Elijah Ferrian explores the apparent stereotype that Vietnam hosts bad service, and speaks with foreigners and locals to attempt to understand the root cause, and potential solutions in a nation growing quickly, with lofty expectations. Photos by Vinh Dao.
People love to complain all over the world. We complain about the weather, our jobs, significant others, and anything that happens to be grating on our wellbeing. One complaint in Ho Chi Minh City that seems to come up in expat conversation, and especially so online, is the apparent poor state of hospitality in Vietnam.
I come from a hospitality background. I spent over six years in the food and beverage industry in the United States. I’ve worked at establishments that will remain buried deep in my personal shame corner of memory, all the way up to fine, superbly run restaurants accruing James Beard award wins (an American institution rewarding culinary excellence) and visits from President Obama himself. I’ve directly experienced and been a part of a service culture that defines itself by an attention to serious customer care.
It seems to me, and many other folks involved in hospitality industries all over Saigon, that the droning complaints about lack of service here in Vietnam are generally unfounded, and usually predicated on misinformation, or a lack of cultural understanding.
Does Vietnam suffer from bad service? Or are people from all over the world projecting their culture and expectations onto their waitresses, baristas, and hotel concierges?
The Facts of the Matter
Martijn Vermaire is co-owner of Cafe Restaurant Ho Chi Minh City. He has a degree from Maastricht in Holland in Hospitality and Hotel Management, and is invested just as much as anyone in experiencing and doing his best to provide high-level service in this city.
When I asked him why I continue to read and hear about the complaints of low-level service in Saigon, he had a lot to say.
“I think people like to focus on negatives because it’s easier than focussing on the good,” Vermaire says. “If you look around and compare Vietnam on a global scale, the world’s best hotel is in Hanoi, and of course that’s debatable, but If all those travellers seem to think so, then what does that tell you? Asia’s best resort is the Intercontinental in Danang. I worked there. Even if you’re just looking at hotels, Vietnam is really catching up. This country is a leader in Asia for service.”
He’s correct in his assessment. The Intercontinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort was named by the World Travel Awards as Asia’s leading luxury resort in 2016. They have won the award for three years in a row.
In TripAdvisor’s list of the “Top 25 Hotels – World” category, the Hanoi La Siesta Hotel and Spa is listed at number four. TripAdvisor is hands-down the most used service review site in Vietnam. The feedback received on respective business’ pages can make or break them. This is a pretty glowing statement from the aggregate site.
It’s not just hotels and resorts that are leading the charge in great service, either.
According to Vermaire: “If you’re here often, you notice a lot of things that travellers don’t get to see. With the right training the service can be the best here. Look at what Noir is doing. They have a phenomenal programme, training blind people for an exceptional service experience, and they are one of the top restaurants right now. Nobody can beat them. It’s impressive.”
Vermaire continues, “The guys who started Quan Ut Ut, and Biacraft – great service. Workshop has one of the best coffees in Asia. Go to Quan Bui, a Vietnamese owned brand, and he has some of the best service. He even manages to keep it homey.”
If everything is going so well for service-based industries in Vietnam, then what exactly is the issue?
Peruse the popular expat community groups on Facebook and review aggregates like Foodie, FourSquare, and TripAdvisor and you’ll find a lot of mudslinging.
There’s the guy complaining about being brought the wrong item from his server after clearly requesting the item on the English language menu. The Facebook trolls blaming everything about their bad day on “vinalogic”. Scathing reviews on Vietnammm about how inconvenienced someone was by a late delivery, seemingly ignorant at the convenience afforded to foreigners here having to literally never leave their apartment and have all goods delivered to them on the cheap. There are countless more examples that range from petty, to embarrassing.
These online groups and review sites quickly turn into negativity dens for people to slag off staff, prices, cultural differences, and general lack of expectations being met. Are these all cases of people being overly critical and entitled? Or are there some truths to be dug out?
For most of the people I have discussed this issue with, it seems to be a lopsided portion of both. One thing is always brought up, however.
Language and assimilation to Vietnamese culture.
Richie Fawcett is the bar manager of Shri Restaurant and Lounge, and he has been working hands-on with Vietnamese staff in hospitality for the past five years.
“At the end of the day, the Vietnamese are naturally hospitable people,” Richie says. “With the natural hospitality comes the warm welcome. When it comes down to particularly language lost in translation, there’s the preconception on the side of the foreigner, going to an ‘international establishment’, that one’s cultural expectations should be as high as if you were in your own country. When mistakes are made we are quick to fault the operator, or the people they hired.”
Is that the right way to go about it? Should we be taking into account more how we foreigners generally don’t know more than a few helpful phrases in Vietnamese? That when you bellow out “em oi!” at the older gentleman serving up noodle soup on the sidewalk that other Vietnamese people are cringing, wishing that you knew enough of their culture to be able to address him with the appropriate “chu”, depending on the circumstances? Believe you me, there are so many circumstantial factors affecting the right or wrong way to handle oneself within Vietnamese customs and language – it can be confusing.
But is that an adequate excuse?
Everyone has their opinion, but a lot of the conflicts concerning the concept of receiving poor service in Vietnam compared to other countries seems to be frequently based in cultural differences, and a lack of understanding.
Locals Weighing In
Globalisation is changing everything rapidly. The Saigon of old is barely recognisable from just a few years ago amongst the breakneck speed of development. This isn’t only measured in cranes and bulldozers toiling away day in and out, but also in the exposure the local population now has to cultures from all over the world.
Luu Hy Thanh, or by his western name “Jerry”, is a restaurant manager at Stoker on Mac Thi Buoi. He has a phenomenal way with guests, and seems to deal with every travelling culture imaginable. He’s familiar with the hang-ups that are front-and-center when doing service work in Saigon.
“I’ve been working hospitality for seven years. I know all of the tricky situations, and I don’t want to make a problem for guests. My job is to help people enjoy their experience.”
Thanh continues. “In Saigon, just like New York, London, many people are coming over here. We are a young city. Only around 50 years old, and this new stage we are in is even younger. We love Western style, and we love learning about the way an American, or Australian wants the staff to make their favorite cocktail. It’s exciting, but people have to remember that we have our culture too.”
Many local Vietnamese feel that they are looked down upon by travellers and expats, especially when working in service jobs. Not only is there the stigma that comes with being defined as a wait staff in a busy restaurant, but this is exacerbated when a language barrier is keeping two parties in a semi-state of confusion when trying to communicate. This causes stress on both sides. Often this stress gets taken out on the closest person with any accountability.
For some reason, because of this barrier, it seems that people think it’s okay to deal with difficult situations in a manner in which they probably wouldn’t in their home nation, where equal footing in language and cultural sensitivity usually leads to respectful conflict resolution.
With thousands of young Vietnamese studying and traveling abroad, and the internet in the palm of most everyone’s hand, cultural differences are not what they once were.
For Nam Tran, brand ambassador for The Macallan whisky, the language and cultural barriers have always been the primary source of contention when it comes to hospitality.
“I worked for Hyatt for three years,” Nam says. “Based on my experience, I have traveled to many other countries, and in Saigon you get a better welcome than most anywhere. We offer very good service, smiling, warm eyes. I think that many foreigners [tend to] get away with asking more than what is standard in their own country. Whenever you come to Vietnam you can compare the price point, and most of the time service here exceeds the price point. We are just as good at hospitality, and serve the same product at a cheaper price.”
Richie Fawcett bolsters this idea: “People need to eat. The servers are eating to live. The foodies are living to eat. The gulf between the workers and the clientele here is so huge.
When you’re at the Park Hyatt eating steak, you’re probably getting served by a kid from the countryside providing money for his whole family back home. You have to think of this aspect.”
The entitlement us Westerners tend to have often shrouds us in our own little bubble of ignorance, and in the worst cases, arrogance. There aren’t many other places other than Saigon where there’s such a contrast between the center of the city, and just 20 kilometers away from it. The countryside comes in with droves of young hopefuls looking to make a better life for themselves, but the urban culture never really escapes the city’s limits.
“More often than not guests are caught misbehaving, not the staff,” Fawcett says. “They start to think that they can behave however they want. Sure, staff can be caught staring at their phones or talking when they shouldn’t be, but they’re usually young and learning the ins and outs of what good service looks like to a Westerner. We are a guest in their country, and with the privilege that many of us come from in our home nations, what is our excuse for our bad behaviour?”
What is the solution to expecting the finest service from a young working class, but expecting to mostly, if not only, interact in an English linguistic arena? Perhaps a study up on local customs and language is in order.
Small Steps to Big Solutions
Perhaps hospitality, and the expectation of a high level of service, is but a microcosm running within a much larger thread weaving through today’s globalised society.
Two friends I met at Thu Vien library, Tran Thao, a freelance writer, and Le Dung, a freelance YouTuber producing content on his culturally-focussed channel Saigon Jam, are two locals that have a no-brainer solution to these conflicts.
“Tell people where you come from,” Dung and Tran say together. “Then we have the opportunity, based on our experiences with people from around the world, to know exactly how to treat you based on your culture. If you can use some Vietnamese while communicating, that goes a long way. People respect that. You may be surprised how far a simple “xin chao” or “lam on” can get you with locals.”
The next time there’s a misunderstanding at your favourite restaurant, or you have a bad experience with your nightly delivery driver, try to put things into perspective, and speak your mind respectfully. Proper communication can usually solve any problem.
A bit of goofy pantomiming and broken English back-and-forth can be a much more valuable learning experience for both parties involved, rather than a passive aggressive rant on the internet. We’re all in this together, and we reap what we sow.