A Foreigner’s Guide to Managing in Vietnam

Working - Saigon/HCMC: Feb. 28, 2017

For 10 years, we have run a successful small publishing and creative agency in Ho Chi Minh City. During that time, we have recruited, managed, trained and evaluated more than 120 Vietnamese employees and more than 40 expatriate workers.

Our conclusion is that at equal qualifications, employers are most often
better off with female Vietnamese employees.

Many experienced foreign managers would even dare to say that the best candidates are divorced women older than 35 with a child. Why? Sadly, since they’ve gone through hardship before, they know the meaning of responsibility that comes with being a single parent and know the value of a stable income.

Obviously, this is not a hard-and-fast rule, but most foreigners I’ve met who have done business in HCMC agree with this statement. Without fail, they give credit to the loyal and intelligent Vietnamese workforce and their hard-working spirit. The tables below illustrate a few things we’ve noticed.

Vietnamese workers can be...

But we’ve also seen workers who are......

Team players

Hesitant to take initiative


Reluctant to speak up

Passionate about technology


Positive and optimistic

Short-sighted in terms of vision and planning

Respectful and polite

Hesitant to disagree with a superior

Friendly and helpful

Reluctant to say “no”

Hardworking and eager to learn

Not used to giving praise

Proud of their heritage

Not straightforward


Expat workers can be...

But we’ve also seen workers who are...

Well-trained and qualified

Overly confident

Experienced and independent

Expectant of a high salary

Creative and free-thinking

Adventurous and not dependable

Open-minded and curious

Inclined to look down on other cultures

Flexible (to a point)

Demanding and needy

Behaving critically

Overly individualistic


Overly provocative

Let me clarify that these are personal experiences while working with educated, white-collar Vietnamese employees with at least a bachelor’s degree, more than two years of prior work experience and good English speaking skills. Ultimately, the one thing managers of Vietnamese employees agree on is the challenge of dealing with a very high average turnover rate of more than 20 percent.

Further constraints include education and traditional value systems that do not promote team-building and decision-making skills. This is why managers should invest plenty of time and energy into training and professionally developing their employees.

Of course, this advice can’t be applied to everyone in Vietnam. You shouldn’t lose sight of each employee’s individuality and reduce a population to stereotypes. There is an important difference between saying, “In Vietnam, people represent their community rather than themselves,” and saying, “All Vietnamese think and act cooperatively.”

Credit: Phuoc Associates

So, a successful foreign manager should:

(1) understand and respect their Vietnamese workers’ cultural values and practices;
(2) integrate these into the office culture; and
(3) have a well-functioning HR practice and, more specifically, good communication with employees.

More than anything, let’s remember that most Vietnamese are keen to grow with foreign managers, as long as foreign managers respect Vietnamese culture and make efforts to grow with their workers, too.

How to behave with Vietnamese 

How not to behave with Vietnamese 

Communicate sensitively and identify indirect communication channels

 Don’t assume that your culture is somehow superior

Be patient and strengthen your relationships

 Never lose your temper or shout

 Be relaxed and do not anger easily

 Don’t complain about someone in front of others

Use simple English; avoid slang and cursing

Don’t expect people and society to change to suit you

Smile as often as possible

 Don’t criticise any family members in any way

Respect and try to understand local manners and lifestyles

Don’t criticise temple traditions

Learn a bit of the Vietnamese language, geography, history and culture

 Don’t criticise political figures or the government

Respect the elderly in your actions and words

 Don’t speak disrespectfully about President Ho Chi Minh