Friday, 27 March 2009

Daam bee-uht Vietnam

This will be my last blog entry as I’m due to fly back to the UK tomorrow.

We left Hai Phong earlier today after a flurry of photographs, waving and good byes from our interpreters, VCCI and some of our clients. A couple of hours later Debbie and I hit the shops in Hanoi ready to spend our last few Vietnamese Dong on silks, linen, tapestries and ornaments to take home with us.

It’s very sad to be leaving Vietnam and everybody we’ve met and worked with during our time here. I wanted to thank you (sounds like calm urn) for reading my blog and I hope that those of you who have become regular readers have enjoyed the experience of my assignment as much as I have. My intention was to use this to share the ups and downs as well as the things I have learned, and the funny and challenging things that have happened over the past month. I hope that I have managed to do this accurately, without inadvertently causing offence.

The next thing for me to do now is to reintroduce myself to Pete and start finalising the plans for our wedding in a month’s time!

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Cut! Take 2 - Interview with Mr Dung

Today was my final day on client site and since Mr Dung had decided that we should finish the video interview we had started earlier on in the week, that is what we spent most of the day doing.

Once arriving on site, Mr Dung announced that he was off to get changed into a suit and tie (minus shoes) for the interview. I was not expecting for this activity to turn into something quite so formal but he was obviously a man on a mission and I let him do what he needed to do. We congregated in his office, where he sat behind his desk (and computer) and began the filming. He’s got quite a quiet voice and the microphone on the camera was struggling to pick it up over the sound of cutting steel. We overcame this by using the karaoke microphones (the same microphones we had used during our midmorning karaoke session the other week) to amplify the sound. It gets more bizarre and I was starting to wonder why I had even suggested such an activity when we’d experienced so many challenges with communication already. After seeing himself sat behind his desk, he decided he wanted to be filmed standing up, but I think his nerves got the better of him and we all collapsed into a fit of giggles while he tried to answer the 3 questions I had asked my interpreter to translate. An hour and about 6 takes later, he was still not satisfied and so he decided we should have a break for coffee.

We congregated in his office again after lunch, minus the suit jacket and tie (thankfully), but this time armed with queue cards. He had obviously spent his lunch break preparing. A dozen takes later, we finished the day with a 4min interview, which I will be editing and adding subtitles to over the next few weeks. The amount of time we spent on this today, anybody would think that it was going to be shown on the BBC or CNN, rather than used for internal IBM communications purposes. The interview itself is ok, but the out cuts are a better representation of the client I have worked with over the past 4 weeks - shyness, smiles and lots of giggling.

The rest of the afternoon was spent taking lots of photos and saying my good byes (sounds like daam bee-uht) to everyone, from the accounts team to the foreman and Mr Dung’s family. I’m quite sad to be leaving them as I’ve had such a wonderful experience working here despite some of the challenges we have faced. Tomorrow, the other IBMers and I return to Hanoi for our final day together as a team, before everyone starts heading off in separate directions. As my trip to Vietnam isn't officially over until I board the plane home on Saturday, I will save my final blog until tomorrow as a lot can happen in a day, especially as it sounds as though we may be getting a bit of a send off in the morning.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

News update: Food poisoning

Just a quick blog update, to thank everyone for their email messages of concern. I'm pleased to report that, thankfully, I am feeling a lot better today :)

I can't believe that this is our last day with our clients. It has passed so quickly.

Hosts with the mosts and food poisoning

Yesterday we hosted a thank you dinner for VCCI and our interpreters. As is customary in these situations we had sent an official invitation to the Director of VCCI at the end of last week, and weren’t certain how many people would attend. In Vietnam, it is not unusual for people to turn up to an event that they have not necessarily been invited to. I’m hoping this doesn’t happen at the wedding as we’ve already submitted the final numbers to the venue! ;-) We’ve experienced plenty of examples of this ourselves, where we’ve been invited to attend an event by a friend of a friend of a friend, and last night was our turn to demonstrate our thanks for the hospitality we have been shown during our stay in Vietnam.

It seemed to be going well, until about half way through the meal, I suddenly didn’t feel so great. I’ll spare you the details, but it seems I’m suffering from a little bit of food poisoning. You’ll be pleased to know that I didn’t embarrass myself or the team and managed to remain relatively composed throughout the remainder of the meal and the photos (!), despite turning a progressive shade of green. It must be payback for all the food I’ve been troughing recently! My Vietnamese phrase of the day is an important one in these sorts of situations toy naw lamb, meaning I am full. As a result I’m spending today confined to the air conditioned (important when it’s 100% humidity and you’re not feeling very well) hotel armed with rehydration powder and bottles of water. I can’t believe this has happened on the second last day of my assignment. Hopefully, whatever I have will have passed by tomorrow so that I can enjoy my last day with the client.

Monday, 23 March 2009

And the Oscar goes to....

After such a relaxing weekend, I think we all struggled to get up for work this morning. We’ve only got 3 working days left with our clients and so we’re spending this week tying up lose ends and wrapping up our assignments. I delivered the stock/inventory management training, with the help of my interpreter, and they seemed to like what they saw and were able to practice with the tool. Fingers crossed, I’ll get to see it in full use before I leave Hai Phong on Friday.

I had also asked Mr Dung, at the end of last week, whether he would be prepared to give an interview about the work we had been doing, for internal IBM communication purposes. He enthusiastically agreed and armed with a video camera we had our first attempt this afternoon. With communication being one of the main challenges we have faced during our time here, this seemingly easy task was not as straight forward as I had initially hoped. The accountants decided that, since they had never used a video camera before, they wanted to be in charge of the filming and I was promptly told, that even though my interpreter was asking the pre-prepared questions, I should sit next to Mr Dung during the interview (it seems these ladies could be quite assertive when they want to be). My interpreter and I are still trying to decide whether we should have a voice over in English or subtitles but the wobbly nature of the filming would give anybody sea sickness. So we’ve decided to have another attempt tomorrow but needless to say, I don’t think we’ll be winning any Oscars ;-)

My accountant friend also decided that today I should learn how to introduce myself in a work environment, so with that in mind my Vietnamese phrases of the day are: I work for IBM which sounds like toy lamb (tone going down) veea (tone going down) chaw IBM and toy laa (tone going down) neeyaa tuu (tone going up) vun (tone going up), which means I am a consultant.

If you haven’t seen this yet, here’s a link to a recent article about the IBM CSC program in Business Week:

Sunday, 22 March 2009

A bit of R&R

We spent a very relaxing weekend on a boat in Ha Long bay, away from Hai Phong, our clients and most importantly our computers.

Saturday afternoon was spent on the boat chilling out and admiring the scenery (I actually managed to start one of the 4 books I had brought with me and hadn’t had a chance yet to read) before we climbed the 400+ steps, in 100% humidity, to the top of Titop Island where we got beautiful (sounds like sing guy – tone going up) views over the bay.

We spent a lovely evening on our private boat named the Little Dragon (after the local legend of a dragon which descended from the mountains and carved out the 3000 islands which make up the bay) before visiting Hang Sung Sot cave and a floating village on Sunday morning.
I think we were all in need of some down time, ready for our final week in Hai Phong.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Contrasting family businesses in a rapidly growing economy

Every day we have spent in Vietnam has been different and today was no exception. Arjan joined me on client site today at the request of Mr Dung, with the intention of discussing computer aided design tools, to help them design their steel products, while I was intending to deliver the stock management training to the team. As it turned out those requiring the training were unavailable and Mr Dung had completely underestimated how complex some of the CAD programs available are, and considering he only started using his computer last week, I think he quickly realised that he needed to learn to walk before he could run.

So, instead Mr Dung and I, with the aid of the interpreters, showed Arjan around the site. He got to see the order schedule, which has now been put in place and is being used by the foreman, as well as the different types of steel in stock, waiting to be used to produce a customer order.
It rained, sounds like choy daang muar (tone going down), and after lunch and lots of photos (the accounts team wanted to have their photograph taken with the Dutch giant), Mr Dung took us to visit the company of his eldest brother. This is the 4th of the family businesses I have visited (my client’s steel company, his brother’s steel company, his sister’s new steel trading company and now the eldest brother’s electronics company) and it has been very interesting to observe the stark contrasts in size as well as business and technological maturity of each of these companies and the family dynamic between the siblings (it is very hierarchical and you could definitely tell that my client was the youngest of the 6 siblings).

The eldest brother has over 16 years of experience in the electronics industry, firstly in a government owned company and now with his own. He has travelled extensively outside of Vietnam, in Europe, US and other parts of Asia, and interestingly understands and speaks English but chose not to (whether that is related to status or confidence, I’m not sure). His electronics company is less than 4 years old, has almost 600 staff and is one of the 500 largest companies in Vietnam (as we discovered when we saw the certificate on the boardroom wall). His company currently has a startling 70% share of the electronics market in Hai Phong and is expanding rapidly across Vietnam. Their offices have a spectacular view across Hai Phong city and have better facilities than some IBM sites I’ve been to.

This contrast is evident throughout Hai Phong, and Vietnam, as the economy continues to expand rapidly. Family run businesses range from small street stalls to large corporations, I just hadn’t expected to see such a vast difference between two companies within the same family.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Stock management and spring rolls

We've made a lot of progress this week at the client. The excel training for the accounts team is now complete, the order schedule is being used by the site foreman, and I have also identified another area of the business which we can help them with – stock management.

I discovered that they have no current process for managing or recording (paper or otherwise) the amount of raw material e.g. steel, which they have in stock. They are also not fully sure how much material they receive from their suppliers as every 'package' (as they describe it) of steel is different in terms of size, weight and content. They just go to their supplier and pick up a ‘package’ with the hope that what it contains is sufficient for them to produce the order for their customer, and if it isn’t, they go back and get another ‘package’. So today, with help and input from the team of IBM supply chain management consultants back in the UK, I have produced some basic training material which includes a fancy but very simple excel based tool for tracking stock. I spent this afternoon working with my interpreter, to help her understand the training material so that she could translate it into Vietnamese for the client. We’re planning on delivering the training to the client tomorrow and I feel a bit like a child on Christmas Eve (how sad does that make me sound?!) I get very excited about sharing what IBM has to offer its clients, particularly the ones we have been working with in Vietnam, as I know how something seemingly simple can make such a massive difference to their business. I have to admit it’s very motivating. It’s also a challenge because we quickly forget what it was like to work without computers.

So, in between producing the training material, discussions with my interpreter and the client, as well as my Vietnamese lesson, my client’s wife showed me how to make spring rolls - sounds like cha nem (tone going up). You’ll be pleased to know that I didn’t manage to poison anyone at lunch. Even my client’s sons and father seemed impressed by my culinary skills (but then again, they may have just been being polite). Anyway, Team Taylor will be hosting a Vietnamese dinner, when I return, for any of you who are brave enough ;-)

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Crickets and Beatles

Today has been a day of two halves. The first half involved a trip to the market to do some shopping. The second half was dinner and karaoke with one of our clients.

We’ve been to a few markets since arriving in Vietnam, as they seem to be everywhere. Most people do a daily food shop at the street market, rather than a weekly shop at the supermarket, so today my language lesson got practical and off we went on the scooters to try out some of my Vietnamese. As I have been bombarded with vocab today, I have lots of new words to share and it actually gave me an insight into how complicated and tonal this language actually is.

Qưa (sounds like qwa) means fruit and is put in front of the name of the fruit itself, for example, qưa xoài (sounds like qwa swy – tone going down) means mango, qưa dưá (sounds like qwa zooa – tone going up) means pineapple. But, qưa dưà (sounds also like qwa zooa – tone going down) means coconut. The word nươć (sounds like neug and is the same as water) put in front of the name of the fruit, means juice. This I discovered when we ordered nươć dưà, coconut juice, from a street vendor. (Unfortunately, depending on your computer the Vietnamese symbols may appear as squares)

Interestingly, dương (sounds like doo-ung) is the same word for street and sugar. The way they can tell which one you are referring to, is through the context of the conversation, apparently. So you could, in theory, get handed a bag of sugar while asking for directions.

Most prices are negotiable in Vietnam so haggling is common place. Phrases, which sound like cuy (tone going up) nuy (tone going down) zaa bow neuw? Meaning how much is this? and cuy nuy daat qwa (tone going up), meaning this is too expensive can come in handy.

We spent the evening sat on cushions, on the floor, while we were served numerous traditional Vietnamese dishes. One of them was… yes you’ve guessed it from this blog title – crickets (legs, shells and all). If I’m honest, they don’t really taste of very much, so all those contestants on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here are really kicking up a fuss for nothing. The rest of the dishes were also delicious with a few minor exceptions. I think it has probably been the best meal we’ve had in Vietnam so far and I’m pleased to report that there was no beer involved. We followed the meal with singing (if you can call it that) in a private karaoke booth with our hosts, where the IBM team attempted the Beatles’ classics Let it be and Yesterday (as these seemed to be two of the few English songs choices that we knew). There is video evidence, but I think for the sake of public health we may have to keep that to ourselves ;-)

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Cabin Fever

Its spring at the moment in Vietnam which is muà xuân (sounds like moo-a son) and as a few of us have been suffering from a bit of cabin fever today we decided to do some springing of a different variety. Our hotel is on the outskirts of Hai Phong and not in an area you would necessarily want to go wandering around at night, so the routine of being either at the hotel or on client site was starting to take its toll. This is the unglamorous side of consulting and so we decided to go burn off some energy and have a giggle by playing the keepy-uppy shuttlecock game we had been introduced to on Sunday. Armed with something similar to a shuttlecock we made our way to the floodlit car park of the hotel, where we were joined by the bell boy, to attempt to emulate the teams we had seen playing in the park at the weekend. It was a lot of fun and we soon attracted an audience (the security guard and restaurant staff). I suspect it wasn’t because of our skill, finesse or grace as we struggled to keep it going for bôń (4) kicks between us. People joke about hand eye coordination, for this game you need feet eye coordination, which is something we were all severely lacking as we tried to do ballerina leaps across the car park. We quickly became aware that most of us have a warped perception of the length of our legs – mine, unfortunately, are not 6 feet long as my brain seems to think they are ;-) With feet covered in bruises, we returned to our rooms, refreshed and ready to get on with some prep work for tomorrow's session with the client.

Monday, 16 March 2009

A day of surprises

I had a lovely and completely unexpected surprise when I went to work this morning. Within about half an hour of arriving on site, the illusive site foreman appeared in the office to show me the order schedule he was producing on the white board in the factory. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I’m not often lost for words but after some of the resistance I had experienced from him last week I just couldn’t believe that he had actually listened to some of my advice and was taking what I had recommended, during the training session, and putting it into action. I also found out that Mr Dung has been practising on his computer over the weekend! Working on a Sunday is pretty unusual in Vietnam, I’ve discovered, as they usually work a 6 day week (Monday – Saturday) so there must be something in the water as I don’t think I’ve worked with a client who has been quite so responsive.

We had another delicious lunch of spicy bbq style pork ribs, rice and spring rolls. It seems the fact that I devour the plate every time we have this dish (subtle, I know), has not gone unnoticed by Mrs Dung, as this is the third time we have had it for lunch. She made the amusing comment that the Vietnamese weather and food (!) suits me as my complexion is glowing apparently.

News from my daily Vietnamese language lessons is that I’ve branched into reading and managed to stun myself, my interpreter and my accountant friend, by correctly reading out loud something she had written. The phrase was tôi có môt em gái (sounds like toy kaw moat em guy) which means I have one younger sister. Today, I learned how to say something that sounds like tee-ung (tone going up) Viet (tone going down) kooa (tone going up) toy ghum tot lam(tone going up), which means I do not speak very much Vietnamese. I am trying though and I think that is appreciated ;-)

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Running away with the circus

We spent the morning on an excursion, which was arranged by the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, to Do Son Beach and Hon Dau Island. This would not necessarily have been our choice of excursion, had we arranged it ourselves, but it was interesting to see what our Vietnamese hosts thought would entertain us. We were given an intriguing insight into their perception of foreign business people and this was particularly evident when we were taken to an exclusive local casino only to discover that neither the IBMers nor our Vietnamese hosts where interested in gambling. There also seemed to be endless team photos where everyone had to line up and pose in front of the local sites to get snapped. This contrasts with the more informal photos my team mates and I prefer to take of our activities.

The afternoon was spent back at the SOS Children’s Village playing games with the kids. We had a lot of fun and they seemed to appreciate the lolly pops, books and IBM stationery we were giving out as prizes. We arranged a treasure hunt, were introduced to a game of keepy-uppy using something similar to a shuttlecock and, with the help of Debbie, I honed my circus skills. We were mobbed by children as we entertained them with our juggling and balloon animals. Yes folks, I can now make swords, dogs and cats out of balloons. So, you'll be please to know that I now have a fall back plan of running away with the circus, if a career in consulting doesn’t work out! ;-)

With all the activities and excitement of the day, this leaves me with only one thing to say and it sounds like toy daang met (tone going down), which means I am tired.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

A family dinner

I was invited to have dinner with Dung, my interpreter, and her family at their home this evening. Wearing a bright pink helmet and what looked like a surgical mask to keep me from inhaling the dust, I sat on the back of her scooter as she skilfully manoeuvred her way through the Hai Phong traffic. Helmets, you’ll be pleased and possibly surprised to know, are common place in Vietnam, everybody wears them, even the little kids sat perched on their parent’s lap.

I got introduced to 4 generations of her family - her mother (sounds like mayaa – tone going down), her father (sounds like bowa – tone going up), her 2 sisters (sounds like chi guy), her brother-in-law (sounds like ang chy), her grandmother and her 1 year old nephew. After a dinner consisting of clams, noodles and some delicious homemade spring rolls, we sat down to drink strawberry flavoured tea and to watch the Man U/Liverpool match. Dung’s parents are huge Man U fans and they plan to celebrate their wedding anniversary by going to watch them play at Old Trafford. Shouting, cheering and disagreeing with the ref’s decision through the TV screen, is something we amusingly share with the Vietnamese.

During my visit, I was also shown Dung’s sisters’ wedding photos and got quizzed on my own upcoming wedding (7 weeks to go!) They would like to see photos and have asked me to bring Pete (and our children) back to Vietnam with me in the future. I had a lovely time, and it is another example of the hospitality we have been shown. To finish off the evening, they asked me to text them once I had got back to the hotel safely, which reminded me so much of my own parents. They have invited me to come and visit them again before I leave Vietnam.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Lemon Tree

I have had the strangest day today, which I can’t explain but will try to describe. The day started with what has become the customary greeting from my client Mr Dung, which sounds like, baan kaw hoya (tone going down) ghum (tone going up)? Which means, how are you? My response is always a smile and the phrase toy hoya, meaning I am fine.

I had discovered earlier this week that Mr Dung had never used the computer which sits on the large desk in his very large office. This is 1 of the 2 computers owned by the company and I learned that Mr Dung has it, not to use for work but as a status symbol. As he had some availability today and I had been having no joy with the other employees, I offered to show him how to use it. This is when it all got a bit strange. We were sat trying out some of the functionality of Word, when suddenly 2 guys arrived to connect the computer to the internet. As we couldn’t use the computer while they were working on it, Mr Dung announced that we should do karaoke! This is a very popular past time in Vietnam so he plugged the karaoke machine into the TV, which is also in his office, and we began to sing. Dung, my interpreter, decided that she and I should sing Lemon Tree by Fool’s Garden. What an appropriate choice, I thought, as I was starting to feel a bit of a lemon myself at this point – how basic computer training turned into karaoke, I will never know. Mr Dung followed this with a rousing performance of a popular Vietnamese song.

We returned to his office after the customary 2 hour lunch break and I introduced Mr Dung to the internet. He started to surf the web and I showed him the online IBM toolkit for small businesses (called the IBM SME toolkit) which offers free advice and is available in a variety of languages including Vietnamese. After spending some time reviewing this, he announced that he wanted to have the company networked and that Arjan (our group techie) could come in and help with this. He followed this announcement, with another bombshell, which was that his company was going to be inspected in a months time for their ISO 9001:2000 certification and that he wanted me to help ensure that they were ready for it! This is the first time he had mentioned this and I know enough about ISO certification to know that it takes a lot more than 1 person and 2 weeks to prepare for it. He had essentially asked me to boil the ocean. I went into expectation management over drive and with a smile on my face, agreed to provide some recommendations for the company based on the industry, company and process analysis I had done and the things I have heard and observed over the past 2 weeks. These I said would help them on the journey towards certification. All I can say is the work just keeps getting more and more bizarre.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Dung ‘Zaa-ding’

Zaa-ding (tone of ding going down) sounds like the word for family in Vietnamese. Family and relationships are very important in Vietnam and I get to experience this first hand every day when Mr Dung, his wife, their sons, his father, my interpreter and I, all gather around their dining room table for lunch. I am instructed to sit between Mr Dung and his father, who I have been informed, is over 80 years old, deaf and served as a soldier during the war (considering the war was one of the few things I knew about Vietnam before I was given my assignment, this is the only time I have heard it mentioned since I arrived two weeks ago).

This morning I was invited by Mr Dung to attend the opening of his sister’s new company. He has 6 siblings (3 brothers and 3 sisters), of which he is the youngest. I was introduced to all of them including the obvious head of the family, his eldest brother. They were all very welcoming and over dessert wine (at 9am! In a scene similar to the wedding when we were up and down toasting her and her company’s future success), pistachio nuts and something which resembled curried biltong (this is the most delicious thing I have tasted in Vietnam – I almost devoured the plate!) they invited me to come and visit each of their businesses. It turns out Mr Dung’s eldest brother is a Chelsea fan and has been to London to watch them play. This is unusual in Vietnam as all the people I have met so far have been avid Manchester Utd supporters. I do get a lot of brownie points for living in Manchester and for the sake of simplicity have had to declare that I am English (this goes against the grain for all Scots, as many of you following my blog will appreciate).

I later showed them photos of my family and friends and they thought my Mum (sounds like may-aa with the tone going down) and I looked very alike and that we were both ‘very young and beautiful’. They like your mother of the bride outfit by the way. They also think Pete is very handsome and looks like a Vietnamese man! I was then told that I have the mannerisms of a Vietnamese woman. I wasn’t really sure what was meant by that, but smiled and laughed anyway. It seems a little Vietnamese can get you a long way ;-)

You will gather that we have to do a lot of smiling, which I naturally do anyway, but what was mentioned to me yesterday, by one of the other IBMers, demonstrates how close our team has become over the past two weeks. She said that although I have a smile on my face, even in the most difficult and challenging situations (smiling is considered appropriate in these situations as it’s all about maintaining face) she knows me well enough now to be able to read exactly what I’m thinking through my eyes.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Everybody is a friend until they burn your house down….

This is something we were warned about when we first arrived in Vietnam. Maintaining face is very important to the Vietnamese which can cause some cultural difficulties when you are having discussions with them. It is, therefore, difficult to determine whether things are going well or not. My Vietnamese phrase of the day is ghum sow doe (tone going down) meaning no problem.

Today has been a bit of a strange day, and I’m not really sure whether it could be considered a success or not. Progress has been a lot slower this week than I had hoped. I was told the foreman would be available to meet with me on Monday, which was then delayed until Tuesday and then again until Wednesday. It was starting to look like our meeting today was going to be delayed again - he was turning into a bit of an illusive character, which made me start wondering whether it was due to something I was or wasn’t doing. Then after lunch I had an impromptu meeting with Mr Dung to go through my proposed training material, now available in Vietnamese. After a brief phone call from Mr Dung, suddenly the illusive foreman appeared and we sat down to go through the training material with him. It seems that the most effective way to engage the employees is through Mr Dung directly, so this is going to be my approach going forward.

One of the other challenges we have faced on our assignments, is expectation management. Some of the clients recognise IBM as a global technology provider and members of our Corporate Service Corps (CSC) team have, therefore, had requests, for free software and its installation. This is not the objective of the IBM CSC program as its aim is to build skills and knowledge within the communities in which we are working. This message, combined with the communication and cultural differences has been, in some cases, a very difficult hurdle to overcome. As a result of differing expectations, some of the assignments and clients have changed very rapidly, over the past 2 weeks, for reasons which we do not fully understand. Through all of these challenges and experiences we have learned to keep smiling, as we as IBMers cannot lose face, and each day we are learning something new about the ways of working in Vietnam.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Chicken tonight

I’m aware that most of my blogs mention food in some shape or form. As my life tends to revolve around food when I am at home, why should it change while I am in Vietnam?

The International Women’s Day celebrations continued this week as Mr Dung took all the female employees, some of his family members and me out for dinner. I was asked before hand whether I liked chicken, I enthusiastically said yes.

The meal started with fried chicken wings and drumsticks. These I could do. This was then followed by noodles, vegetables and chicken organs. Then the main course arrived, broth with all the other bits of left over chicken, including the feet. This traditional Vietnamese dish is called lou (sounds like loud but without the d). We were literally going to be eating the whole chicken, which was a lot more than I had anticipated. So there I was armed with my chopsticks and beer wondering what I was going to do. Broth can be a tricky thing as the liquid covers many of the things which are hidden in the depths of the bowl. Once you have selected your target you are committed. It’s rude to pick and chose, your decision is final, so it better be a good one. My new friends were keen to show me how to eat this meal as they were adding green veg and noodles to the broth as we ate, and continually scooping it into my bowl. My strategy changed at this point, I decided I was going to do the cooking, this way I could cunningly scout around in the broth looking for the pieces of chicken I wanted. It was actually very tasty once you got over the image of chicken feet bobbing around in the pot! (This is a flashback to one of my childhood memories which only my family will appreciate).

There were two interesting things which I observed, as we all crammed into the car for the trip to the restaurant. Firstly, I was given the prestigious passenger seat in the front next to Mr Dung. Secondly, back seat driving crosses the cultural divide. This I observed, as tutting noises could be heard from Mr Dung's wife in the back seat, every time he swerved to avoid a scooter.

Today we also visited the SOS Children’s Village in Hai Phong. This is a charity funded community and school, set up to provide a “family” to orphaned children. After the initial introductions we were shown around their beautiful site and its facilities. We also met some of the “mothers” and children, and Debbie, a professional clown as well as a Senior HR Partner at IBM, spent some of her time dazzling them with her balloon animals. We have agreed to produce a proposal of what we can provide and organise during our stay in Vietnam, and plan to make a return visit over the next week. So I’ll keep you posted…We spent most of our visit to the orphanage introducing ourselves, so with that in mind my words of the day are…. What is your name? Which when speaking to children sounds like em ten laa (tone going down) zee (tone going down)? The response to this is toy ten laa (tone going down) Joanna.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Lost in translation

As this is the beginning of a new week my Vietnamese words of the day are….the days of the week.

Monday sounds like tuu hai (with the tone of tuu going up, and hai being the same as the number 2). Tuesday sounds like tuu bear. Wednesday tuu duu, Thursday tuu nam, Friday tuu sow, Saturday tuu baay and Sunday chow nee-at (where the tone for chow goes up and then down – this one seems to cause the most hilarity when I say it. All I can hope for is that I haven’t said something rude!)

I mentioned in one of my first blogs, that the biggest worry I had about doing my assignment in Vietnam was working with an interpreter. So now that Dung and I have been working together as a team for a week now, I thought I’d share some of my experiences and tips so far, should any of you get the chance to work with one in the future.

Firstly, translation and interpretation, I have discovered, are not synonymous. Translation is when a written document is converted from one language to another, while interpreting is simultaneous verbal communication. Dung performs both of these roles for me. She converts the documentation I have produced for the client, including the industry analysis, company analysis, process definitions and training material from English into Vietnamese. We usually talk through the material before hand, so that she can ask questions and clarify her understanding of the content while confirming if there is any new vocabulary. The translation piece is relatively straight forward, as we can sit next to one another in the office working on our laptops and scribbling on pieces of paper. It is a bit of a strange feeling and bizarrely satisfying, seeing my words written in a document using Vietnamese words and symbols. This experience has definitely reinforced how effective pictures and diagrams are in communicating some of the business principles and analysis techniques we use, particularly when Dung and I talk through the material with Mr Dung.

Conversation is a bit more difficult and requires a lot more patience and flexibility. With a smile continuously plastered on my face, I have learned to talk directly to Mr Dung (to demonstrate respect), while asking my questions, and making swift eye contact with my interpreter to confirm that she has understood what I have said. Preparation for these conversations and meetings is beneficial as the content is, more often than not, new to her as well. I often run through some of my main points and questions with her before hand, as it helps when we are with the client. It’s also worth asking your interpreter to let you know what the topics of conversation are, even if you are not directly involved in the discussion. A quick comment from her like, ‘they are discussing their plans for the weekend’ or ‘they are talking about the TV show’, can sign post you through a conversation. I think we’ve developed quite a good working relationship over the past week, which was reinforced to me when I have been out with some of the other interpreters. I sometimes feel a bit lost without her.

My style of working and communicating is a lot more transparent than what is common practice in many Asian countries. I have encouraged her to tell me when there is an issue or if she needs further clarification or time to prepare. I have found her honesty to be invaluable and on many occasions butt saving. This was demonstrated when she confided that she did not understand some of the accounting terminology and wanted time to learn it before we started doing some of the excel training with the accountants. I was so relieved that she told me this before we had the session as it meant I could rearrange some of our activities to accommodate this request. She doesn’t interpret what I say word for word, but more the main points, ideas and principles therefore I have to avoid jargon, slang and expressions as much as possible, while talking clearly and slowly. The pace of work is significantly slower than I am used to, as once I say something she converts it into Vietnamese, and then Mr Dung will say something and she will then convert that into English and so on.

Dung has told me that she thinks my voice, tone and accent are easy to understand. This I think is because they are used to watching American and British films and TV shows. Mr Bean, for example, is very popular lunch time viewing for Vietnamese children and it’s slightly terrifying to think that millions of children around the world are basing their knowledge of the English language on him.

As well as the verbal communication, there is also the non-verbal communication, which is culturally much more difficult. Dung gives me tips and hints about what is or is not considered appropriate behaviour or body language, and often I will follow her example. We also try to have a debrief session, at the end of each day, to discuss what we have both learned in terms of content, culture and language. I am pleased to report that she is learning as many new things as I am.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Girl Power (Vietnamese style)

International Women’s Day is a big celebration in Vietnam with women receiving gifts and cards from their families and friends. Even the 4 women IBMers received cards wishing us ‘happiness today and always’. We did, however, struggle to convince the rest of the team that they should be sending us flowers to celebrate this day. So to mark the occasion, I thought I’d share some of the things we have seen and heard about Vietnamese women, their role in society and some of the cultural differences we have experienced so far.

I was told by my interpreter that women account for less than half the population of Vietnam. As a result, there are not enough women for the men to marry and she explained that, in this very traditional society, it causes them some concern. Vietnamese women perform a very traditional role in the household and family, and some we have met, have to balance their family commitments, such as caring for their husband’s parents, with those of running a business. They are a pretty impressive group of ladies, and are working alongside their male counterparts to develop the Vietnamese economy while still fulfilling their traditional obligations.

As we observed during our spa experience and in my daily greeting from my accountant friend, they don’t hesitate to share personal space and information. This was beautifully demonstrated by one of our female team members who announced to us one evening, with a look of horror on her face, that she was ‘sleeping with her client’. This is not how it sounds and demonstrates a quirky, but very funny, cultural difference between our societies. This specific team member works with a female director of a company and, as it is not unusual for Vietnamese women to share a bed with one another, she spends her lunchtime naps sandwiched between her client and her interpreter. This, I can tell you has given us no end of amusement.

To recognise the overly affectionate nature of Vietnamese women to other women, my phrase of the day is something that my accountant friend says to me often. It sounds like toy tick ban and means I like you.

Ninh Binh and Wedding

We had a really busy day yesterday, doing a mixture of touristy activities and maintaining, what has become, a very active social calendar.
We were up at 5.30am ready to catch the bus to Ninh Binh where we visited the Tom Coc Bich Dong natural limestone caves by row boat, before visiting Phat Diem Catholic Church which was built to resemble a pagoda. The Vietnamese people are predominantly Budist with pockets of Catholicism scattered across the country due to the French influence. Our visit coincided with the filming of a local documentary and Gosia was nominated to take part in an interview. Well, we couldn’t let Arjan have all the limelight! ;-)
Tom Coc Bich Dong is what I consider to be picture postcard Vietnam, set amongst paddy fields and limestone outcrops, with locals working the land in straw, triangular hats. Our elderly local guide, rowed us along the river using her feet (I have no idea how she managed this) while simultaneously trying to sell us embroidered table cloths and to negotiate her tip! After returning to the hotel in the evening, we had about 30mins to beautify ourselves for the wedding. Armed with a present for the newly weds and only one interpreter, we arrived at the venue, where the 1000+ guests were seated on round tables spread across two floors. A live TV feed between the floors, meant that guests could track the bride, groom and their families as they mingled with guests and received toasts from each of the tables. It’s customary in Vietnam for you to stand during each toast and to toast every new acquaintance you make, with a glass of dessert or rice wine. Bearing in mind that we knew very few people at this event and hence were getting a lot of introductions, we were in and out of our seats like yo-yos, with dozens of cameras capturing the moment. Appropriately this leads me on to my word of the day, cheers, which sounds like took sook koy.

In the few minutes when we were seated, we tucked into the food and watched the entertainment, which was a cross between Strictly Come Dancing and Vietnam has Talent. Maybe this is something Pete and I should have at our wedding?! Then as suddenly as the meal had started, the guests started to disperse and it was over. This is fairly common at a Vietnamese wedding and we were leaving the venue within an hour of getting there, but not before Mr Dung (my client) and Monica’s started a competition of who-could-be-the-host(ess)-with-the-most(est). Mr Dung won and we were whisked off to the cinema to watch Inkheart, with Vietnamese subtitles.

Friday, 6 March 2009

TV show

We’ve moved onto Vietnamese sentences now. ‘I am hungry’ sounds like toy daang doy (the tone of doy goes up). We had another delicious lunch today of stir fried pork, prawns, veg and rice, finished off with a fruit that I have never come across before. At first I thought it looked like a guava, but it tastes like a cross between a melon and a coconut. Very sweet, with juice the colour of milk, which I managed to dribble down my chin. The Vietnamese think nothing of slurping their food and burping at the dinner table, so I didn’t look completely uncouth.

After sharing with you some of the work I have been doing in yesterday’s blog, I got paid a very nice complement by Mr Dung today just before I left the site. He told me that he is very pleased with the progress we have made and also thinks I have a very good understanding of his business. It seems in the space of a week I have become an expert in the Vietnamese steel industry. Could this be a valuable addition to my CV?! Hmm, not sure about that one ;-) but I thought it was nice of him to say none the less. To say thank you and to celebrate International Women’s Day (it’s a big calendar event in Vietnam) he has offered to show me around Hai Phong on Sunday. The generosity of the Vietnamese people never fails to impress or amaze me.

This evening, we were invited to be part of the audience for a TV show, presented by a very famous (so we were continually being told) Vietnamese quiz show host. We weren’t very sure what to expect, but based on our experiences so far in Vietnam, we prepared ourselves for any eventuality. Seated in the second row, behind the judges, we watched and listened while the rather camp quiz show host strutted around the stage, in a bright turquoise shirt, to the swoons and cheers of the crowd. The quiz was similar to the Mr and Mrs TV show in the UK, where couples pair up and have to perform tasks and answer questions about one another. We didn’t understand anything, but cheered, laughed and grinned like the enthusiastic audience we were. It came as no surprise when one of our team members was invited to pick a raffle ticket out of a glass fish (the fish is a symbol of luck), while each of us sat there praying that it wasn’t our number. Then it came: moat, sow, cheen (the only words I understood during the whole show!) The number of the winning raffle ticket belonged to Arjan. Instantly, he became a star, grinning and waving to the crowd as he collected his prize from the Vietnamese celebrity. The prize was a beauty treatment at the spa we had visited a few days ago. The show is going to be broadcasted over the next few weeks and we’ve been promised a CD of the recording to take home.
We’ve been invited to a wedding tomorrow evening, which will be attended by the mayor of Hai Phong and over 1000 guests! (No wonder they’ve been looking at me strangely when I’ve told them that there is only going to be 60 guests at my wedding – I must look like Billy No Mates). Goodness knows what the wedding is going to involve, but we’re definitely looking forward to it.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

What I’m working on….

Today’s Vietnamese word of the day sounds like neeug which means water. Appropriate on many levels, as I’ve been drinking lots of it due to the humidity and it has been falling from the sky today.

I know that some of you are interested in hearing more about my client and what I am working on. The Dung Cuong Company produces steel products such as girders (not of the Irn Bru variety!) for the local construction industry and over the past few days I’ve discovered Mr Dung (sounds link Tzooum) is a bit of a man about town.

At 5’9” I tower above him and he keeps telling me how tall I am. I’ve been introduced to the 2hour lunch break where nobody speaks about work and after the meal everybody is expected to go for a nap. This is the time when I like to type up my notes on the laptop and prepare the material for my next session/interview with the client. It’s difficult to get out of the habit and I do get some strange looks. At least it frees up my evenings to socialise with the other IBMers and our local hosts ;-)

The Vietnamese economy is growing very rapidly. With lots of entrepreneurs and new businesses they are very keen to learn. Through working with Mr Dung to analyse the local Hai Phong steel production industry and his company’s current production processes, this has helped to select areas for potential improvement for his company. After only 4 days, we have identified the value of giving basic excel training to the accounts team in order to automate a largely paper based accounting process, as well as providing basic project management training to the production manager to assist him in managing customer orders through the production process. I was told today that their customer orders are ‘never delivered late’, but this, I discovered, is because they do not have an agreed delivery deadline to meet. (Maybe all projects should run like this?!) Though these activities may appear seemingly basic to most corporations, I have had a wonderful response from Mr Dung and the company’s employees. Who could believe that people could get excited about spreadsheets and project planning?! This is consulting in its purest and rawest form, away from the jargon and suits. It’s very rough and ready and you can physically see the value you are adding on a daily basis.

For all of you worrying about my wedding dress fitting, today I filled my boots at lunch time with some delicious bbq pork ribs, prawns, rice, cabbage and fruit. 8 weeks to go until the big day! :)

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Not just any spa day

As promised, my Vietnamese words of the day are 6 to 10. My accountant friend has started testing me on the drive to work in the morning, to make sure I have learnt them, so I wouldn’t want to disappoint.

6 sounds like sow. 7 baay, where the tone goes up and then down when you pronounce the word. 8 is tam, which goes up. 9 sound like cheen. 10, is the most difficult and each time I have said it today they all burst into a fit of giggles, it sounds like muh eye, where the tone goes down.

Today was, I think, the strangest day yet for many of us.

I was originally going to tell you about the work I have been doing with my client, but think I may save that for another day, once I have loaded the photos which I have taken of the site. It takes me back to a temp job I had before joining IBM, when I worked at the GNER Craigentinny train depot in Edinburgh. Archie, Billy and the rest of the boys would be pretty proud of me, right now, I think.

After surviving lunch with my client and his family, which today consisted of more molluscs, the additional delicacy of boiled octopus and of course beer swigging, all the women IBMers were invited to join Monica’s client at her marketing company later on in the afternoon. I must just add at this point that one of my team mates (not naming any names) has to resort to rice wine shots at lunch in order to survive her family meals, so it’s not just me!

Once the 4 women IBMers and our translators arrived at the office, we were whisked away by our host on a magical mystery tour. We were treated to an afternoon at one of the up market spas in Hai Phong. I know, what you are thinking, aren’t they supposed to be working while they’re in Vietnam?! Let me tell you, this was not just any girlie spa day. I can certainly appreciate what celebrities must feel like when their lives are scrutinised under a microscope by the press. While lying there on adjacent massage tables enjoying our facials, the room filled with at least 20 other women each armed with a camera or video camera. Our skin was publicly analysed and commented on. During which I discovered that freckles are not considered an attractive feature in Vietnam. I will not share the comments made about the other IBMers as that is their story to tell. Anyway, following this 2 hour session, which surprisingly turned out to be quite relaxing, we were asked by the spa’s manager (a friend of our host) to advise her on ways of attracting new customers to her spa. We ended up staying there for another couple of hours discussing business, before we were taken to a local street vendor for some noodles with broth. Throughout the whole experience the 4 of us (myself from the UK, 1 from Poland, 1 from the US and 1 from Spain) could not stop giggling. Apart from laughing and smiling, what else could we do in this situation? Having only just met each other properly, a couple of days ago, I don’t think I have bonded with any other IBM colleagues as quickly as these ladies.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Gracious hosts, numbers and pig stomach

This is my 2nd day on client site and you’ll be pleased to hear that I have not managed to cause a major international incident. Phew! ;-)

I was collected from the hotel by a student, who is training to be an accountant at my client’s company. After running across the lobby to greet me, she put her arm through mine and, while giggling and grinning broadly beside me, told me how ‘beautiful’ I was and that I ‘should be a model’. Had I been in the UK, I would have probably been instantly suspicious and wondered what she was after. But as we are in Asia, I took it as the complement I think it was intended and returned her smile. She was obviously very excited to see me and to take me to work.

Today was spent learning more about the client, his business, his brother’s business (his brother works in the same industry) and the local steel industry as a whole. I got shown around his work sites and we talked about his supply chain and the process of producing steel for the construction industry. He has asked me to help identify where he can improve his processes in order to increase the company’s cash flow. They have a lot of capital locked up in assets.

In the evening we were taken out to dinner by the Director of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. After sharing the few Vietnamese words I had learned with him during the introductions, he insisted we all move seats so that I could sit next to him during the meal. He showed me how to eat the diverse range of weird and wonderful Vietnamese food he had ordered for us and also introduced me to his son, who is a recent graduate from Manchester Uni.

Since he seemed suitably impressed by my rather feeble attempts at Vietnamese I thought I’d share the words my accountant friend has taught me today. I can now count from 1 to 5.
1 sounds like mawt. 2 sounds like hai. 3 sounds like bear, with a long ea. 4 sounds like bone with the tone rising. 5 is nam.

I also have to tell you all about the food I have eaten today. I have to say I don’t really consider myself a fussy eater and many of you will know that I like to eat. I will try any type of food once. Most of it was delicious but today was a day of numerous one offs. At lunch I was introduced to boiled pig’s stomach lining, which was so chewy, it makes me squirm thinking about it, even now. Not wanting to appear rude to my gracious hosts, I had to close my eyes and gulp down my beer in order to swallow it. Dinner consisted of all kinds of different molluscs some of which were so large there is no way you could swallow them whole, so again that involved chewing and beer swigging.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Day 3 - Meeting the client

I had the first meeting with my client today, and as I had feared he doesn’t speak a word of English. I also confirmed that Hai Phong is very much a working and industrial city, definitely not what you would considered a tourist destination and as a result very few of the locals speak any form of English. With that in mind, Dung, my translator, is teaching me some basic Vietnamese to get me by. It’s a case of sink or swim so my Vietnamese word of the day is actually critical to my survival. I exaggerate, but you get my drift as being able to communicate is critical in any work or living environment.

Today’s Vietnamese word of the day is thank you, which is pronounced ğaám ern or in my accent something similar in sound to cam urn.

We met our clients at the offices of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Mr Dung (definitely not pronounced the same way as my interpreter pronounces her name, as I quickly found out) then took me to his family business, where I got introduced to his children, wife, father, siblings etc, all of whom live and work on site. Their main business is in the supply of steel and iron to the local construction industry. Interestingly, he worries about the current economic climate as, like in UK, the construction industry is suffering as a result.

During the day, and over a feast of Vietnamese food at lunch time (most of which I didn’t recognise but which definitely tasted good) we got to know each other. Mr Dung told me that although he is 40 years old, he feels that he doesn’t have a lot of business experience, particularly when dealing with foreign clients and customers. Age is considered a critical factor in Vietnamese culture and society and as I am the youngest IBMer on our team, I certainly began to feel a little bit self conscious about my own age. How would he view me and what would he think about the advice he had asked me to provide during my assignment?

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Day 2 - Meeting the interpreters

Today’s Vietnamese word of the day is daam bee uht, which means good bye.

We spent our last morning wandering round the Old Town and visiting Ngoc Son Temple and its mythical turtles, before saying cheerio to Hanoi and catching the bus to Hai Phong. From what we’ve seen of Hai Phong, so far, it definitely has the feel of an industrial and busy port.

Within half an hour of arriving at the hotel, we were introduced to the local representative from the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry and our interpreters. Weirdly, of all the things we were going to be doing in Vietnam, this had been the thing I had been dreading the most. Like most people, I’ve never worked with an interpreter before and wasn’t really sure what to expect or how it would work. As many of you will know, I tend to talk at about a hundred miles an hour and can be quite banterful when I communicate. How was I going to be able to express myself without my personality and humour getting lost in translation?! I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised. After about an hour of conversation, which resembled something very similar to speed dating, we were each asked to select the English language student we would like to work with over the next month.

Tomorrow, we’ll be meeting our clients for the first time and I guess that will be the first test of team work for my interpreter, Dung, and I.