The Buddha nature of Vietnam

Xan was 6 years old when the last evacuation helicopters took a fraction of the hopeful escapees out of Saigon in April of 1975. A father of two girls, like me, he is earning his family’s livelihood as an entrepreneur.

Xan is one of our company’s distributors in Asia. His business is growing and he handles a variety of products within Vietnam. He also has an export business bringing food items to western Africa. We talked at dinner last night, our first chance to get to know each other in advance of the distributor conference that our Malaysian office organized.

Xan asked me, “Have you seen much of Saigon yet?”

I replied, “We’ve been to the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, the big local market and took a scooter tour. Do you call it Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City?”

“Well, those of us whose families were from the south still call it Saigon,” he said. “But either one is fine.”

As we chatted over great food among our compatriots, it struck me how easy it was to establish a real connection with this man who still remembers the carpet bombing of 1972, carried out by U.S. B-52 squadrons. He showed no sign of bitterness or anger. Without my asking, he explained why.

“The people of Vietnam are more focused on now and the future,” he said. “There is no reason to stay living in the past. We cannot improve our lives if we trap ourselves in the suffering that left scars on our bodies. We would only be choosing to scar our hearts as well.”

This is an enlightened view, I thought, and then I remembered that 80 percent of the Vietnamese people are Buddhist. Buddhism reveres life. Buddhism doesn’t look for someone to blame or praise. Buddhism is self-accountability taken to the highest level.

A couple of days ago, my colleague and I jumped onto the back of scooters, driven by young women (“They are better drivers,” said our guide) who sped into the traffic like a mackerel joining the flow of thousands of fish. We couldn’t discern the way hundreds of motorbikes and a few dozen cars negotiated through the turns and roundabouts without crashing into each other. But somehow everybody got through without a scrape.

I asked Xan if there are many road accidents.

“No,” he replied. “Everyone looks out for each other. The basic rule is keep moving and don’t hesitate. And if you have to cross the street, walk slowly and let the traffic find its way around you. If you move fast, they will not be able to react in time and you’ll cause a problem for everybody.”

We actually applied that method, since my co-worker had figured it out on her own. It takes a lot of faith in others to wade into the moving mass of metal and people, hoping they care enough about you to move around you. And they do.

“Why don’t you have more traffic rules, lights and police?” I asked Xan, wondering how all of this orchestrated chaos happened so safely.

Xan smiled and looked at me, “When people look out for one another, you don’t need some government agency or law enforcement officer to do it for you. Laws are necessary when people don’t care enough about each other.”

Then I got curious about the government. “Vietnam is a communist country, right?”

“We do have a one party system, called communists,” he explained. “But it’s not the same communism of the era after World War II. In about 1990, Vietnam followed China’s lead and began to allow economic development based on private property, entrepreneurialism, foreign trade and more individual freedom of choice. We call ourselves a socialist republic. We still believe that what’s good for the whole country comes first, but we’ve learned from the lessons of early communism. Central planning and dictating a person’s life path to them saps their motivation and energy. However, greed and ambition can leave the less fortunate behind. We are attempting to find a balance between individual advancement and collective good.”

“That can’t be easy,” I said. “The U.S. is actually a continual experiment of the very same nature. The difference with us is that we have a two-party system, with the occasional third party tossed in to make things even more muddy. Our experiment is still trying to find the way to balance the power of wealth with the needs of the many.

“Maybe we can begin to trade notes as countries, rather than think we’ve got it whipped all by ourselves. In fact, it seems that trade is the one activity that tends to lessen the chances of violent conflict.”

“You’re right,” Xan replied. “That’s one reason why I went into business. I can improve my family’s life and increase the chances for peace at the same time.”

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@

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