This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Book offers advice for working, traveling in Vietnam

Published: July 21, 2005

Contributing Editor

Mark Ashwill has had a long love affair with Vietnam, a country that he says is "pulsating with energy and steeped in dreams."


The director of the World Languages Program has written a detailed and very well-received book about his "second country" that the American Library Association rates as "highly recommended."

"Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at the Crossroads," published this year by Interculture Press, is only 200 pages long, but it is a highly readable guide to an intricately structured and intriguing culture.

In fact, CNN International producer Kristina Cooke, in arranging an interview with Ashwill for a documentary feature on Vietnam, told him the book had been recommended to her "as the seminal work for understanding Vietnam today..."

"Vietnam Today" is based on Ashwill's extensive understanding of Vietnam's social conventions and economic, educational and political systems. His knowledge permits him to explain to the uninitiated how the Vietnamese think about many things, and to convey myriad practical tips about how to circumvent common misunderstandings and establish social and business connections.

For a quick breakdown of business issues—"Ten Facts About Doing Business in Vietnam" and "Ten Myths About Doing Business in Vietnam"—go to

The book includes invaluable information about Vietnam's market system; the controls on information flow/exchange; economic reforms; religions; Vietnamese concepts of destiny, equality and suffering; attitudes toward age, realism, action, formality, risk and change; and the cultural take on human nature, fate and misfortune, time and the natural world.

It offers very specific advice, as well. For instance, flowers are appreciated by a male business associate, but only if the sender also is a man. The Vietnamese have a very strong work ethic and like to see the same in those with whom they do business.

He suggests presenting a small gift to associates at your first meeting, and when making a phone call, avoiding great confusion by stating your business and whom you are calling before you mention your own name. Do not over-praise anything, including gifts and food. Just say, "Thank you." Keep your emotions in check; to show anger and other negative emotions results in a loss of face.

Ashwill also informs those who would do business there of the formidable task Vietnam faces in trying to absorb 1.5 million young people into the workforce every year, and how the Communist political system interfaces with what he calls "a market economy with a socialist orientation."

He offers suggestions on to how to find a point of entry into what is a "relationship-based culture" comprised of what he calls "a complicated web of shared stories, favors, obligations, rights and points of accountability that form the basis for interdependence at all levels of society."

One chapter examines what the Vietnamese like and dislike about Westerners, based on a survey conducted by Ashwill and including several dozen Vietnamese who have regular contact with Western business people and travelers. For those hoping to make a good impression, it's a must-read section of the book.

Ashwill conducted the surveys with his collaborator, Thai Ngoc Diep, who holds a master's degree in international trade from UB. She previously worked in Vietnam for the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council and for Ericsson, a Swedish manufacturer of consumer communications and data products. She now is employed with a private-sector company in Hanoi.

He also credits many other Vietnamese scholars, writers and citizens who served as sounding boards, cultural informants and critics with developing accurate information about the culture.

"Their assistance was invaluable," he says, "and this book is very much a collective effort. We wanted to be sure to offer accurate, up-to-date information spanning many areas of interest, and to help readers recognize the deep family connections, language difficulties, reverence for education and strong work ethic of the Vietnamese.

"I advise visitors, whether trying to establish business contacts or not, to be patient, relax, find a cultural mentor and get away from the tourist traps to enjoy the camaraderie, hospitality and humor of the Vietnamese people."

Since 1996, Ashwill has traveled to Vietnam more than a dozen times, established Vietnamese language programs in the U.S. and developed study tours for Vietnamese and American business leaders. In 2003, he became the first American to be awarded a Fulbright Senior Specialist Grant to Vietnam.

He is the founding director of the U.S.-Indochina Educational Foundation (USIEF), the mission of which is to contribute to the development of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by offering some of its most promising students the opportunity to pursue advanced education and training in the U.S. The foundation also is committed to educating Americans about conditions in a part of Southeast Asia where the recent past is linked closely to that of America, as well as strengthening ties between this important region and the U.S.

He serves as an advisor on many aspects of Vietnamese culture, explaining how the Vietnamese view Westerners, for instance, and the social value they embrace. Director of UB's Fulbright Program, he also is the advisor to VietAbroader, a student-run organization of Vietnamese studying in the U.S. and other countries.

"In every country, the past is prologue and nowhere is this adage more relevant than in Vietnam," he says. "Business associates who understand that history in Vietnam is not an abstraction, but a living, breathing entity and who treat the Vietnamese as equal partners are greatly appreciated.

"As one of our survey respondents said, 'In Vietnam, everything is possible if you know how to work in ways that are culturally appropriate. Your success depends on you—your way of working, your knowledge, your understanding and the friendships that you establish with the Vietnamese.'"