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Vietnamese’s bad habits: Never sticking to the plan

Sunday, April 13, 2014, 17:06 GMT+7

Editor’s Note: Stivi Cooke is an Australian expat based in Hoi An City in central Vietnam. He is working as an English language and hospitality teacher in the city.

Bad habits in Vietnam huh? We could be here all day talking about this one! Hmm… Picking your nose in public? Especially if you work in a restaurant? Nah – that’s being covered. Men peeing in the street in full view of the public? Ha! Must have been mentioned before! Loud music? Throwing stuff on the floor in a Vietnamese restaurant? I really don’t know where to start…

Oh, yes I do! Sticking to a plan! Time is a good example. I used to tell people to come to my office at 10:00 am, only to find myself waiting in total confusion for up to an hour and sometimes more.

If I said 10:00 am – Vietnamese will leave their houses around 10-‘ish’ and turn up with ten minutes before lunch which starts at 11:30 am, depending on the road conditions, whether they’ve read and replied to all their emails and texts or have planned to go to the market and visit seven friends recovering from motorbike accidents in hospital. Equally likely is a 7:00 am BAM-BAM on my door by someone who’s climbed over my fence to see me.

Now, a Westerner will get ready around 9:00 am, make sure everything has been done, and give himself plenty of time to arrive early. For us, a plan is a PLAN. Agreed to, signed in blood, never to be broken or changed without asking the other party first. Here – forget it.

Building a house is another great example. Months of patiently drawing the designs with the Vietnamese architect who may or may not have a clue what you want. The doors go HERE. The light switches go THERE. Haha… Good luck with that!

Unless you are literally on the site at dawn every day, anything can happen. One of my friends built a hotel with an open floor plan only to have the builders decide to include a water feature smack bang in the middle of the bar area!

Another friend was gobsmacked to discover that a decorative ‘central pillar’ had been constructed in the middle of his living room, making it almost impossible to move around freely.

Even in my own home, where I have lived for barely five years, the power switch, hot water switch and water pump switch are in three different corners of the room, meaning I have to walk in silly circles every time I want a shower! It does not matter that it’s our money or time that’s been wasted and it’s near-impossible to get any compensation after the event. A contract is not a contract – it is a work in progress, subject to changes at any moment. A verbal agreement is a fool’s dream and a meeting without note-taking is a disaster waiting to happen.

There have been times when I had to abandon teaching projects because the local managers decided to change timetables into impossible schedules. Why? The timetables didn’t suit them but no new plan was drawn up.

Again – a plan is a plan – stick to it. The Vietnamese are learning the hard and very expensive way that dozens of resort projects that are now way overdue for completion, or even commencement, and ridiculously underfunded never had any real plan to begin with.

Even worse, many projects clash with one another once finished quickly because the plans never included any thoughts of consequences, a concept so alien to many Vietnamese that it deserves a whole article of its own.

Study plans are an awesome example. Let’s agree to learn for three months. By the second month, a third of the class discovers it doesn’t have the budget to continue, another third realizes they can’t learn English fluently in twelve weeks, and the remaining third are what I call ‘the successful generation’ – those who will stick to the plan no matter how hard it is.

Yet the excuses can be quite entertaining. “I thought it would look better this way.” Really? Can I now change your house too? “Teacher, I was tired.” Is that so? I saw you drinking in the coffee shop until 1:00 am. “My grandfather died.” Come on, he’s died three times this year, you’d better pick another relative to blame. “We need the classroom for our meetings.” Nup! You only meet twice a month to listen to a boring two-hour lecture from the boss… Sheesh!

Will it ever change? Sure. The more savvy young Vietnamese entrepreneurs now working with foreigners are discovering and learning rapidly the benefits of keeping to a plan or agreement. Young women in the hospitality workforce are often on time and keep to the plans for study.

Even for working class Vietnamese – they are learning that they have to stick to the plan to beat their competition or get things done in an economy that now depends on speed of transport and construction to grow. My neighbors are discovering they have to book sand deliveries on particular days now because the market is bigger and busier than ever before.

So, the next time someone is late – it’s your fault and you can meet me at the beach – I changed my plans…

Topic for discussion: Is it hard to kick Vietnamese’s bad habits?

As an expat or a foreign tourist to Vietnam, have you ever noticed any bad habits of local people? What should and shouldn’t Vietnamese do in public areas? Please send your story to us at:

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Stivi Cooke


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