-year old health official my first year of stay in Vietnam, and how she completely saved my job. A fair lesson on management in Vietnam and interaction with partners.

Piloting a social enterprise

Our company is developing well. We are now 7 team members, of which 4 full-time. We have created new services, our customer-base is rapidly expanding, and most of our clients are coming back for 2nd and 3rd contracts.

Our financial health is pretty good too, we have low costs, a fair margin, and we will soon be able to plan for the second phase, our social project, the purpose of our company.

I don’t know about you, if you are yourself a social entrepreneur, or a friend of the cause, but piloting a social enterprise is not a simple fit. You need to be business-wise, while keeping in sight your final objective. You must be obsessed with making money and turning a profit, while keeping a cold head not to get carried away by success and loosing purpose. But I have to admit, this is the most exciting thing I have ever done in my professional life. Try it, you’ll see.

Seeing a plan becoming real, looking back and remembering what Urban Care was 2 years ago, a logo and a registered domain, and now this team working together, happy clients, and soon a sufficient level of finance to move to the social phase of our project…. I am telling you, this is really encouraging. And not only because here in Hanoi, from where I am writing, the sun finally arrived after being 10 weeks on vacation, or because I could give myself my first salary last month. It is not about that.

It is about building and a sense of purpose.

Urban Care is recruiting, Admin/Accountant

Urban Care continues its expansion!

We are now looking for a Vietnamese staff to hold the position of Chief Accountant/Administrator, and Cost analyst.

The required qualifications of the candidates are listed below:

  • Certified accountant with at least a bachelor degree;
  • At least 2 years of experience in the private sector, preferably with foreign-owned companies;
  • Experience on FAST accounting software;
  • Fluency in English (for real, thanks);
  • MS office ready;
  • Details-orientated person;
  • Flexible and reactive mind.

The position is full-time, and based in Hanoi (in our new office on Lac Lang Quan, near the water park, by the lake). It will consist in:

  • Keeping the accounting of the company (one system);
  • Liaising with the Vietnamese administration;
  • Ensuring the compliance of the company with the Vietnamese law;
  • Reporting on taxes due by the company;
  • Ensuring the daily administration of the office and our team;
  • Supporting the Evaluation team in cost analysis (internal training would be given for the sake of this task);
  • Other tasks as assigned by the Deputy General Director.

This position reports to the Deputy General Director, and the Board of the company.

The position is eligible to the long-term benefits offered by the company.

Please send your motivation letter and resume in English to: Miss Mai, . Deadline: 21st of Feb, 2012. Yet the position could be staffed earlier.

Only short-listed candidates will be contacted.