Sunday, December 20, 2009

Citizen Diplomats On The Road: From Western Pennsylvania to Vietnam, With Love

J. Ross Stewart, Pittsburgh-born and educated, made a trip to Vietnam from December 3 through 21, 2009, that included meetings with family, friends and business contacts. He was asked to journal his experiences and to provide insight into Vietnamese culture from both a personal and business perspective. Stewart currently serves as a Contracts Administrator for Concurrent Technologies Corporation (CTC) that is headquartered in Johnstown, PA, about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. The views expressed here are his own.

Part I – Journey Over and Arrival
On Dec. 3, I embarked on what would be my seventh trip to Vietnam in five years.

For background, I will tell you a little about me and why I am traveling to Vietnam, and have been traveling so frequently. My wife, Tam Nguyen Stewart, is originally from Vietnam, and since we were married in July 2006 we've made annual trips back to visit with my in-laws who live in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.

These trips have become even more important as we now have an infant daughter who gets to spend more time with her maternal grandparents, and vice versa. We also meet with friends and business contacts on these trips, and are always looking for ways to help build cultural and business bridges between Vietnam and the Greater Pittsburgh region.

I was born in Pittsburgh where my parents were working at the time, my father for Price Waterhouse and my mother as a teacher, and grew up in Johnstown where I currently live and where my parents also grew up. I spent nearly seven years getting my education in Pittsburgh, as well, earning my Bachelor’s Degree and Juris Doctor (law degree) from the University of Pittsburgh. I consider Pittsburgh like my second home.

I will attempt through these blog posts to provide a glimpse of the modern day Vietnam through the eyes of a born-and-raised western Pennsylvanian, and to help readers understand a little bit more about the culture from both a personal and business perspective. While everything is not perfect in Vietnam, and there is still work to be done, there are many positive developments on multiple fronts taking place throughout the country.

Though the trip from Johnstown to Ho Chi Minh City has been long -- 25-plus hours with a very short layover in Washington Dulles and Tokyo Narita airports -- everything has gone smoothly and uneventfully.

It is a treat to arrive at the newer Tan Son Nhat International terminal, and the deplaning, immigration, baggage claim and customs processes are very quick and efficient. Once you pass through customs and proceed out of the terminal on to the street, not only are you greeted by the intense heat which I have heard likened to a blast furnace, something to which those who have labored in our region’s historical basic industries of iron and steel can relate, but you are also greeted with one of your first tastes of Vietnamese culture – the throngs of people who gather at the terminal exit.

At first, you might think that you are being greeted as some sort of rock star or world leader. It is in fact, however, the Vietnamese cultural custom that the entire extended family travels to the airport to greet family members who are arriving for a visit.

When you take the fact that Ho Chi Minh City has a growing population of 8 million people, you soon realize that there are a lot of family members greeting a lot of visiting family members. This crowd at Tan Son Nhat makes a crowded, sunny summer Saturday afternoon in the Strip District in Pittsburgh look like a desolate ghost town.

Of course, my case is no different, as my wife and infant daughter (who traveled over a few weeks before me), as well as my mother-in-law and father-in-law come to greet me upon my arrival. Overall, I will be in Vietnam for a little under three weeks.

It is easy to experience the importance of family and relationships in Vietnam. Taking the time to build relationships is important not just to family life, but also to business in Vietnam and in Asia in general.

Part II – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
In many ways, Ho Chi Minh City is comparable to New York City, from a population of around 8 million, to being divided into “Districts” (like New York City’s five boroughs), and so on.

My in-laws live in District 1, which is the Manhattan, so to speak, of Ho Chi Minh City’s districts. Both of my in-laws are retired C-level executives with Electricity of Vietnam (EVN).

While Ho Chi Minh City is comparable to New York City, it also has the French colonial-era touches of Paris from the city’s layout and design, and colonial-era architecture. The luxury shops of Louis Vuitton and others that line Dong Khoi Street in the heart of District 1 have the feel of a combination of Fifth Avenue in New York City and Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The Protestant Church that we attend while in Ho Chi Minh City is Hoi Thanh Tin Lanh at 155 Tran Hung Dao Street in District 1, which is part of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam. The service for this church is very similar to that of a Baptist church in western Pennsylvania.

What is interesting about this church is that though the service is understandably in Vietnamese, the church also provides a real-time translation of the service into English. The first half-dozen pews on the right-hand side of the sanctuary have headphone jacks for the headphones that a visiting foreigner is provided when they enter the sanctuary.

The service has the feel of both being in church and being in a meeting at the United Nations in New York City. The church is growing both in native Vietnamese and expats, and will soon need to consider adding additional services or building a bigger sanctuary.

I had traded emails with Fred Burke, Managing Partner of the law firm Baker & McKenzie Vietnam before I left for Vietnam, and had planned to meet up with him once in Vietnam. Fred invited me and my wife, Tam, who has a Master’s Degree in International Business from France, and has worked in Europe, Vietnam and the U.S., to attend the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City Chapter Annual Meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 8 at the New World Hotel.

We enjoyed learning more about AmCham Vietnam in the meeting through the Chairman, Tom Seibert’s, presentation, and also had a chance to meet a lot of interesting people. The meeting was attended by a large number of the Board of Governors who represent a Who’s Who among the American business and legal circles in Vietnam. The meeting was also attended by representatives of the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, including Consul General Kenneth Fairfax and Economic Officer Douglas Sonnek.

Fred Burke gave a brief but very interesting overview of the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s “Project 30,” with which Fred is involved as the AmCham Vietnam’s delegate on the Prime Minister’s fifteen-member Advisory Council on Administrative Procedure Reform.

According to briefing materials Fred provided:

“Project 30 is the Prime Minister’s high profile program for the simplification of administrative procedures. Launched in 2007, it is entering its final year, in which the inventory and assessment work already done is intended to produce a dramatic streamlining of the administrative environment. This is intended to reduce red tape, corruption and make Vietnam’s business environment more competitive with its regional and global competitors.

"As far as the business community is concerned, Project 30 depends entirely on the voluntary contributions and lobbying of enterprises like FedEx. With their detailed input on the administrative procedures that hinder their business development, and their constructive suggestions for improvements, Project 30 in and of itself will not address their needs. What Project 30 does is provide an opportunity for interested enterprises to put their suggestions through a mechanism where they will be assured serious consideration.

"Currently, the Prime Minister’s 15 member Advisory Council on Administrative Procedure Reform, on which the American Chamber of Commerce has a delegate, is conducting working group meetings on specific subject matter areas including customs and trade. By October 15th, these working groups will have completed submissions for recommending reforms to several hundred administrative procedures that have been identified as "priority" items for reform. The next round of working group meetings will lead up to a second round of cuts in February, 2010.

"The Project is funded by USAID, among others, and strongly supported by the US Embassy in Hanoi, as well as the Vietnam Competitiveness Institute. The Prime Minister has invested substantial capital in the Project and it is therefore hoped that it will achieve its objectives.”

Part III – Hanoi
If Ho Chi Minh City is the New York City of Vietnam, then Hanoi is the Washington, D.C. in many respects. Not only is Hanoi the capital and therefore the seat of the nation’s government, but it is also considerably smaller than Ho Chi Minh City (a population of around 6.5 million compared to Ho Chi Minh City’s 8 million) and much more a government hub and less a commercial hub, as well.

As we leave Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport, and step out on to the street, you are not met with the relative chaos and crowds that you experience at Tan Son Nhat in Ho Chi Minh City, which is nice. For one thing, the airport is nearly 30 miles outside of Hanoi, which is about twice the distance from Downtown Pittsburgh to Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

As mentioned, the population of Hanoi is significantly smaller than Ho Chi Minh City. Furthermore, it is clear that the culture of northern Vietnam is much more subdued and laid back than the hustle and bustle of the south, especially from a business standpoint.

There were many relatives who came to greet us at the airport, including several aunts, uncles and cousins. We pile into two cars and head to the city for our first night of many gatherings at family homes.

As discussed in earlier, it is easy to see the importance of family and relationships in Vietnam. Taking the time to build relationships is important not just to family life, but also to business in Vietnam and in Asia in general.

One of the chief criticisms against western businesspeople made by their Vietnamese counterparts is the desire of the westerners to meet and get straight to business. In Vietnam, as in Asia in general, it is important to take the time to build personal relationships with the Vietnamese business counterparts. Doing so properly takes a concerted effort of time, resources and multiple visits and meetings in order to cultivate the relationship.

It is clear that Hanoi has work to do to improve its service and business sector to the level of its southern counterpart. One brief example would be an experience we had taxi drivers in Hanoi. While there are some good taxi drivers, there are also laughably (after the fact) bad ones. When we were going to attend services at the landmark Cua Bac (Northern Gate) Church, one of the landmark Catholic churches in Hanoi, we knew the general vicinity where the church was located, but not the exact street or address or how to get to the church.

Of course, we could have looked that information up on the internet, but figured it was not necessary given the landmark nature of the church. It would be like asking a taxi driver in Pittsburgh to take you to the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh campus. The front desk clerk at our hotel recommended a specific taxi company to use, and we did.

When we got into the car, the taxi driver indicated that he knew where the church was and how to get there. Fifteen minutes later, he stopped in the middle of a street with no church in sight, only to indicate in Vietnamese that we were at our desired destination. When my wife pressed him further, he indicated that he did not know where the church was located.

What Hanoi does have in abundance is beautiful vistas, from the serene, peaceful and ancient beauty of Hoan Kiem Lake (despite its downtown location), to further examples of exquisite French colonial architecture such as the Hanoi Opera House.


  1. Great article Ross. I thoroughly enjoy reading about the progress being made in Vietnam. Your trip, both personal and professional, will certainly help to improve our relations with and our impressions of this country. My last experience there was upon our departure from Vietnam in 1975.
    Ron Vickroy
    Associate Professor
    University of Pittsburgh @ Johnstown

  2. A very well written and interesting article Ross! I really enjoyed reading the report as you have included both cultural and business aspects of Vietnam.

    In both of the reports I like the way you compare western Pennsylvania and Vietnam. For instance, comparing New York to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to Washinton, D.C. respectively makes it easier for the reader to put things in perspective.

    Markus Ranta
    Helsinki, Finland


  4. I know nothing at all about South East Asia, so I found this article so very interesting. Vietnam is not a country that is seen very much on British TV and the only impressions I had were from the long ago days of the war there. it seems that things have moved on apace since those days.

    Linda Watson