Well-seasoned travellers in South-East Asia will tell you tales of heart-warming hospitality and kindness; along with warnings about the potential danger of ignorance, and the importance of ‘saving face’ when liaising the local people (often in the same sentence!)
While these tales carry extensive weight in places such as Thailand and China; travellers in Vietnam culture tours will find that the Vietnamese people are far more light-hearted and easy-going than many of their neighbouring countries when it comes to obeying local customs.
Light-hearted and carefree Vietnamese (Source: Internet)
The Vietnamese have a number of cultural customs and etiquettes that hold great significance; but they are very forgiving of the occasional foreigners’ faux-pas. Vietnam holds tremendous pride in its culture and heritage, which tends to be displayed in many subtle conventions. Much of these traditions and conventions stem from three religions: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Four tenets can provide a very basic summary of their value system: family allegiance and loyalty; earning a ‘good name’; love of learning; and respect for all people.
Please keep in mind that these ideals/traits are not shared by all Vietnamese people. There is still some division between different regions in the country in terms of dialect, religion, clothing; even food and music preferences. This article is but a glance into Vietnamese culture from an outsider’s point of view, and all views/opinions expressed in this article should be taken with a grain of salt. The best way to learn about Vietnamese people is to go out and actually spend time with them, go on a Vietnam culture tour; remembering that most people are simultaneously similar and not the same.
Stoic Optimism & Enjoyment
There is a consistent, beautiful optimistic streak that runs deep within Vietnamese culture. This is more than mere anecdotal evidence; as proven by the Happy Planet Index from the UK-based New Economics Foundation in 2016. The study named Vietnam as the fifth happiest country in the world; just as the Gallup International Association did in the 41st Annual Global End of Year Survey in 2017.
This may seem like a big achievement for a nation that was once synonymous with instability and rebellion; but it is, at the end of day, merely a title. Vietnamese people are proud of their achievements and do not lament in loss: a trait that has been acquired through years of hardship, warfare and religious teachings. There is a generally casual attitude towards most things in life; where enjoyment can be found in everything, and stress and confrontation are avoided where possible. Politeness and non-compliance are the go-to responses when faced with confrontation; but do not confuse these actions for pacifism. Should one raise their voice in anger or become physically aggressive; they will often be met with swift action in order to ‘teach a lesson’, or even to ‘save face’. Issues must be treated quietly with amicability and respect from all parties.
Vietnamese people believe in fairness and justice (Source: Internet)
Another aspect of Vietnamese stoicism is the concept of time. Western societies tend to think of time in linear terms; divided into BC and AD; which, in turn, motivates progress and change through perceived societal pressures. The Vietnamese understanding of time is based on a more circular concept; where a twelve-year calendar repeats itself along with historical events and there is little sense of ‘progress’. Humankind’s life-span is already too short, and most Vietnamese see no need to rush themselves or others. Have patience, and all will eventually work out as it is supposed to (probably).
Allegiance to Family & Tradition
Confucianism emphasises respect to family and elders. This has become a cornerstone of Vietnam culture tours; where the benefit of the family and community comes before the needs of the individual. Children are regularly taught to willingly forget themselves as individuals for the sake of family harmony; to be grateful for their parents’ sacrifices, education, debt of birth, etc. This is reflected in most households, where you will often find multiple generations of the same family living under one roof. Ancestors are also worshipped/honoured with altars surrounded by gifts/offerings; such as the favourite flowers, cigarettes, drinks, confectionaries, etc. of their deceased relatives.
Family is extremely important in Vietnam’s culture (Source: Internet)
Family is indeed the backbone of Vietnamese society and the centre of the common person’s preoccupation. This is reflected in times of great stress and celebration. Birthday parties and funerals are standard examples that bring family members together from all over the country to celebrate or mourn. These occasions are treated with momentous significance and are used to tighten the bond between family members.
Keeping A Good Name
In a Vietnam culture tour, you will find great weight in this common proverb: “in death, a tiger leaves behind it’s skin; a man, his reputation”.
To have a good name is more valuable than anything tangible in the world, according to most Vietnamese. Earning and keeping a good name is believed to better the lives of future generations; and can be acquired through moral virtue, heroic actions, and achievements. A name can lose dignity and bring shame to the entire family through deeds or words that are deemed to be dishonourable by the community. Such ‘shameful’ behaviour can lead to ostracisation from not only the general community, but the offender’s family as well. Names carry on well after the death of the individual, and the legacy/memories that are attached are treated with great significance as they ripple throughout time. People will tend to look down upon a rich and powerful person with a bad reputation, and treat a poor person with great respect if their name is ‘good’.
Keeping a good name – a Vietnamese motto (Source: Internet)
Showing respect for all people is an integral part of keeping one’s name good and honourable; as opposed to the mere friendliness that is expected in most Western societies. This is reflected in the Vietnamese language, where an utterance of disrespect (intentional or otherwise) can result in less-than-pleasant reactions. It is of the utmost importance that one uses the correct title when speaking to an elder or family member. However, such indiscretions are generally forgivable when spoken by a foreigner and are met with quiet correction (this writer highly recommends that you learn from your mistakes very quickly).
A Love of Learning
Vietnamese people love to learn and tend to hold great respect, even admiration, for those who are well-educated. As previously mentioned; well-educated people tend to receive a similar kind of respect as those who are deemed virtuous or heroic, as it brings great honour to their name. Education is arguably more valuable than monetary wealth or material success: uneducated rich people tend to feel inferior to learned people who may be poor, and they also tend to be looked down upon by the general community.
It should be noted that this love of learning doesn’t entirely spring from the simple motive of self-improvement: education is seen to represent a stepping stone to better job opportunities and movement up the social ladder; which in turn brings honour to one’s family and name.
A respect for education (Source: Internet)
Taking Care of One’s Self
Do not mistake this as a simple ‘health conscious’ trait. There are many ways that the Vietnamese people stay in touch with their bodies. Early-birds and late-afternoon roamers will witness people of all ages exercising on the street, in their houses, and in multiple different ways. You’ll see stretchers rising from plastic stools; large dance groups complete with stereo systems in the park; pull-up bars hanging from trees by the lake; school kids following their teachers’ instructions before class… Keeping one’s body ‘in shape’ is part of a learned discipline that is practiced throughout a lifetime.
It’s not just about exercise though. Vietnamese diets are generally balanced with a wide range of proteins, vitamins, and fiber; and meals are eaten in a group setting to strengthen family bonds and ensure that all family members are eating regularly. Time is also set aside in the middle of the day, generally between 12pm and 2pm, for Vietnamese people to have break. This is usually spent having lunch with their families/friends, or sneaking in a quick nap before returning to work/school.
Keeping fit is almost a trend in Vietnamese cities
Hair and fingernails are also expected to be maintained in a clean and tidy fashion to express self-preservation; clothes are to be modest and respectful (particularly in pagodas and temples, where they should cover both shoulders and knees); both hands are to be used to pass items such as gifts, money, business cards, even plates to express gratitude… There are countless ways that the Vietnamese use their bodies to express personality and communicate with others; so do make sure that you are conscious of what your hands, feet, and face are doing in order to avoid potential offense or miscommunication in Vietnam.
Please also, if you go on a Vietnam culture tour, remember to take off your shoes when entering somewhere sacred or someone’s house. This is not only for comfort and hygienic purposes – it is a sign of respect and humility, which is far more important than how stinky your feet may be.
Written by P.T. Collieger