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Vietnam: Business relations and negotiations

By Marian Stetson-Rodriguez, president, Charis Intercultural Training

You’re flying to Ho Chi Minh City for the highly anticipated meeting with Vietnamese government officials and private counterparts. With Vietnamese phrase book, bi-lingual business cards and the perfect gift tucked into your carry-on, you wonder…what else will seal the deal in Vietnam?

Any Vietnamese will tell you to invest in relationships: build mutual respect and comfort first, business second.

Companies such as Motorola, Intel, and Nike can attest to how success in Vietnam comes from finding and establishing your place in the relationship web. Like social and familial relationships, business relationships in Vietnam are best understood as complicated webs of shared obligations; rights, favors, experiences, and points of accountability rather than vertical lines of hierarchical power.

With patience and commitment, and communication as a continuous process, don’t count on just one meeting. The following insights will help you properly build your business in Vietnam.

Building rapport

Creating your place at the table
Even if your company is known internationally, you are an expert in your field, and you’ve been invited to Vietnam…don’t assume you have earned the respect of your Vietnamese counterparts.To gain respect, approach your counterparts as equals; practice humility, demonstrate respect in language and gesture, avoid confrontation, and don’t rush. Gaining and maintaining respect in Vietnam is like exercising: do it routinely, it does get easier and you are eventually rewarded. Stop and you find yourself back to square one.

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Business introductions
Talking about one’s attributes or accomplishments runs contrary to the Vietnamese values of modesty and humility. Instead, send a company letter before your meeting that presents bio data with accomplishments (academic titles, positions held, major deals or projects completed) of the visiting team members. At an introductory meeting, your Vietnamese counterpart may read a list of his/her company’s accomplishments. Pay attention, jotting notes while listening. For first meetings, arrive with your own list of company facts and figures such as mission statement; number of company offices, employees, years in business, annual growth, to read after your host.

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Persuasion
The Vietnamese use indirect persuasion, knowing that pushing too hard can be offensive or counterproductive. They often use proverbs, parables or anecdotes (which may seem irrelevant) to describe context or perspective. Listen to the proverb, respond to portions of it you understand, and continue the discussion with a bridge such as, “Vietnamese language and culture are so rich. In my country / company, we understand the situation like this….” Doing so creates opportunity for making room for in discussion for your culture and theirs.

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Feedback
Vietnamese generally do not volunteer information or give direct feedback. If you want feedback, ask a third party familiar with your business dealings (however, be careful what you say to third parties, as they are the traditional messengers) If you must illicit comment directly from your counterpart, ask individuals politely and privately.

  • Negative feedback – Vietnamese do not want to convey bad news or cause loss of face, so it is challenging to get explicit negative feedback. Look for phrases or gestures that indicate non-acceptance.
  • Positive feedback – This is well received if done in a low-key, private manner. Never single out a Vietnamese for praise in front of others.

Getting to “Yes”
“Yes, yes” in Vietnamese, translates to, “I am listening” and not “OK, I agree”. Verify and confirm perceived agreements by asking, “Do you agree?”

Vietnamese business negotiations

Persistence
Vietnamese focus on harmony and flexibility. Pressing for an answer or losing your temper will be counterproductive. At an impasse, count to 20 then delve back into what will likely be a circuitous conversation vs. a straight line to the finish. The Vietnamese have won long wars through commitment and attrition (combined with large amounts of bravery). Vietnamese can stay the course for a long time. Show them that you can too.

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Getting around “No”
Vietnamese may express “no” through phrases such as “It’s complicated” or “There’s a problem”. Many westerners shift into problem-solving mode, but you should be cautious. The best way to proceed is to express belief in your counterpart’s ability to resolve the problem. You will build trust and facilitate forward movement, however laborious it may seem. You have thrown the ball in their court, graciously.

Building consensus
Vietnamese use the phrase ‘xin phep’ to seek permission to contribute to conversation or debate. Comparable phrases in English might be “If you agree, we thought we might….” or “Please, allow me to suggest….” These phrases will be noticed.

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