What is it like to work in Vietnam?


A lot of my friends have been asking me what it is like to work in Vietnam. The below summarises my experience and observations of the working style of the Vietnamese in Vietnam.

Hours vs. productivity

The Vietnamese love to work (read spend long hours in the office). They claim they are busy – all the time. Yet, somehow deadlines are rarely met and work hardly gets delivered to an agreed standard. At quiet times (holiday season) when there isn’t much work around, you will still find a lot of Vietnamese in the office at late hours. Such great employees: they really like their work, don’t they?

If the boss works late, the juniors work late too. Interestingly, once the boss leaves, the juniors do too, approximately one minute after their boss’ departure. What a coincidence the juniors are always as busy as their boss.

Now, as a comparison of average time spent on a piece of work in the western world vs. Vietnam, if you give the Vietnamese a task that you would expect to be finished in 30 minutes in the western world, you should allow at least two hours for a Vietnamese to handle such a task. You’d expect the final product to be of better quality or to be more innovative given the time spent on it, right? Only in your dream…

Ownership and accountability vs. the lack thereof

The Vietnamese work on a task given to them; they don’t own the task or assume accountability for such a task. If they think they can’t handle their task, they will tell you so and ask you to find another staff member who can. As mentioned above, deadlines have no meaning to the Vietnamese. Where is the rush? Nobody is dying…

Urgent task – DIY (do it yourself)

You give a Vietnamese an urgent task and that task ends at the bottom of their “to do” list. The Vietnamese don’t understand the concept of “prioritising”; when asked to prioritise a particular piece of work, they’ll tell you they are working on an extensive (usually non-urgent) project and also have other work to do and as such, they won’t be able to get to the urgent task until a couple of days later – no compromise. Result? If you want something done urgently, do it yourself.

Manners, courtesy, respect – what’s that?

Time manners are absent and so is spatial perception. You should expect a meeting scheduled for 10 am to start from 10 to 30 minutes later. You should also expect the office doors to be shut in your face when entering the office if you are behind a Vietnamese colleague. While visiting the ladies room, you may also get exposed to some interesting (read weird and loud) noises. I always thought that only animals are capable of such noises.

No skills do get you to the top

With a little skillset you can get to the top, due to the lack of competition and low expectations. I see a lot of Vietnamese at senior positions that lack most skills (people management, time management, etc.) and traits (charisma, charm, etc.) that you would normally see in a lot of senior executives in the western world.

If it’s not written, it never happened

If something has been discussed orally but has not been documented in writing, for the Vietnamese, it has never been discussed. They say one thing one day, then another thing the next day and in a few days they don’t recall any of the things they’ve said.  This can be very frustrating as you may end up repeating yourself like a parrot and may usually not get anywhere anyway. Lesson learnt? Document everything important that you discuss orally in writing.

Common sense is not so common

New shops, cafes and bars open every day in Vietnam. The same shops, cafes and bars close overnight. It seems that the “try and fail” method is used as opposed to a thorough market research or just pure common sense.

Have you ever been to any of the airports in Vietnam? It’s impressive that you can get a piece of painting there. You can also buy gifts and other unnecessary clutter at the Vietnamese airport shops. Need a toothpaste or suncream? Yeah, you will not get those at an airport in Vietnam.

It’s all about the family vs. the good and the bad are equal

True communists, the Vietnamese companies promote family atmosphere at work; they want everyone to feel good about themselves. As such, it is common practice amongst many companies in Vietnam that over-performers get the same performance review results as those who are under-performing.  In the western world, this approach would encourage under-performing employees to carry on under-performing while those who are over-performing to care less and eventually leave. I have started to see a similar pattern happening in Vietnam. Companies that promote communist equality and the “feel good about themselves” attitude are starting to end up with bad-performing employees as the good-performing ones are leaving for challenging roles.



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