CUSTOMS AND ETIQUETTE IN VIETNAM
Elderly people always have the right of way in Vietnamese society and should be treated with great respect. Always address the eldest in a group first. In Vietnam, people are expected share good fortune with their friends. This extends from anything from a having a haircut to getting a new motorbike. This custom is known as "cleansing." [Main Source for This Article: The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti. International etiquette expert: Mary Kay Metcalf of Creative Marketing Alliance in New Jersey.
The Vietnamese generally are very polite to foreigners, especially Americans. Even so in rural areas Vietnamese often stare at foreigners and children shout Ong Tay (Mr. Westerner) and Ba Tay (Mrs. Westerner). children like to touch the arms of hairy Westerners.
Northern Vietnamese tend to be more polite, tactful and reserved than southerners, who more direct, open, outgoing and—perhaps, sometimes—a little rude. "Northerners and southerners often use different words to describe the same thing. Southerners are direct; a northerner's yes may mean no," the owner of a Ho Chi Minh City chemical company told Associated Press. He says he sometimes has trouble reading his Hanoi customers' wishes."Southern companies tell you what they need right away," Khanh said. "With northern companies, it's like a winding path." ^+^
Vietnamese people generally greet each other by joining hands and bowing slightly to each other. However, in big cities, some men have adopted the Western practice of shaking hands. Hugging is reserved for relatives only. Vietnamese women generally do not shake hands with each other or with Vietnam War men but the custom is acceptable between a Vietnamese woman and non-Vietnamese man. Vietnamese also often refrain from shaking hands with a senior or someone of higher rank.
When greeting one another, men gently shakes hands and bow slightly. When greeting women they bow slightly and nod. In rural areas some people bow in traditional style by clasping their hands above their waist and bowing. In urban areas, modernized young men and women shake hands. When saying goodby, Vietnamese often shake hands or bow slightly.
When greeting someone of authority clasp both hands. When introducing yourself to a group address yourself to older people first. People are often introduced with an explanation of their relationship in the family. To address people formally, use Mr. or Ms. or a title plus the first `name. There are also several other honorific forms when addressing people of different relationships in Vietnamese, but they are not used in English. Thua (meaning please) is added in front of the honorific name to show respect to elders. To show respect, more traditionally minded Vietnamese bow their heads to a superior or elder. The depth of the bow is not a factor as it is in Japan.
Public displays of affection are frowned upon. As a whole, Vietnamese are still quite reserved when it comes to showing affection for the opposite sex. While kiss or a hug with your partner is considered acceptable in the main cities of Hanoi and Saigon it is a social taboo elsewhere. When meeting with Vietnamese of the opposite sex sometimes a handshake is okay. A slight bow or nod is safer. A kiss on the cheek is a bad idea. It is best not touch a member of the opposite sex.
Holding hands with or putting an arm over the shoulder of a person of the same sex is something close friends do. There is no sexual connotation, gay or otherwise. On city streets you will often see girls—and sometimes guts and older women too—holding hands or linking arms. Holding hands with or putting an arm over the shoulder of a person of the opposite sex is frowned upon.
Unlike the Chinese, the Vietnamese don't spit so much. Urination in public isn't uncommon. Men sometimes relieve themselves right on the curb of busy city streets and sometimes walk around on the street in their pajamas.
Don't lose your temper, put your hands or your hips or cross your arms. Expression of anger and aggression are viewed as sign of weakness. Vietnamese are often embarrassed by these displays and smile.
Speaking in a loud tone with excessive gestures is considered rude, especially when done by women. To show respect, Vietnamese people bow their heads and do not look a superior or elder in the eye. To avoid confrontation or disrespect, many will not vocalize disagreement.
Shorts should only be worn at the beach. Still a lot of tourists wear them and Vietnamese have gotten used to it. Hats are not usually worn inside churches or temples. Put your hat in your hand when talking to someone of high status or authority such as the police.
Taboos and Rude Behavior in Vietnam
Everything done on New Year’s Day will determine your luck for the next 12 months e.g. avoid people in mourning. It is very important not to visit or telephone anyone on New Year’s Day without an invitation. Wearing a white head band is reserved for funerals only.
Do not touch someone's head or pass anything over someone’s head. Items should be passed with both hands. Don't point or use your index finger to get someone's attention. That is how people call animals. Don't point with your feet either. Summoning a person with a hand or finger in the upright position is reserved only for animals or inferior people. Between two equal people it is a provocation. To summon a person, the entire hand with the fingers facing down is the only appropriate hand signal and even doing than can sometimes cause offense.
Insults to elders or ancestors are very serious offense and can lead to severed social ties. Also: Do not point with your finger - use your hand. Do not stand with your hands on your hips. Do not cross your arms on your chest. Do not touch anyone on the shoulder.
Patting a person's back, especially a senior or someone of higher status, pointing to other people while talking, or putting one's feet on a table or sitting on a desk while talking are all rude and disrespectful. Winking is regarded as indecent, especially when directed at people of the opposite sex.
A sports or entertainment events people whistle to show displeasure rather than boo. Social Customs
During social gatherings, Vietnamese will often arrive late so as not to appear overly enthusiastic. However, they are punctual to appointments in professional settings. Never make promises that you cannot keep as this will lead to loss of face. Breaking a promise can be a serious violation of social expectation. It is very difficult to re-establish a lost confidence.
Many Vietnamese smile 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. Smiling a lot but avoiding direct eyes contact, is sometimes viewed as a sign of aggression. Vietnamese often laugh in situations that other cultures may find inappropriate. This laughter is not intended as ridicule. Praising someone profusely is often regarded as flattery, and sometimes even mockery. Most people are very modest and deflect praise.
For certain feelings, Vietnamese people favor non-verbal communication. They often do not express feelings of thankfulness or apology by verbal expressions such as ‘thank you’ or ‘I am sorry’, but instead do so through non-verbal means such as slight bow or a smile. A person who gives a compliment should not expect a ‘thank you’ in return. In Vietnamese culture, a verbal expression of thanks can amount to a lack of modesty from the person who receives the compliment.
Proper respectful behaviour is to avoid eye contact when talking to person who is not of equal status or of the same gender. A smile is an important non-verbal way of conveying a feeling of respect in Vietnamese culture. It is used as an expression of apology, or as expression of embarrassment when committing an innocent blunder. For the Vietnamese a smile is a proper response in most situations in which verbal expression is not needed or not appropriate. The smile is used as a substitute for: ‘I am sorry, ‘Thank you’ or ‘Hi’ to avoid appearing over-enthusiastic.A smile is also a proper response to scolding or harsh words, to show that one does not harbor any ill feelings toward the interlocutor, or that one sincerely acknowledges the mistake or fault committed. In summary, smiling can show agreement, embarrassment, disbelief, mild disagreement, appreciation or apology. [Source: culturaldiversity.com.au ]
Vietnamese like to pose for photographs. You will have friend for life if you take a picture to Vietnamese friend and then send them a print. Try to avoid taking pictures of three people together as this is thought to bring bad luck to the person in the middle.
Avoid discussions about politics and don’t make jokes about Ho Chi Minh or death. Discussion of sexual matters is forbidden. Also, do not ask personal questions like: ‘How old are you?’, ‘Are you married?’, ‘Do you have children? Why not? ‘How much money do you earn?’ Even so Vietnamese often ask foreigners these questions. According to one Vietnamese man, "to speak money is a way to share happiness." 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. Not having a wife and children is considered bad luck.
Vietnamese Gestures and Body Language
Common Vietnamese gestures and body language: 1) Nodding: a greeting, affirmative reply or sign of agreement; 2) Shaking one’s head: negative reply, sign of disagreement; 3) Bowing: greeting or sign great respect; 4) Frowning: an expression of frustration, anger or worry; 5) Forefinger and top of thumb meet to form circle, other fingers upright (the OK sign): means ‘poor quality’ or zero; 6) Avoiding eye contact: shows respect to senior in age or status or of the opposite sex; 7) Middle finger crossing over forefinger or forefinger crossing over middle finger (crossed fingers) with the other fingers closed over the palm: an obscene gesture; 8) Middle finger pointing, other fingers closed (the finger): no meaning, not an obscene gesture; 9) Thumb down or thumb upright, with other fingers closed: no meaning. 10) Crossed arms: a sign of respect. 11) Placing one or both hands in the pockets or on the hips while talking: conveys arrogance, lack of respect.
Angela Schonberg of the Vietnam Language Center in Singapore wrote: "In Vietnam, the middle finger is simply another counting number. The middle finger and index finger to them coordinate by taking turns as the number one. Commonly, Vietnamese people point to things and ask for one item of something by putting up their middle fingers.... Many times sitting on the side of the street, I have found myself approached by people selling things that I do not want to buy. When I moved to Vietnam, I would shake my head "no, thank you" and persistent sellers would continue to test my patience. Thanks to friendly observation, I quickly learned that unlike America, where a left to right shake of the head means no, the Vietnamese use a hand motion to communicate the word no. Using your open hand, palm up, simply twist it back and forth and the salesperson will get the message. While shopping, I’ve even received shopkeepers giving me two hands, when they don’t agree on selling me something for the price I ask. [Source: Angela Schonberg, Vietnam Language Center in Singapore \=/]
"One time I told one of my Vietnamese friends to "wish me luck" as I had to cross downtown during rush hour. Subconsciously, I simultaneously, crossed my fingers when saying this. My friend stopped me and asked, "Why did you cross your fingers?" I explained to her that in America crossing your fingers is a sign of good luck. We sometimes even cross our fingers for luck when we’re waiting for good news or the results of a test. After repeating this to her, she laughed and continued to explain to me that in Vietnam, this is not the case. She told me that crossing your fingers is considered a rude, and disrespectful gesture that refers to part of the female anatomy. \=/
Eye Contact and Smiles in Vietnam
Respect is often expressed by nonverbal behavior. According to Vietnam-culture.com; 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 American 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. By American standards, a person acting in this way would appear suspicious, unreliable, or mischievous. In Vietnamese culture, however, looking into somebody's eyes, especially when this person is of a higher status (in age or in social or family hierarchy) or of a different gender, usually means a challenge or an expression of deep passion. The proper respectful behavior is to avoid eye contact in talking who is not an equal or the same sex. [Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ***
The smile, which is sometimes enigmatic to the American observer, is another nonverbal symbol conveying the feeling of respect in Vietnamese culture. It is used as an expression of apology for a minor offense, for example for being tardy to class, or 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!" It is used instead of a ready yes to avoid appearing over-enthusiastic. A smile is also a proper response to scolding or harsh words that one does not harbor any ill feelings toward the interlocutor or that one sincerely acknowledges the mistake or fault committed. ***
Parents and teachers never say thanks to their students for a small service, such as closing the window or passing the books around. A smile will do in this case. The person who gives a compliment never expects a "thank you" in return. In Vietnamese culture, a verbal expression of thanks in this case amounts to a lack of modesty from the person who receives the compliment. A smile or a blush in the face is the proper response to a compliment. If a verbal response is necessary, one would deny the compliment, saying that one does not deserve it. Because of difference in the mediums used to express the feelings of appreciation or apology in the two cultures, misunderstandings have occurred. ***
Vietnamese—especially females—sometimes cover their mouth when they are speaking, laughing or giggling as an expression of modesty.
Home Customs and Gifts in Vietnam
Always take your shoes off when entering a Vietnamese home. Space is often tight and People socialize by sitting on the floor rather than in chairs. Houses guest are often offered black tea, mangosteens or some other fruit and butter cookies.
One Vietnamese-American woman wrote: "My parents raised us with a moderately-high level of formality. Whenever there were guests in the house, we were paraded in front of them, made to stand in a row and bow. If we visited other people’s homes, we were expected to be quiet and polite, no matter how bored we got. When I misbehaved at the table, my mother would put a very very firm grip on my leg to convey her disapproval. With five children in our family, there was plenty of horsing around. However, we had to don our public faces when appropriate. [Source: Viet World Kitchen February 12, 2009]
If invited to a Vietnamese home: 1) Bring fruit, sweets, flowers, fruit, or incense. 2) Gifts should be wrapped in colorful paper, not white paper. 3) Do not give handkerchiefs, anything black, yellow flowers or chrysanthemums.
When giving gifts, often the giver minimizes the value of the item, even though it may be great. The recipient of a gift is expected to display significant gratitude that sometimes lasts a lifetime. Some may be reluctant to accept a gift because of the burden of gratitude. Vietnamese may refuse a gift on the first offer, even if they intend to accept it, so as not to appear greedy. [Source: Ethnomed.org]
Eating Customs in Vietnam
Unlike Western meals which are divided into separate courses like appetizer, main entrée and dessert, Vietnamese meals are typically served all at once and shared. Most Vietnamese families would typically sit on the floor on mats, and each family member had his or her own rice bowl and utensils. For soup dishes, they would use soup spoons; for stir-fried dishes and rice, they would use chopsticks. Spring rolls, and other similar items that are considered finger foods (eaten by hand).
Vietnamese eat from bowls and use chopsticks and spoons. When not being used chopsticks should be placed on a bone plate or side dish. Don't place idle chopsticks in a bowl. Chopsticks sticking up from a bowl symbolizes death. Chopsticks set on the bowl signifies you have finished eating. In some parts of Vietnam, and with some dishes, people eat with their hands All dishes except individual bowls of rice are communal and are to be shared in the middle of the table. It is also customary for the younger to ask/wait for the elders to eat first and the women sit right next to the rice pot to serve rice for other people. They also pick up food for each other as an action of care.
When eating, Vietnamese eat on the floor around a low table or around a Western-style table with chairs. Dishes are often set out on a table and people help themselves. Food is placed on rice in a bowl, Chinese-style, or on a side plate with a serving spoon. If there isn't a serving spoon, turn your chopsticks around to serve yourself, so that the parts of the chopsticks that have gone in your mouth don’t touch the food that everybody eats.
When eating with Vietnamese: 1) Wait to be shown where to sit. 2) The oldest person should sit and be served first. 3) Pass dishes with both hands. 4) Chopsticks should be placed on the table or a chopstick rest after every few mouthfuls or when breaking to drink or speak. 5) People often hold bowls close to their faces when eating. 6) Hold the spoon in your left hand while eating soup. 7) Cover your mouth when using a toothpick.
Leaving some food and eating all your rice is considered polite. Making loud slurps indicates you like the food. Soup is often served last to wash down meal. Many men use a toothpick when they finish eating and cup their hand while using it. It is considered repulsively rude to blow you nose at the dinner table.
When dining with a Vietnamese family wait for head of the family or the eldest to start eating first before you do. Vietnamese often serve you food into your rice bowl. This is an act of hospitality. Meals often begin with an offering made to the family Buddhist altar. Afterward the food is carried on different trays by the woman the house. Young men often eat with their mother and children and women usually eat together. Guests are often expected to make a little speech to thank their host.
When inviting a friend on an outing, the person who offers the invitation usually offers to pay to the bill. Going dutch with a Vietnamese is not appreciated. If you run into someone at a restaurant and you join his table, let him pay the whole bill or pay it all yourself. The senior person usually pays. Refusing an offer for a meal is considered polite.
Table Manners in a Reasonably Strict Vietnamese Home
The author of Viet World Kitchen wrote: Here are some Vietnamese table manners and etiquette that I can’t quite shake: Polishing chopsticks at a restaurant – When eating out at a Vietnamese restaurant, one of the first things I do is grab some chopsticks and rub them with a paper napkin to make sure that they’re clean. Then I set the chopsticks down on a clean paper napkin in front of each person. I do the same thing with a soup spoon. On the rare occasion that I’ve not polished the plastic utensils out of a sense of embarrassment, I found junk on the utensils. [Source: Viet World Kitchen February 12, 2009]
The eldest man is first. My father always sits at the prominent spot at the table and served first. He still does this, but he also seats my husband and other males around him at one end of the table. Actually, Dad is in charge of the seating arrangement and when we’re dining with my parents, we always wait for him to inform us where to sit; there’s a fluctuating number of family members at the table since we all don’t live at home. When eating at home, I often find myself serving my husband first and he’ll inevitably thank me and tell me, "Hey, you didn’t need to do that." But I did and it’s hard to stop.
Both hands on the table – Western table etiquette says that you are not supposed to put both hands and elbows on the table. I learned that in elementary school and from watching lots of American television shows. So it was that I started eating with only one hand on the table. When my mother caught me, she told me that you have to have both hands on the table during a Vietnamese meal because otherwise, (1) you cannot pick up your rice bowl and use chopsticks at the same time, (2) you cannot use all your fingers to wrap up food in banh trang rice paper and lettuce, and (3) other people won’t know what your other hand is up to under the table.
Setting a ‘proper’ Vietnamese table – Years ago, I was astounded to find out that other Vietnamese people ate their meals with just a rice bowl and chopsticks set out for each person. At my mother’s table, each place setting included a salad plate with a rice bowl centered on top. To the right, there was a perfectly aligned set of matching chopsticks and a soup spoon. That was proper Vietnamese table manners, even though our rice bowls were the cheap free ones we got from the Asian market and the chopsticks were plastic made to look like ivory. My mom’s practical argument is that you have to put the unwanted bits of food (bones, skin, etc.) somewhere – preferable not the table surface and the floor. She also wanted to maintain a certain dignity in the midst of our rather modest immigrant living conditions.
In Vietnam, food trash is often directly put on the table or dropped onto the floor and someone comes along to clean it up later. At casual eateries, you’re mostly given a rice bowl and chopsticks to eat with. I’ve never tried to throw or spit my bits out, but I have tried to set our table with just rice bowls and chopsticks. Personalize food before eating – Vietnamese cuisine is a highly personal one. Before diving into a bowl of pho, I go through the ritual of adding bean sprouts, torn herb leaves, and chile slices. I love to mix up a little dipping sauce at the table or tweak one that’s been set out.
Drinking Customs in Vietnam
Tea (called tra by the locals) is the most common drink in Vietnam. As a matter of fact, most Vietnamese prepare an amount of tea that is enough to last for an entire day. Tea is also served before and after every meal. Most Vietnamese prefer green tea, but there are also black, fermented teas that can be purchased in urban areas. While tea is the drink of choice for most Vietnamese, the country also grows and sells coffee. Coffee, or "caphe," is a famous Vietnamese drink that is made by mixing French-roast coffee and condensed milk. It can be served hot or cold, depending on preference. [Source: Famous Wonders]
The Vietnamese like to play a drinking game in which a lazy Susan with a drink on it is spun on a table surrounded by people. Whoever has a drink sitting in front of him or her when it stops spinning has to drink it.
Adam Bray of CNN wrote: "Mot! Hai! Ba! Do! (One! Two! Three! Drink!), shout my friends and I as we lean forward to sip sweet, golden rice wine in unison through long bamboo straws in Phan Thiet City. Between rounds we tear off bits of salted, dried squid dipped in a blend of sour tamarind and soy sauce; unwrap pickled pork in banana leaf; and slurp the semi-formed fetus from hard boiled quail eggs. These and other essential drinking snacks are appropriately called moi, or "fish bait." When I go out drinking with other men (it’s not yet acceptable for Vietnamese girls to drink alcohol), or di nhau (go on a drinking session), it’s essential that we all drink equal portions. Unlike in the north, we pass around a communal glass here in the south. Despite the potency (40 percent ABV), I can’t stop anxiously recalling the high rates of hepatitis and TB here in Binh thuan Province. [Source: Adam Bray, CNN, March 10, 2010]
See Streetside Beer, Under Alcoholic Drinks
see Economics, Business Customs
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014