Lessons Learned from Working in Vietnam
Looking to the past provides perspective, experience, and wisdom. However, it needs not to define the present nor future. That is the reality of Vietnam and its rise from past decades filled with struggles. Today, Vietnam is a thriving country, attractive to investors, both domestically and globally.
Globalization has its limitations, but there is no doubt it has propelled Vietnam to where it is today. Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon as the locals call it), and Danang are cities thick with development. I live in Saigon, which is blossoming into a world-class city. One can find shops selling expensive luxury goods and the latest global automobile brands interwoven with the hustle and bustle of thousands of motorbikes and local mom and pop stores.
Much has been learned in the past fifty years as Vietnam has successfully recovered from the aftermath of war and conflict. A lot of that success can be attributed to Vietnam’s spirit, which is founded upon varying degrees of Confucian ethics that prioritize respect for elders, harmony (yin and yang), education, and politeness.
While I have sought to experience the world around me through education and business, I credit much of what I’ve learned to my time growing, working, and thriving in Vietnam. These lessons are unique and significant, and help explain why Vietnam’s future is bright:
- Embrace your heritage. The Vietnamese share East Asia’s extremely strong work ethic and entrepreneurial streak. It’s this appreciation and acknowledgment of respect, hard work, and responsibility that has undoubtedly contributed to the country’s prosperity. But, Vietnam’s unique history has influenced a desire to embrace key cultural characteristics while embracing opportunities presented by outside forces, unexpectedly making foreign companies feel far more comfortable in Vietnam today than in many other Asian countries.
- Value independence and ingenuity. The previous lesson works in tandem with this next lesson: while the Vietnamese are steeped in Chinese history and culture, the country’s history has also been defined by a battle for independence and a distinct cultural identity. We are proud of our civilization and rightly so. It is this determination to be self-governing that explains why Vietnam is only now making a seismic shift in economic development—some decades later than East Asian peers.
- Learn, adapt, and benefit from the past. In some cases, history has left a physical imprint on Vietnam. For example, many might look to the colonial buildings and taste the coffee brought by the French. However, it is important to understand how the Vietnamese view this legacy. We no longer see either these buildings or drinks as French—but rather as Vietnamese. We have a penchant for baguettes for breakfast, but we spread them with chili paste rather than jam. We have also developed new ways to serve coffee; sometimes it is roasted with fish sauce. This has carried over to Vietnam’s economic development. Its growth can, in part, be attributed to accepting what’s occured, adapting in light of those events, and creating new opportunities inspired by different perspectives and influences.
- Be resilient. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnam has learned many valuable lessons and come such a long way. The country now realizes that centralized, top-down economic planning is not the most effective way to meet the needs of consumers, although, as China has shown, it does have its uses when it comes to building physical infrastructure. The Vietnamese have steadily worked to build their country to greater heights than ever before; resilience is the reason for its prosperity today.
- Forgiveness and a desire to move forward are key to growth. Vietnam is a very outward-facing country and has eighteen free-trade agreements in place, or under discussion, with other countries. That might seem strange in the context of a long history of repelling invaders. But the endless conflict has made us value tolerance even more. There is a famous proverb, which states “dĩ hòa vi quý.” In English, it means “a soft answer turns away wrath.” Vietnam’s history means that we pride ourselves on our friendliness and understanding because we know these traits help to keep the peace.
In today’s globalized world, Vietnam is charting its own course, leveraging experiences of the past and the character of its people. As a culture, we have faced extreme challenges, but also unique opportunities that continue to positively shape the country Vietnam is today.