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.

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

  1. Just stumbled across this post… Is it realy that structured in Vietnam? I dont realy think its that formal in the west. I’ve been dropped in to a meeting with seconds notice. I would expect it to be an organisational divide rather than a regional divide??

  2. Sure enough, you would have last minute meetings in Vietnam… in our field it is called a donor-meeting.
    As for meetings with partners and officials, it was structured 98% of the time. Or if it wasn’t, most likely the outcome of the meeting would be poor. This is really about consensus building and ways to get there. I would nonetheless advise, strongly, to really well prepare your agenda before any formal meeting. It can be tricky you know. As for the West, I cannot really count the number of dumb meetings I’ve attended. And how many of those were clearly collective excuses to kill a couple of hours. I’m just saying…

  3. in need of advice. I am a westerner working long term at a Vietnamese company. A “sep” has made it his mission to take me down and has succeeded to the point of not honouring me in the annual event and also not resigning my contract. I have only one powerful person on my side, who is also a westerner. The situation has spun out of control and I don’t know how to make it right. Apparently the “sep” holds massively long grudges so the issue he has with me will never go away (stemming from a shameful meeting he was ordered to attend, by the other westerner, revolving around me- technically not even my blame). Some other things are that this “sep” has been given free range to run a highly visible part of the company, since the actual owner has sailed ship and doesn’t even care about the infrastructure anymore…this “sep” also has a terrible iron clad poor communicative reputation. I am under the impression that he has let me dig a hole for myself that I can’t get out of, also resulting in a terrible reputation for myself. In other words, he kept me looking the other way the whole time the fire was blazing- I never had a chance to put it out. I don’t want to get out of this company because I have a lot of equity tied into it. Any advice?

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