Since the dawn of humankind people have been inclined to pass judgement on one another based on very limited information. When you meet someone new, your brain instinctively forms a mental image of that person before you even speak to them. This perception is primarily based on outward appearance. While this phenomenon has evolutionary roots, allowing us to quickly assess whether someone poses a danger, it is still quite rudimentary. Subsequently, most of us have been taught to ‘never judge a book by its cover’.
This notion, however,doesn’t seem to hold true in Vietnam. It would appear that here you are judged based primarily on your appearance and treated accordingly. In business, no one will trust that you are successful or give you the time of day unless you are decked out in Louis Vuitton or Gucci clothes, flaunting a fancy watch and driving a nice Mercedes Benz. The only important metric of success or character for that matter is what people have or appear to have on the outside.
A once poor and humble country of people ravaged by war has given way to a very materialistic society of highly brand-conscious people. Brands are associated with status and here in Vietnam status is everything. A case in point: Vietnam at one time was one of Apple’s fastest-growing markets for iPhones and iPads despite average annual incomes being a little over $2,000. Considering that a new iPhone retails for between $800 and $1000 in Vietnam, it’s not very economical and yet everyone, from businesspeople to teachers and manual laborers, strive to purchase one. Such a luxurious purchase often means making big sacrifices or borrowing money.
If you have the financial resources at your disposal then you have the liberty to splurge. It’s your money. Unfortunately this isn’t the case for most people in Vietnam, and yet the country’s obsession with what’s on the outside compels people to make these choices. Books, or people, are judged by their covers. It’s called ‘si dien’, which is defined as things we have on the outside that makes other people respect us. It’s very important to be aware about this when planning to visit Vietnam and particularly if you’re thinking about working here.
I’ll illustrate the importance with an anecdote. A foreign friend of mine who was working as an English teacher saved up enough money to open a small language centre of his own. Long story short, he was forced to close soon after and was down on his luck. This is when he decided to make a career change and interviewed for a digital marketing director’s job. With the little funds he had left, he went to get a tailored suit, borrowed a friend’s expensive watch, left his rusty motorbike at home, and showed up looking sharp. Despite having no experience or qualifications, he landed the job, paying a six-figure annual salary. ‘Only in Vietnam,’ he said.
John Hung is the author of ‘John đi tìm Hung’ (John finding Hung), an account of his journey through Vietnam in 80 days, equipped with only the bare necessities and no money, relying on the kindness and hospitality of strangers he met along the way.
This obsession with what’s on the outside doesn’t only apply to the business world. If you want to entice or woo a Vietnamese woman then at the very least have an iPhone and brand name clothes and drive something nice, a car if you can afford it but a Honda SH will suffice, and you’ll be sure to catch someone’s eye. If your relationship progresses, the very necessary parental approval of your Vietnamese mate will depend heavily on your appearance and whether they perceive you as a being a good breadwinner.
Of course, not everyone succumbs to si dien but there is a great deal of backlash for those who refuse to partake. They will endure unflattering gossip and rumours from families, friends and neighbours and in some cases will be socially exiled. One is essentially compelled to comply, and while it is unfair, this is Vietnam’s new reality.
This is a new society that has uprooted the once modest people and their humble beginnings. I’ve inquired about the origins of this transformative change but no one seems to know the answer. It’s a chicken-and-egg paradigm. Did Vietnamese tendencies to judge people solely on their outside appearance lead to a materialistic society, or vice-versa? We may never know the answer, but what is certain is that as Vietnam continues to develop and average annual incomes rise, things may only get worse.