Before you read any further, this is not your typical Jay post about working capital and saving cash. I write a lot about People, Process, Tools, and this one is all about People and the cultures we work in. It reflects on what I’ve experienced over my career, and I hope that it provides guidance on understanding and being sensitive to the people and cultures you meet and work with.
First, a little context. As my career developed I was a full participant in the phenomenon of globalization. Often I was just a foot soldier in globalization’s execution, but I was also fully immersed in learning and supporting the way into markets, integrating business acquisitions and/ or building a support network for manufacturing. As an American I have had to learn how to become apolitical in my beliefs outside the U.S., to not say stupid things (except on purpose) and to learn how to eat local cuisine. While working through various projects I have always tried my best to blend in (no bright orange Tennessee Vols hats) and to become part of the landscape.
After 30 years of being on the road, I’ve learned to successfully acclimate myself and assimilate into a region or country. The following story is an example of how I practice this tradition.
I’ve been back doing business in Vietnam — this time in the country’s north. Over the years I have learned by walking around. I absorb the culture, meet people and learn the place I am in. I have always felt that my first day in a new location is a very personal and special time for me to adjust and reflect on my new surroundings.
Hanoi is vibrant, energetic, friendly and welcoming, but it’s a world apart from anything I know. As I stepped out into the streets — ever aware not to get run over by bicycles, motorbikes, buses and/or cars — I quickly experienced sensory overload. The city’s sights, sounds, and smells can be overwhelming. Hanoi is alive and constantly in motion. There are 93 million Vietnamese, and I swear all of them are continually moving somewhere. Where they are going I have no idea, but there is an energy here that I have rarely seen elsewhere.
Unofficially I’ve learned that coffee is Vietnam’s national drink. This is not Starbucks or Caribou, but rather a wonderful and refreshing local flavor that comes from their Central Highlands. So my first stop is to enjoy the local drink – Phin Sua Da.
Like the streets, this coffee shop is alive. Friendships are enjoyed and business is conducted with a great feeling of happiness and satisfaction for all. You can feel the energy flowing, so I sit for a while to just watch, listen and learn. As I was overcoming my jet lag, I read White House Chief of Staff Kelly’s interview in which he discussed judging historical figures through the lens of today’s insights. This debate is about who we are as a culture, comparing people today versus the reality of our past. General Kelly stated:
“I think we make a mistake, though, as a society and certainly as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say what those, you know, what Christopher Columbus did was wrong, 500 years later. It’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then. I think it is very, very dangerous, and it shows you how much of a lack of appreciation of history, and what history is.”
Drinking my morning coffee, I had to agree with the sentiments he was stating about people’s current values versus those of 100, 200, or 300 years ago. This made sense to me, as who am I to judge my ancestors and the times in which they lived?
Now it was time for me to experience the local cuisine. When I was here before in August, I learned that the food in Vietnam can rival any in the world. It is full of fresh ingredients and different culinary sensations, and is also incredibly healthy.
Years earlier I had decided that I didn’t like Pho, but having experienced it in Vietnam many time, it has become my favorite breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Next I made my way through the streets and discovered a place I had only read and heard of over the years: Hoa Lo Prison. We Americans know it better as the Hanoi Hilton. It was not my intention to go see this place — as was true before, I was attempting to keep the Vietnam war out of my thoughts. I have since learned that this is impossible, and I must accept and learn from that perspective.
I have been aware of this prison since I was a young child in the 1960s. This was where the Vietnamese captured U.S. pilots who had been shot down while bombing the North. It’s where now-Senator John McCain was imprisoned from 1967 until his release in the 1970s. What I didn’t know was that from 1899 to 1954, it was where the French had imprisoned anyone who had a political viewpoint that was contrary to their Colonial rule. It is a horrible place where one can still almost hear the screams from the beatings and feel the anguish of the people who were imprisoned and executed there.
Few things in life can prepare you for stepping through the gates of this prison, and I had the strange experience of having General Kelly’s words ringing in my ears: how do we, in today’s world, judge actions from yesterday? This place was very much alive during my own lifetime. As I learned more about this place that the Vietnamese people had called “Hell on Earth,” I felt the same uneasiness as I had in the concentration camp in Dachau. Questions kept recurring in my head: how could we humans be so cruel to each other? How does one race think themselves superior to another when our chemistry is the same? I have no answers to these questions, only reflections after having been to several such places that were the epicenter of their time. As students of history we can see how seeds were sown for many of the atrocities (and “isms”) of the 19th and 20th centuries, including colonialism, imperialism, militarism, and racism. Whether it was the struggle for self-determination, geopolitical competition, racial or religious animosity, or the battle between the developed world and the ‘undeveloped’ world, the results were painfully alike.
I left the prison much more aware of some of the hows and whys that contributed to this country’s evolution and development since 1975. It didn’t make me discard the stories I’d heard growing up, but gave me a better perspective on the culture I am about to do business with.
The streets were as crazy as before, so I had to learn to be brave and learn how to cross them safely. As I wander, I am fascinated that this central authority, communist nation (complete with red flags, hammers and sickles and statues to Lenin) has developed such an entrepreneurial culture. Business is thriving everywhere, with whole streets dedicated to supporting automobile and motorbike repairs, home improvements, or footwear and apparel. It is truly amazing to see how these shops stretch on for miles (or more appropriately, for kilometers). When I was here in August I learned that only 1% of the country’s retail sales are via e-commerce, which represents $4.9B. This means that over $500B is literally flowing through the streets of Vietnam.
Thoughts of My First Day In Hanoi
What I learned from my first day of walking around Hanoi is this:
- History matters as a basis for understanding a culture. I feel very lucky to have been a few years’ short of having a far different Tour of Duty here. I am eternally grateful that I get to see Vietnam this way as opposed to how many of my friends and family saw it 50 years ago. As an American, I still cannot believe (but am totally thrilled) that I am working in Hanoi. We must understand our past so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the future.
- Go, see and experience the local customs. As I have made my way around Vietnam this year, whether it’s been Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon), the Mekong Delta, Vung Tau, Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, Ha Long Bay or Sapa, I have found this is a country that is rich in culture, friendly in nature, and a great place to visit (and hopefully do business.)
- It takes a while to get into the rhythm. Once you take the time to understand it, you quickly become part of the activity. Vietnam is a country that is constantly in motion. It can be very hard to do things as basic as crossing a street, but once you learn, it comes naturally.
- You have to know the people in order to be successful. In Vietnam, business is thriving and cash is literally flowing through the streets, but grasping the proper way to gain entry into the business climate can be very difficult. You may easily find yourself sitting and wondering why your phone hasn’t rung. I learned to go slow, meet people and develop a proper plan to gain trust and ultimately entry into business.
- The values from home do not necessarily translate into the beliefs where you are working. What we think is important to us may not be to others. Being judgmental of others’ values can be a slippery slope to climb. Granted, things like child labor has no place anywhere in the world, but other areas are just the way they are and you have to get used to it.
- Enjoy your surroundings. The culture, food, coffee, and music are all part of the experience.