Foreigners find world of difference in Vietnam office culture

By Ngoc Ngan   June 16, 2024 | 03:06 pm PT
Englishman James Brown, 33, resigned from a media company in Thu Duc City after just two months, unable to endure the “unfathomable silence” that characterized the office.

"I liked the job there and the salary was good, but I couldn’t adapt to the office culture," Brown, who now lives in HCMC’s Binh Thanh District, says.

Earlier this year he joined as a video producer and editor at a media company. On his first day he was introduced to the communications department, which had eight members aged 25 to 40. Following brief introductions, everyone went back to their work.

He did not have much work initially and attempted to engage with the two colleagues seated next to him but received only brief replies before they focused again on their computers. "I felt a bit odd and somewhat lonely and isolated," Brown said.

The Englishman found the office too quiet except for the sounds of footsteps, paper shuffling and chairs carefully moved. He gradually learned that maintaining silence is often seen as a form of politeness in Vietnam.

He also noticed there were no after-work interactions between colleagues even after working together for some time.

At his previous job in London as a teaching assistant at a college, it was common for colleagues to engage in conversation, joke and ask each other questions. Noise was tolerated as long as it did not disturb others.

Feeling increasingly isolated, he sent a message in the company’s chat group after a month saying: "Hello, can everyone chat with me more?"

His request was met with silence, even though 15 colleagues read it. The next day the group chat continued with a work-related discussion, completely ignoring his plea, which intensified his feeling of exclusion.

"An office occupies 50% of my life, but that company was too dull and cold," he says to explain his decision to resign at the end of April.

Vietnamese-American Sasha Mai at her company in Ho Chi Minh City, June 2024. Photo courtesy of Mai

Vietnamese-American Sasha Mai at her company in Ho Chi Minh City, June 2024. Photo courtesy of Mai

Brown’s experience reflects a broader trend among foreigners working in Vietnam, who often experience a shock due to the office culture.

Guillaume Rondan, the French founder and CEO of Move to Asia, a company that supports foreigners with investing, working and settling in Asian countries, says, post-Covid, the largest groups interested in relocating to Vietnam for work include people from France, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S., mostly aged between 30 and 40.

A recent survey done by executive search services provider Navigos found that 60% of foreign respondents admitted to experiencing culture shock while working in Vietnam.

Some 29% reported facing language barriers, 27% noted discrepancies between their expectations and reality, and 18% cited misunderstandings as reasons for their challenges.

Last summer Zach, a 30-year-old from the U.S., initially attracted by the culture, people and life in Vietnam, decided to settle in HCMC to teach English.

But he soon found that the reality was different from what he had imagined. "It is entirely different from when I was a tourist."

In his home country, the interaction between bosses and employees is generally informal, a contrast to the formal hierarchy in Vietnam.

"We don’t have many honorifics [in English]," he elaborated, describing a situation where he needed to discuss something directly with the company’s director but was advised to respect the hierarchy and communicate through his line manager instead.

Zach was also surprised by the strong work ethic in Vietnam. He noticed that his teaching assistant worked additional hours in the evening after a full day at school. Similarly, the official working hours for his Vietnamese colleagues were from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., but it was common for them to continue working until 9 p.m.

"I’m amazed at how they have so much energy while I don’t and refuse many classes," he says.

He couldn’t ignore official emails, phone calls and messages after work hours unlike in the U.S. "People here always work and rarely complain about their workload," Zach said. "People in the U.S. consider work merely a part of their lives and fill their free time with a personal hobby, while the Vietnamese often sleep in their free time because they are tired."

Rondan says it typically takes six to 12 months for immigrants to adapt to the local office culture and fully integrate into life in Vietnam. He often advises his clients to try a three-month stay in the city where they intend to live, experiencing local life firsthand.

He also recommends connecting with foreign professionals, which can provide valuable insights into and support for navigating work in Vietnam. But culture shocks are not always a negative experience for foreigners in Vietnam.

Sasha Mai, a 33-year-old Vietnamese-American who interned at an export company in Long An province in the Mekong Delta, was surprised to see her colleagues take out blankets and pillows from their desks after lunch, turn off the lights, and lie down on the floor for a nap.

"I wondered why they could openly lie down in the office," she says, initially finding it unfathomable.

But after half a month she began to appreciate the siesta culture noting that it enhanced her productivity in the afternoons.

She also appreciates the team-building aspects of Vietnamese company culture. "I was surprised when they organized a massive trip for 100 employees as a benefit."

Her company organized a trip to Cam Ranh city in the central province of Khanh Hoa last summer to a retreat replete with a party and awards for employees, and karaoke.

Initially she found the concept unusual, but nevertheless chose to participate. It turned out that the trip facilitated interactions with colleagues from other departments and divisions she had not previously engaged with. "I think it’s a good way of bonding," she remarked.

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