Work and place in the culture, society and history of Vietnam
By Andrew Currie
Edition 1 – August 2012 Pages 28-31
Tags: asia • demographics • economics
“Vietnam is a country rich in history and culture blended from diverse influences that have presided over the country and its people. From the 2,000 years of domination by the Chinese to the more modern influences of French colonialism and the turbulent independence movement of the mid 20th century, Vietnam is now being embraced by the world for its magnificent natural beauty, friendly and inquisitive people and its delicious food. Full of UNESCO and World Heritage listed sites, Vietnam is a treasure trove of memories. Its geography, manmade monuments and structures are enhanced by the positive attitude of the Vietnamese people themselves, creating an inspiring and captivating atmosphere for visitors” .
The travel industry rightfully paints an enchanting picture of Vietnam as a wondrous and memorable place to visit, but what is it like to work here? What parts have history, society and culture played in forming the context of ‘work’ in Vietnam?
More than most, Vietnam is a country where recent history resonates through every facet of life. 85% of the population, or 78 million people, are under the age 40; more than one million young adults reach working age each year, and for the foreseeable future.
For the past nine years I have lived and worked from a base in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). This is a city where commercial clout and colonial grandeur collide head-on, and tree-lined boulevards cut paths across a labyrinth of small streets and tiny laneways that channel more than three million motorcycles, back, forth across and around the city day by day.
Prior to moving to Vietnam I worked as a senior strategist for a leading global workplace consultancy where I was responsible for activities across Southeast Asia. It was during this time I became disenchanted with the lack of Asia-specific workplace research, data and reference material and the potential (and actual) conflict between ‘global’ workplace solutions and the societal and cultural norms prevailing in the different country in which they were being applied. I observed further disconnect, or perhaps a ‘transmission-loss’ through the transfer of knowledge and learning from briefing, through the development of workplace strategies, to the design of the workplace and then finally, through the implementation. In many cases these activities were being performed by completely different firms, many of whom had little or no experience working in the locations they were designing solutions for.
I felt there was a need to change this. Initially my intention was to investigate this academically, in a doctorate. However, my personal preference for live projects, and opportunity, led me down a different path. In 2003 I established Workplace-Asia, a consultancy modelled on the integration of briefing, strategy, design and delivery, specifically in Asia.
Having experienced life in fast-growing Asian countries through my childhood in Singapore and my early career in Indonesia, Vietnam in the early 2000s showed all the signs of being an exciting, dynamic and compelling place to be.
The life and energy of the place, and of the people, was palpable.
International businesses were just starting to get a foothold, and ‘modern’ buildings and workplaces were almost nonexistent. This was a place on the cusp of a very real workplace revolution that was literally going to change the structure of the nation, both socially and physically.
So almost 10 years on, what have I learned…?
Let me begin with an overview of Vietnam and its historical context. Partly, to set the scene for those who know little about this unique and interesting country. But also, to share my personal observations.
I firmly believe that Vietnam’s recent history continues to have a profound (but diminishing) influence on the nation’s people, and their work-culture.
Vietnam is a long, thin coastal nation with a population of 92 million. 1,650km north-south and 50km wide at its narrowest point, the country has seven main ethnic groups, and two main cities. Hanoi, in the north, is the nation’s political capital and has an official population of 6.5 million. Ho Chi Minh City, in the south, is the nation’s economic powerhouse and the country’s largest city with an official population of more than 7 million. Unofficial estimates add 15-20% to these figures.
Vietnam is reputed to have one of the longest continuous histories in the world, with a recorded cultural history reputed to date back more than 20,000 years.
For most of the 20th century, it has been involved in, or recovering from, conflict and/or occupation. In fact Vietnam has only been free from war for a little over 20 years, when its last official conflict with bordering Cambodia ended in 1989.
Looking at what has most influenced the people, their lives and their work-culture, I believe there are four ‘stand-out’ events that can be identified.:
The long-term occupation by the French, (mid 1800s to 1954), their retreat, and the formation in the North of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (a communist state supported by China and the USSR),
The war with America and its allies from 1965 to 1976, ending with the liberation of the south by north Vietnam’s communist troops,
The post-war support of the former USSR, and subsequent loss thereof; and,
The introduction in 1986 of the government’s ‘Doi Moi’ reforms that paved the way for economic growth that has since been bolstered by the lifting of the US trade embargo in 1994 and the country’s accession to the WTO in 2007.
Any one of these four events on its own is nation-changing. But string them all together in a period of less than three generations and you have a nation of people with vastly different life experiences and changing attitudes, which have in turn created a huge generational gap in Vietnam.
A research study from 2010 states that “…the majority of the older population have first-hand experience of extreme scarcity and/or poverty and believe that success will be ‘lived’ through their children”.
To a large degree we do see this statement being played out in reality. Stellar growth and the ‘opening-up’ of the country has provided older generations with the means to provide for their children opportunities that are in stark contrast to the lives they themselves experienced. Rapidly increasing access to new technology, and advanced ‘international’ education, have been met with an ever increasing desire amongst the young for new experiences, new challenges, and success. And also the prospect of ‘catching-up’ with more developed regional neighbours such as Thailand, Singapore, Korea and even Japan.
In the workplace, this has resulted in a strong preference amongst young professionals to work for international companies where opportunities for career advancement, higher salaries, professional development, better benefits and the prospect of overseas travel are seen to be better.
Whilst this is true for many nations, we need to consider that nearly 40% of people in Vietnam are currently employed by state-owned enterprises that are increasingly being challenged by new perceptions of what makes a good employer, and a good workplace.
Regardless of age, 7 out of 10 people believe that success is defined by job, but perceptions of what make a good job have changed completely. Whilst older generations favour jobs such as teaching as the ‘ideal occupation’ younger generations clearly identify with roles such as ‘business manager’. Clear evidence of the influence of this thinking can be seen in the proliferation of private institutions and business schools offering tertiary degrees and MBAs of all shapes and sizes.
Before going too much further, I need to set the context for the market we serve here in Vietnam.
The vast majority of our clients are international and multinational firms operating in the south of Vietnam; where it can be considered (currently) that the business environment is more liberal and the aspirations of the people more international.
As these companies are seen as more desirable by the younger generation, the competition amongst employers, for the ‘best-and-brightest’ has been fierce. In lieu of experience, good foreign language skills and exposure via overseas education, or even travel for that matter, have been a ‘gold-pass’ for career advancement across a growing network of foreign owned, managed or influenced firms operating here. Amongst these firms staff turnover rates of 25 to 50% per annum are common.
If workplace optimisation means understanding and responding to the interrelated roles of People, Process and Place, then making sense of the extreme generational stratification of people that exists in Vietnam is paramount.
In order to better explain, I will take a demographic ‘cross section’ through the prevailing white-collar workforce so we can see some main characteristics at play:
45-65 yrs: A generation touched by 40 years of ongoing conflict starting with the war for independence against the French in 1946-55 (the first time in history that a colonial power is militarily defeated), followed by the north/south division of the country and the formation of the communist state in the North, and finally the war against the USA and its allies starting in 1965. This demographic is characterised by three distinct groupings:
The Old Guard: Making up the majority of the people who are employed by state-owned-enterprises (which is 40% of the country’s workforce) these are people with strong political beliefs and ‘party’ connections that formed the foundation of the post-war Vietnam. Many are now leaders of state-run industry whilst others have pioneered joint ventures with foreign investors.
The Haut Monde: Those ‘people of means’, with international connections, who managed to exit the country and take up residence elsewhere. Many have since returned and re-kindled their former relationships, often providing a conduit through which foreign trade and investment can ‘flow’ more smoothly.
The Survivors: Those that battled through the hard times, struggling to make ends meet and eking out a modest living.
25-45 yrs: A generation divided by the ‘American War’ and its aftermath. It was during this period that a great many people fled the country, particularly from the south. Whilst there are no official figures, estimates put the number as high as 1.5 million . In this divided demographic we see two very different, often conflicting ‘profiles’:
Resident Workers: Influenced by strong communist doctrine and support from the former USSR, these people often learned Russian as a second language and sometimes completed tertiary education in former eastern-bloc countries such as Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia or ‘mother Russia’. Whilst generally endowed with a strong technical education, dedication and commitment, their work experience is generally limited to government agencies, state-owned enterprises, and spin-off private firms with more bureaucratic and hierarchical structures. These factors combine to make the transition to a more open, international and corporatized company structure and work environment particularly challenging for both employer and employee.
Returning Workers: It is also in this demographic that we find the first returning Vietnamese or ‘Viet Kieu’ as they are referred to here. These children fled Vietnam with the help of family, friends and relatives, and those fortunate enough to survive found new homes as far afield as the USA, Australia, Canada and Europe. To international employers, these workers have the advantage of better (non-Vietnamese) language skills, more ‘western’ education and better compatibility with westernised corporate culture and expectations. On the downside, these employees often suffer considerable culture shock and difficulty re-integrating with their own generation. And even more so, their generational seniors for whom the memories of post-war Vietnam still strike a deep emotional chord.
18-25 yrs: Vietnam’s newest editions, its Gen Zs are certainly the closest to a ‘global’ generation that the country has seen to date. The first to grow up in a Vietnam that is not only free from conflict, but one that is experiencing dramatic economic growth, these young citizens have benefited from access to more and better education, health, nutrition, information, technology and exposure to the outside world. Many have travelled outside the country and a growing number are being educated abroad in countries including Singapore, Australia, Europe and the United States.
What they lack in experience they often make up for in enthusiasm and drive; and whilst they offer international employers the prospect of improved compatibility and better cultural fit, they bring with them their own unique set of challenges.
In conclusion, what we have experienced in the past 7 to 10 years is an employment dilemma presenting ‘modern’ organisations with three main ‘People’ choices:
Aim for maturity: by employing older people who are generally less skilled in English and other foreign languages, less technologically adept and often less accepting of and compatible with international/western views. In many cases these people have not had a great deal of exposure to the world outside Vietnam, but have maturity, diligence and respect to their advantage.
Aim for outlook: by employing very young staff with little or no experience who possessed better technical and language skills than their older colleagues and who are generally more culturally compatible with the values of the modern global market place. In addition to their lack of experience and tutelage by suitable role models, many struggle to see the value in long-term employment (read 1.5 years plus) when it has been more beneficial to change jobs rather than to grow.
Aim expat: another common solution is to look for foreign expatriates who can often provide a more familiar and hence ‘safer’ solution. In recent years we have seen a number of ‘waves’ of such people in search of opportunities to work abroad. Motivated for reasons ranging from the lack of work in Europe or the USA, through to a desire to live and work somewhere exotic, expatriate employees come with their very own set of challenges; almost all foreign firms have a percentage of expat workers and we are now seeing the more forward thinking local firms starting to do the same.
Place: The landscape of work
I have given an overview of modern Vietnam, and its population in 2012. We need to apply this background to the question of how this translates to “place” and the design of the office landscape?
In the next issue I will identify the key characteristics of the office landscape in Vietnam and how, like its population, this is also changing.. W&P
Andrew Currie is co-founder & managing director of OUT-2 Design, an international award winning design practice serving clients across South East Asia from Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. A specialist division, Workplace-Asia provides expertise, research and consultancy services in workplace strategy, design and change management. In addition to his project work, Andrew is committed to supporting better education, greater awareness and increased corporate, social and environmental responsibility (CSER) in the countries in which he works. He is a founding member of the Vietnam Green Building Council.
Editor’s footnote: Andrew Currie and Kate Anderson founded their firm in 2003, and now serve clients across South East Asia from Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We look forward to the second part of Andrew’s article in the next issue. And we will add similar articles about “work and place” in other parts of the world. If you have a particular preference, please contact me, or comment on our Work&Place Linkedin Group.