As one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, Vietnam has witnessed a large influx of foreigners since the Vietnamese government introduced economic reforms (Đổi Mới)) more than 30 years ago. Bustling cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are now more cosmopolitan than ever with a rich tapestry of history, art, and culture.
And whilst the mingling of Vietnamese culture, backgrounds and the myriad of traditional and contemporary values in Vietnam is usually seamless and fruitful, you’ll want to know the dos and don’ts to make your time here as an expat or tourist as smooth as possible.
Here is our guide to etiquette in Vietnam so you can better adapt to Vietnamese culture.
Table of Contents
1. The concept of ‘face’
Face, the idea of preserving one’s dignity and respect, operates at all levels of Vietnamese society. It can be given, saved or lost, and serves as a sort of social currency for interactions between local people.
Vietnamese tend to stay calm and composed, preferring to avoid public outbursts or arguments, which are seen as a sign of weakness, if possible. Sure, the odd altercation does happen, but usually over serious issues such as traffic accidents or perhaps a straying husband caught cheating.
You should try to keep your cool and avoid humiliating locals, especially in public or in front of peers, friends or family. If you must point out faults or call someone out, it is best to do so discreetly in a private setting.
2. Greetings and visiting
When greeting Vietnamese people for the first time, you should leave the hugs and kisses in your armoury. Shaking hands is customary amongst men, but you should generally avoid physical contact – even handshakes – between the opposite sex or with seniors.
Greet the elderly first, and bow your head slightly. ‘Xin chào’ (pronounced seen chow) is your safest bet if you want to say hello.
Confucianism, family and relationships
Vietnamese culture has been historically strongly influenced by Chinese culture, and this is evident in Vietnam’s traditions and customs. Confucianism, an ancient system of ethics and behaviours inspired by Chinese philosopher Confucius, has shaped the culture of Vietnam, society and thinking.
The main idea stresses the importance of virtuous behaviours – such as altruism and humility – in upholding relationships and the overall harmony of society. You should be aware that Confucianism affects the vast majority of ethnic Vietnamese – from their relationship with family members to colleagues. So if you plan to be in Vietnam long-term, it is worth your time to invest in and nurture relationships.
Unlike Western culture, which is more individualistic, Confucianism has given Vietnam a more complex hierarchical society that greatly respects seniority, age and experience. You may notice this respect extends to the Vietnamese language, which entails using different pronouns when talking to someone older or younger than oneself.
Vietnamese family units are often close-knit, and there is an expectation, especially amongst Vietnamese men, to provide for family members even into adulthood. You may find gender roles are still pronounced amongst many Vietnamese, especially in rural Vietnam.
3. Vietnamese dining etiquette
Food and mealtimes – particularly dinner – play a key role in Vietnamese culture. You shouldn’t fill your rice bowl to the brim as this is typically reserved for offerings at pagodas. Just go ⅔ of the way, and head for a refill later. Besides, you’ll need to save your appetite for all the delicious dishes!
You’ll likely be served the best dishes first – and accepting and finishing these is considered respectful. The same goes for any tea or alcohol offerings. Many dishes include strong ingredients like fish sauce and or mam tom (shrimp paste). If you cannot stomach these, Vietnamese people will understand, but do make it clear to the host. Before you dig in, you should say “mời” (pronounced muoi), a common Vietnamese expression with a similar meaning ‘Bon Appetit’.
When eating, you’ll quickly realise eating sounds are part and parcel of Vietnamese eating etiquette. Slurping and sucking sounds, rather than being offensive like in other cultures, are expressions of enjoyment and practical ways to cool down food. So, you know what to do when you’re tucking into your next bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup.
Vietnamese chopsticks etiquette
Your chopsticks are tools for eating, but you may unknowingly be using them wrong. Make sure you don’t rest your chopsticks in the food or vertically, which is considered a bad omen because of its similarities to incense when remembering the deceased. Other tips to remember include: putting food into your bowl before eating it; no exchanging of food between chopsticks; no pointing with chopsticks; and don’t knock your chopsticks loudly on your bowl – it is said to attract hungry ghosts.
Vietnamese gift giving etiquette
If you are a guest in a Vietnamese home, be sure to bring a gift such as flowers, incense or fruit, but avoid yellow flowers or anything black, which are considered bad luck in Vietnamese culture. Before eating, you should wait for the eldest to be seated first. Pass and receive any items – food or gifts – with two hands. This is a sign of respect for the giver.
4. Business etiquette
Like in many countries throughout East and Southeast Asia, doing business in Vietnam is heavily contingent on relationships.
Don’t be surprised if your first meeting with a Vietnamese client involves questions about your family or personal life. Vietnamese people look to build mutual trust and respect in their relationships before business, so you may need several business meetings to close any deal. Whilst time may not move at the same pace as your home country, you should always be punctual for business meetings or dinners.
Be aware of any business hierarchies when introducing yourself, and when you accept business cards, do so with both hands and eye contact. Dress conservatively in a suit and tie or blouse and skirt, especially in Hanoi. Gift-giving is also common – they needn’t be expensive, but they should be practical.
5. Relationships and dating etiquette
Despite the glitzy exteriors and Western-style malls of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, when it comes to public affection, Vietnam is still quite conservative. You should avoid hugging or kissing in public, especially if you’re with a local.
As for dating, do show an interest in their culture, and try to learn some Vietnamese – a little can go a long way! Many Vietnamese women still value chivalry, so if you’re inviting, you should be prepared to foot the bill for the first few dates. Do so discreetly and in a non-showy way.
If things progress – and this is dependent on your partner – you’re likely to meet their family and other family members and parents sooner than you may be used to. Instead of resisting, take it in your stride and show appropriate respect and courtesy when meeting. Remember, your introduction is likely to be a big deal, and your behaviour will reflect upon your partner.
6. Etiquette for a Vietnamese wedding
If you get this far, congratulations. Whether you are the groom, bride or guest, attending a Vietnamese wedding is special.
Vietnamese weddings include several ceremonies and particular Vietnamese customs. Although they are dependent on religious beliefs and ethnic groups, they all serve to unite the groom and bride’s own families. There is the permission ceremony, where the groom’s family officially asks for the bride’s hand in marriage; the engagement ceremony, usually for close family and friends; and finally, the wedding ceremony and reception, involving lavish gifts, ancestor worship, and a feast for all guests.
What to give and wear
You should turn up with a gift. Common gifts include jewellery, tea, wine, betel nuts, but gifting money is a safe bet and popular in Vietnamese culture. 500,000 vnd is typical, but this may be more or less depending on your relationship with the groom/bride and/or your financial situation.
As one of the most important Vietnamese traditions, you should be suited and booted. Ao dai is the norm for Vietnamese men and women, but you can also wear a formal western-style suit or dress. Unless explicitly stated, as is customary for weddings in most other cultures, you should let the host know if you plan on bringing a plus one.
7. Travel and tourism etiquette
Be it ancient temples or picture-perfect scenery, Vietnam is blessed with a wealth of tourist sites to make a memorable trip.
What to wear
When you visit sacred sites such as temples or the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, you should dress appropriately to pay respect to Vietnamese culture and traditions. For guys, think t-shirts and not tank-tops; and for women, a simple sarong or scarf made of light fabric to cover shoulders should suffice – and protect you from the scorching sun. If you’re visiting water parks or beaches, don’t be surprised if you get strange looks for wearing a bikini. Attitudes are changing, but many Vietnamese still hold traditional and conservative values towards clothing – or the lack of it.
Asking for photos
Similarly, you should always ask for a photo before getting out your camera. From the different ethnic groups and their colourful garments in Northern Vietnam to the floating Mekong river markets of South Vietnam, this country will likely enchant you. Asking before snapping a shot will ensure you don’t annoy locals going about everyday life. You’ll also find out whether you’ll be charged a small fee – a common practice amongst some savvy locals.
Although tipping is not a mandatory Vietnamese custom, it is certainly appreciated. You’ll usually find tipping is more common at tourist sites. Of course, it’s entirely within your discretion whether you tip, but after a trying year and a half for the tourism industry, you should consider it. Vietnamese artists, tour guides, drivers and boat peddlers at tourist sites work hard to earn a living, and a generous tip could make their day.
Unless you shop exclusively from stores, you’re likely to bargain with a street vendor at some point. When it comes to things like souvenirs, there are often no fixed prices – so you should haggle. Be jovial, and don’t lose your cool. You’ll almost certainly never get the ‘local price’, but you shouldn’t take this personally. Many vendors make a living selling to tourists. If you feel you’re being taken for a ride, just keep walking.
As you explore Vietnam and its charming people and rich culture, always remember you are a guest. Keep these tips in mind and show respect to Vietnamese culture and you’ll be fitting in with the locals in no time!
If you want more information before travelling around Vietnam, be sure to check out our travel guides to Vietnam
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