Working in Vietnam is not for everyone. Firstly, you have to get used to very different norms in the workplace than what you used to back home in the West, or another foreign country outside of the West for that matter.
Something that drives a lot of foreigners crazy here is that employees often show up late for work or to meetings. The Vietnamese are often perplexed by our sometimes strong angry reaction (I’ve seen it a few times!). But here in Vietnam, they operate on something they call “rubber band time” (“thời gian dây thùng” is the slang in Vietnamese).
People Are Laid Back
This is a reflection of the more laid back culture here, which I think is related to the warm climate. Many countries in tropical climates seem to share certain habits, two of which are a lackadaisical sense of time and taking a mid-day nap (very common in Vietnam).
While this seems to be slowly changing as the country races to develop and more or less copy the West, the change is happening gradually for better or for worse (I say better!). Many of the things we like best about Vietnam are its peculiarities such as their laid back attitude (much less laid back in the North).
Management is Authoritarian
Another thing you have to get used to if you work for a Vietnamese company is their authoritarian way of approaching managing employees. If you work for an international school as a teacher, which is one of the most common jobs for foreigners here (myself included), you will most likely be immediately struck by their black and white way of looking at things.
For example, at my school, we have a weekly staff meeting that everyone must attend no matter what, whether or not there is anything productive to discuss (usually there isn’t). So what tends to happen is the head of school stands up and goes through information that could have easily been digested in a simple email. This is frustrating because we could be spending this time on the much actual work that needs to be done when you’re a teacher.
International School in Name Only
While you may be thinking, but didn’t you say “international school”? The truth is, most if not all so-called international schools are actually run by a Vietnamese company or a partnership between a Vietnamese company and a foreign entity. The result of this is that the management is essentially Vietnamese and those foreigners that rise through the ranks into administration themselves are the ones that understand the “style” of management that necessitates success.
Vietnamese also tend to be rather timid when it comes to expressing their views, which seems natural in a country where criticizing the government is illegal. The result of this in the workplace is that Vietnamese staff will often not speak up, even if they are in disagreement about an important matter. So I have learned to actively ask them what they think about pretty much everything related to work.
In some cases, they have strong opinions, but in many cases, they seem to be so used to acquiescing to authority that they almost don’t even care. In other words, they have just learned to go with the flow. This makes for excellent employees if you are an employer that wants your staff to be docile, but frustrating if you run a company seeking intelligent proactive freethinkers.
Love it or Hate it
In general, I have found that working with Vietnamese locals is rewarding and satisfying as there tends to be very little dissatisfaction or at least openly expressed dissatisfaction if it exists, which makes for a pleasant environment. But other foreigners, that haven’t quite gotten used to the local culture, may find working in Vietnam very frustrating, which just goes to show that it’s largely a matter of personality.
In other words, as with many aspects of Vietnam, you’ll probably either love it or hate it.