Cards, Colours and Chopsticks in Vietnamese Business Etiquette

Viet Nam is a fascinating country with which to do business, but there are certain requirements of behaviour that, if attended to, can enhance a proposer’s presentation to their Vietnamese contacts.  This article provides a few tips that might assist.

Some time ago I attended a seminar where the speaker was explaining how difficult it was to find a distributor in India for his company’s products.  His first venture into exporting had been with some customers in The Netherlands, and it had taken only a short period of time and a few e-mails to find a really good distributor there.  So he was perplexed about his failure to do the same in India.

When I first started working in International trade in the 1980’s, I was taught that face-to-face meetings were vitally important.  But over the last 30 years or so, as travel became more and more expensive and international communications more and more clever, there has been less emphasis given to physically meeting the client.  And a belief that e-mails can do the job just as well.  However, on the Indian sub-continent and the Far East generally, regular face-to-face meetings are an absolute necessity, not only to start a working relationship, but to maintain it over time.

This is certainly the case for anyone serious about doing business in Viet Nam.  Like most of the Far East, Viet Nam is a relation-based society and the key to successful business there is to make long term commitments and have the resources to build connections, trust and a support network over time.

If Viet Nam is a target market for you (and presently the UK Government is encouraging UK exporters to look at this country), do the research.  Learn about Vietnamese history, recent economic developments and markets; target the organisations that potentially could be a business match and, most importantly, find a go-between to connect and introduce you to these organisations.  Then make the effort to meet these new contacts in person.  Phone calls and e-mails alone will not get any meaningful results.

Cold calling is not acceptable in Viet Nam, since strangers are regarded with distrust, so getting an introduction from a common acquaintance is very important.  However, who you are introduced by can be critical, so finding a reliable and credible local representative is extremely important.  Be very wary of who you use in this respect.  There are a lot of ‘experts’ in this field who claim to have connections and know the market.  Always ask for references and verify the quality and extent of their work first.

It is also good business practise to learn some Vietnamese phrases.  This will go a long way to getting goodwill for you and your organisation because it indicates you are serious about understanding your customer.  (For example, Xin chao – pronounced seen chow- means Hello.  Do be careful to get the intonations right though).  However, most business meetings should be made in the presence of a local translator.

Appointments are always required and should be made several weeks in advance.  Any initial meeting should be solely used as a ‘getting to know you’ meeting.  Always turn up for meetings on time, even if the meeting itself may not start on time.  Please note that the most senior person must enter the room first.  Dress codes, for both men and women should be conservative, but because Viet Nam is a tropical country, smart, lightweight clothes are acceptable.  Western-style suits are reserved for initial meetings or special occasions.  Women must avoid heavy make-up and form-fitting or sleeveless clothing, since this will send out the wrong message.

A handshake and slight bow is the most common form of greeting.  Men shake hands with each other on both meeting and leaving.  The contact should be not too firm and very short.  Some Vietnamese use a two handed shake, with the left hand on top of the right hand.  Women can shake hands with each other as well, although a nod of acknowledgement is also sufficient.  Men and women can nod or shake hands, but men should always wait for the woman to initiate the handshake.

There are certain physical poses which are not acceptable in Viet Nam.  Never stand with your hands on your hips or with your arms crossed on your chest.  Do not touch anyone on the shoulder and don’t touch a member of the opposite sex.  Avoid public displays of affection.

The passing of business cards is an important ritual.  Always ensure that you carry a large supply of business cards and advertising materials since you may meet more people than you at first expect.  Not presenting a card can be construed as you having something to hide, or that your organisation is not genuine.  All business cards and literature should have translations into Vietnamese as well as the language of the giver.

Your card should be presented with both hands to each person.  They, in return, will present their card to you.  This must be accepted with both hands and then time taken to really read and study the card.  Barely giving it a glance before stuffing it into a pocket will give great offence.  Vietnamese names are usually written and introduced in the order of last name, middle name and first name.

The offer of tea at a business meeting is also an important ritual and should never be refused.  When the tea is served (usually green tea) it should always be sampled, as is any food offered.  Failure to do so is considered very impolite.

When addressing someone, they should be addressed by their title (as declared on their card) and their last name, or use Mr, Mrs, Ms, etc.  During the meeting it is proper etiquette to refer to the person with the highest professional rank first when beginning, guiding and ending meetings.  During the meeting you might find that long pauses are common.  Its not necessary to fill these with small talk.  The silence may mean that someone is disagreeing with someone else, but is remaining quiet so as to not cause loss of face.  Its also considered very rude to interrupt another colleague when he or she is talking.  When it is your turn, speak distinctly, leaving breaks for the translator to work and avoid buzzwords.  If there are any uncommon concepts, make sure these are explained thoroughly.  Avoid loud conversations or using too many gestures since these are both considered rude.

In Viet Nam modesty is considered a virtue.  If walking in the street, do so quickly and avoid eye contact.  If you are complimented, be polite and deny it.  Self deprecating humour and a lack of self-promotion of either yourself or a colleague will always be well received.  Avoid, at all costs, publicly embarrassing, correcting or scolding a Vietnamese contact or causing them to lose ‘face’ in any way.  Someone can be given face by complimenting them for their hospitality or business acumen.  The Viet Nam culture revolves heavily around the concept of avoiding offence and sometimes a local will dodge a question, or talk around a concept before getting to the point.  They may sometimes be reluctant to voice an opinion or give a negative answer.  Being straightforward will not work in Viet Nam.  It is important to keep up the appearance of being pleasant, even when talking about serious matters and avoid saying anything that could be taken the wrong way.  The English sense of humour sometimes does not translate well.  The spoken word is very important.  Never make promises you cannot keep.

This desire to avoid being unpleasant can be rather confusing to a European.  Sometimes when a Vietnamese says “Yes” they don’t actually mean “Yes” and if they say “No problem” is usually means there is a problem.  It is important to double and triple check all commitments and monitor them closely.  In the Vietnamese business culture the concept of win-win is rather alien.  As far as they are concerned there are only winners and losers and they don’t like to be losers.  So business contacts will often continue to try and improve terms to their benefit even when you think everything has been agreed upon.  It is also important to understand that negotiations can be slow because there is a lot of red tape and most decisions in Viet Nam are made by committee and group consultations.  Therefore,  individual connections are not as important as in other Asian countries, because hardly anyone in Viet Nam holds absolute power to make a decision.

Dealing with government officials in Viet Nam will require time and patience.  Often, in order to obtain the necessary permits or permissions, you may have to go through the same procedures time and time again.  It is rather important that you keep continual and direct contact with your government official contacts.  Difficulties can arise when one official refuses to honour an agreement concluded by another.

Corruption is, unfortunately, rather widespread in Viet Nam and requests for pay-offs, kickbacks and “gifts” are quite common.  This could cause anyone operating out of the United Kingdom problems because the UK Bribery Act is very specific about organisations benefiting from business concluded through the use of bribes.

Small gifts, however, are acceptable and it is possible to present small, simple, inexpensive gifts to a Vietnamese contact at the end of a meeting or during a meal in honour of your business associates.  Gifts that include a company logo or is typical of your country are acceptable.  Whisky is very desirable, but don’t offer this at the business premises since it will be interpreted as a bribe.  It is always best to hand whisky over privately.

If invited as a guest to a local home (please note that an invitation to dine with the family is not often extended casually), you should always go bearing gifts, preferably for your hosts, your host’s children if they have any and also elderly relatives.  This can be fruit, sweets, incense, teas or items for daily use, such as scented soaps.  In Vietnamese culture food is so inextricably tied to the concept of prosperity that gifts of food are very welcome.

Such gifts should be wrapped in bright, colourful paper (never dark colours and never black), but don’t expect the host to unwrap it in your presence.  This is not acceptable behaviour in Viet Nam.  Avoid giving anything black since this is a bad omen in the Vietnamese culture and definitely avoid giving handkerchiefs since these are symbols of a sad farewell.  Asian people do consider the Western habit of using a cloth handkerchief and returning it to a pocket afterwards to be rather crass.

Flowers are complicated.  Usually these have a romantic overtone when given as gifts.  Yellow flowers and chrysanthemums should never be given as gifts.  It is best to avoid giving flowers at all unless you really know what you are doing.  Also, under no circumstances touch a child’s head or, in fact, the head of any person.  The head is considered the spiritual centre of a person.

Food is often placed in the centre of the table and everyone is invited to help themselves.  It is important to wait for the rice to be served and the host to give the signal to start the meal before sampling any food.  (The only exception is at a banquet where rice may not be served).  The host may serve guests, but usually just motions everyone to start.  If you are the guest of honour the best dishes will be offered to you.  (If offered a huge fish, for example, you are not expected to eat the whole fish, but just to sample the best bit, just behind the head above the gills).  Don’t sample anything until the host insists.  Be sure to taste and share and always compliment the food after the first taste.  It is considered rude to decline the hostess’s offers at the table since custom requires the hostess to be persistent in her solicitations.  It is wise to feign fullness early and agree to sample the first two or three offers.

There is a lot of etiquette involved in Vietnamese dining because of the importance and symbolism of food in the culture.  If you don’t have chopstick (known as doi dua) mastery, then please do request a fork (never a knife).  This is acceptable, but it is much better to practice with doi dua beforehand.  The following information is a guide.

The small dish or shaker of white crystals on the table is more likely to be mono sodium glutamate than salt or pepper.  Dining is usually with doi dua and from rice bowls.  Hold your bowl in your hand close to the face, since it is considered impolite to eat from the bowl when it is on the table.  Spoons should be held with the left hand when soup is served.  Doi dua should be placed on the table or doi dua nest every few mouthfuls or when breaking to drink or speak.  When you have finished eating, rest the doi dua on the top of the rice bowl.  Ensure your mouth is covered if you use a toothpick.

If asked to pass anything at the table, always do so with two hands and a little polite nod.  Doi dua etiquette requires that the doi dua never touches lips, teeth or tongue and only one morsel should be picked up at a time.  It is generally considered more elegant to hold the doi dua as far away from the business ends as possible.  The best place is to hold it mid point so that it can be easily turned and both ends used.  The slim ends are used to place food in the mouth: the thicker ends to pick up food from the communal plates.

Never take more than a single helping from any plate without first trying all the other dishes at the table and most importantly, never concentrate on any one dish.  Also avoid eating too much meat as this is the most expensive ingredient of any dish.  A tablespoon constitutes a single helping, but if there are no serving spoons, then at most 2 visits with the doi dua is acceptable.

It is considered crude to move food from the communal plate directly to the mouth.  The helping should first be transferred to the rice bowl.  It is also distasteful to shift food on the serving plate to search for the choicest item and never return a morsel to the communal plate after picking it up.  The ideal sequence is one bite of rice for every two bites of meat, fish or vegetables.  Also, don’t pour dipping sauces directly into your rice bowl.  It is also considered good manners to finish all the food on your plate.

If invited to eat in a restaurant, you will need to wait to be seated.  In most cases the oldest in the party will be seated first.  All the above etiquette applies.  If asked to pass anything, please use both hands to do so and never pass anything over anyone’s head.  When motioning for a person to come over, never use or point your finger.  This has status implications which might become embarrassing if used in error.  Instead, extend your arm, palm down and move your fingers in a scratching motion.  Also, only beckon someone who has a lower status than you.

You may, if you are very lucky, be invited to a Vietnamese wedding.  The Vietnamese culture regards these types of ceremonies and gestures as highly symbolic and it is important that any gift is given with consideration, respect and honour.  Do not give any gift which has sharp edges or blades, such as scissors or knives.  This can symbolise the cutting of the relationship between the gift giver and the bride and groom.  Instead, give items which are considered useful and functional, such as gifts for the home.  If the wedding is held in a relative’s home then remember to bring small gifts for family members besides the bride and groom.  Giving small items to the parents, elderly relatives and children of the family is seen as very considerate in Vietnamese culture.

I would also like to mention about the Tet Nguyen Dan festival (known as Tet) which is the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year.  Tet is the biggest and most popular festival in Vietnam and is celebrated on the first day of the first month of the lunar calender, not the monthly calender.  The celebrations can last up to seven days, but more normally three or four.  In 2013 it was celebrated from February 10th to 13th: in 2014 it will be celebrated between January 31st to 4th February and in 2015 will start on 19th February.

Tet is the occasion for the Vietnamese to express their respect and remembrance for their ancestors as well as welcoming the New Year with their family.  Before the festival begins they will clean houses, decorate their ancestral alter with five kinds of fruit and votive papers and buy new clothes and shoes.  They will also make an effort to pay off all pending debts and to resolve all arguments with colleagues, friends and family.

The colours of red and yellow are deemed to bring good fortune, so these colours will be seen everywhere during Tet.  People consider that what they do on the dawn of Tet will determine their fate for the whole year, hence people make a real effort to smile and behave nicely in the hope of a better year.  Gifts are exchanged (mainly of food) and children receive lucky money in a red envelope.

This is a time when most people place a lot of stock on taboos and superstitions.  This is the one time of the year when making a well-intentioned but ill-informed gesture could result in the recipient feeling they will have ill luck for the whole year and the culprit is not only considered the bringer of bad luck, but the manifestation of it.  Everyone makes an effort not to break anything (otherwise things will break all year), lend anything (otherwise they will lend all year) or make a greeting in a bedroom (otherwise they will be ill all year).

It is extremely important not to visit or phone anyone during Tet without an invitation to do so.  However, if an invitation is extended it should always be accepted gratefully because it is a great honour.  People only invite those they respect, love and consider to be good luck.  The best gifts to bring are those of food, such as rice cakes, fruit, nuts, sweets, wine and teas.  These will be greatly appreciated because the Vietnamese see food gifts as tokens of good luck and prosperity signifying they will have plenty to eat in the coming year.  Another way to brighten and bring glory to people on Tet is to greet them with a long and eloquent speech of good wishes and blessings.

Maria Narancic from Point to Point Export Services is an independent international trade adviser who assists organisations world wide with their international trade projects, documentation, Documentary Credits and import/export training.  She is based in the United Kingdom.  If you require any further assistance with the matters mentioned above, please do contact us by e-mail on info@point-point.com or check out other international trade articles on the Point to Point Export Services website at www.point-point.com
 

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