North vs. South: Business Culture Differences in Vietnam (1/3)
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
In the first part of this mini-series we will learn what kind of cultural differences set northern and southern apart and how to perceive these regional disparities. Coming up in part 2 we will then take a look into how these differences evolved and in the third part we will give you some recommendations on how to deal with the distinct cultures of north and south Vietnam regarding your business activities.
Part I: Regional Cultures
Recognizing differences in people
Compared to other south-east Asian nations, Vietnam features a pretty homogeneous population as the Kinh ethnic group makes up about 86% of the population. This group, but probably also many ethnic minorities, believe in a “cohesive” society, have grown up with Confucianist-Taoist-Mahayana Buddhist believes and share are a lot of modern cultural phenomena. Despite this, there are considerable regional cultural differences. Many locals, foreign residents and even short-term visitors will recognize disparities in the behavior of people; especially if they compare northern to southern Vietnam. Here are some quotes from our customers, who have discussed with us after business trips of four to five days:
“For me, Northerners are hard to access, while Southerners seem to be much more open.”
"People from the south are much friendlier than their northern peers.”
“I have the feeling that I can understand Northerners better. With southern Vietnamese, I do not really fathom what they feel.”
"The business acumen of southern Vietnamese is much better than that of northerners.”
While these business people are naturally projecting their own cultural traits onto their Vietnamese counterparts, there surely are differences.
From Stereotypes to Facts
Vietnamese, as in any country, have stereotypes of people from certain regions. In this sense, Southerners are said to be open and generous. On the contrary, northern Vietnamese are presumably conservative and cold. A Vietnamese parable regarding these cultural stereotypes begins as following: “A boy lets a bottle of fish sauce fall in a market and it bursts. A northern Vietnamese will scold him for his thoughtlessness. A Southerner will give him money to buy a new bottle of fish sauce.” (I omit the actual pointe of the reaction of a central Vietnamese – out of respect – here). Again, this is a joke and it depictures stereotypes. However, they have a grain of truth to them.
There is not too much literature on internal cultural differences in Vietnam. However, Fitzgerald attests a stronger discipline to the northern Vietnamese than to their southern sisters. She also explains that the Northerners are living in a more tight-knit, patriarchic society through which they have a stronger awareness of obligations. "The Economist" even attests a “bookishness” here. In Fitzgerald´s observation, Northerners tend to respect authority more than Southerners. While Northerners abide by formalities when making decisions, people from the south are said to be spontaneous. This attitude is fostering a more competitive business mentality than in the north. However, according to Hayton, the south may be more business-minded but at the same time does not show off status symbols as much as northern Vietnamese who recently seem to celebrate the economic success of their country. And indeed, you will find a lot more Bugatti four-wheelers on the streets of Hanoi than in HCMC. All in all, descriptions of these stereotypes almost compare with typical descriptions of Scandinavians and Mediterraneans in Europe. However, in this case we are talking about one country.
The Economist concludes: “But to dwell on the enduring differences between north and south is to ignore several key points. First, regional variation in Vietnam is much more complicated than that. There are plenty of poor southern provinces and rich northern ones. (…) Moreover, northerners have no lack of entrepreneurial drive. The streets of Hanoi are so crowded with merchants that hawkers often take turns to occupy the same bit of pavement at different times of the day.”
Linguistics is another part of cultural differences that also plays a role in business. Northern and southern Vietnamese speak vastly differing dialects. They are much more pronounced than what would you will know from western countries. In fact, while northern Vietnamese is dubbed “high Vietnamese” the southern dialect has taken in a lot of influences from the former masters of these lands; the Cham and Khmer. Some characters of the “quoc ngu” alphabet are pronounced completely differently in the two parts of the country.
Conclusion: Coconuts vs. Peaches
When talking to customers looking to establish business relationships in Vietnam, we typically explain to them that they should depict the Northerners and Southerners as fruits. In this metaphor northern Vietnamese may be viewed as “coconuts” and southern Vietnamese as “peaches”, as laid out by Lewin and Trompenaars. A coconut is hard to crack. However, once you breached its shell you will have access to all of its tasty juice. Same may be said for people from northern Vietnam: They are not easy to access and will first be suspicious of you. But once you have gained their trust (e.g. after drinking a few glasses of home-distilled schnapps) they will open their heart and you might have a long-lasting relationship at your hands. The peach – on the contrary – is very soft on the outside and therefore easy to eat. However, it has a big, hard kernel. This may be compared to southern Vietnamese: It is relatively easy to get into contact with them (soft on the outside) but many foreign business people (see above) never really understand the inner state of their counterparts (hard kernel).
This division may lead to misunderstandings and divisions as coconuts tend to think that peaches are insincere because their flamboyancy does not show deep friendship. Peaches on the other hand see coconuts as rude because they are not “oiling the wheels of life” with a few pleasantries. Naturally, this metaphor is oversimplified, but it helps understanding and acting upon cultural differences. The disparities between northern Vietnamese “coconuts” and southern “peaches” also show a fairly subtle graduation than if comparing - let´s say – Germany and Vietnam as this method of cultural classification is relative. However, even comparatively small internal Vietnamese differences can make a big impact as caricatured in this joke referenced to by “The Guardian”: “(…) the Swede and the Finn (…) meet for drinks, spending hours imbibing schnapps in silence. Eventually, raising his glass, the Swede says, "Skol!" The Finn is appalled: "Did we come here to talk, or to drink?" 😂