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Vietnam is a country rich in history and traditions, dating back thousands of years and instilled with a deep respect for the land, the sea and their ancestors. Here are 11 things you should know to understand some of the nuances of this beautiful culture.
This one infuriates business people all the time, because they come to Vietnam with their own ideas about how things should operate: I tell you what I want, you give me a price, and then you deliver. The business culture here isn’t that simple, though. It’s more so based on trust and reputation. Words in a legal document are fine and all, but until your new partners know you as a person, there will always be suspicion. Trust takes years to build and just seconds to destroy, so tread carefully.
Vietnamese people care deeply about their reputations and how they’re perceived by their friends, family and colleagues. You should avoid doing anything that will embarrass or diminish a person in public. That could include arguing, ridiculing, confronting or even bartering too aggressively. This is also the reason why you’ll rarely see violent outbursts in Vietnam. Everyone is non-confrontational, because aggression causes both parties to lose face. For the vast majority of minor infringements, a stern glance is enough.
When you speak to students in Vietnam, it can be a bit disheartening to hear about how restricted their lives are – but this is the norm. The job market is hyper-competitive, so young people have to be at the top of their classes if they want to have a chance at the best career paths. There are amazing opportunities in this booming economy, but only for those who put in the work. That means long days at school, with tutors and extra classes at night – especially English, which is now a requirement for many students graduating from higher education.
After name and nationality, age is one of the first questions you’ll be asked in Vietnam. Their society is built on Confucian beliefs, where experience and wisdom are highly respected. This means the older you are, the more respect you command. You shouldn’t swear or bring up inappropriate topics when you’re with older people – things like death or sex. At dinners, the eldest are served first, and at home or work, their opinions carry more weight. It can be frustrating when an older person speaks down to you at work, but that’s the culture here.
Some people have learned this the hard way: Don’t speak ill of Vietnamese war heroes, or make jokes about anything related to the war. Generally speaking, Vietnamese people have a great sense of humor, but they don’t joke about the war years. Those were difficult times for everyone in this country. As a foreigner, you need to be careful with this topic – and also when speaking about their colonial past.
Shopping in Vietnam is often a battle of subtleties and strategy. Foreigners should expect an extra fee, because shopkeepers don’t respect you as an opponent. They know they have all the advantages. Your best weapons are your feet. Negotiate them down until they won’t move any more, and then threaten to walk away. For most shops, a smaller profit margin still beats getting nothing.
Many Vietnamese traditions and customs are based around their ancestral beliefs. One of the greatest fears in Vietnam is that the dead won’t find peace in the afterlife – that they’ll be left to wander as tortured spirits. Most everybody in Vietnam has a ghost story, from a butterfly landing on them during a funeral to strange voices at night. No matter your thoughts on the supernatural, don’t make light of ghosts or the deceased.
There is so much opportunity in Vietnam these days. Everyone is working hard to improve both themselves and the lives of their families, taking a long exposure view: Today’s long hours and sacrifices will eventually pay off. You won’t hear too many people grumbling about their hardships, so try not to complain about your own problems too much. As a foreigner who can afford international travel, you won’t find much sympathy.
Tipping isn’t expected in Vietnam. If you feel the service has gone above and beyond, feel free to leave a little extra, but if you do, be discrete. Hide it under a plate or behind the bill. When you make an overt show of tipping, it could make a person feel like they’re losing face – like they’re begging. Some people will just flat out refuse a tip, because they think you’ve made a mistake in counting your money.
Vietnam’s rivers, rice paddies, mountains and deep blue seas are deeply ingrained in the local culture. Because of this, it’s rude to leave food uneaten, especially when you’re in someone’s home and they’ve cooked for you. It’s an insult to the land and the workers who made the meal possible. Try not to take more than you can eat, and be sure to give out many compliments.
Vietnamese people talk about their societal problems all the time – be it pollution, traffic, corruption, academic cheating, etc. But they’re less patient when it’s a foreigner doing the criticizing. It comes off as arrogant, as though the person were saying, “Here are all the reasons why my country is better than Vietnam.” When it’s understood like that, of course it’s upsetting. If you make a joke about the crazy traffic, you’ll be fine, but don’t go on and on without also recognizing that there is so much to love about this amazing country.