The Tao of Vietnamese Selling

Tony Hughes

The Tao of Vietnamese Selling

I write this at 30,000 feet heading back to Sydney from Vietnam. I've had two weeks with my family on a wonderful vacation. What an amazing country with beautiful people. Vietnam is a nation with an incredible past - relentless war and bombing by the French, Chinese, Japanese and the Americans (with Australia). They secured their independence about 40 years ago but almost three times more bombs were dropped on Indochina (Vietnam , Laos and Cambodia) in the 60's and 70's than during all of World War II. Millions dead, millions more suffering from post war land mine explosions, Agent Orange poisoning, cancer and birth defects - it's still leaking into their ground water supplies near multiple ex-US Air Force bases. Kudos to Hillary Clinton for visiting and driving support to clean it up.

They have a form of communist capitalism that works well for them. They vote, freely surf the internet, can own real estate and go into business. There is a huge middle class and they have a safe and peaceful society - all religions are accepted so long as they are not violent or seek to meddle in affairs of state. Their only blight is corruption.

The central government in North Vietnam has sought to revise history and all the guides in Hanoi were very keen to educate us about "The American War." We visited the 'Hanoi Hilton' prison where US airmen were kept prisoner until the end of the war in the mid 1970's. Early in my selling career in the 1980's I'd seen Captain Gerald Coffee speak at a conference and I bought his book and tapes - he is an inspiration. He was flying a reconnaissance mission from the Kittyhawk and was shot down. He managed to survive in a tiny concrete cell barely big enough to lay straight. To see the prison he had been kept in was sobering. I also saw photos of John McCain when he was captured, imprisoned and then of him returning many years later as a 'tourist'. Vietnam and the USA are now friends despite the horrendous atrocities and carnage of the past - the world changes.

Here's what a learned in the land where traffic lights are mere suggestions and the road extends to embrace all of the footpath; where lane markings serve as runway centre-lines for drivers to straddle; where riders don't look as they enter traffic, where the horn is used for Morse code rather than abuse. Where an elegant chaos seems to just work - everyone assertively pushing in and taking the path of least resistance while avoiding collisions. Crossing the road as a pedestrian was always an adventure - just step out in faith, advancing with predicable cadence, never taking a backward step and never running - everyone on wheels seems to avoid killing you; amazing. Boarding a plane is a similar experience... I think everyone is worried the plane will depart without them or that someone will steal their seat.

There were not many dogs and I they never chase cars or show aggression to humans; they instead just look nervous - dinner maybe. Much like the New Zealand farmer's favourite sheep - same-same, different. I think only Kiwis will get the joke. I eventually worked-up the courage to go and get a massage to deal with a neck and back that spends too much time with my computer. I seek inflicted pain rather than a happy ending but communication is always a challenge in Asian countries. Vietnam is a moral place; I need not have been concerned. No overt prostitution or immorality anywhere. This is a family destination and highly recommended. It's especially a 'must see' for Western first-world teenagers to understand the evils of war and the power of a forward-looking demeanour - no hatred, no bitterness, just tolerance. But they never forget their past; their nationhood came at a price possibly higher than any other nation on the face of the planet.

It's the people that define the experience in visiting any destination. Sandy beaches with resorts are a dime a dozen all over the world, Vietnam included. Differentiation is all about the experience created for customers through people. Here is what I learned about the Tao (way) of selling in Vietnam.

Mash-ups rule. They embrace all religions with harmony and everyone is free to practice their faith without restriction. The only thing they do not tolerate is any religion with violent intolerance. They've also blended communism with capitalism but with far greater freedom than China and with local representatives elected through open and ethical voting. Social Selling 3.0 is all about mash-ups, taking the best within your own meta-framework for selling.

Same, same, different. They know they need to differentiate and it's incredibly difficult in a market where everyone seems to be selling the same stuff. They do their best with how they sell rather than what they sell. This is another important ingredient for the best sellers in the west - focus on how you sell rather that what you sell. Leading with insight, building trust and creating value remain important for winning in competitive markets.

Build a relationship. Vietnam is filled with push sellers. Everywhere you go you are confronted or coerced. The smartest sellers however engage you in conversation to build rapport. Relationships are the basis of all sales success - we buy from those we like and trust.

Provide value. On several occasions people started offering assistance with directions and provide helpful advice. You feel obligated to buy something when they've helped you. In Social Selling 3.0, quality content is king, queen, president and prime minister. Provide insight and helpful information; be a thought leader and people will come to you. At the very least they will respond to your approach once they've done their homework on you.

Genuine service. A genuine smile and sincere friendliness goes a long way and in Vietnam a tip is usually not expected. Be wholeheartedly generous of spirit in how you serve others - they will notice and show their appreciation.

Impeccable manners. Politeness overcomes language barriers and often manners serve as the best communication. We know what please and thank you are even when we don't know the language - good manners is the beginning of overcoming any cultural difference. We should show good manners when we engage in social; don't let volume kill quality or shorthand create the wrong impression. Never forget the importance of old school as you engage in new school mediums.

Provide a great experience. Our tour operator was focused on providing a customer experience that created wonderful memories. They confirmed every pick-up and flight and removed any uncertainty or stress. We all need to focus on the customer experience rather than ourselves and what we do. We need to obsess about their needs and timing rather than our own.

Have a world-view that creates a successful life. My sister and her husband happened to be holidaying in Indochina around the same time as us and in e-mail exchanges we both commented on how happy people can be with so little. Western society can learn much from the east concerning contentment. She shared with me the seven rules for a happy life that their guide bestowed upon them:

  1. Never hate
  2. Don't worry
  3. Live simple
  4. Expect a little
  5. Give a lot
  6. Always smile
  7. Have good friends

Thanks Tracy Hughes for contribution.


Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at or his sales methodology website at

Main image photo by Flickr: Lucas Jans


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