Vietnam Today cover
Interview with

Author Mark A. Ashwill

on his new book
Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads

Question 1
Your book “Vietnam Today: A Guide To A Nation At A Crossroads” was just published in 2005 by Intercultural Press.  First, what made you want to write this book and who is your target audience?

Answer: Vietnam Today was conceived as an introductory yet substantive cultural guide for business people, employees of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), government officials, tourists and travelers, students and professors, teachers, returning veterans and others with an interest in Vietnam.  Since its publication, other groups have emerged, including adoptees and people who have adopted Vietnamese children.  An unexpected potential readership is the Vietnamese themselves.  There is some interest in a Vietnamese translation of Vietnam Today.  

The information presented in this book is based on research and interviews and surveys with expatriates who have worked in Vietnam and Vietnamese who have worked with and for foreigners for many years.  In a sense, my co-contributor and I are messengers, but also each with his and her own perceptions, experiences and stories to tell. Since Vietnam Today is being marketed in many countries around the world, the book is basically for anyone who would like to learn more about contemporary Vietnam and who has a reading knowledge of English. 

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a Vietnamese colleague and junior partner, Thai Ngoc Diep, who was born the year the war ended.  Ms. Diep has worked extensively with Americans and other foreigners, and earned a Master’s degree in International Trade from SUNY/Buffalo.  Together, we bring insider, outsider and cross-cultural perspectives to the fascinating and practical subject of Vietnam. 

Question 2:  In the Introduction at page “xxiii” at the bottom you write “Vietnam Today emphasizes the general differences between Vietnam as a Southeast-Asian, relationship based society – in which it is one’s network of family, friends, colleagues, and others that is crucial to getting “things done” – on the one hand, and most western, task based countries – where there is a greater tendency to compartmentalize personal and professional relationships – on the other.”  Can you clarify what you mean by a relationship based society and are all Southeast Asian societies relation based and how does Vietnam as a relationship based society in particular differ from other Asian societies like China or say Korea?

Answer: Asian cultures place a higher value on the group and tend to see individuals in terms of their membership in and obligation to groups.  The Vietnamese are no exception.  While all Asian societies are relationship-based and communal, the differences are a matter of degree and subtlety and, in some cases, are related to history.  As I mention in chapter 5 (“Core Cultural Dimensions”) the uninitiated Westerner who comes to Vietnam is likely to see Vietnamese humility and modesty as deceitful and their indirectness and consensus-building efforts as bureaucratic red tape.  On the other side of the coin, the Vietnamese see the individual assertiveness and directness of many Westerners as arrogant and tactless, respectively. 

One contrast with other Asian cultures, as Lady Borton, an American who has devoted much of her career and life to Vietnam, and others have pointed out, is that relationships are not as formalized in Vietnam – they do not constitute a vertical line of hierarchical power but, rather, a complicated web of shared stories, favors, obligations, rights, and points of accountability that form the basis for interdependence at all levels of society.  For most Vietnamese, these networks are a matter of social security and even of survival.  As we mention in the book, Vietnam is not a place for mavericks, lone wolves, or people who find it difficult to work as part of a cross-cultural team. 

While all three, China, Korea and Vietnam, have been subjected to foreign invasion, occupation and war, nowhere is this trend more pronounced and with as many far-reaching implications as in Vietnam.  Vietnam’s history makes the importance of networks not just of one mere academic interest but a matter of life and death when “getting things done” meant fighting the enemy during occupation and wartime.  In Vietnam Today we talk about why building relationships and trust is key as a prelude to doing business and the related concept of sponsorship, an issue you raise in question #6. 

Question 3:  Many business men and women ask me how important it is to learn the language.  On page 12 you quote a Vietnamese manager “that although Vietnamese respect people who try to speak their language, it is more important that foreigners be culturally aware, act in culturally appropriate ways and be able to develop and maintain relationships.”  Do you speak Vietnamese and isn’t a willingness to learn what admittedly is a fairly hard language a demonstration of cultural commitment and in many ways the best way to understand what is happening around you?

Answer: Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that a willingness to learn the language is a sign of respect and a demonstration of cultural commitment.  There is also no better way to learn about and become a part of another culture than by learning the language.  I also don’t think it’s realistic for most expats.  They usually hit the ground running and simply do not have enough time to devote to learning this difficult (tonal) language.  Many work in an English-speaking or other foreign language environment.  This was a recurrent theme in my conversations with them. 

It is also true that intercultural competence, defined in a 2003 Rand Corporation study as “the ability to work well in different cultures and with people of different origins,” is a skill set distinct from language proficiency.  (In a related survey on “What Makes a Successful Career Professional in an International Organization,” foreign language proficiency ranked last, while “cross-cultural competence” placed 5th.  Related items such as “interpersonal and relationship skills” and “ambiguity tolerance and adaptivity” ranked even higher – second and third, respectively. 

I interviewed a number of expats who have been very successful in Vietnam and whose Vietnamese is minimal to non-existent.  They rely on “cultural mentors” to serve as sources of information and act as intermediaries.  In some cases, these “cultural mentors” and intermediaries are employees, friends, spouses, or a combination. 

Among those who foreigners who are fluent or at least functionally proficient in Vietnamese, most began learning the language before coming to Vietnam (e.g., an intensive program) and continued studying it in a class or with a private tutor after arriving. 

My Vietnamese language proficiency is at a decidedly elementary level.  My second language is German.  (Before I shifted my focus to Vietnam in the mid-1990s, I spent most of time overseas in Germany as a student, teacher, and researcher.) 

Question 4: In Chapter four you note that “the prevailing view among expatriates and Vietnamese alike is that Vietnam is really three countries each with unique qualities and characteristics that derive from very different histories and conditions.”  You then go on to note “Northerners are considered to be more intelligent, conservative, austere, serious, and frugal that their fellow citizens in the central and south of the country.”  That “Vietnamese from the central region are seen as iron-willed, courteous, unafraid to assume responsibility, and willing to go the extra mile in whatever they undertake.”  Finally that “Southerners are perceived as fun loving, easygoing. Open people who rarely think of saving for a rainy day.”  Do you think these characterizations have substance and that they can be relied upon?       

Answer: There are some clearly discernible differences in mentality and outlook that have their basis in history.  It’s important for newcomers to be aware of and be able to make sense of these regional differences in mentality, while keeping in mind that these are generalizations without universal applicability.

Question 5: Throughout the book in general and in Chapter four in particular you discuss about education and training in Vietnam.  Toward the end of the chapter you note “One of Vietnam’s great challenges will be to continue educational reforms so that its schools, universities, and colleges are in step with the current and future needs of a market economy.”  In general how well do you feel the government is meeting the challenge of educational reform?  In what areas is the government succeeding in terms of educational reform and what areas do you feel they still need much more attention?

Answer: Vietnam’s promise and potential are embodied in its young people, the generation born after 1975. (About 65 percent of the population is under the age of 30.)  A decree on family planning, issued by the government early in 2003, sets no limit on the number of children couples can have. Though the birthrate has remained stable at 2 percent per year, this change in policy will likely lead to an increase in the birthrate for the foreseeable future.  So demographics tell part of the story.

To its credit, Vietnam has been successful in universalizing primary education and aims to make lower secondary education universal in the next 20 years. Demand for upper-secondary education will increase, which will then place additional strain on an already overburdened higher education system.

One first positive sign is that many of the problems in the education system are being openly discussed in the official media.  For example, in a February 2004 article, “Education Reform Urgent: Overseas Student,” Viet Nam News quoted three people, a Vietnamese student enrolled at an Ivy League institution, the rector of a university in the Mekong Delta and someone who studied at a teacher training university in Hanoi.  Here are some of their criticisms: 

  • Students are expected to take notes passively on everything teachers say and to learn everything without the benefit of conducting their own research
  • The curriculum relies too much on theory, without enough hands-on experience
  • Science classes rely exclusively on textbooks
  • History classes are based entirely on rote learning
  • Math textbooks include problems that are either “too easy or bizarrely complicated.”
  • Literature classes are taught using “dull analysis.”
  • Teachers are unwilling to change their teaching style and techniques.
  • English textbooks date back to 1985.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training will have to make comprehensive changes in both content and methodology in order to make education more relevant, up-to-date and effective.  A Vietnamese graduate student who is pursuing a Ph.D. in the U.S. put it this way:  “Together with economic changes in the transition period, the educational system in Viet Nam needs changing as it is out-of-date and has not been able to stimulate the full participation of learners and make full use of the mental and creative capacity of students.  The learning process is still too passive and inclined to one-way communication.” 

Other issues (also discussed in Vietnam Today) include the ability of the higher education sector to meet skyrocketing demand, the controversial yet essential role of private higher education institutions, credential fraud and the formidable challenge of absorbing the 1.5 million young people into the workforce every year. 

In a Confucianist culture that places a premium on education, a higher education degree is naturally thought to lead to more respect, more money, and a better life.  Since the early 1990s, Vietnamese higher education has experienced an explosion of demand that neither the state sector nor the more recently established private, or people-founded, institutions can realistically hope to meet. From 1991 to the 2001–2002 academic year, higher education enrollment in Vietnam jumped from 190,000 to nearly 1 million.  Added to this number are about 200,000 freshmen--a 7 percent increase over the previous year--of which 24,500, or 12 percent, attended non-public institutions.

Non-public higher education in Vietnam, as private institutions are often referred to, has been plagued by a host of problems caused by a lack of oversight and accountability. In some respects, non-public institutions have been viewed as “cash cows” by those who recognized the potential early on and moved quickly to meet the needs of this new “market” in Vietnam’s “market economy with socialist orientation.”  In spite of this and the public’s perception of these institutions as inferior to their public counterparts, demand continues unabated. 

One final issue that illustrates the tension between a Communist political system and a “market economy with socialist orientation” are the ideological courses that university students are required to take, including Marxism-Leninism, History of the Vietnamese Communist Party, and Ho Chi Minh Thought.  Given the ideological instruction that young people receive in primary and secondary schools (and elsewhere), these course are superfluous and unnecessary.  They should be eliminated and the contact hours applied to subjects that are more relevant and useful. 

Question 6: On page 101 you talk about the concept of “Sponsorship” and its importance in Vietnam.  Can you explain this concept further to the reader and also can you explain how someone new to Vietnam goes about developing “sponsors” and why they are so critical? 

Answer: This is related to your question about Vietnam as a relationship-based society in which everyone is tapped into a network and the notion that mavericks and lone wolves are likely to fail in Vietnam.  In the section you referred to we use the graphic example of small secret groups within a citizens’ resistance web during the 1st and 2nd Indochina Wars with France and the U.S. that depended on linked sponsorships.  A mistake in introduction could be a matter of life and death; therefore, the introducer assumed responsibility for the introduced person’s actions.

The bottom line is you need a point of entry, an individual, an organization you trust (and who trusts you) and with whom you have shared interests and common goals. Once you have a sponsor, you automatically become part of that “complicated web” of which we spoke of “shared stories, favors, obligations, rights, and points of accountability that form the basis for interdependence at all levels of society.”  You are now part of a team.  It is counterproductive to work with multiple partners, which will only create confusion and result in inefficiency. 

How does one go about finding a partner, or sponsor, on a practical level?  Through organizations that promote trade between your country and Vietnam, national chambers of commerce in Vietnam, trade promotion offices of your government and the Vietnamese government, and, probably most effective of all, companies such as yours that have an excellent track record in providing quality consulting services.   

Question 7: In chapter six you focus considerable attention in cross cultural aspects of doing business in Vietnam.  On page 118 and 119 you give a list given to you by a Vietnamese businessman with years of business experience in both Asian and western countries and how he described the main cultural characteristics related to the negotiation style and tactics of Vietnamese versus western business people (see link here that will list this and attribute).  These views or styles vary greatly and would seem to indicate a major chasm between Western and Vietnamese response in negotiations.  Do you feel most westerners and/or Vietnamese understand these differences and have you seen them come into play in your own contacts and negotiations in Vietnam?

Answer:  The short answer is “no;” that’s why sources of information such as Vietnam Today can be helpful.  Other valuable learning tools are cultural mentors and experience itself.  The same applies to those Vietnamese who are just beginning to learn about the cultural values, styles and tactics of their Western counterparts. 

Based on my experience, however, there are more Vietnamese who have experience with Westerners than vice-versa.  In some cases, especially when Westerners have Vietnam experience, what you see is the evolution of a hybrid style, whereby both sides attempt to meet each other halfway.  One successful Vietnamese entrepreneur observed that the most successful businesspeople in Vietnam are those who are able to blend Western management values with Vietnamese cultural values. 

Interestingly, this list of cultural characteristics is the result of practical, hands-on experience and academic study.  This particular individual is multilingual and has extensive international experience in Asia and the West.  He is the quintessential participant-observer who has consciously reflected on his experience.  His interest in being a “student” of intercultural communication has made him a more successful businessman. 

This is, in part, why we wrote Chapter 7 “How the Vietnamese See Westerners,” which is unique for this type of cultural guide.  It presents impressions and reflections – positive, negative and constructively critical – from Vietnamese who have worked with foreigners for many years.  This chapter contains valuable advice that reinforces and affirms much of what appears elsewhere in Vietnam Today.

Question 8: Chapter six concludes with the “Ten Principles for Working in Vietnam” which you attribute to Lady Borton who first developed them for “not for profit” or Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs).  You feel these apply to business dealings as well.  Considering that these principles have been around for quite some time, how generally do you think they are known by western businessmen and women in Vietnam and if your answer is “less than they should be”, why aren’t they better known and better studied?

Answer: Yes, I think her ten principles are solid and sound advice for anyone working in Vietnam, regardless of the sector.  My sense is that too many Western businesspeople are unaware of these principles, or end up working on “automatic pilot” (i.e., relying on their culturally-determined instincts and overlooking the fact that they are in Vietnam, not their home country).  Too often, their learning is of a “trial and error” nature, which means wasted time, money and, possibly, poisoned relationships and missed opportunities.  I think cross-cultural training as orientation and continuing education has to be a priority of any company or other organization “doing business” in Vietnam, or any other country.  

I should add that one gratifying aspect of writing Vietnam Today was to make Lady Borton’s work accessible to a mass international audience.  If I were to write another book about those foreigners who have spent the most time in Vietnam and made the greatest contributions, she would rank among the top 5. 

Question 9: Chapter seven is titled “How the Vietnamese See Westerners” and you conclude with the following “What impresses them (Vietnamese) the most (about Westerners) are qualities such as openness, cooperation, flexibility, patience, professionalism, sensitivity to cultural differences, and the opportunity to learn from mistakes in a culturally appropriate way.  You would do well to become that type of foreigner when working in Vietnam.”  This is very good advice.  How common do you think actions that lead to such positive impressions are among westerners doing business in Vietnam today?

Answer:  I think it’s a mixed picture.  One of our respondents said (at the beginning of chapter 7) that “many foreigners come to Vietnam with a big ego.  ‘I am a person from a big country.  I come here to help you.  I’m superior to you.  You are still bad, I’ll make you good’” The person continues:  “Many Vietnamese people don’t recognize this ego, but once they do, they will not like it and will tend to make you lose face, to fight against you in order to make you normal (i.e., more Vietnamese) again.”  Unfortunately, this applies more to Americans than, say, Swedes.  The French seem to be more successful than Americans, for example.  By way of explanation, some point to the similarities between Vietnam as a tea-sipping and France as a wine-sipping, café culture.  In both cultures, developing relationships, whether over a cup of tea or a glass of wine, always precedes “getting down to business.”

I like what one of our Vietnamese respondents told us:  “In Vietnam, everything is possible if you know how to work in ways that are culturally appropriate.  Your success depends on you – your way of working, your knowledge, your understanding, friendships that you establish with Vietnamese – not your nationality.”

Question 10: In your last chapter you quote a foreign business person whose company had stumbled badly in Vietnam who concluded “that foreign companies that cannot provide something unique and do not have a powerful local partner end up spinning their wheels.  Is the lesson here as in your answer to the first question of the interview – relationships are everything and without nourishing, understanding and a lot of hard work to maintain them that succeeding in Vietnam will be extremely unlikely?                 

Answer:  Yes, yes, and, again, yes!


About the Author: 

Mark A. Ashwill
is director of the World Languages Program, Fulbright adviser, and adjunct professor at SUNY Buffalo.  He is also founder and executive director of the U.S.-Indochina Educational Foundation, Inc. (USIEF).  In 2003 Dr. Ashwill became the first U.S. citizen to be awarded a Fulbright Senior Specialists Grant to Vietnam

Thai Ngoc Diep
assisted in researching Vietnam Today.  she received her undergraduate degree in Vietnam and a master's degree from SUNY Buffalo.  She has worked for the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council and Ericsson in Vietnam.

About the Interviewer: Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School. He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board. Mr. Runckel is the principal and founder of Runckel & Associates, a Portland, Oregon based consulting company that assists businesses expand business opportunities in Asia.

Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China. Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years. He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations. Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.

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