If you’re traveling to Vietnam for the first time, gaining knowledge of local customs and etiquette will go a long way to help you avoid any embarrassing situations where you may inadvertently offend. Vietnamese people are very proud of their culture and heritage, and this is displayed in the subtle social conventions and customs you’ll encounter.
Don’t worry about learning all of these off by heart though. With our guide, a polite and courteous attitude, and an open mind, you’ll find that locals will be friendly and will happily teach you their ways and customs.
Asking personal questions
Visitors might find it rude, inappropriate, and even shocking to encounter a list of personal questions when first meeting Vietnamese locals, especially your neighbors (mostly middle-aged women): “How old are you?”, “Are you married?”, “Do you have children? Why not?”, “How much money do you earn?” are among the most frequently asked. Answering such questions with specific details is the only way to get closer to locals.
If you are over 30 and single and are asked if you are married it is best to lie and say yes, otherwise people will feel sorry for you.
Many Vietnamese smiles easily and often, regardless of the underlying emotion, so a smile cannot automatically be interpreted as happiness or agreement. Vietnamese often smile when they are embarrassed or uncomfortable.
The smile is also used as an expression of apology for a minor offense, for example, as an expression of embarrassment when committing an innocent blunder. For the Vietnamese, the smile is a proper response in most situations in which verbal expression is not needed or not appropriate. It is used as a substitute for “I’m sorry”, “Thank you” or “Hi!”.
Public physical displays
Although Vietnam has become more open, public displays of affection remain unacceptable in this country. You can rarely see a couple kissing or hugging on the street. Vietnamese men generally greet each other by shaking hands and bowing slightly.
However, when greeting women, they bow slightly and nod, no kissing on the cheek or even hugging. If she’s not very close to you, it’s best to avoid intimate physical contact.
Nobody wants to “lose face”
“Face” is a concept that can be roughly described as reflecting a person’s reputation, dignity, and prestige. Most Vietnamese will avoid public displays that could compromise their reputation. As a general rule, keep your cool and avoid loud arguments, making a scene, berating others for mistakes.
While in other countries, being frank and direct opinion is considered a good trait, these can be seen as a person to “lose face” in Vietnam. Foreigners should be aware of unintentionally causing a loss of face due to their words or actions. If you have suggestions or challenges, it’s best to bring them up carefully in private.
Crossing the road
Crossing the road in Vietnam takes a little practice, a dash of bravery, and a whole lot of confidence. Stay calm and keep walking, slowly, at a steady pace. You’ll be amazed as the traffic twists and turns around you, as the drivers predict your next move across the street. As the traffic doesn’t move that fast in Vietnam, due to the high volume, you’re unlikely to be hit if you just keep walking.
You should never run when crossing the street or step backward to avoid traffic. If you’re not sure what to do, you can signal your movements with your hands or ask somebody local to help you.
A Vietnamese student who sits quietly and listens attentively to the teacher wants to express respect to his teacher. This behavior has often been misinterpreted by the foreign teacher as passivity and non-responsiveness. It is also out of respect that the Vietnamese student avoids eye contact with the teacher when speaking or being spoken to.
In Vietnamese culture, however, looking into somebody’s eyes, especially when this person is of higher status (in age or social or family hierarchy) or different gender, usually means a challenge or an expression of deep passion.
A Vietnamese name is usually three words long, but may also be two, four, or five separate titles. The first word is the family name or surname, and the last word is the given name. Most Vietnamese have one middle name, but it is quite possible to have two or more, or even no middle names at all. The most popular middle names in Vietnam is “Van” for men and “Thi” for women.
Because certain family names, notably Nguyen is the most common Vietnamese family name. By some estimates, around 38 percent of Vietnamese have this surname. So, they cannot be used to distinguish individuals. Unlike other countries, in Vietnam, women keep their maiden names after marriage.
The gift-giving culture
Giving gifts is significant for building interpersonal relationships and has become a common occurrence throughout Vietnam. Giving a gift is a sign of respect and it is offensive to refuse a gift. If you are presented with a gift, graciously accept it. If you are the recipient of a gift, do not open it in front of everyone. It is expected that you will open the gift later when you are alone.
People usually exchange small gifts on certain occasions such as housewarming, homecoming, anniversary, Tet holiday… Gifts can come in the form of fine alcohol, tea, food, fruits… However, sharp objects such as knives or scissors are not recommended because they imply separation.
During social gatherings, Vietnamese will often arrive late so as not to appear overly enthusiastic. Vietnamese meals are typically served all at once and shared, with small rice bowls and chopsticks for each diner. A Bowl of food can be held close to your face. Setting your chopsticks down to speak and for a rest after every few mouthfuls and clicking the bowl or hitting the table with your chopsticks should be avoided.
When tea is offered, accept it graciously (even if you don’t want tea). Similarly, if you’re offered alcohol, it’s considered polite to at least take a sip, or drink the first cup. It is considered good hospitality for a host to offer you food, refill your glass, and put the best bits of a dish into your bowl.
Let’s make an effort to verbally greet people you meet. Xin chào (pronounced seen chow) is the appropriate formal greeting for strangers. Handshakes are the common greeting and goodbye gesture. And always take your shoes off when entering a Vietnamese home.
Do not touch someone’s head or shoulder or pass items over someone’s head. This is incredibly offensive. The head is considered the most sacred part of the body. When you need to hand something to someone, make sure to use both hands. This is seen as respectful. If you need to draw attention to something, use your whole hand. Do not point using one finger, that is considered disrespectful.
[VIETNAM THROUGH THE LENS]
Written by VTV World’s Huy Anh NGUYEN