Vietnam Revisited: Observations and Emergent Themes in Consumer Behavior Since the Implementation of Market Reforms

ABSTRACT - Our objective is to examine the impact of market reforms on consumer attitudes, opinions, and behaviors. To that end, we have designed a series of studies -some ethnographic and some more positivistic- to examine this impact. This paper is a synopsis of the first phase of a longitudinal study on the evolution of consumer behavior and other marketing-related activities in Vietnam. Methodological ubiquities and emergent themes are presented.


Anthony Pecotich and Clifford J. Shultz, II (1993) ,"Vietnam Revisited: Observations and Emergent Themes in Consumer Behavior Since the Implementation of Market Reforms", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 233-235.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 233-235


Anthony Pecotich, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia

Clifford J. Shultz, II, Columbia University, New York, U.S.A.


Our objective is to examine the impact of market reforms on consumer attitudes, opinions, and behaviors. To that end, we have designed a series of studies -some ethnographic and some more positivistic- to examine this impact. This paper is a synopsis of the first phase of a longitudinal study on the evolution of consumer behavior and other marketing-related activities in Vietnam. Methodological ubiquities and emergent themes are presented.


The 1980's unleashed a chain of events that may have dealt a death-blow to communism as we know it. Since the liberalization of economic policies in China and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many communist countries have transformed or are presently transforming into market driven economies. Unlike the governments of some countries that have attempted to transform willingly and/or enthusiastically, the republics and satellite nations of the former Soviet Union for example, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was representative of a small set of nations whose governments were less enthusiastic about the ideas expressed by perestroika. But in 1986 the Sixth Congress of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam agreed to liberalize the economic structure of that nation by implementing a policy referred to simply as "doi moi," which loosely translates to economic renovation or change for the new.

Since the implementation of doi moi, Vietnamese consumers have been confronted with profound changes: product proliferation and advertising, price comparisons and haggling, and in sum the uncertainties and opportunities that accompany an unrestricted free market economy. And while Vietnam's economic and social policies have been the subject of several articles in the popular media (e.g. Shenon 1992, Caplen 1992, Leinster 1988), and policy papers of various research centers and political bodies (e.g. East Asian Institute 1991 and the Economic and Social Council for Asia and the Pacific 1992, respectively), little scholarly work has been conducted to date that addresses consumer behavior and related issues.

The purpose of our research was/is to examine Vietnamese history, culture, perceptions, attitudes, opinions, and behaviors so that we may shed some light on the evolution of consumer behavior and related issues in a unique, transforming socialist country. Thus the goal of this paper and presentation, a synopsis of the initial phase of a longitudinal research program, is to share our observations and to document emergent consumption patterns and trends. Additionally, we shall also assess the dynamic position of the Vietnamese nation on a continuum of market economies, and the effects of postwar economic policies, current U.S. sanctions, and non U.S. foreign investment on nascent market-oriented activities, including consumer behavior.

The observations and emergent themes we share here are not definitive -nor are they intended to be- but we do believe they make two important contributions. Firstly, they provide a reasonably valid indication of the present attitudes toward market reforms, consumption patterns, and trends of a unique socialist country and its people as they attempt to transform from a centrally controlled communist economy to a market driven economy. Secondly, they provide a foundation for future qualitative and quantitative research on consumer behavior issues as they emerge in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.


When the focus of inquiry (Lincoln and Guba 1985, p. 259) of one's research is Vietnamese consumers, in situ, one discovers early on "that the design cannot be given a priori but must emerge as the study proceeds" (Lincoln and Guba, p. 11). Given the fact finding nature of the first phase of our research -orientation and overview, with some focused exploration (Lincoln and Guba p. 265)- and the paucity of extant literature on the focus, we certainly found this to be true. Therefore we opted to use ethnographic methods and data collection techniques from the naturalistic paradigm prescribed by Lincoln and Guba (1985), and more recently implemented by others (e.g. Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf 1988; Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; Hill and Stamey 1990; Sherry 1990).

The following text is intended to feature especially important aspects of the data collection process that may have been idiosyncratic to this study. A review of the literature of recent ethnographic consumer research impresses upon one that the methods used to collect data for most naturalistic inquiries generally seem to be implemented with relatively deliberate and conscientious planning and effort. Our planning and effort, however conscientious, tested the limits of deliberateness. Making initial contact, building trust, gaining entrance to the country, and then maintaining trust was particularly challenging. This challenge may have been compounded by the presence of an American as one of the two primary members of the research team (the other member is Australian). As of this writing, the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam maintain no diplomatic relations and conducting business in Vietnam is, for Americans, a direct violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act. Consequently the process by which the project was approved and access to Vietnam was granted consisted of 5 months of telephone conversations, facsimile transmissions, and meetings, involving the research team, Vietnamese liaisons to Australia, the Vietnamese Mission to the United Nations, Vietnamese authorities in Hanoi and Bangkok, and travel agents.

Site selection, time, and duration of our visit were cooperatively determined by us and the Vietnamese government. The site during this phase of our research was not a single market per se. Rather, it was virtually every place and thing we encountered from when we landed in Vietnam at the airport on the outskirts of Hanoi until we left the airport at Ho Chi Minh City. We did have an itinerary and scheduled visits to specific sites of interest, but we believed this relatively unstructured approach was consistent with the spirit and methods of previously cited naturalistic inquiries, and our ex post facto conclusion was that it did indeed facilitate the emergence of themes as the project unfolded.

The sampling of specific sites (primarily markets, restaurants, kiosks, recreation areas, etc.) individuals, institutions, and times was purposive and guided by our desire to engage and interact with venues of buyer-seller exchanges, venues of post-purchase consumption or product usage, and the people participating in each. Data were collected over a six day period.

Data collection consisted of observations and interviews with Vietnamese consumers, merchants, and government officials in Vietnam's two largest cities: Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). It was important to visit both cities to corroborate recent reports (e.g. Shenon, 1992) that the two largest cities in, and capitals of, the former North and South Vietnam have distinctly different consumer cultures, consumer goods, and in general infrastructures, marketing acumen, and marketing mixes necessary to meet consumer needs and wants.

Data collection was facilitated by separate interpreters in each city. The interpreters were obviously helpful during interviews, but they became, in effect, members of the research team and were quite helpful in our efforts to triangulate across researchers. An initial concern was whether our interpreters would distill informants' responses during translations and thus give us the official government positions in response to our questions instead of the informants' sincere responses. This concern quickly dissipated as each official interpreter impressed us with candor, forthrightness, and variance of responses. Additionally we had the good (mis)fortune of missing a rendezvous with our official interpreter in Ho Chi Minh City and were forced to hire an entrepreneur for a day and a half. This person was not a government employee and his translations seemed consistent with the interpreter who had been assigned by the government. We even took the government and nongovernment translators to some of the same sites to compare translations, and again we found consistency.

Since we were in a completely alien environment that continually bombarded us with noteworthy information, we were especially concerned about the quantity and quality of our field notes; we made concerted efforts to record as much detail as possible and then to discuss observations and notes as frequently as possible. Each day was then concluded with memoing. We also triangulated across sources, sites, and researchers, and documented comments and observations shared during interviews with non-Vietnamese visitors to Vietnam with whom we had made contact in country. This inclusion of thoughts, impressions, and observations of non-Vietnamese visitors, many of whom were searching for business opportunities, proved to be informative and enlightening.

In total, between the two primary members of the research team, this initial research project resulted in 4 booklets of field notes, 2 booklets of transcribed notes, 143 color slides, 147 black and white slides, miscellaneous artifacts, over 20 formal interviews and at least twice as many informal discussions, and one lecture/seminar at a Vietnamese research institute.

We plan to include member checks and limiting exceptions as the research project continues to unfold.


North and south discrepancies. From a marketing and consumer behavior perspective the Socialist Republic of Vietnam continues to be divided, yet consumer needs and wants tend to be more similar than the gap would justify. But with no marketing tradition, the north may not have the infrastructure or acumen necessary to meet consumer needs and wants, and therefore the gap may widen.

Poverty. Poverty is pervasive despite economic reforms and the relative differences between north and south.

Consumer culture. Economic restructuring has led to a departure from many of the values, attitudes, and behaviors associated with traditional Vietnamese culture. Product, brand, advertising, and retail outlet proliferation, rudimentary class stratification, institutional as well as personal changes in sacred versus profane possessions, entrepreneurship, conspicuous and aspirational consumption are all very much a part of Vietnam now.

Apparatchik resistance. Not all Vietnamese favor a consumer culture. Unlike eastern Europe, which has seen the emergence of pluralism and conspicuous efforts by those in power to distance themselves from socialist labels, ruling party members in the (still) "Socialist" Republic of Vietnam do not favor either pluralism or the abolition of socialism from the national identity. Many Vietnamese fear that present authorities believe doi moi is an economic necessity rather than a social desirability, and that this belief may lead to tension between authorities and private sector reformists. These tensions could have a significant impact on Vietnamese consumers.

American participation. Despite resistance to sociopolitical change among many apparatchiks, it seems Vietnamese government authorities and citizens want to see American trade sanctions lifted and relations normalized. The Vietnamese would welcome American political recognition, and many Vietnamese feel economic conditions cannot flourish without American involvement.

Popular culture. Goods, brands, and symbols associated with popular culture are valued and favored. Not surprisingly, brand mimicry and trademark infringement are too.

Joint ventures. The popularity of non-Vietnamese brands and culture, coupled with Vietnam's current financial condition and market reforms, will necessitate the infusion of external expertise, capital, and products.

Stockpiling. Many Vietnamese retailers, and would-be retailers (virtually everyone else with anything to sell) have chosen to hoard consumer goods or U.S. dollars to protect themselves from impending inflation.

Recycling and lateral cycling. Both practices are common and economically necessary.

Social traps and dilemmas. Social and ecological problems associated with economic development and conspicuous consumption are practically certain to occur if government authorities cannot balance growth and consumption with social responsibility.


We use caution in labeling the preceding observations, generalizations, reductions, and syntheses "emergent themes" (Belk et al. 1988), however we believe they summarize some of the emergent consumer behavior activity and conditions that one would typically presently encounter in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Finally, we add Vietnamese spirit and enthusiasm to the list of emergent themes. The Vietnamese people are consummate survivors; fifty years of colonial intervention and nearly uninterrupted war have not dampened their resolve to be a sovereign nation. Although they face many difficulties, including poverty, unemployment, and inadequate infrastructure, we were impressed by their optimism and industriousness, and left with the feeling that some how, or some way, the Vietnamese people would make work their transformation to a market oriented economy.


Belk, Russell W., John F. Sherry, and Melanie Wallendorf (1988), "A Naturalistic Inquiry into Buyer and Seller Behavior at a Swap Meet," Journal of Consumer Research, 14 (March), 449-470.

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Caplen, Brian (1992), "The Great Adventure." Asian Business Week, 28, (March), 24-27.

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Anthony Pecotich, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia
Clifford J. Shultz, II, Columbia University, New York, U.S.A.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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