Introduction. Vietnam is a unique civilization with highly cultured people. It is a country filled with natural beauty, tranquil rural settings, and bustling urban centers. In this period of renovation, Vietnam is emerging as an economic powerhouse in South East Asia. From the bustling commercial center of Ho Chi Minh City to the gracious capital of Ha Noi, local business is flourishing and international companies are lining up to invest in new projects. The nation, strangled by years of war, is now flexing its muscles. To succeed in international business is to understand the uniqueness of the culture you will encounter. The purpose of this report is to inform you of some of the business customs you could encounter in Vietnam.
Climate. The climate of Vietnam is subtropical. The average temperature for the country is 84 degrees. The country receives most of their annual rainfall in the summer. The southern moisture air currents move across the land during the summer. When traveling to Vietnam on business during the summer be prepared for unexpected rainfall.
Currency Exchange. The unit of currency in Vietnam is the Dong. The United States dollar is approximately worth 15000 dong. The dong has constantly fallen in value for the last decade. In Vietnam you are not allowed to export the Dong, however, you are allowed to import other forms of currency. You should pay your bills with Dong instead of low denominations of American currency.
Passports and Visas. A valid passport and visa are required for all foreigners visiting Vietnam. Visas are issued by Vietnamese embassies and consulates. Business visas are good for six months and provide for multiple entries. Sponsorship by a licensed Vietnamese enterprise is required. Your Vietnamese trade partner will provide you with the necessary details.
Setting Up an Appointment. Communications with Vietnam may present a problem. Try to have someone in Vietnam set up your meetings ahead of time. A representative could be an official United States office, like the US-ASEAN Council, or it could be a private entity, like a bank. But you should have someone in the country to set appointments for you. Some Western visitors may be confused by a double standard. It would be fairly common for your Vietnamese host to be late for a meeting. Being 30 to 40 minutes late is not unusual. This does not mean that they are not interested or that they are being rude. Don’t let yourself be disturbed by it. The double standard is that Westerners, known for their punctuality, are expected to be on time. It would be pretty damaging for your relationship to be late for a meeting without good reason.
Business Meetings. Business protocol has more ritual with government officials than it does within the private sector. When you meet with government officials, a local person will accompany you to make your introduction. Shake hands with everyone present in the room. Expect a soft handshake. Avoid any other touching, such as, slapping people on the back or grabbing their arms. Loud behavior, laughing, and talking should also be avoided. Immediately after the introduction it is appropriate to exchange business cards. Vietnamese prefer to exchange cards with both hands. You will then be invited to sit down. In a government office, your hosts will show you where to sit. Most meetings take place in a conference room rather than in someone’s office. The higher the rank of the person you meet, the more likely that you will meet in a conference room. When you are offered tea, you should accept it. Even if you are not a tea drinker, you should at least sip it.
During your introductory conversations, stay away from discussing politics or the war. It is quite common for Vietnamese officials to ask your opinion on how to solve the remaining problems of US-Vietnamese relations. It is always a good idea to brush it off with a smile. Introductory pleasantry may take some time. Do not push to start talking business. Let that come from the other side. When they feel that the relationship has advanced far enough, they will start asking questions about the topic you have come to discuss. It may take 10 minutes or an hour.
Presentations. Your first meeting may only be exploratory, with generalities and introductory sessions. The next day it will be followed by a more formal meeting, which should include a presentation of your project. This presentation should be factual and should include visuals. Remember that numbers can easily get confused in oral discussion. Brief your interpreter ahead of time, whether it is for the introductory session or for a more formal meeting. Americans tend to start their presentations with a joke. This is not a good idea in Vietnam. Humor should be kept out of business discussions.
Negotiating. As the negotiations progress, you will find that the Vietnamese may be very stubborn on certain points. Be patient. It is rude to show your anger or frustration. You may cause both sides to lose face by displaying your negative emotions. If you criticize the other side directly or use any confrontational tactics, it will cause them to lose face. You also lose face, because you are showing yourself to be immature and undisciplined. Remember, that whatever the situation is always keep a poker face and smile. Show respect to the senior people, especially in the government structures. When you show respect, for example, by the way you address them, you give them face. Ask your interpreter to brief you before the meeting about the titles of the people you are about to meet and always use those titles.
The negotiating process is going to take a long time. Bargaining range is important. Start with some margin in your opening bid. There will be times when you will need to give in. If you do not have that margin built into your offer you will be in trouble. Whenever you have to give in, you should always get a “quid pro quo.” This is the only area where you may show negative emotions. It is not a bad idea, when giving in, to show the Vietnamese how painful it is for you.
Once you reach a standstill in your negotiations, there is a tendency for United States executives to get to the tough issues and get them settled. This is not a good idea in Vietnam. It is best to try to settle the easy things first, where you have the least disagreement. What happens is, you are building relationships and trust while solving those issues. You get the business going with a forward motion. Inevitably, you are going to hit a number of issues that are tough. By that time the Vietnamese side has already committed itself to the relationship, and it is more willing to search for a compromise. If the standstill happens near the end of the day, it is best to call an end to the meetings and sit down again tomorrow. If it is earlier in the day, you may ask for a tea break. Get away from the table and try to communicate more informally.
In negotiations, there is a tendency for the Vietnamese side to put great stress on competitors as a pressure tactic. For example, the Australians are very vigorous in moving into Vietnam, so if there is an Australian company working on the same deal, they are sure to tell you about it. Approach it as a negotiating tactic.
Even after the agreement is signed, you have to expect that it will always be subject to a change.
Follow-Up Work. One of the negative comments Vietnamese sometimes make about American companies is that when the Americans leave, they lose contact with them. Setting up your business in Vietnam is sure to be a long-term process. In-between your personal visits, it is a good idea to follow up on your meetings, outlining your understanding of what was discussed, and, in general, continuing communication with your new partners through faxes or mail.
Business Entertainment and Gifts. Entertainment is an important way of building and furthering a relationship in Vietnam. There are a number of good international restaurants in the better hotels. Especially at the beginning of your business topics, your entertainment is probably going to be confined to wining and dining. French-style restaurants are considered to be prestigious. Business lunches and dinners are common. It is not unusual to entertain somebody for both lunch and dinner. On a busy trip, you may want to do both. You are giving a little more face if you invite someone to dinner. If you are invited to dinner it is a very good sign that your relationship will prosper. Power breakfasts are not yet common in Vietnam. Expect to discuss business during lunch. At dinner, it is best for you as a visitor not to raise the question of business until your hosts do. The Vietnamese seem to be influenced by the French custom; that if you are going to talk business over a meal, it happens towards the end of the meal, when the cheese, dessert, or coffee is served.
It would be a good idea to bring along some gifts. A good time to present gifts would be at the end of the first meeting. Souvenirs from your part of the United States always work well. And don’t be surprised if your partners help you with suggestions of what gifts to bring on your next trip.
Language and Religion. Though Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam there are several other languages spoken, such as, Chinese, English, French, Khmer, and tribal languages (Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian).
There are also several different religions in Vietnam. The religious groups include Buddhist, Taoist, Roman Catholic, indigenous beliefs, Islam, Protestant, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao. Religion is a very important aspect in Vietnam.
Conclusion. In conclusion, before you visit Vietnam, or any other country, research must be done to find out their business ethics. This will keep you from making mistakes that could cause you or someone else to lose face.