A brain drain in reverse part II: Viet Kieu in the workplace

Returning Viet Kieu are using their skills and experience to boost Vietnam’s economy. Experts explain why entering the workplace can be challenging for them.

By John Pennington

Overseas Vietnamese, or Viet Kieu, are returning to Vietnam to live and work in vast numbers. Having grown up in the US or Europe, they bring with them knowledge, skills and expertise, all of which they put to good use for the benefit of business in Vietnam.

The government has actively encouraged them to return, offering them incentives and tax breaks. So far, so good; as the Viet Kieu keep coming, so gross domestic product (GDP) continues to grow in the country. The trend is set to continue.

The Viet Kieu bring with them many vital skills

Viet Kieu are often referred to as critical links between Asia and the West. “You hear this analogy time and time again, and with good reason,” Mimi Vu, Director of Advocacy & Partnerships at Pacific Links Foundation, a non-profit organisation, told ASEAN Today. “Viet Kieu are the bridge between east and west.”


Mimi Vu, Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships from Pacific Links Foundation, Vietnam shared her works on human trafficking in the region at the 7th University Scholars Leadership Symposium in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Photo Credit: YouTube/Screengrab

Being able to speak both English and Vietnamese offers them opportunities to work with both Vietnamese and Western companies. Their experience of working in different cultures is also valuable. Binh Tran, General Partner at 500 Startups Vietnam, told ASEAN Today that Viet Kieu bring “global cultural perspectives, knowledge of modern product development design and processes as well as a better understanding of capital options” to the tech industry.

Tra Tran, International Candidate Manager at the Come Home Phở Good campaign, was equally clear. “Returning Vietnamese professionals with technical capabilities combined with international experience in established overseas markets will have an added advantage,” he said.

However, they face challenges when working in Vietnam

Nevertheless, despite their expertise and experience, it can take time for Viet Kieu to get used to working in Vietnam. One of the biggest challenges they face is the Vietnamese workplace. It is very different from what they may have experienced elsewhere.

“Viet Kieu may have a hard time wrapping their heads around the Vietnam-style way of thinking, the social and organisational hierarchy, the in-group mentality,” Eddie Thai, General Partner at 500 Startups Vietnam told ASEAN Today. In Vietnam, business generally has a top-down, hierarchical structure and workers defer to managers.

Mimi expanded on the cultural differences between native Vietnamese and Viet Kieu. “Viet Kieu culture and local Vietnamese culture have also evolved away from each other in certain aspects, and as Viet Kieu, we also are used to ‘overseas’ ways of working, thinking, and living,” she said. “There is a bit of a culture shock and frustration in trying to navigate a working relationship where you both mostly speak the same language and have a similar culture, but there are enough differences that each side could be interpreted (in a negative way) as being ‘so foreign’ or ‘so Vietnamese’.”

Things are improving, and workers are meeting the challenges

Over time, the situation has got better. “As Viet Kieu stay longer in Vietnam, learn the language and adapt to life, and as local Vietnamese travel more, have more and deeper interactions with Viet Kieu and foreigners, both sides are able to understand each other better,” Mimi explained. “It’s not a smooth transition but an overall positive development nonetheless,” she added.

Tra agrees. “It’s getting better now, I think. The population of returned Vietnamese in the workplace is no longer a small number, and because Vietnam is growing globally, the local Vietnamese workers have more chance to work with people out of the country, and they wouldn’t have much problem working with returned Vietnamese.”

Despite the challenges, the Viet Kieu’s impact is overwhelmingly positive

The experts who spoke to us agree that returning overseas Vietnamese are having a positive effect on both the workplace and the country’s economy. It is encouraging that cultural differences are not holding back progress. The more people that return, the smaller the impact those differences will have.

For this to continue, both Tra and Eddie believe collaboration will become more important. “Overseas Vietnamese have an advantage of international mindset, good language skills and also some understanding about the Vietnamese cultures,” Tra said. “However, they still need the local Vietnamese to help them how to apply all those international skill set [sic] and customise it to work in Vietnam.”

Eddie added: “Viet Kieu, due to preconceptions, may believe that locals are lacking in work ethics and transparency. Locals often see Viet Kieu as foreign and ignorant of local norms. It requires open communication and mission alignment on both parts to overcome these challenges.”

What will the future hold?

With the government actively encouraging Viet Kieu to return, it is likely that more will do so. Tra explains that as well as the government encouraging people back, there are other factors which suggest the trend will continue. “It will increase for sure,” he predicted. “As a key emerging economy, many multinational organisations are establishing a presence in Vietnam. This brings with it increasing opportunities which has resulted in a high demand for talent.”

Mimi is optimistic that the returning Viet Kieu will continue to work well alongside their Vietnamese colleagues, and everybody can benefit. “I hope things continue to improve,” she said. “It’s sometimes a case of two steps forward, five steps back, especially with the laws governing non-profits in Vietnam, but hopefully the government continues to understand that we’re just here to help. We love our culture, our people, no matter where they are in the world.”