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.


2 thoughts on “Working in Vietnam 101, a crash course for foreigners, Part 4

  1. don’t you agree that foreigners shouldn’t be drafting contract proposals for Vietnamese companies? Locals use these drafts to start counter offers- but more so they keep the drafts as guidelines on how to do western business and use business English. If a foreigner thinks he is preparing a slick document showing off his own business skills and getting want he wants, beware because locals will use it right back at you in a counteroffer not in your favour. Also, these drafts negatively effect business negotiations for other foreigners coming in later.

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