Vietnam: a study of blissful inequality

I’m riding in an air-conditioned minibus, passed the paddy fields, mopeds and coal-fired power stations of Northern Vietnam. It’s a humid 35 degrees outside.

In the distance, the promise of the capital Hanoi, rises as a layer of thick brown smog. The traffic starts to condense like a clogging artery into the overcrowded city. It’s impossible to ignore the cramped, Vietnamese squatting on every corner, their mask-covered faces and hopeful eyes, imploring you to buy a piece of plastic tat.

 

Later, sat in a riverside cafe in Hoi An – hands down the best place I’ve been in the country – a small, wrinkled old lady, sits on the floor touting her wares. Tourists avoid her gaze; she occasionally sounds a rattle to get the attention of any children who pass. My wife and I watch the old lady all evening. She’s joined later by the rest of her family including two young girls of about 4 and 8 years. Combined they pull in about 200,000 Dong (£7) in 4-5 hours. We step in but there’s only so many pop-up cards and floating lanterns one couple can reasonably buy.

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Meanwhile, in the UK, the Mossack Fonseca papers have been leaked showing the extent of tax evasion by the political class. The following release of tax returns seems to placate the general public but as outspoken comedian Frankie Boyle notes on Twitter, “a tax return is a pretty useless guide to whether people have money offshore that they don’t pay tax on”.

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I’m on holiday in Vietnam. These are the things I notice when I have time to stop and reflect. I don’t experience the picture postcard image portrayed in Photoshopped magazines and time-lapsed video. The world at normal speed and normal height, is a hand to mouth existence for the majority. Through sheer luck, people are born into poverty or privilege, and the system many of us support, reinforces inequality and drives consumption at unsustainable levels. It’s the same in business.

Perspective is a gift. One so easy to squander sat at a desk, agonising over an email on Monday morning. Most organisations are designed so that the people in charge don’t know what’s going on. It’s as if they’ve never got off the plane. The bustling, noisy, polluted streets look organised, even majestic, lit up in technicolour. Meanwhile, middle management (the tourist board in this analogy), disseminate videos of pristine beaches and smiling people. You can’t blame them, it’s in their interest to show their “betters” that everything is rosy. Very few have the gumption to disrupt the harmony, and the result is often to their detriment.

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The struggles in everyday organisations are allusive until you reach ground level and actually experience the challenges first hand. Leaders in businesses who sit in HQ have no idea what’s going on, even if they’ve done the job in the past. People who work in learning and don’t care to listen to their audience, are similarly clueless. But then, somehow, both groups regularly feel obliged to manage the micro details they don’t fully understand. The best example of this I saw in Vietnam, is that all the cruise operators in Halong Bay have been ordered by the government to paint their wooden ships white. Why? Because some bright-spark political official thought it would be a good idea. It’s ludicrous but symptomatic of the narcissism created by power, and the tyranny of the “responsibility matrix”.

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The solution, I think, is to go to war, against power structures. The old saying goes, “power corrupts”, and yet we still allow people too much power, and too quickly. We also reward people who want power; the political family’s first-born or the colleague who spends more time kissing arse, than supporting other people in their team. Equality in life and in business and the removal of power structures, is the best way to create a society or an organisation, where everyone feels like they have a chance. And god knows, no one deserves, not to have a chance.

 

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