There’s a deep history in Vietnam that stretches from the Hung Kings far in the past through to the war with America and Doi Moi today. It’s a history that creates in the hearts of Vietnamese a sense of pride in their nation, and which has been utilized in creating that sense of nationalism. In fact, it’s a common narrative in the region, from Benedict Arnold’s imagined communities to Michael Vickery’s iconoclastic criticisms of popular Cambodian history: the appropriation of history in the service of nationalism. Some would say that Ho Chi Minh was in fact a nationalist before he was a Communist, but that’s for other forums to discuss.

According to Wikipedia, “nationalism is a belief, creed or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with, or becoming attached to, one's nation.” It’s a sense separate from patriotism, as patriotism is a condition wherein the individual supports the state, rather than the nation. As such, Vietnamese are fiercely Vietnamese, rather than necessarily Communist.

And dealing with Vietnamese entails all the characteristics of a Vietnamese.

Confucian, which means they have a strong sense of social order and the relationships which construct that social order. From the president of the country to the brother and sister of a peasant family, the relationships are already defined and ordered in such a way as to command the respect and honor deserved by superiors from their inferiors. While Koreans and Japanese created an entirely different language for dealing with different ranks within their society, Vietnam simply ordered the behavior of respect.

Aggressive, which means foremost that you have to watch yourself in the street whether on foot or on motorcycle or in a car; Vietnam is not only known for its aggressive drivers, but for its hard bargaining traders. Traders that turned into investors that turned into targets for acquisition by foreign investors. There is a long road from the peasants who owned land to the land developers of today, but the past remains indelibly linked with the present and those land developers understand how to reach a deal and how to negotiate it after the deal is made. In other words, just because a foreign investor comes into the company with his demands for corporate governance and accountability, doesn’t mean that everything will happen just as he anticipates. It takes a careful relationship to ensure that the deal come off as anticipated.

For while Vietnamese are independent they are also social creatures. Living in a country roughly the size of Montana, with 90 million people squeezed into coastlines and alluvial valleys, there is a sense of communal living simply by the fact that the population lives in such proximity to each other. This gives Vietnamese the ability to disregard many of the privacies and need for space that westerners consider vital. A Vietnamese may put his hand on your thigh and mean nothing by it except as a sign of endearment. Personal space isn’t important here when you have half a dozen families living within ten meters of each other.

This also means that relationships become more important. Brothers cross families and often this gives rise to nepotism. We often see this in acquisition contracts, the limitation of related person transactions. This can be hard for some Vietnamese investors who don’t see the problem with giving a construction contract to their brother-in-law. Again, here, patience is required, and a close working relationship between the foreign investor and the domestic investor is recommended to include frank conversation and a continual dialogue to ensure that the needs of the foreigner are understood by the domestic investor.

All of this is not to say that Vietnamese are stupid, quite the opposite. They may simply suffer from a level of naiveté and a lack of education in the business attitudes of the West. This can be remedied through education, patient and long suffering, by the foreign investor. This can also be remedied by regular contact and conversations. Don’t come into Vietnam expecting to lay down a manufacturing contract and only visit once a year. That’s not enough. A business relationship in Vietnam is just like any other close relationship. It requires regular contact and careful consideration.│