While Vietnam is a land of opportunities you need to have some level of understanding of the Vietnam business culture in order to unlock those possibilities.
In this article we point out most common ways on how to build good relationships with (potential) partners in Vietnam.
Understanding business culture in Vietnam
How to build trust in Vietnam
Take time to build up your relationships in Vietnam. While efficiency is important, the cultural aspect in Vietnam requires your attention and time. Get to know the person. In business as well as personal life, it is a strong benefit if you and your partner have mutual connections. A long lasting relationship is valued most.
Thus, do not expect to receive answers quickly or take any shortcuts when connecting with Vietnamese people. Your partner most likely takes time to get back to you on any discussed matter. In fact, foreign nationals often mistake politeness with positive answers, assuming big deals are on the way when in reality it’s just the beginning of the negotiation process.
Always keep in mind – show respect and genuine interest while staying humble. Overall, give time to your counterpart, to process their thoughts. However, make sure you keep a constant communication in order to build trust.
Communication in business environment
Confronting unpleasant topics is difficult for Vietnamese. Thus, they often avoid letting you know about their actual thoughts on business. Leaving someone in the dark is not their intention but actually the goodwill to avoid any conflicts.
The main agenda for Vietnamese is to determine who their partner really is. It is often that you will discuss topics from personal life; the more you learn how to share, the closer you become with your partner. Therefore, do not feel bothered about talking matters outside of business.
Nothing is actually impossible in Vietnam
Just like you shouldn’t take the first “yes” too optimistically you shouldn’t be too discouraged when you hear the word “impossible”. This usually means that you either need to work harder to build interest or your partner does not have a definitive answer (yet). Always try to dig deeper what the “impossible” actually meant and whether the challenges can be overcome.
To call or write an e-mail?
We have written another article about how to get business meetings with Vietnamese companies and it’s something we offer as a service on a regular basis to foreign companies.
As a rule of thumb – it is unlikely that your initial cold email gets a response. Vietnamese prefer doing business with people they know. For initial approach, it is good to follow up with a call after sending an e-mail. By doing so, the e-mail does not categorize as spam and the recipient knows how valuable doing business with them really is.
Try to get introductions or if that’s not possible at least try to get the direct contact of the person you are trying to reach. You should start by asking to meet with a person who has authorisation. If they agree, it is a sign of interest to conduct business with you.
“Keeping the Face” in Vietnam business culture
Vietnamese value person’s social standing, dignity and reputation, as well as honor. Seeing the combination of all these values in one takes time, and so will building your relationship. They need to trust you before actually showing their real thoughts and feelings.
In Vietnam you will realize how important gaining and retaining the respect of the partner really is. It is about either losing or saving face. As important as anything you and your Vietnamese partner are discussing is following both your facial expressions as well as body language. Even if the face of your partner says one thing, it may often mean the other.
Here are a few tips on how to build rather than lose face in Vietnam:
- Give sincere compliments – this helps build the face of your partner. If appropriate, do not hesitate to give them meaningful credit
- Politely draw attention away from yourself – compliments coming towards you give an opportunity to show your gratitude to previous teachers and mentors. Vietnamese appreciate the humility you have shown
- Save the other from embarrassment – when an embarrassing situation lies ahead for your friend or partner, you have the opportunity to find a distraction and save them from losing face
- Keep your promise – never promise something you can not keep as broken promises may lead you to lose face
- Be silent if necessary – silence is common in Vietnam business culture and may occur during meetings. When one party disagrees with another it is sometimes wise to keep silent in order to avoid losing face
In conclusion, make your partner feel valuable. Yet, always maintain your integrity and humility. Never go as far as insulting your partner or losing your tranquility. Coming back from shouting and arguing is already troublesome.
Socializing in business atmosphere
Dinner on business
Talking about trust, your partner feels more confident about the cooperation knowing who is the person behind the suit and formal thoughts. Vietnamese are accommodating – let’s say you came to Vietnam for a business meeting, it is often that the host already has plans for you. Usually a dinner including several courses of food, as well as Vietnamese beer or imported wines.
Exchanging toasts is a part of the dinner, starting with the host. When toasting, you should stand up and direct your toast to the senior or oldest Vietnamese present. You are expected to host a dinner in return as well. Spouses are usually not included in Vietnamese business entertainment.
If the above is not the case for you, propose a dinner yourself and invite the partners for dinner. If the evening timeframe is not suitable, luncheon is also acceptable. Another way of bonding in Vietnam is having a few light drinks with your upcoming partners. Having drinks is rather common – just know your limits.
Doing business as a woman in Vietnam
When a western woman plans on dining with a Vietnamese man, the dining location should always be public. The woman should request upon hosting.
It is appropriate that a foreign businesswoman proposes dinner to a Vietnamese man, however she should also insist on paying for the meal. If the man is hosting, western woman should offer a meal of equal value in return.
Social etiquette in Vietnam
There are many norms in Vietnamese social etiquette that may differ from what you know from your home country. Below we bring out some of the examples that help you be more prepared. However, do not worry about crossing the line too much either – as a foreign national Vietnamese people will understand if you do not know all the rules. Showing a good attitude and respect is most important in any culture!
Social etiquette plays a huge part in Vietnam business culture, thus there are numerous ways how you can prove yourself to your business partner.
Whenever you meet a Vietnamese friend or potential business partner, start with slightly smiling for a sign of goodwill. Smiling naturally every now and then brings out your truthful manners in both business and social atmosphere.
Handshakes are common when welcoming and saying goodbye in Vietnam. Xin chào is how strangers formally greet each other. When a woman extends her hand to you, you may shake it, otherwise bow your head slightly for greeting. Following the Confucian tradition, start with greeting the oldest person first. When meeting a group of people, always greet everyone, including children.
Giving gifts to your prospective business partners is not a must but it is common. Try not to overdo with the present itself. Something small and practical is appreciated.
Culture is important for Vietnamese so something from your hometown would be nice. For a business present, purchasing better items for senior partners instead of similar ones to everyone is a good sign. This way you show appreciation to seniority.
It is not always necessary to bring a present. However if you do, avoid giving sharp objects or handkerchiefs. The first is associated with separation and latter is a sad symbol of farewell in Vietnam.
Always respect the elders and remember that the oldest person is seated first. When food is served, start off with using both hands when passing dishes. Note that being able to finish your plate is a sign of good behaviour.
Also, keep in mind that when served rice, one should never stick chopsticks vertically in the bowl. This reminds Vietnamese of death and the deceased. Also, it is rude to tap the chopsticks on the bowl or plate. This is what the beggars have done in the past.
In fact, what keeps you in the safe zone is making as little noise as possible with bowls, chopsticks and food. Avoid doing anything unnatural to adapt to the environment. If you feel curious about some served items and have a question, you are welcome to approach your host – a polite guest will always receive an answer.
Even when feeling affectionate, avoid hugging or kissing someone in public. You rarely see this in the streets of Vietnam. In addition to slightly romantic gestures, avoid touching other’s shoulder or their head (considered as the symbolic highest point in Asia). Books about etiquette refer to as much as touching a person of the opposite sex being impolite.
Keep in mind that it is a modern yet conservative country, traditions and customs are kept holy. Trust your common sense and continuously observe the surroundings.
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