Asia is a continent of diversity.
I once attended an international training course for Asian Youth Leaders. During our free time, we found out that people from Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore could understand each other very well, as they can all speak Malay. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Singaporeans, people from Hong Kong and Taiwanese could more easily share their feelings and the way they do things as we all come from the same root - Mongolian China.
On one of the evenings, we asked the Chinese group to come up the stage to sing a song. One person from Hong Kong started to sing, but the Chinese and Taiwanese could not join him – it turned out that they spoke different languages, although they all come from China! So, the two girls from China and Taiwan just stood still. They got 10 marks for their cooperation and courage, while the man from Hong Kong only 5 marks for not continuing to sing and not cooperating with the girls.
Vietnam, is a country in Southeast Asia. Yet, it is influenced by China –its big neighbor in the north; and by France and America as we were a colony of France for about a century and for many years, Americans were here. These special pages of history give Vietnam a mixture of cultures.
Let me talk a bit about daily life. For example, I often receive phone calls for appointments from our European business partners; they want to visit my office at noontime. This is not an easy suggestion to agree to. Most Vietnamese have a short nap from 11.30 to 1.30, no one works during that time. In many offices, people even sleep on their desks. If there were a visitor, it would interfere with the whole office.
When I visited Spain and Southern France I found out that we might have borrowed this habit from them.
In Vietnam, we respect old people, usually, the bosses in the offices are more than 50 years old and if the boss says “yes”, rarely anyone dares to say “no”. In fact, if someone wants to say something different, he has to “beat around the bush” before mentioning the real point.
However, Western people, especially Americans often talk in a very direct way and say what the point is very quickly and directly. This may easily offend their Vietnamese business partners.
Last year, I took a group of high ranking government officials from Vietnam to Europe, and my daughter flew from Canada to Europe to tour with me and the group. Many times, I felt so ashamed and shocked by the way my daughter addressed the problems. We rarely criticize the old generation, particularly, when they are also our bosses. Yet, the young generation is different; they dare to show their opinion.
Recently, Korean films flooded television broadcasts in Asia. Many young people follow the Korean movie stars’ life style and fashion. I decided to visit Korea to see the real culture there. Our group of Chinese and Vietnamese was invited to a Korean restaurant to enjoy a traditional meal. It was a wonderful dinner except for one thing. While we tasted kimchi, they put on a culture show. I must admit that I could not enjoy the show at all: the dancers wore white hats with strings and long white gowns and carried bamboo sticks. The music sounded very similar to the tunes we use during our funerals. We were all very surprised and could not understand how similar the dancers looked and the music sounded like as if we were attending a funeral back home; but in fact, we were in a traditional Korean restaurant.
Usually, all nationalities have their own taboos. We Vietnamese rarely mention directly the male and female reproduction organs – we say: bird and butterfly. In one company, the boss is a foreigner. One day, she bought two-paper birds and butterfly to hang over her head in the office. All the local officers who came in the morning to greet her could not help falling in laughter. She did not know why they were laughing. Finally when she knew the real reason, she was embarrassed, and kept saying, “they do not look like that at all! How can you compare men’s genitals to a bird, although a butterfly look a little bit like that.”
If you come to Vietnam and give Vietnamese a gift – it is welcome, however, if you give them a knife it will be a problem. I once organized a seminar with our Swiss partner. Their guests were all very high ranking government officials from Vietnam. Our Swiss partner gave each participant one of their famous Swiss army knives. The participants were suddenly asking me to collect money to return to the Swiss organizer. They said they dare not take the knives for free, as given as a gift; it will kill the relationship between the giver and the receiver. So, we collected a small amount of money and gave it to our hosts in exchange for the knives.
I myself had another shock. When my Australian friend came to Vietnam, she bought some birthday gift for her friend’s baby back home. What she bought were some very colorful flags and decorations that we used for the funerals! These would not be the most wonderful gift for a newborn child in Vietnam!!.
One more story, I was once invited to a very big party by an Australian diplomat. His wife was very happy and proud to greet us and smiled “I did all the preparation for the party! Please come in”. She had decorated her house with lilies which we call “hue” and which are specially used during funerals, and only then. This kind of flower has a special scent that reminds us of death. Enjoying the party that evening was not at all easy for the Vietnamese guests!
In Vietnam, there is a small town – Hoi An – a world heritage for its culture diversity, as it was set up by Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and many other international traders in the 15th century who came and did business with Vietnam.
Once I took my friend from Japan there and showed him the Japanese bridge (which was built by the Japanese traders). He did not believe me that this was built by the Japanese, saying it looked more Chinese than Japanese! Then he added that that during that 15th century, the culture of Japan was so similar to that of China and Now he knew why!.
My friend from China came to Hanoi, he was amazed by the many temples and pagodas here. What was most interesting for him was that he could read the carvings in the temples and this he was not able to find such carvings in China anymore, but in Vietnam.
One image of culture comes to life as one stone is thrown into water. After a while the place where the stone touched the water stands still, but the waves continue going further. This is also true for culture.
You can see that the biggest groups of Tourists that come back to Vietnam are from: China, USA, France, Japan, and Korea. They come back as they were here before during different wars. However Vietnamese warmly welcome them back and forgive them all. Vietnamese people are full of tolerance and caring, following the Buddhist-belief system. They will forgive you for all the mistakes you make and advise you to act properly next time. You will feel at home in Vietnam. So, .if you want to do business in Vietnam and want to act properly in this society, just act as you are, but add some modesty, plus some humor, plus some respect for old people, mothers at home, plus some honesty and sincerity, then you are sure to be a success.
Culture clashes may occur from the differences in culture and belief systems, due to generational gaps or just because of the time or venue of the action. To avoid cultural blunders and shocks, one has to do research and study well the culture that one is going to do business with. The best way is to make friends with a local partner. This friend will tell you exactly what you have to do and avoid, and you cannot avoid blunders without testing them at all. So, you just have to plunge yourself into that culture ocean, then you swim and see if you get any help in getting out of the water safely. As a foreigner, you must be beware that your mistakes will be the ‘food’ for lunch for your friends here and they will compare every new mistake with the old ones to see if you’re making progress. So, in a new culture I just smile, enjoy and be happy knowing that many mistakes await me.