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  • Writer's pictureBjörn Koslowski

North vs. South: Business Culture Differences in Vietnam (2/3)

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

In the first part of this mini-series we have learnt what kind of cultural differences set northern and southern apart and how to perceive these regional disparities. In part 2 we are now taking a look into how these differences evolved. In the third part we will give you some recommendations on how to deal with the distinct cultures of northern and southern Vietnam regarding your business activities.

Part II: Why Vietnam´s north and south are different

Physical Geography

The most apparent reason for potential cultural differences might be the geography of Vietnam. While having about the same surface area as Germany, the country stretches over almost 1,700 km from north to south (Germany: 850 km). If placed in Europe, Vietnam would reach from Germany´s northern-most border all the way down to Sardinia in Italy. The northern German city of Hamburg would roughly be in the same place as Hanoi, Vienna would be on the latitude of Danang and Rome (very) roughly at HCMC´s location.

Map Overlay: Vietnam in Europe

In fact, Hanoi and HCMC are 1,150 km apart. Viewed from HCMC, the capitals of six other nations (Phnom Penh 200 km, Bangkok 750 km, Vientiane 900 km, Kuala Lumpur 1,000 km, Singapore 1,100 km and Brunei 1,100 km) are closer than Hanoi. So, the exchange of people – and therefore of ideas – between these two regions is limited, while southern Vietnam – historically – was culturally closer to her south-east Asian brethren (see beneath).

Geography furthermore influences agriculture which in turn influences peoples´ cultures: The population center of northern Vietnam is the Red River Delta. Before it has been embanked, this densely populated region was subject to regular flooding. To cope with these situations, the northern Vietnamese developed tight-knit, hierarchical and conservative communities. They jointly worked fields and organized flooding control. These communities are exemplified by the fortress-like appearances of the villages of the Red River Delta (remember this when looking out of the airplane window when approaching Noi Bai airport the next time). In contrast, the southern population center of the Mekong River Delta hardly experienced flooding. The Mekong´s water-levels were and are being mediated by the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia. It stores water in the wet season while releasing it in the dry season (albeit lately dams upstream are curtailing this effect). Therefore, the Mekong River provided enough water to grow crops all year long on an individual basis. Result are relatively open and less conservative communal structures in the south.

Village structures in northern and southern Vietnam (settlements indicated by red dots)

Between Indian and Chinese Spheres of Influence

This may still sound controversial to Vietnamese ears, but a lot of the local culture has Chinese heritage. China brought the country into the eastern Asian cultural hemisphere; just like Korea and Japan. The main pillars of Vietnamese culture – Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism – found their way into the country through its northern neighbor. This process began in the Red River Delta with the first Chinese domination as far back as 111 BC (!). The country only slowly developed its influence southward in a process called “Nam Tien” (reminiscent of the American Manifest Destiny). The Vietnamese basically stayed in the Red River Delta up until the 10th Century AD. It took until the 13th century to add the region around Hue, another 300 years to Quy Nhon and the Mekong Delta became part of Vietnam as recently as the 18th century. This means that the north had exposure to ideas from China for a much longer period and, due to its proximity, much more intensely. The south on the contrary is relatively far from China and has only been added recently. It therefore is less influenced by Chinese ideas and has assimilated cultural traits of formerly dominant ethnic groups such as the Cham and Khmer. Taylor writes: “Vietnamese of the northern plains have to varying degrees been modified in the lands conquered from the Chams and Khmers. The necessity of dealing with China was (…) confined to the northern frontier. Facing to the north, the Vietnamese needed fixed concentration, steady nerves, and unfathomable resolve. However, when they turned south, it was possible to relax somewhat and to indulge in the senses.

Regional Economies: Politics vs. Trade

Over thousands of years the Red River transported sediments from the mountains to its mouth. These built up to mineral rich alluvial soil that was ideal to grow crops. This made northern Vietnam a powerhouse for agricultural production which has been strategically exploited by the Chinese from the 1st century BC to the 10th century AD. However, the north never developed sustainable and high-yield trade. This might be due to the long domination by the Chinese who will have expected tributes and taxes from its vassal instead of the development of an independent trading kingdom. The country only became a commercial player when it conquered the trading empire of Champa in central Vietnam. In the early 17th century the former Cham town of Hoi An developed into a “harbor superior to all others in south-east Asia”. In the later 18th century, Chinese merchants moved southward to establish the commune Cho Lon next to the city of Saigon. In 1859, Saigon-Cho Lon was one of the first cities the French occupied. They declared it a “free port” giving the starting signal for an era of explosive growth. While the rest of the country formally continued to be ruled by the emperor under the old Confucian system (with some notable exceptions), the south was directly controlled by the French. They invested heavily into an export-oriented agricultural industry. Plantations, open markets, globalization and modern education for the elite transformed southern Vietnam much faster than the rest of the country. Moving on the the 1960s and 1970s, ideas of modern market economies would have been instilled into urban Southerners while being on the drip of American war support. In the 1980s it therefore was the south piloting first Doi Moi economic reforms.

Saigon in the old days: Trade ships and warehouses can be seen in the distance

While both parts of the country nowadays feature a very robust economic trajectory, historically northern cities, especially Hanoi, were more focused on public institutions while southern harbor cities developed trade as a defining feature. This is still recognizable when establishing business relations in Vietnam.

Conclusion: Vietnam as Homogeneous but Diverse Country

Vietnam, with its characteristic “S-Shape”, has only existed for about 86 years. It never materialized before 1802, then took form under the Nguyen dynasty for 43 years until was divided again by the French. It was these colonialists that brought western-style nationalist ideas into the country. The notion of a united Vietnam gained track in the early 20th century and became reality under Ho Chi Minh when he declared the independent “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” in September of 1945. However, after just six months the allies divided Vietnam and it was again the communists that unified it in 1976. The path to unification of this country is truly astonishing. Vietnam´s people have been carried through this process by their common cultural identity and the unfathomable resolve arising from it. During their separation they have developed certain regional-specific traits making this vastly dispersed country complete.

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