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Vietnam context

Vietnamese society is steeped in tradition, but with strong disparities across the country, and in fast evolution. Overall, it’s a collectivist society where group interests are superior to individuals. Social order is established around the family, respect, hierarchy, respect for the elders and harmony between all individuals. In this article, we will present to you some business etiquettes that needed to know while doing business in Vietnam.

1/Particularities and traditions

a) Unwritten codes of conduct
  • Respect for elders 

Although decision-making is not always clear and power often seems distributed, Vietnamese society remains very hierarchical. Each person plays a specific role and decisions come from the top. It is advised not to send too young collaborators to Vietnam as they may not be respected by the elders. However, this is changing with the arrival of young generations at management level in Vietnamese companies.

  • « Face » concept

The concept can be described as a mix of reputation, honour, and also of social status and responsibilities. The main idea is to avoid placing the interlocutor in an embarrassing or humiliating situation. Therefore, errors or inconsistencies should not be highlighted in public for respect.

b) Vietnam’s more or less populist beliefs 

The way to conduct business is different between Western and Asian countries. This is noticeable with superstition. In many ways, Vietnamese people have religious beliefs in life and work’s aspect. For example:

  • Prayer rituals at the launch ceremonies for big projects or launch of new shops or offices;
  • Some sectors such as real estate hire fortune-tellers as Feng Shui consultants.

Therefore, it is essential to notice and take into account this matter while doing business in Vietnam. 

c) Regional differences

In general, there are business cultural disparities between regions in Vietnam. North region is more hierarchical, and traditional in the manner of doing business. On the other hand, the South and especially Ho Chi Minh City, has an international vision in business due to its history. The city is characterised by its capitalist and business oriented sensitivity.

2/ Worker habits

a) Being present is vital !

Indeed, to be appreciated by your customers, it is necessary to be available all the time. It demonstrates your commitment to your customers.  It’s not rare to see some of the services available 24/07 every day, where you can get your requests met.  

b) The political organisation of Vietnam 

The socialist republic of Vietnam is organised around a state president with a symbolic role, a prime minister and his government. They are the second and third most important figures in the state, behind the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party who is the leader. The main element of this organisation, the National Assembly, is renewed every 5 years. The Vietnamese over 18 years of age elect it by indirect suffrage.

3/ Meetings in Vietnam

Most of the young Vietnamese can speak basically English. However, it is advice to prepare all your documentations in both languages, English and Vietnamese. It would be very appreciated by your local partner if you try to learn basic expressions in Vietnamese like saying ”hello”, ”thank you”, ordering coffee, etc. , like a way to show your respect to his/her culture

Please note that, whenever it comes to business involving public officials or provincial leaders, it will all be done in Vietnamese only, so make sure you have a trusted local support on this matter.

To succeed in business, meetings and after meetings are key moments in Vietnam. Here is how to be prepared for them.

4/ Set up the meeting

a) Communication channels

In Vietnam, they have their own electronic communication platforms. Therefore, don’t select the most popular Western countries’ channels by default. You could ask for your client’s/partners’ preferred method, and make the common communication via them. For example, Vietnamese social media like Zalo can be chosen for business communications. 

However, please note that important communication like making decisions should be sent by email for legal matters. 

b) Schedule the appropriate time

Vietnamese likes in-person meetings.  If you’re scheduling a meeting with a potential client or partner, it is recommended to set the schedule before dinner or lunch time, as main decisions and negotiations sometimes taken during the business meals

c- Last minute changes and punctuality 

It’s essential to be punctual for your appointments. Plan for more time than you need because of the road network, expect traffic. Also, expect last-minute overhauls in everything, on the agreed-upon details of a contract, on a project that starts tomorrow, or on the venue for a meeting. Those sudden changes are part of the culture.

5/ During the meeting

a) Very first contact

Vietnam, unlike other East-Asia countries, doesn’t practice “bowing”. Using handshakes is the norm in formal greetings and farewells with business partners.

Also, make sure you have business cards, and give it with both of your hands to show respect to the others.  When receiving a business card, don’t forget to look at it with interest to express your interest and respect to your partner.

b) Start with some small talks

In Vietnam, it’s about relationships. To establish confidence between stakeholders, business meetings will often start with icebreakers. Your partners might ask you about your last trip or the upcoming weekend. However, stick to basics and don’t ask intimate questions about family.

6/ After the meeting, get the deal! 

a) The relationship is very important

Relationships are the key to Vietnamese business culture.

Your relationship and network is one of your most valuable assets to contract and succeed in the country. It is benefited to get known by your co-operators and know them, as they will not likely have a deal with you if you are a random seller or buyer.

As has been told, relationships are also vital in the decision-making process. As an example, Vietnamese people are more likely to do business with someone they have an indirect relationship with rather than an unknown supplier, even if he is more meritorious.

The duration of your after-meeting with co-operators is positively related to the chance that you have to do business with them

b) Gatekeeper

In Vietnam, most of the time, to move forward in a project you should contact the decision-maker. But for that, you have to find the “gatekeepers”, the person who can open the doors for you and introduce you to decision-makers. This act is very important for doing business. It allows you to remove barriers such as the lower-level procurement staff, get some intel, or simply press for a meeting.

c) Gifts

Gifts can be present in Vietnamese business culture. Of course, not all the time. But sympathy gestures are welcomed.

Be aware, however, some people may try to abuse this cultural etiquette in the wrong way by trying to corrupt some decision-makers. You should be wary. Obviously, it is not the custom of Vietnam to corrupt people!

During business meetings it is very common to offer gifts. These shouldn’t be expensive, but just a way to express your respect to your partner and create a personal relationship with them.

For example, in Lunar New Year occasion, which is a major event in Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese often offer more valuable gifts to their partners.

Final thoughts

To summarize, one thing is certain: to do business in Vietnam, certain points must be respected (coded-languages, respect for elders…). At first sight, it is possible to think that the methods are totally different both in everyday life and in business meetings. But, if you pay attention, you will soon realize that the country’s habits and customs are just a matter of common sense. By being respectful and polite, you will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that Vietnam has to offer.

To broaden your business or do large-scale trading with Vietnamese companies, it could be helpful to be assisted by a Vietnamese business consultant. It could overlap the local representative requirements and also be an interpreter if you need it. Local consultants will also adjust depending on the local culture.

At Source of Asia, we provide service called market expansion service by adapting our methodology to your needs according to the region. We could assist you in various ways such as : evaluate  your export potential, meet local business partners, represent your brand on the ground, boost your communication, expand through M&A, establish locally.

Feel free to ask our experts about your project in this link !