Thursday, April 27, 2017

Hanoi '96 - The Early Days

"Minh ơi!” someone yelled in a sharp Hanoian accent where Minh sounds like Ming, more Chinese than Vietnamese if you ask me and they probably thought I was deaf after yelling several times since I wasn’t used to be called by my Vietnamese name. It was Ms. Ly next door at the photocopy shop, though saying it was a shop was probably a stretch measuring the size of a closet that faced the street on one end and my alley on the other. Ms.Ly was a petite lady, with shoulder length hair, and like most local women she wore a colorful pants-shirt combo known as a bộ which to the foreign eye are pajamas by any other name. Aside from the photocopier that took up most of her shop she had a lawn chair that doubled as indoor furniture and she always seemed more than happy to put aside her newspaper to chat with customers or neighbors that came by. 

Having a lawn chair in her shop was just one of the many paradoxes of living in Vietnam where being indoors was only obvious by the surrounding walls and roof overhead, but both windows and doors were left open where the sound of beeping motorbikes and the scent of jackfruit from a market blocks away were omnipresent.  It was just then that I learned that she also kept all the neighbors mail including mine that must have sat there for weeks by looking at the post mark, but she just smiled and gave it to me nonchalantly. It was a letter from dad back in Stamford, Connecticut and while it was just a short note mostly stating that he forwarded mail, it was nice to read even those few lines and remember his voice even if it was a momentary escape from this strange place. After reading the short note from my dad i was transported back to my hot and humid life in Hanoi.

Ms. Ly asked me, "Minh, how old are you?" 
"23," I said then asked her the same guessing she might be around 20 
Ms. Ly just smiled and said, "how old do you think I am?"

Meeting locals like Ms. Ly was always confusing trying to figure out her age just as it turned her world upside down finding out that I was not yet married and settled down at the ripe old age of 23. Only a year younger than me, Ms. Ly was already married and had a kid which was pretty common by local standards especially back in the mid 90's. My first attempt at this age guessing game was when my Vietnamese summer program was introduced to students who swarmed around us like a bunch of groupies meeting a famous rock band. I felt like McJagger, but I then did a double take and seeing their pimply teenage faces and we might as well been the Back Street Boys. It was an adrenaline rush being treated like celebrities then the shocking to find out that they too were university students. Most locals are shorter than the average American and have close to zero body-fat so youth is on their side. You can probably take anyone at first glance and add 5 years to whatever you might have guessed as a starting point and you’re at least somewhere in the vicinity. Locals also won't hesitate to ask how old you are, your marital status, your job, plus sometimes go as far as asking your salary. All these questions are well intended though intrusive if you’ve just met someone. However, for locals asking these standard questions also has to do with how they should address you such as Anh, Ch or Em relative to their age and status which is a prerequisite for basic conversation. I mastered this and was fine as long as someone didn't stray from these four questions or else a loud ding once again signaled the end of another lightening round. This was all for naught as I'd usually lose any momentum going into round 2, feigning some sort of understanding with the next set of questions that turned into shaking my head and repeating, "không hiểu." If they spoke English then we could maybe extend our conversation past that initial exhilarating minute or else a lot of well-intended awkward smiles would ensue.

ơi - is commonly added on when calling someone as an expletive meaning "hey" as one might say, "hey Mary!"
Bộ or Bộ quần áo (pronounced bow as in bow tie) is a 'set' or pant and shirt set
Anh, Ch or Em - Elder Brother, Elder Sister, younger sibling Khổng hiệu - don't understand

My roommate Tim was traveling for work which was both a survival test and a lot of down time for me. He wasn’t just my roommate and we’d also been friends since we were eleven years old. Like brothers looking out for one another we’d also treat each other to something else than the usual rice for sanity break if one of us had some extra money. We'd often hit a place that Tim knew called 123 on Phố Huế street and for a mere buck we’d splurge for something that reminded us of our own home cooking we grew up on like Spaghetti Bolognese or "it's just spaghetti and meat sauce” as Tim would say. I depended a lot on Tim when I first arrived in Hanoi because he spoke Vietnamese plus already had lived there so knew his way around. Without him I limited my solo outings in the early days till I ran out of necessities usually venturing no more than a block in the blazing summer heat and a few minutes later I’d return to our apartment out of breath from yet another mission completed hearing a crackling voice over the radio, "Houston, that was one small step for Ramen, bottled water and TP.. one small step for mankind."  

Having lived in Hanoi previously, Tim knew the culture and was my Jedi master who disseminated an arsenal of one-liners even weeks before we took our fateful journey. His advice was simple, yet invaluable queues for adapting quickly to life in the motherland. 

"Hey Kev, just watch what I eat" or "don't ask just accept it" Tim would say

Tim had the subtlety of a mac truck that sometimes rubbed other Americans in our Vietnamese classes the wrong way and together we were a good balance, superheroes who we coined as Joe and Lance. Joe was the guy who just said whatever was on his mind and charmed the ladies.  Lance thought he was the opposite, suave, but actually always daydreaming and stuck in his mind.  With a Lonely Planet pocket phrase book in tow Tim took me as far as I needed for my basic training imparting an array of Vietnamese greetings so I could say hello to any grandma all the way down the ranks to a toddler if the situation called for it, plus being able to count to ten.  Being able to count in Vietnamese proved invaluable for buying stuff, but also drove me crazy because it was all I could hear at first, just numbers. "Chín, Sáu, Việt Nam."  Oh the last wasn't the number, but the country they were saying over and over on the evening state TV news.  

“Speaking Vietnamese is very easy” the locals would tell me and if their two year old kid could speak it then it should also come as naturally to an adult foreigner. If Vietnamese is so easy, then why can’t anybody understand what I was saying I often thought to myself on the verge of giving up?  Well Vietnamese are not used to hearing foreigners speak Vietnamese and sometimes cannot even understand each other speaking the same language if one is speaking Northern and the other is speaking Southern dialect.  Trying to say one word is hard enough and depending on the tone a single word can take on multiple meanings which made saying an entire sentence seem monumental.  Doing somersaults in my head piecing together all of the words and their tones going up, down and sideways to say a sentence I would often hesitate so long and just manage to get out a short response like, "vâng" as a gesture that I may have understood.

I had seen Vietnam in movies about the war like Rambo or Apocalypse Now or the more recent French films Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, but couldn't really imagine what modern day Vietnam was like.  Tim had introduced me to Vietnamese food and even some of his Vietnamese friends, but going to Vietnam was the last piece of the puzzle.      

"The countryside is like a cross between Florida and Hawaii"  Tim told me, both places I hadn't yet been to
"It's just somewhere you have to go to know what it’s like" was his truest piece of advice to let me find things out for myself.  

It was if we had prepared our entire early years wondering what living in Vietnam would be like then finally realizing the dream together and finding out as Tim would say, “It’s really hot in Vietnam!”

Phố Huế is a main street  in the central district (Hai Bà Trưng) of Hanoi
Chín, Sáu, Việt Nam – Nine, six, Vietnam 
vâng - yes (formal version)

Tim  (r) and  me (l) - Ha Long Bay circa '96

Ms. Quy worked at the same office as Tim, she was in her early 30’s, and sometimes had wet hair from taking showers at the office which was considered odd even by her coworkers.  Despite her quirks nobody questioned her wet look plus she always seemed eager to practice her English with me which I was happy about considering my limited Vietnamese.  I had mentioned to her that Tim and I were looking to stay in Hanoi after our summer language program and were looking for a place to rent.  

Ms. Quy, "I think it's very easy for you to find a place to rent!"
I replied, "Great! how I come I don't see any for rent signs?" [i thought to myself]
Ms. Quy, "I'll ask my friend if she has a room to rent."
"Thank you for helping us out!" I said and felt momentarily relieved for having a place to live settled. 

I later realized what she then meant was everything was just about word of mouth whether understanding where to get something or knowing local market prices the real social network was the people you were literally connected to in person and not on what would later be the bottomless chasm of MySpace, Frienster, Facebook, etc.  It’s normal for locals to ask how much you pay for something no matter what it is and practically in the same breath give a knee jerking reply "Đắt quá!" as a as if you had been robbed blind.   So whenever I told friend’s we what we were paying for a small 10’ x 10’ studio we were not embarrassed by the tiny size of the place that previously housed an entire local family, but the ridiculously overpriced $150 rent we were being charged especially twenty years ago.  This was part of an unwritten rule that foreigners should pay more for everything.

I was still scrounging for work and doing some private English lessons a few days a week which made for great friends, but my lessons didn’t amount to much and just paid for daily necessities like meals and maybe a beer. Since I was hoping to stay for at least a year I had to ration the little savings I had left after selling my used wheels at the end of college which meant eating a lot of ramen and going out for just one meal a day. Though when I say eating out this was just a mere 10 cent bowl of Phở or maybe a more extravagant 30 cent cơm bình dân (street food dish of rice) if things were looking up. When it came to pay up I often had to ask bao nhiêu a couple times trying to seem as nonchalant as possible while trying to catch some those numbers being calculated on the fly usually intermingled with someone else's bill and between barking food orders to the staff.  After that harrowing exchange and handing over what I guessed should cover the cost I was left in disbelief that I was really getting a full plate of rice, some slow cooked stewed pork and vegetables for just 10 cents! Between the periods of studying and having short-term jobs here and there I always had an unsettling feeling like I was on the verge of having to pack it up, call it quits and head back home with my tail between my legs because I couldn’t cut it. However, it wasn't the cheap 10 cent meals or even the 100 degree weather that was killing me, but the intermittent flickers of hope that was mostly doused with a feeling of inertia that both charged and drained me. 

I did however have glimpses of what life might be like living the rich expat life in Hanoi when shooting pool at trendy Redwoods Bar with young jet setters who talked about new fashion projects hopping between Paris and Hanoi or meeting state department employees at the American Club who lived in serviced villas, and were driven around in their chauffeured Toyota Land Cruisers with government license plates. These were not any ordinary Land Cruisers though, but the mid-90’s models that still had some of the original rugged look with big wheel-wells and a whole spare tire strapped on the back ready for a safari in the Sahara. With every new contact I made or job interview I left I would daydream of that life and what might go with it...the Land Cruiser, sitting high above the sea of a million motorbikes was my allusive Moby.

Đắt quá - Too expensive
Phở - Noodle soup usually with either beef or chicken 
cơm bình dân - commoner's rice
bao nhiêu - how much?

As the midday heat wore off I started to regain consciousness, summoned all my strength to press down on the sticking play button on the old dual cassette boom box. This along with a mini-fridge and gas stove were our luxurious amenities.  The stove was used for making instant noodles which was a risky feat each time turning the knob on the single gas burner hearing a loud hiss rushing through that was followed by a loud click when the flimsy ignition lit.  I winced and said a prayer then kaboom FIRE!  The mini-fridge was hardly used except to store an occasional bottle of coke which was the finest beverage we had next to the boiled tap water.  I proudly poured my prized bottle to local guests to share some Americana though they would only take a few sips just to be polite leaving me with the conundrum of whether to save or dump such wasted liquid gold.  The music we had was a small stack of Tim's cassettes which was a mix of 90's new wave, and today it was the Pet Shop Boys “It’s a Sin” blaring while I wavered between writing in my journal and formulating an escape plan since it was Friday, the one day I allowed myself some indulgence. Without much hesitation I decided that I’d go to the R&R Bar &Tavern that was run by a Dead Head from the States who played great tunes and made the best tacos in Vietnam.

Going to expat bars was both a respite and internal conflict for me meeting foreigners I could easily talk to in my native language, commiserate about being woken up at 5 AM to construction workers or a neighbor's rooster, but then there was the feeling that this isn’t what I came here for discover expat life.  Our arrogance was only confirmed by on looking searing stares from people on the street as we stepped into a bar and pay what might be a good portion of one month’s salary of a poor local for a hamburger or pizza that we were so desperate for.

The R&R was about a half hour walk from the apartment, so in the late afternoon I started to make my way up Phố Huế  street snaking on and off the sidewalk dodging the potholes and motorbikes that took up just almost every inch with hardly any space to walk.  It wasn't long that my clean going out shirt was already getting sweaty and dusty from walking in the heat alongside the congested traffic. I could have saved myself the agony of being the sole person walking around that time of day by taking a xe ôm, but I was too cheap and stubborn even if it meant saving myself 10 cents and thinking to myself that it's okay to walk with every bead of sweat that dripped down my forehead.  When I got to the bar I was the first to walk in around 5 PM ordering a couple of happy hour draft beers that wouldn’t leave me broke and maybe I could meet someone who had some leads. After a couple months of job hunting I stank of desperation with a mix of Tiger beer.

The bartender Viet who was always smiling said "chào anh" as I stood up and started to leave.
"Chào Việt, em khỏe không" I said asking him how he's doing and quickly reaching the limit of my Vietnamese conversation skills.

"cảm ơn anh, em khỏe" he said and returned the gesture asking me the same.

The place was pretty dead and it was still early so I started to make my way back home around 8 PM. I was going down Hòa Mã Street and just about to round the corner back to Phố Huế where I a bright heavenly vision came to me on the dark street. Well actually it was another bar, but this one was a beautiful white washed French colonial boutique with green shutters and elegant dim yellow lighting called the Wine Bar. It was one those places I had passed before, but seemed too fancy for my taste plus drinking wine really didn’t appeal to me in the stifling heat that already kept my head in a constant buzzed state.

The realization of nothing to go home for must have overcome me as I was already past the front door and making my way to the bar where I overheard a guy with what sounded like a British accent.  After pleasantries, I asked him if he was from England.

Sammi said, "I'm Finnish" 
"really? I’m Finnish too!" I said with a big grin on my face
 “YOU’RE NOT FUCKIN FINNISH!” he said in a drunken stupor belligerently spitting in my face

“Minun nimeni on Kevin Gripenberg” I said introducing myself 

That’s when he started to lose his balance, was swaying in slow motion falling off his bar stool and banged his forehead on the bar with a distinct smack. As he eventually came to a few of us lifted him up seeing that he was fine or too drunk to know otherwise and I took out my driver’s license as proof of my surname just so he was assured this Vietnamese guy who just walked off the street was not a hallucination.

It turned out that this Finnish guy, Sammi, was the manager of the bar, his boss also happened to be Finnish, and the two of them made up the entire Finnish expat population in Vietnam.  We had some good laughs as I blew them away with my limited Finnish vocabulary mostly consisting of greetings and curse words then like a magician I pulled out of the hat my reciting "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" or other insanely long words also known as Finnish like traditional Christmas foods like Karjalan Piirakka and Lanttulaatikko that I dreaded eating as a kid, but was filled with nostalgia as the memories past Christmases came flooding back. Afterward we’d see each other around Hanoi and I’d shout “mita kuuluu?” always getting a big grin in response. To come back to my motherland and find my people... well my other people would’ve made my parents proud!

chào anh/em - Chào  is used as a general greeting for hello/goodby,  anh is used as sir or older brother / em is used to address someone younger than you brother or sisterkhỏe không? How are you?xe om - motorbike taxiHòa Mã is a main street  in the central district (Hai Bà Trưng) of HanoiMinun nimeni on - my name isKarjalan Piirakka - Karelian pastyLanttulaatikko - turnip casserolemita kuuluu? - how are you?

Sunday, December 04, 2016


“You should study French since you can use it in Vietnam one day” my mom told me when I was picking a foreign language in middle-school.   With limited references at this age this was like choosing between crackers & brie or a plate of nachos, a choice I'd still wrestle with to this day, but brie won for sentimental reasons from all the French cheese and crackers I scarfed down with my dad.  The town I grew up in also happened to have one of the top French schools in the NYC area so knowing the language would be useful both in making friends and eavesdropping on my many French neighbors, “Ah oui inspecteur Closeau.”  However, little did I know about French colonialism and the cultural influences France had on Vietnam.  I knew even less about Vietnam, a place I was from, but cared little about in my little world that consisted of my family, the school I went to, and the sports I played in a small town Larchmont, N.Y.  Vietnam was my birthplace, a minor part of my bio that I would remember now and then when looking at my passport, but hardly spoke about much less understood till later on.  Little did I know that the events in my life would gradually wake a hidden curiosity and send me on a journey back to my motherland almost two decades later. 

Growing up in the 80’s the Vietnam War was still too fresh in many American’s memory, Vietnam’s identity was consumed by a war that brought more shame than pride and so I too avoided this part of me.  Vietnamese-Americans were still coming to America trying to survive which also came with the shameful aspects that overshadowed the greater good like gang violence.  Hollywood blockbusters like Rambo also glorified killing the gooks and movie sound bites of Vietnamese prostitutes became mainstream rap lyrics, “me so horny, me love you long time.”  After tuning out any Vietnam war movies for a decade I discovered 90’s Franco-Vietnamese movies that I would watch countless times with relief that the stories were not about the war and were the total opposite of Hollywood with antiheroes who were poor and didn’t get the girl. They even went from bad to worse with depressing endings that went back to the loop of mundane routines.  Films like ‘Cyclo,’ ‘Scent of Green Papaya,’ or ‘Three Seasons’ with typical French style cinematography which had drawn out scenes of water dripping off a lotus leaf or watching a person lying in a room next to a rickety fan just sweating for what might have been a minute, but felt like an eternity.  Finding these rare Vietnamese 90's movies without stories about the war was a far cry from the hip Vietnamese culture people nowadays embrace from the trendy food trucks in many cities to Vietnam being a top travel destination.  

Self-portrait 1995

When venturing out of my predominantly white neighborhood I'd sometimes meet other Vietnamese people, though these encounters brought both excitement as much as they brought anxiety caused by uninvited judgment as I proved to be the same only in appearance, but then had little else to show for my heritage and the momentary joy quickly turned to disappointment.   It's not as if being Vietnamese was a sham, but rather that explaining my story was both complicated and met with mixed responses, the worst being pity for having lost my biological parents.  Because of this I'd often not want to explain much, keep quiet, and just let them make conclusions of who I am.  It wasn’t till high school and college that I started to make some Vietnamese friends, we found common ground in being American and I was always curious to learn about their families.  Things like hearing about their journeys to the U.S. or familial duties that was something totally foreign to me and intrigued me as I was searching for anything to learn about being Vietnamese.  

One college friend who left a lasting impression on me was Hai. We were floor-mates, but he didn't hang around with everybody, and quietly shuffled by us often returning from the library late at night.  I eventually met Hai in the lounge playing ping pong together on study breaks and I found behind the serious facade was an easy going big-brother type of guy, and how different our lives were.  College was a given path for me with hopes that I’d do well, I was never pressured into any major, and my mom's main concern was whether I had enough money on my dining card.  Hai on the other hand came from a big family of six brothers who were first generation Americans, they were living the American dream with a family restaurant and going to the best public schools.  However, with this Hai also carried the burden of his parents’ dreams to go to med school. As if this wasn’t enough pressure, he was expected support his younger brother who was also at the same college, plus help run the family restaurant when back home in the city during holiday and summer breaks. I always remembered Hai's words saying how lucky I was and that he wanted to move away and travel on his own, but couldn't break family obligations.  Upon finishing college I didn’t have a definitive plan, but I was free and with my mom’s recent passing her words that I should someday go to Vietnam resonated even stronger.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Quality of Life

According to the Quality of Life Index for 2010, Vietnam ranks 52 just behind Fiji and ahead of Gambia. In case you don’t know, FIji is a small island in the Pacific off the coast of Australia and Gambia is country in the NW of Africa known for its slave trade in ; both areas of British colonization in the 20th century, but neither countries having significant impact on the recent world socio-economical events.

The quality of life index is calculated by the International Living Organization and is based on factors such as cost of living, leisure culture, economic environment, freedom, health, infrastructure, risk & safety, and climate where the higher the score, the better such as the case of the US with an overall score of 86. Why Vietnam’s ranking is only 52 is quite shocking considering it was coined as the next Asian Tiger just a few years ago. If we were considering Vietnam’s ranking purely based on it’s capital, then maybe it’d rank higher next to its neighboring countries such as China and Thailand.

While this website admits being biased, having weighted rankings for factors, plus giving a Western perspective (American to be exact), it does bring to mind some warning signs, some that are evident to even the normal citizen’s eyes like myself while living in Vietnam for the past years. The cost of living in Vietnam has risen dramatically in the past years since I moved here in 2004 where the prices for commodities and utilities such as petrol, rice and electricity have gone up as much as 50%, but not in line with most inhabitants salaries. Vietnam ranked 71 in this area which is not even that bad and while electricity price increases are expected to cause outrage, the cost of living is still relatively low to most other countries.

Weighing in with average scores are Vietnam’s economy and environment. It is argued by many economist that a country needs to be financially stable in order to address social issues, however despite Vietnam’s rapidly growing economy with of the strongest GDP’s in the world this past year with 6.7% growth, the environment is literally an eyesore in many areas where you can see debris of all sizes just about everywhere on the streets, canals and coastline. Furthermore, Vietnam faces issues of even more serious environmental hazards from industries such as agricultural manufacturing and petrol with a recent historical settlement case against Vedan for environmental pollution.

Unsurprisingly ranking the lowest on the list are Freedom and Infrastructure. Again, we must remember that this is a biased ranking from an American point of view from which I’d agree that areas of censorship and political corruption are problematic, but what government is not corrupt? Infrastructure is a big problem and even while roads have improved significantly and the Internet is accessible, there are too many other problems such as public transportation, water and electricity that can hardly be understood in this article alone. To put it briefly, Vietnam is a developing country and it’s better to embrace old world development as a charm rather than convince yourself that all these infrastructure problems will soon be a thing of the past. I just hope they prove me wrong.

The last items on this index weigh in very well for Vietnam for Risk & Safety and Climate. Considering where to raise a family, I personally think that Vietnam is safer than most developed countries like the US, France or Japan. While Vietnam experiences crime at all levels, violent crime is significantly low and most people feel safe walking around the streets at any time of the day. The recent shooting of Representative Gabrielle Gifford, annual news of school shootings or even the US's worst terrorist attacks of 9/11 makes me rethink how the US ranked the highest as the safest country. Back to Vietnam's social woes, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor has seen petty crime on the rise and adding insult to injury by ostensibly emphasizing a more class-like society where Bentley luxury sedans pass by bicycle peddling merchants. Last, but not least the climate in Vietnam is pleasant most of the time, yet can be stifling in its hottest times of the year with the South at about 33 degrees Celsius with hot desert like conditions in the Spring and the north near 40 degrees Celsius in the summer months.

At first glance, Vietnam’s ranking of 52 next to Fiji and Gambia seems oddly out of place, but upon a closer look at what makes up this number it seems that Vietnam is fairly ranked with areas such as environment and infrastructure that it should seriously address, whereas factors such as cost of living and climate seem like they were glossed over considering outsiders do not intimately know about the problems of inflation or pollution that are deteriorating the quality of life.

Quality of Life Index:

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Rainy Season in Saigon

Rainy season in the southern part of Vietnam lasts for about half of the year from about March until October. Each day has occasional rain showers passing by with people taking shelter and others just going about their daily routine. By the way, this is the first video I've ever tried to edit and post on my blog so I hope you like it.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Six rules of thumb for doing business in Vietnam

So I got this slide, "Six rules of thumb for doing business across cultures" from a grad school class that I'm taking and thought I'd share some ideas with a twist about working in Vietnam since I wish someone told me something about these points before I started working in Vietnam.

1. Be prepared - Can mean many things, but for business I'd suggest you learn a few basic pointers particular to business in Vietnam as well as SE Asia. For example, use 2 hands when exchanging business cards. If you don't have a business card, get some made since they're crazy about them here for exchanging contact info. When you receive someone's business card or vice-versa it is polite to examine it for a while and ask even what might seem like obvious questions, "oh so you're based in Ho Chi Minh City?" Another important tip is to know your rank in a business meeting since if your merely a facilitator then maybe you only say a few words, whereas if you are considered a leader then people expect you to make a speech as a part of formality even if it's a few words, "I look forward to prosperous cooperation." Lastly, understand that meetings are formalities and most business is done over time through relationship building over coffee, dinners and other social activities.

2. Slow down - Take a step back and observe the scene. If you have the luxury of time then you're lucky as you can learn many skills from observing, however if you are on a tight time-line, then it's best to probably work with a local partner to help you understand that steps aren't as linear in Vietnam as in Western society. One example is foreign companies want to do things the way they do things back in their home countries, however to ultimately achieve an international standard, certain practices must be trained, expectations must be spelled out and results measured. While both sides might have separate methods for achieving a specific goal, the important thing is to agree on and work towards the same common goal.

3. Establish trust - as in any relationships trust is extremely important, however what you might not know and be naive to is that trust is the most important business factor, even more important than the contract. While contracts have legal binding, trust is the end all for successful 1 on 1 relationships as well as business relationships. It takes time to build trust, and some relationships are easier with certain people than others, however it is these so-called ties that bind Vietnamese society.

4. Understand importance of language - Learning the Vietnamese language is so crucial for business and knowing people. I often grappled with this idea as many Vietnamese are learning English by the mass compared to foreigners learning Vietnamese. You'd think as long as there's a language to communicate by then you're fine. Wrong! As in any country, locals appreciate foreigners learning their language, but in Vietnam it means opening your world to so much more. Vietnamese language is contextual which means not only do you have to understand what is being said, but the context in which it is being said. For example, Vietnamese love to give/receive gifts so it's often common to give a gift along with a speech and a group applause. While this might seem like overdoing it, being discrete about gift giving is considered strange.

5. Respect the culture - Of course any culture has it's way of doing things so it's very important to respect the values and traditions of the local culture. Vietnam is no different and as in many cultures family is number 1. How this cultural aspect relates to business is the same as it relates to the entire society, most people work for their families which makes their job important as a means to serve their families, but not their most important priority. For this reason you should first understand that people want to work in a family type manner where they look up to their elders and learn from them. Second, you will see more dynamic interaction and greater results from group tasks versus individualistic created incentives as in the US.

6. Understand components of culture – Surface culture and Deep culture. What does this mean? Maybe simply put you can ask what is explicit (surface) and what is implicit (deep). Surface culture relates to how people behave on the outside such as greeting one another both physically and verbally. For the locals, men generally shake hands and women do not. In the casual sense, men show friendliness with other men by putting their arms on each others shoulders or leaning on each other whereas women might hold hands or also lean on each other. The words and gestures you use are also very important. Learn how to address elders in terms of pronouns to use and use two hands giving and receiving as a sign of respect. Deep culture is harder to understand and takes time. One example is that you should address people formally, especially elders in the presence of others. While this might seem easy to remember, try to always keep it in mind since showing respect for elders which is an underlying fabric of Vietnamese culture.

While these six rules are applied to doing business in Vietnam, I think the main points carry over to doing business in any foreign culture. Why Vietnam is unique is that it is a country that is welcoming to many cultures, tolerant of foreigners making mistakes, but your experience is enriched so much more if you make the effort to learn how things are done the local way.

Sources: "International Business: The Challenge of Global Competition," Ball, D. and W. McCulloch, McGraw-Hill, 1999.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Most Agreeable

From the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary agreeable means pleasing to the mind or senses; ready or willing. For the Vietnamese language I can count about a half dozen ways to agree, whereas disagreeing is less common both in spoken language and cultural context.

Having grown up in New York and lived in various parts of the US, plus France I’m used to people telling me exactly what they mean. New Yorkers are known for being in your face brash and not sugarcoating anything whereas the French are known to complain and seem like nothing is perfect. Having this background, Vietnamese culture is quite different and not in a way you can immediately know, but in a more subtle way in which you must read between the lines.

My first faux pas of being non-agreeable was when I was told to try to speak Vietnamese more. This phrase was daily for me back in the day and like poking a stick in my eye followed up with comments like I don’t speak Vietnamese when actually trying to speak. I can’t remember exactly, but in the moment I wasn’t keen on on practicing my Vietnamese and said so. To me that was fine, but to my friend’s disappointment it was as if I insulted her family honor. So what might you say to disagree, but agree at the same time you might ask? The most common response is putting yourself down in some sort of jest instead of disagreeing, "oh, my Vietnamese is so terrible, but your English is so much better!"

Indirectness and conflict avoidance are other strong skills in the Vietnamese language repertoire. “Hey, you want to go to a wedding of my distant cousin, uncle’s dog’s neighbor’s friend this weekend?” A short answer such as “no, I can’t” would suffice back in the US or maybe complaining about the same boring menu at every wedding could be a welcomed conversation topic with the French. However, Vietnamese are really good at pressuring you and if that’s not enough, others will join in. Peer pressure is the norm. As Seinfeld once said, it’s like you need an excuse rolodex so try, “No, I have charity work this weekend ..or I’m busy helping my my niece with her homework ” to get you by.

For those who’ve heard the all to common Asian stereo-type that Asians are sneaky, well it’s true. However, the reason why people agree or avoid you is not for reasons you might think, but simply to be what is considered respectful or somewhat polite. For some this might be considered lying, but it is not and can become a rather playful back and forth conversation that takes its course. In fact, you can take it as a form of flattery for the more they try to avoid you the more they are still showing their respect for you. Hey at least, they didn’t tell you a flat out "No!"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Who are you?!

Just the other day I sat in one of my regular joints where I grab a bite, escape the oppressive Saigon heat and ponder life. I sat in my usual area at the back wall where I usually camp out for a few hours, eating lunch, having a cappuccino, and using my laptop. I couldn’t help, but overhear a group of women on the far end of the room. The head of the group was a middle-aged woman who unmistakably spoke in a firm American professorial style at a level the dining crowd could easily hear her annunciate as if she were giving an important commencement speech, Dear class of 2009 it’s with great pleasure and pride that I say, “please order anything on me, there’s a wide selection of menu items ..American, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese; you’ll find the selections have funny names like the Elvis or Halle Berry.” Great marketing pitch I thought.

After finishing my Romeo sandwich and catching up on some office emails, I paid attention to the professor again now talking about inequality for women artists starting with China as the example. Her statement was that while women’s art work is better and more detailed, it is the men who get the attention and are paid more time and again. Based on this statement, she made a forceful vow to not let this happen to her students, the Vietnamese female artists, and to be their voice. A group discussion mixed in English and Vietnamese then ensued of which I didn’t catch everything and went back to my laptop to see what world riveting events occurred in the last 15 minutes on Facebook.

“WHO ARE YOU?!” errupted through the room. The professor exclaimed rather than asked. It came across in the way I remember Dana Carvey doing his best McLaughlin impersonation where whatever you might answer the response would be an emphatic “WRONG!” Maybe they understood the professor’s question, maybe it was not a simple answer, but their reaction was respectful silence which led the professor to prod them with multiple choice answers, 1. You are an artist 2. You are a wife or girlfriend 3. You are a daughter. From what everyone in the room heard, the professor was urging them to pick answer #1.

For me this was a moment of reverse culture shock and I was instantly transported from Saigon back to any classroom-USA. I reflected upon how much individual identity and success are stressed. According to the professor’s tone of voice you must hold who you are high in the air like flag and don’t wane or women will be never be equal. She continued by breaking it down for the lunch group discussion “Who are you” can have priorities where 1. You are an artist 2. You are a wife or girlfriend and 3. You are a daughter. Her words were delivered with such force and conviction you might have expected a group huddle and chant 1-2-3 Let's go Team!

But, there was the calm after the storm. A moment of silence. I couldn’t help but think that the professor might have discovered a fault in the American view as the students then calmly, politely, and collectively commented 'who they are' depends who they answer this question to. Of course they strive to be successful artists, but they equally strive to be good wives/girlfriends, and daughters to their parents. Whether this is a hindrance to beating male artists time will tell, nonetheless these women are very ambitious.