One night a couple of years ago I was fast asleep at home when I was suddenly woken up by loud banging and drilling noises. I blearily checked my watch and saw that it was 2 a.m., and wandered out onto my balcony to see what was going on, to find a team of construction workers excavating a trench in my alleyway to lay cables.
I assumed that within minutes most of my neighbors (who are all Vietnamese) would also be outside complaining, but I was to remain alone. I yelled at the builders to stop, pointing out that it was 2 a.m. and that people were trying to sleep; they ignored me and carried on with their work for another hour.
What struck me about the incident was not so much that someone would arrange loud construction work for 2 a.m., selfish and inconsiderate though that was; it is more that not one single person apart from me, the street's only foreigner, bothered to complain. When I ask Vietnamese friends why this is, they always say that there is no point in complaining since it does not change anything, and then they laugh and say that we expats complain too much we complain about the traffic, we complain when we get bad service in restaurants, we complain when someone wakes us up at 2 a.m.
They are probably right, but that is because most of us grew up in cultures where complaining is perfectly normal and the best, often only, way to improve things. Compare the traffic conditions in the UK and Vietnam for example. British traffic is some of the most orderly in the world, but people drive responsibly and safely not just out of respect for the law, but also because they know that if they drive dangerously, they will have to feel the wrath of their fellow motorists before they have to deal with the police. In Vietnam, where no one moans or gets angry, drivers can drive through red lights, into oncoming traffic or on the pavement knowing that no one will bat an eyelid and thus without the peer pressure we have in the UK, conditions continue to get worse.
But is it true that complaining does not change anything in Vietnam? A few months ago I was in the check-in queue at Tan Son Nhat International Airport waiting for a flight to Da Nang, when a Vietnamese man tried to push in front of me. I stopped him and told him to go to the back of the queue, which he did. The Vietnamese lady behind me turned to me and whispered "Thank you!" I said "You're welcome, but why was I the only one to say anything?" She smiled shyly and said nothing, but it was a prime example of how complaining and trying to enforce civil behavior can have an immediate effect, and maybe the miscreant will think twice next time he tries to jump a queue.
But generally, in Vietnam, complaining does not work. Try taking a faulty item back to a shop for a refund, or complaining about the quality of a meal in a local restaurant, and you will see what I mean. Complaints are laughed off or ignored altogether. In a business culture with a short-term view and where repeat business, customer loyalty, and word-of-mouth marketing are little-known concepts, many business owners do not care if a customer is unhappy after all, they already have the customer's money, so why should they worry?
But for me, as a small business owner, complaints are an opportunity to learn and improve. If a client complains about my company's service or products, it means they care enough to help me address the issue, and I get the chance to improve my business. I welcome complaints it is the people who do not complain, who do not bring problems to my attention, and either keep quiet or, worse, moan about me to their friends or on the Internet, that I worry about.
We foreigners complain not because we enjoy it on the contrary, I think all of us would love to live in a world where there was nothing to complain about but because we want things to improve. We love living in Vietnam, but we are not blind to its faults and we see how easily those faults could be addressed if more people raised their voices. You do not solve a problem by ignoring it, you just allow it to get worse. Vietnamese people often tell me they love Singapore because it is clean, orderly and peaceful it is no coincidence that Singaporeans are some of the biggest complainers in the world!
By Tim Russell
The writer is a British expat who runs a tour operator in Ho Chi Minh City