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.

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