The speed of 14 and a New Hospitality — My first days in Vietnam

Ben Thanh Market, Saigon

The first days in Vietnam have been a whirlwind, it is difficult to decide where to start. There are many inside jokes among the team and new obsessions, including meat floss (a thing I ate and everyone thought I was crazy, but is just soy sauce drenched dried pork).

The thing that I have found most fascinating is watching all the cultures come together and listening to how different people see different things. The first day, 13/14 of us had landed and we walked around Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City Centre). As an American who is used to traveling at the speed of light, it was tough for me to have to wait to come to a group consensus around what we were going to see. We also stopped for coffee which of course took over an hour… I’m constantly reminding myself to slow down and take it all in.

It seems quite appropriate because relationship building in Vietnam is critical to get any work done. We were told before we arrived that what people say is not always what they mean. For example, if they say yes to an invitation, it is only maybe and if they say maybe there is almost no chance they will show up. By not doing all the sight-seeing, I’m finding that I am instead getting to know the people around me better than I do on most trips (since most of the time I am already very familiar with the people I am around). I see strong parallels between this and my photography where I am moving from being shy taking pictures of people and taking thousands of landscapes to hardly taking any photos without people in it.

Sunday night, we had dinner to meet with our clients for the first time and build the relationship with them. It was a formal dinner and there were about 30–40 people there. This is where it was hard to determine who was the host and who was trying to make the other feel more comfortable. We scattered clients, translators, and IBMers and there seemed to be lively conversation across the entire table. Instead of the IBM or ABV (Australian Business Volunteers — the organization that assists IBM for the CSC program) giving a speech and being seen as the host, the most senior man from one of our clients was clearly in charge of the dinner.

Gender norms here are different than in the US. For example, while drinking was a large part of the bonding experience for the men, it was extremely optional for the women. As a woman, I was not even offered a beer and had to ask for it separately (it took me 20 minutes to get up the courage to ask if it was OK to have a beer). The men, meanwhile were constantly being challenged with a Vietnamese cheers that roughly translates to “Bottoms up!” When my beer was gone, I was casually switched to water while Tommi, my IBM team member from Finland, could not get his drink below half-way before someone would fill it back up for him.

Kevin is challenged to drink

After dinner, the team all met in our team room to put together a profile to present to the clients at the kickoff in the morning. It was the most relaxed atmosphere yet. We are getting to know each other’s personalities and what jokes seem to stick and who to tease. It was fun reflecting on the dinner together and listening to Claudio, my IBM team member from Munich, explain how he got in trouble with the cheers and ended up with 12B beers (they don’t have a 13th floor here, it is instead 12A and 12B).

Overall, this trip has been interesting because my previous trips to Asia I have lived out of a backpack and had to worry about things that are not a reality when traveling as a business person. For example, everyone looks nice all the time and shorts seem to be appropriate for women whereas these are things I have avoided in my previous travels. Also, the bathrooms have been superb quality, I’m sure I’ll find one more reminiscent of what I am used to in Asia.

I’m excited to dive into my project more, it doesn’t even feel like work trying to figure out how to apply Design Thinking and UX methodologies to the University and I really like my team, including our business minded translator.

Our hotel is lovely, I have an amazing studio hotel room on the 18th floor. It has quite the view and I’ve put some photos from home on the wall so that I feel quite at home. I’ll write another update about my first few days with the client when I have a moment. They are definitely keeping us busy!

The view from my balcony. Hopefully I get to spend some time out here!
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