As an expat or foreigner doing business in Saigon, you would want to leave a good impression. Here are some Dos and Don’ts to guide you.

Bring business cards

Business cards are very important in Vietnam. Handing one out is usually the first contact point when meeting someone new or entering a meeting. When receiving and giving out business cards, always use both hands: it is a sign of respect. Spend a moment reviewing the card and never tuck it in your pocket. Keep it near you until meeting’s end and then put it away. 

Tip: get a separate card case to store your cards so they look fresh when you present them.

Speak softly

Vietnamese do not appreciate being spoken to in a loud voice in business meetings. Speak softly.

Watch your body language

Use your whole hand to point things out instead of using only a single finger. Also, keep your hand gestures to a minimum. Gesticulation in business meetings can be considered as rude and tends to make local uncomfortable.

Know a bit of the language

Vietnamese are not expecting you to be fluent in the language, but knowing a few phrases goes a long way in business relationships.

Bring a competent interpreter

The value of a skilled interpreter is tantamount to a smooth business meeting. While most Vietnamese who do business in HCMC speak English, do not assume mutual understanding. This is where a good interpreter comes into play; someone who understands fine nuances of both languages is critical.

Eat what you are served

If you are offered tea or water at a meeting, acknowledge the hospitality. You don’t need to finish your drink but it is considered rude to not take at least a sip out of politeness. The same applies to food placed onto your plate. If you are sharing a family-style meal with a business partner, refrain from picking up the last piece of food. It is meant to be left there. However, should someone put it onto your plate, it is open season for your belly!

Dot your I’s and cross your T’s

Make sure that you have all the necessary paperwork prepared to start any venture. If you are dealing with a local partner, it might be best to check their entries to ensure that they are filled out correctly.

Bring a gift

It is customary to bring a small gift if you are meeting a partner for the first time or on special occasions such as Tết, birthdays and anniversaries. Whiskey is usually given for business meetings as other things can be seen as bribe. The gift does not have to be expensive but make sure that there is enough for everyone. If the gifts are of different values, the most senior person gets the most expensive. Bonus points if you wrap it in colourful paper.

Meet people

Vietnamese people tend to build working relationships through face-to-face meetings. Invest some time building a solid personal and business relationship. Generally, initial meetings are solely used to get to know one another better.

Be polite

Vietnam is a polite society and rudeness is not well tolerated. When presenting an idea in a business meeting, use the phrase “may I suggest...”. Saying “xin phép” before a statement, which means “please allow me to...” in Vietnamese, is also considered very polite.

Be patient

Vietnam is notorious for its bureaucracy. You might have to go to the same ministry several times due to minuscule changes in the law or because of some other seemingly inane shreds of red tape. Take a deep breath and bear with it.

Write ahead of time

In the earlier stages of a business relationship, there should be a larger emphasis on formalities and civilities. Before meeting a potential partner, it is best to engage in written correspondence. All business communication should be written in a very formal style no matter how familiar you are with the person.

What are the things that you should not do when doing business in Ho Chi Minh City?

Arriving late for business meetings

Vietnamese tend to be casual about punctuality when meeting friends or attending social events, but when it comes to business meetings, make sure to be on time. It can be construed as a sign of disrespect when you are late – though no one will say it to your face!

Vietnamese put a very high value on face. If you go out of your way to help someone save face, even if they do not acknowledge it, the kind gesture will definitely be remembered. Conversely, embarrassing someone in a meeting will essentially make you an enemy.

Discipline a subordinate in public

When you discipline a subordinate in public it results in a huge loss of face for both parties. Not only could this possibly ruin the working relationship you have with this person, it could also reflect poorly on your managerial style with other Vietnamese staff, alienating them.

For more things not to do go to F&Q Sheet

For information on working in Vietnam go to Culture Clash: Multinational Working