What is it like to work in Vietnam? Work Culture

Vietnamese Work Culture – What’s it Like to Work in Vietnam?

With global brands flooding into Vietnam and the rise of domestic heavy-weights like VinGroup, there is a boom in high-value jobs in Vietnam, from marketing to R&D to machine-learning engineers — to say nothing about the explosion in English-teacher jobs.

Many non-Vietnamese are starting to wonder: what is it like to work in Vietnam? In this post, we discuss things that our foreign-born colleagues find remarkable about the Vietnamese work-culture, from average-salary, to superstitions, to partying with business-clients.

See Also: How to find a job in Vietnam as an expat

Vietnamese Work Mentality – Strengths & Weaknesses

The Vietnamese generally make great employees, due to four traits:

  • High IQ – The Vietnamese are tied for 13th-place globally for average IQ (source). They also do consistently well in international math competitions.
  • High conscientiousness – Vietnamese score high on one of the “Big Five” traits that is scientifically correlated with academic and vocational achievement: conscientiousness. This trait includes virtues such as dutifulness, reliability, and responsibility.
  • Resourceful & get-it-done attitude – Vietnamese guys know how to fix things when they break. Such fixes may be quick and klugy, but at least they will keep production running.
  • Technical sophistication & craftsmanship – the Vietnamese have a long tradition of exquisite craftsmanship, including lacquer-art, wood-working, ceramics, silk-making, embroidery-art, and much much more. This historic craftsmanship translates well into modern tech-manufacturing, as evidenced by the growing number of electronics manufacturers moving to Vietnam.

When you read the above list, does it make you think: “doesn’t that describe most Asian cultures?” Yes and no. As one of our colleague describes it, the Vietnamese are kind of in-between Korea and China in terms of work-mentality: they are hard-working and skillful, although not quite so pathologically work-obsessed like Korea, nor have they become so recalcitrant and entitled as the Chinese.

On the cons side of things, it is unclear how innovative and creative the Vietnamese can be. Despite their technical sophistication in arts and crafts, they also have a high rate of copy-cat businesses and fake products. However, we think this is not a permanent feature of Vietnamese culture, and is instead a historic consequence of low IP-protection and the relatively recent ascendancy of individualism among the younger generations (see our views on Gen-Z here) versus the collectivist-raised Millennials and older generations.

Fluidity in Job Roles – Opportunities

In Vietnam, there is a lot more fluidity in one’s job description. This can be a source of frustration, or an opportunity for growth, depending on one’s ambitions and willingness to do what it takes to move-up.

  • Pro: as a young person, you can reach management-level positions very quickly in Vietnam. There are a lot of young managers in Vietnam.
  • Con: jobs often lack formal operating procedures, resulting in blurred-lines between who should do what, and ad-hoc hierarchies.

One of the manifestations of indistinct job-roles in Vietnam is the following: it is very common for bosses to get junior employees to do personal things for them, like errands, or taking care of their kids, or organizing the boss’s daughter’s wedding, or having to attend late-night parties with important clients and business partners. Such things would seem borderline-illegal in places like Canada, but it shows that Vietnamese workers are willing to do what it takes to showcase their dedication and reliability.

Greater Emphasis on Social Events in Vietnamese Workplaces

Vietnamese offices tend to have more social events, such as company-paid retreats for strategization, or late-night dinner-and-drinking parties to schmooze clients. In most cases, such events are simply meant to boost morale.

There are a lot of after-hour group-dinners and meet-ups — these are much more common than anything we’ve every experienced in Canada, Australia or the USA (e.g., they occur like twice a month or more!)

If you are an extrovert, or if you are new to a city, then all these social-events are great! But, if you like to separate your work-life from your social-life, then these can be a major energy-drain. You better like the people you work with!

Trust – The Currency of Vietnamese Business

Trust and relationship-building are key to Vietnamese business, both between businesses, and with government officials, as well as between employees and employers.

You’ll notice that a large percentage of a company’s budget is spent on meals and drinks (see our point above). This is often referred to obliquely as the “Asian way of doing business”.

LEARN MORE about Vietnamese Business Culture & Etiquette

We think this is a natural type of risk-management: in frontier-markets, like Vietnam, there are not the kind of centuries-old regulatory regimes and legal institutions as in the West. Therefore, individuals must rely less on laws and contracts and professional oversight bodies and good-faith conventions. Instead, they must develop personal trust.

As an employee, one’s trustworthiness and loyalty are likewise very important.

Typical Work Hours in Vietnam

In Vietnam, it is normal to work Saturdays, and it is relatively rare to get two full-days off a week. Officially, the standard work-week is 48 hours a week in Vietnam, beyond which an employee must be paid over-time.

The Vietnamese government is considering reducing the work-week to 40 hours/week. However, large companies like Nike are lobbying against the reduction in working-hours. A few progressive companies or Western companies may give their employees one or two Saturdays off a month.

More generally, there is less work-life balance in Vietnam compared to North America. Even during off-hours, employers will frequently contact their employees outside of working hours for extra demands — or even get them to do random errands that aren’t exactly related to one’s official duties.

In one wacky example, we had the experience of being asked to wake-up at 5:00am to attend a boss’s weekly master-mind group and take notes, even though our position was not as her personal assistant, nor was the meeting really work-related. For ambitious employees, such extra tasks could be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate one’s work-ethic and loyalty. Or, it could be very stressful to one’s personal life and family.

Pay & Benefits – What is the Average Salary in Vietnam?

  • Median salary – According to the latest government statistics (latest for 2020), the median salary in Vietnam was 4.2 million VND per month (source) or about $200 USD/month.
  • Range of salaries – There are large differences between municipalities and across industries. For example, the median salary in Ho Chi Minh City was 10 million VND per month (~$440 USD/month). For educated professionals in tech, finance and marketing, their salaries were between 8-20 million VND/month ($350-900 USD/month) (source). Engineers in the hottest sectors, like AI and ML engineering, can fetch >$2000 USD per month.
  • Tet bonus – One caveat is that, to annualize these monthly salaries, you must consider that everyone gets paid 13 months of salary, as part of a near-ubiquitous Tet-bonus.
  • Benefits – Employee benefits are not as generous as in Western countries, but they usually include maternity-leave, extra private health insurance, life insurance, and perhaps retirement benefits to top-up socialized benefits. Government workers get the most benefits — some even get free things like new condominiums (but they get paid less on average than private-sector workers).
  • Late pay – Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to be paid late, or for employers to skip payments altogether, especially if an employer is going out of business or they are angry at an employee. It’s not something we’ve personally experienced, but it happens all too often.
  • Withheld pay – if you want to quit your job, your final month of back-pay may be illegally withheld from you as a bargaining chip by the employer in order to compel you to continue working longer.

Get more detailed information about Vietnamese salaries and taxation in our post dedicated to the topic.

Food Served at Work in Vietnam

One surprising perk of working for Vietnamese companies is that they often provide free home-style, freshly-cooked lunches — some even have a kitchen and a chef! We’re not talking about mega-tech companies the Google or VinGroup, but small 10-40 person businesses.

The reason they can offer lunches is because wages for part-time cooks is so low, as well as the overall cost of food — it probably costs less to feed your staff in Vietnam than it does to give your staff free-coffee at a Canadian business.

However, this perk is becoming less common.

Interns and Junior Staff in Vietnam

Although Vietnamese workplaces are not so hierarchical as some other Asian cultures (e.g. Japan), the employees at the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder are expected to do things that are never explicitly stated. Two examples, junior employees are often tacitly expected to:

  1. bring small gifts for their other employees when they are being onboarded;
  2. be the ones to fetch coffee, do small errands, carry heavy things, pick-up the boss’s kids, etc.

Such tasks will not be explicitly mentioned in a job description, aside from vague lines like “may be required to do other task as required by the manager”. For example, a senior statff may say, “Hey, we should get some coffee for the meeting”. The junior staff should just intuit that it is their duty to go get the coffee.

If junior staff refuse to do such menial tasks, or pretend not to know that it is their tacit duty to do so, then all their colleagues will make work very uncomfortable for them.

Superstition in Vietnamese Workplaces

Even though Vietnam is officially atheist, it is a deeply spiritual and superstition country. Work-teams sometimes rely on a complex catalogue of superstitions to make hiring decisions, depending on the boss and the HR person.

For example, according to the Vietnamese Zodiac, there are certain combos of birth-years that work-well together and generate good-luck, while other team-combos will lead to bad-luck. Teams are thought to thrive or flop based on these mystical combos (Fortunately, there are little spiritual cleansing exercises that HR staff can do in order to neutralize the bad-luck).

In modern Vietnam, these superstitious considerations are a low priority, overall, but they are still very common and in the back of mind of every hiring manager. For example, if there are two equally-qualified candidates for a position, then the tie-breaker will likely be due to their Zodiac signs and their compatibility with the rest of the team.

Certain industries are much more superstitious than others, like real estate and government, as well as most mom-and-pop small businesses.

Jin Chan, the feng shui lucky toad that are worshipped by VIetnamese business owners
Jin Chan, the toad of fortune, and favourite idol among business-people. Source: wikimedia

Presents for Business Partners & Government Officials in Vietnam

One of the more surprising (and annoying) manifestations of superstition in the workplace is finding gifts to give important business partners, clients, and government officials.

For example, teams can spend an inordinate amount of time debating and deciding upon good-luck colours for their gift-recipients. According to tradition, each person has a set of good-luck colours, and bad-luck colours, based on their birth-year. You may accidentally insult a recipient if you gift them something that is their bad-luck colour — its like wishing them “go to hell!”.

Relationship Consultants in Vietnam

Superstitions are another reason why relationships and knowing your business-partners very well is so important in Vietnam. It is also a good example of why it is important for foreign companies to hire local consultants to manage and mantain relationships prior to establishing business-dealings.

In the more business-centric regions of Ho Chi Minh City and Southern Vietnam, it is relatively easy and efficient to hire 3rd-party groups to navigate these kinds of considerations and translate the Vietnamese way-of-business into the Western conventions, and vice versa.

Pregnant Women and Kids at Work in Vietnam

One of the most surprising things about working in Vietnam is that it is totally legal to ask female candidates whether they plan on having children, and to discriminate against them if they do. Some companies require female employees to sign a contract stating that they will not have children without 2 years of employment.

However, once hired, Vietnamese workplaces are fairly equitable between men and women. Sometimes they are even better for women with young children: young mothers often can often bring their children to work, and will be treated more favourably than other staff, like reduced hours.

On the downside, there isn’t the kind of work-subsidized day-care like in the West; Vietnamese families rely extensively on grand-parents for day-care duties (in fact, grandparents usually move-in with their children during the early pre-school years).

High Job Turnover in Vietnam

Among the younger generation, you’ll see people come and go quite quickly in Vietnam. In some industries, it is not unusual for early- to mid-career professionals to change jobs every 6 months or so.

The high turnover in Vietnam may be a consequence of several things:

  1. A booming economy – skilled workers are very confident that they can quit and find new jobs easily.
  2. Fewer job benefits that make jobs sticky – workers are less worried about losing one’s stock-options, 401k plan, and/or life-insurance perks when they don’t have any.
  3. Fluidity in job roles – as discussed above about poorly-defined SOPs, a worker doesn’t really know what they are getting themselves into when they take-on a new job.
  4. High variance in work cultures – the differences between work-cultures within Vietnam can seem like entirely different countries, in contrast to Canada where one office-job is kind of the same as any other office job, just with different people.

Some domestic companies, like VinGroup, are known to actually like high turnover, as weak employees are rooted-out and good employees are baptized by fire.

Terminating Employees in Vietnam

On paper, it is theoretically difficult to fire a permanent employee in Vietnam. The process requires an application to the regulatory body to get approval, and the specified reasons cannot be that the employee is simply under-performing.

Usually, companies will do term contracts with junior employees so that they can just let underperforming employee go by letting contracts expire (although term-contracts have limits on renewal).

In practice, almost most Vietnamese employees complain about being fired at-will and without cause. This discrepancy between theory and practice is very confusing for foreign entites. “If they want to fire you, they will find a way” a Vietnamese manager warned us.

Unions in Vietnam

Almost all Vietnamese companies have trade unions. Most unions are not the kind of cross-company, sector-focused entities like the Teamsters or Federation of Nurses in North American, which span different companies.

Instead, most Vietnamese unions are specific to a company. Some are just an extension of the human resources department — where one begins and the other ends is not clear. And like HR, they are often frivolous and pesky, relegated to planning social events and pestering employees with administrative bloat. And perhaps that is for the best!

Trade union fees are 2% of an employee’s gross salary, regardless of whether an employee actually wants to participate in a union.

High Variance in Work-Cultures Across Vietnam

Due to the rapid change from a command-and-control economy to a free-market oriented economy (Doi Moi), and the massive injection of foreign direct investment, there is a very wide range of work-cultures in Vietnam. For example, a well-run foreign company like Uniqlo or Zara may succeed in instilling their own corporate-culture and operating-procedures into a local workforce — for workers, its almost like working in another country, as compared to traditional businesses.

But domestic businesses are also changing and modernizing — we’ve seen first-hand how foreign best-practices can move laterally across a business ecosystem, as workers take what they’ve learned from one workplace and apply it elsewhere. Some workers are hired to do just that!

Hot Tip: Vietnam presents a huge opportunity for consultants to do restructuring and implement managerial best-practices into medium-sized enterprises. From things like Agile to KPI’s to standard operating procedures to demand forecasting: the Vietnamese are eager to learn and implement the hard-won ideas from the West.

In contrast, some domestic conglomerates have developed their own culture that is more akin to the ruthless, high-octane corporate-culture of Japan or Korea.

Finally, there is the non-profit and government-run sector, which is a whole other blog post unto itself.

Why Do Foreign Companies Like Vietnam?

The number of major brands that have most or the majority of their manufacturing in Vietnam is rising — including high-value industries like Samsung’s new and largest R&D centre.

The above work-culture characteristics are very conducive to foreign businesses (and forms part of our bullish thesis about Vietnam), in addition to the following macro factors:

Regional Competition for Business in Vietnam

The 63 provinces of Vietnam are engaged in an aggressive competition to facilitate business and grow their economies. The regional party leaders seem to be responsive to feedback from the Provincial Competitiveness Index , and vie for top positions — the results can lead to prestige and ascendancy within the ruling Socialist Party. This contrasts with Western democracies, where provincial politicians ascend by ideological pandering and/or appeal to race & gender (e.g. the “Obama coalition”) and not competence.

Provinces ascend the PCI by adopting pro-business policies like:

  • Providing administrative procedures online;
  • Reducing the time to start a business;
  • Reducing “informal” fees and charges (i.e, anti-corruption);
  • Easy access to land and security of business premises;

and more.

Each year, more and more pro-business reforms are being introduced in a decentralized, competitive, and experimental manner across the provinces — this provides innovation and opportunities for business. It is also a strong contrast to the top-down central-planning mentality of the Soviet-era.

In 2020 (the latest year with data) the provinces of Quang Ninh, Dong Thap and Long An topped the competitive index.

China+1 Strategy Benefits Vietnam

It is relatively easy to re-route supply chains from China to Vietnam. More businesses are choosing to do so as part of a “China plus one” strategy, propelled by the long-term degradation in the business climate of China.

The most recent example of this decline is China’s failed “zero-covid” policy restrictions of 2021/22. In contrast, Vietnam retired its zero-covid policy in late 2021 and adopted a flexible “live with Covid” policy. Importantly, the Vietnamese government implemented this 180-degree change after responding to concerns from the Korean and EU and American Chambers of Commerce — a refreshing example of stakeholder engagement, in contrast to the unyielding top-down dictates of China.

While Vietnam is pursuing economic liberalization, China is actively undermining foreign operators, in both long-term policies that favour its “national team“, as well as mercurial policy-attacks on private businesses, such as the $180 billion dollar demolition of the private education sector in 2021. Political tensions are also dissuading foreign businesses from investing in R&D in China, according to the 2021 American Chamber’s China Business Climate Survey Report .

Free-Trade Tail-Winds

Vietnam has been expanding its free-trade agreements in recent years, such as the ASEAN free-trade agreements in 2015/16, the 2019 Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other signatories, and the watershed Vietnam-EU Free trade agreement in 2020.

Every-year, the average tariffs on imported goods into Vietnam have been failling, as well as the import duties on Vietnamese exports to other countries.

Skilled Labour in Vietnam

Beyond having a culture of hard-work and conscientiousness, the Vietnamese people have a long history of high-quality craftsmanship and technical sophistication — to a degree that we’ve only witnessed in a few other cultures (e.g., Japan, Germany, Korea). Traditionally, this talent expressed itself in works like instrument-making, wood-working, silk-making, painting, porcelain, lacquer-art, as well as very esoteric art-forms such as embroidery art.

Not only do Vietnamese have a history of skilled craftsmanship — they also did it at scale! Vietnam historically had many towns that were singularly dedicated to a particular craft, like “silk villages” or “pottery villages”. Many still exist today (which is one of our favourite tours) — once you see the skill of these guild-towns, it is easy to imagine how such a culture would excel at large-scale assembly and manufacturing.

Labour Costs

30 years ago, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the world. Now, Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies. Labour costs in Vietnam are still cheaper than many of its SE-Asian neighbours (for example 50% cheaper than China), due to its catch-up in national wealth following Vietnam’s delayed implementation of free-market reforms (Doi Moi).

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  1. I’m sorry but most of this is just rosy-tinted nonsense. The reality of working in a Vietnamese company in Vietnam is like everywhere else in Asia: low efficiency, no transparency, virtually no standard for innovation or competency. Extremely slow progress on all business aspects. Expected to do unpaid overtime or else get no promotions. Poor strategy. Poor accountability. Poor government enforcement of working regulations. Poor management. Nepotism abounds. This article is biased as hell.

    1. Hi Sean, thanks for the reply. Its funny to think that I’m writing that here is no overtime (I make that clear). Or, that management and accountability are the best? Not so — I am writing about the marginal differences, things that are interesting and unexpected, between Vietnamese working environments Canada, not unconditionally heaping praise on one country or another. Sorry if you had a bad experience, but to think that non-Vietnamese working environments don’t have poor management and poor strategy and poor promotions is unfair as well. Thanks again for the reply, I’d love to hear about your experience

      1. My experience was three different companies over seven years and the only thing most of my Vietnamese colleagues and superiors ever learned was to hand more work to the competent people and hand more power to the incompetent ones. The brightest and freest thinkers among Vietnamese always got phased out in favour of “peacekeepers”.

        The level of bureaucratic pointlessness and rules for rules’ sake was just staggering. I frequently saw high level directors get involved in tiny issues of no consequence, the kinds of things that could have been decided by new hires off the street and still would have had absolutely no impact on anything. In fact, all that the actions of directors and managers served to do, most of the time, was suffocate our foreign staff and alienate talented local staff.

        There was constantly high turnover that was never addressed. We seemed to be constantly seeking new foreign qualified staff to plug gaps. There was an endless, chaotic, last-minute work culture with little if any ability to forward plan or think strategically. And middle to middle upper management showed no backbone to stick to long term planning decisions.

        It was shifting sands every day and didn’t seem to imorove. When I left each business, they had hugely inflated staff numbers, yet extremely slow productivity, just as bad as when I started.

        And this was pointed out to numerous upper management staff and even company directors, personally, and nauseum.

        Any young Vietnamese who showed individual flair, competence and an ability to think for themselves left for something else abroad only a few months or a year after graduating and starting their work. Virtually all of them admit privately that Vietnamese culture was the reason.

        It is absolutely a cultural problem.

        Vietnamese people, most at least, and especially anyone above 30 years old or so, seem to put on a great show of being productive and making busywork, but for them, everything is run by a committee of every stakeholder and his grandmother’s pet chihuahua, and so nothing ever really gets done. Everything is so up for review that you can’t trust that a decision has ever been made and finalized. Progress is so slow that by the time a change is adopted, the whole landscape has altered so much it might as well not be progress at all.

        Why is this so? I think because the focus in Vietnamese culture is upon keeping an incompetent peace at the cost of fostering competitive progress. Few adult people know how to take constructive criticism without turning into children, and out of those who do, even fewer will genuinely admit wrongdoing. Saving face is itself a nice way of saying “I may lie, deceive and deny, despite all negative consequences, in order to avoid damaging my ego and the egos of others”.

        That’s what happens when you have a generation or two pumped full of propaganda, in a place where learning pointless facts means more than thinking critically: many Vietnamese, a majority it seems, either simply lack common sense, or outright refuse to adapt it and would rather hide behind procedure and wooly hierarchies. And the longer you live there, the more it seems to be the latter is true.

        To me tere’s nothing at all beautiful about a culture where humans are defined by their ability to lie to each other to avoid any productive conflict of ideas, and it is even worse that they have the further disingenuousness to call it “respectfulness”. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s the opposite of respect. It’s like saying “I’ll pretend to believe your flawed ideas and image, if you pretend to believe mine. And then any progress that occurs after that will be a nice bonus, but it’s fine if it doesn’t occur at all”. A culture, indeed, of childishness, populated by those who have never grown up to the responsibility of real words, real statements, and factual feedback.

        Vietnamese culture refuses to acknowledge and embrace the individualism that is absolutely necessary for Western levels of economic success and personal liberty, by beating the individual down with bureaucracy, boredom, and nauseating political waffle. And that’s why it’ll never have both economic success and personal liberty, and likely it will achieve neither.

        Where Korea and Japan succeeded, only, is in making extreme hours the norm for everybody who wants to keep a job. Without the several hours of free overtime each day, Japanese and Korean companies would be significantly less profitable. Without those willing to spend quite literally every waking hour at work, what is the Japanese economy at all?

        High efficiency, low turnover, good benefits and decent work life balance is the norm in European countries and oftentimes in the States, too. And if you do have to work awfully demanding hours, you’re usually pretty well paid in return.

        By contrast, in Asia, jobs with efficiency, stability, good pay and a work life balance are absolutely by far and away the exception, not the rule. Only Westerners generally land those types of jobs. And it’s because Westerners abroad usually have a decent education, can think critically, and aren’t afraid to say it like it is. That’s responsibility. That’s how adults do business. And that’s how businesses become innovative and efficient.

        And all that isn’t even touching on general working standards in Vietnam.

        When you see the minority, free thinking Vietnamese people, in their mid twenties working 10-12 hours a day for six days a week to earn $300 a month, and you see their work and reforms consistently wasted by incompetent management, it’s hard to think of Vietnam as a good location for investment for business.

        Personally, given also the extreme rampant corruption, bribery, and bureaucratic impedance to all forms of business (which costs foreign investors billions every year in missed deadlines and bloated budgets), as well as the inherent threat to long term strategy posed by government authoritarian decrees, Vietnam is a very high risk investment with potential returns that, in my view, don’t justify the risks.

        That said, consultancy could be very profitable, if ultimately ineffective.

        1. Everything you said is completely correct. There is a reason why a large number of talented young workers looking for work abroad instead of Vietnam.

          Where the culture of valuing incompetent over competent, where skilled and talented candidates are turned down and you get hired for a job not because of your ability but because the boss knows your father.

          Free thinking and innovative ideas are looked down upon by the incompetent higher ups. Especially if you are new to the company, they’ll make your work life miserable because you came up with a better idea than them and you do not know your place, which is beneath them and do menial tasks for them.

  2. Hi William, a very thoughtful and well laid out article. Very impressive. Thank you. Also interesting to note that there are opportunities for consulting to bring lessons from others business environments to Vietnam. Not sure if you have experience with this, but I am curious whether Vietnamese businesses eg Banks are familiar and comfortable paying consulting rates charged by overseas firms (we are from Australia and consult to business on leadership, wellbeing, culture etc). Thanks again

    1. Definitely. We’ve seen first-hand that there is a big appetite for leadership and wellbeing workshops in Vietnam, and especially lessons from the Anglosphere. You’ll have to approach big companies and/or foreign NGOs with big budgets. Regarding operational consulting, I think there is a big opportunity in Vietnam in certain sectors, such as high-growth microcaps in burgeoning sectors (e.g. Saas, tech) who have young staff and little institution knowledge — seniority and best practises literally need to be imported from abroad. For banks specifically, I don’t know, sorry.

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