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Vietnam Local Etiquette

Vietnam is full of beautiful landscape and never fading culture that should be included in your bucket list.

In the big cities like Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, or Danang, people tend to be more open-minded as the chance of cultural exchange with the western countries.

However, there are still something you need to know before visiting the country to avoid causing offence.

Learning about a country’s religion and culture is critical to avoid embarrassing situations. 

Here is a comprehensive etiquette guide to give you a quick overview of Vietnamese culture and customs. Having background knowledge of Vietnamese customs will ensure that you have the best possible experience on your trip to Vietnam.
 

Things to know

When discussing etiquette, it is important to have a general feel for the values and customs of a culture. It is almost impossible to remember an exhaustive list of etiquette rules. However, when you are aware of what the culture values, you can avoid doing things that are in opposition to those values.

The Vietnamese people value humility, restraint, and modesty. Avoid being boastful or showing off wealth. Public displays of affection are generally frowned upon so try to avoid touching people of the opposite sex. Dress conservatively and keep your body covered. The Vietnamese culture has a great respect for the elderly. In every situation, it is best to give honor and preference to the eldest member of the group. 

A long struggle for independence has given the Vietnamese a deep sense of national pride. Vietnamese value their independence and history and offended by people who ignore or violate either. Most Vietnamese have an interest in all things American. They believe all past hostilities were part of the natural defense of their national territory. Families are very strong and help each other in all needs.

We will first start with 18 general dos and don'ts in Vietnam

18 General Dos and Don'ts in Vietnam

Vietnam's culture demands that you observe certain strictures, although the Vietnamese are generally very forgiving of unintentional faux pas.

Vietnamese are very welcoming to their visitors. Vietnamese hospitality will make you feel right at home, more so when you keep the following etiquette tips in mind.

9 Dos when visiting Vietnam

1. Dress appropriately.

The Vietnamese are generally modest about clothing and look askance at visitors wearing far too little in public. It is even more true when visiting temples and pagodas - keep your arms and legs covered and hide as much bare skin as you can, with a sarong for instance.

2. Ask before you shoot.

Get people's permission before you take their picture. This goes double for pictures in rural ethnic villages as cameras can be seen as intrusive. In some towns, such as the picturesque Hoi An, people often expect a small payment before you take the photo. 

3. Watch your feet.

As in any Buddhist culture, it is considered impolite to point your feet toward someone. Moreover, you should avoid placing your feet too high or above objects. If you are invited into a local’s home be sure to take your shoes off at the entrance.

4. Buy legitimate bottled water.

Meaning that you should avoid small stalls and better buy it from known convenience stores. Also remember to stay hydrated and drink a lot of water, especially during outdoor activities, because of the humidity and heat. 

5. Do eat local food in Vietnam.

Vietnamese food ranks among some of the best you will ever experience in Southeast Asia. You can be as noisy as you like. Slurping and smacking while eating Vietnamese noodles is accepted in these parts, it signals that you are enjoying your meal !

6. Go ahead and drink, but not to excess.

The Vietnamese enjoy to share their rice wine over a good meal but remember to drink responsibly since habitual drunkenness is frowned upon in society. Also note that drinking is male-dominated and therefore women drinking in public is simply the weird thing.

7. Do give only a very relative trust to an affirmative answer from a Vietnamese.

Vietnamese have difficulty confessing their ignorance or misunderstanding. So be careful and make sure the "yes" is really one. It must even become a reflex for you not to have to deal with complicated situations.

8. Do show respect to the elderly.

Vietnamese all have great respect for the elderly. As you are traveling in Vietnam, it would be appreciable when meeting them to lower your head by making your greeting or just smiling.

9. Do bring color pencils and coloring books.

When visiting rural villages, kids would be glad to receive some gifts. Avoid giving them candies as it can cause dental cavities. Instead, make gift of school supplies such as books or pens. Also avoid giving them money as it incites them to beg.

9 Don’ts when visiting Vietnam

1. Do not talk about the Vietnam War.

Avoid talking about politics altogether. The Vietnamese have mixed feelings about the "American war” and are understandably averse to bringing it up, especially in the presence of American citizens.

2. Do not argue with your guide.

When traveling in an organized tour, your guide is your first spokesperson. Maintaining a good relationship with the guide is therefore particularly important. Always prefer the dialogue by accepting differences in points of view. In case you are not satisfied by your guide, give us a call and we will replace him.

3. Do not cause Vietnamese to "lose face".

The concept of saving face is extremely important in East Asian social relationships. Avoid behavior that causes embarrassment to another party but most importantly, do not lose your temper in public and try to be cool whenever possible.

4. Do not show off.

Flaunting wealth is considered as rude in Vietnam. Do not carry more money than you need when walking in public and do not wear too much jewelry. 

5. Do not publicly kiss and cuddle.

These personal displays of affection are not considered appropriate in Vietnam and belongs to the private sphere. However, holding hands is ok, particularly as you cross the busy roads. When you meet someone for the first time, a handshake is the common greeting.

6. Do not expect to sleep late...

...as Vietnam starts moving at 6am and only very few places are open late at night. If you are staying in major cities and like to sleep in, it might be a good idea to bring your earplugs. 

7. Do not stop as you cross the busy roads.

Frightening as it can be, just keep walking. The traffic will avoid you. Pick a spot across the road, stare at it and keep walking, no matter what.

8. Do not stick your chopsticks in the bowl, or upright in the rice.

This reminds Vietnamese of the two burning joss sticks used for funerals and is considered unlucky for many locals. To signal that you are done with your meal, place the chopsticks across the top of the bowl instead.

9. Do not end up in jail.

Do not take photos of any military installations and equipment. This can be considered a breach of national security and you could end up in jail, and you do not want to spend your vacations …and a bit … at a Vietnamese jail.

Shopping etiquette in Vietnam

Shopping in the West compared to the East is a very different experience. Unlike high street chains and big companies, these vendors are making their living, and fixed prices don’t really exist. Therefore, it’s in their best interest to try and get as much money for their offerings as possible.

Haggling in an unfamiliar country can be a scary experience for some, but if you want to try and get things a little cheaper there’s no harm in trying your hand at haggling. Here are our top tips:

Do

  • Haggle – vendors will expect you to haggle a little, but you’ll need to get over the fact that you won’t pay a local’s price. Bargaining over a price should be done with a cheerful attitude and if the vendor won’t budge, either pay or walk away
  • Stay cool, literally! Make sure you’re well fed and hydrated, topped up with sunscreen and a hat, and not in any position where you’re likely to get angrier or more agitated than usual

Don’t

  • Do not ever lose your temper in public or when bargaining for a purchase. This is considered a serious loss of face for both parties. Always maintain a cool and happy demeanour and you will be reciprocated with the same
  • Try not to get upset if you meet someone who paid less than you for the same item. Street vendors make a living from selling their wares to tourists, don’t take it personally

Here is our full shopping guide in Vietnam

Dining and Table Manners

Street food is a huge part of the culture in Vietnam, make sure to try some delicious pho (Vietnamese soup) and other treats from street vendors..

However, if you are invited into someone’s house for a meal, here are a few cultural and social conventions to be aware of:

  • Before eating, say “Chúc mọi người ăn ngon miệng” (choo-k ma new-ey ang nong min). This means the same thing as “Enjoy,” but also shows your excitement for the meal.
  • Oldest Eats First: Don’t eat until the oldest person at the table begins eating.
  • Clean Plate: Make sure to eat all the food you are given, this is seen as a compliment. It is offensive to leave food on a plate.
  • No Picking Teeth: If you need to pick your teeth, cover your mouth with your hand.

More to be aware as below:

Do

  • You might like to bring a gift: sweets, flowers, or fruit for example. Gifts should be wrapped in colorful paper
  • Always wait to be shown where to sit
  • Set your chopsticks down to speak and for a rest after every few mouthfuls
  • Hold your bowl of food close to your face – nose to bowl is acceptable!
  • When eating soup, the spoon is held in the left hand
  • 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, if possible. More is better if you can! If you really can’t, just explain to your host and they should understand.
  • Slurp your noodles! Don’t be afraid to express your enjoyment of your food by making a lot of noise

Don’t

  • Gifts should never be yellow or black, or wrapped in either yellow or black paper. These colors are seen as bad omens and will be very offensive if given to your hosts
  • Do not give handkerchiefs as a gift, they are seen as a symbol of a sad parting or a farewell (in fact the idea of handkerchiefs is seen as quite disgusting in the East, so steer clear of them altogether!)
  • Do not sit down until the oldest member has seated themselves
  • Do not leave any food on your plate, this is considered impolite
  • Leaving a pair of chopsticks sitting vertically in a rice bowl looks very much like the incense sticks that are burned for the dead. This is a powerful sign and is not appreciated anywhere in Asia

Interaction, body language & gestures

In Vietnam, there are specific social conventions that are followed in business and social situations. Circumstances such as greetings have certain gestures and required etiquette that should be followed.

Being respectful of these customs will go miles to help you make new friends in Vietnam. Here are our top tips on how to interact with the local people:

Do

  • 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. Some Vietnamese use a two-handed shake, with the left hand on top of the right wrist
  • The traditional greeting is to press your hands together in front of your body and bow slightly, but this is a bit old-fashioned now and only practised in formal situations. In most cases, a bow is enough. Always remove shoes when entering someone’s house
  • As a form of respect to elderly or other esteemed people, such as monks, take off your hat and bow your head politely when addressing them
  • Do initiate a handshake with a member of the same sex. If a woman extends her hand, you may shake it, if not, bow your head instead

Don’t

  • Never, ever point your feet towards anything sacred, such as a Buddha image
  • Foreign visitors to Vietnam are generally not permitted to invite Vietnamese nationals into their hotel rooms
  • Do not touch someone’s head or shoulder or pass items over someone’s head. This is incredibly offensive, even with small children. This is because in Asia, the head is the symbolic highest point

Temple etiquette

Vietnam has sacred sites for both the Buddhist and Hindu religion. While visiting one of the beautiful religious sites like Mỹ Sơn (a popular sacred Hindu site,) the stunning Linh Phuoc Pagoda (a sacred Buddhist site) covered with mosaics in Da Lat, or the Ngoc Son Temple in Hanoi, it is important to show respect.

Since religious sites are popular attractions, it is important to be familiar with appropriate behavior and dress for sacred locations. When visiting a sacred spot, it is important to be respectful. While you are visiting there will be people who have come for religious worship and reflection. It is important that you don’t become a distraction to those who are seeking peace. Something as simple as what you are wearing can cause a major distraction at a sacred site.

Do

  • Bow your head to pay respect to the temple and the Buddha statues inside.
  • Wear appropriate clothing – you will need to cover their chest and shoulders. If you are wearing a dress, make sure it hangs lower than your knees. Top tip: always pack a light scarf in your bag to cover yourself in case a spontaneous temple visit occurs!
  • Wear sandals – This isn’t required, but it’s helpful. Many places in the temples you need to remove your shoes to enter and wearing sandals makes life easier.
  • Try to keep quiet. It is OK to whisper in parts of the temple but save the talking for outside the temple grounds.

Don’t

  • Don’t wear skin-tight clothing or shorts (below the knees is a good rule to stick by)
  • Never ever point your bare feet at the monks and statues of Buddha.
  • Try to avoid any public displays of affection when around temples or holy sites, they are considered extremely disrespectful
  • Don’t ever touch the statues or ever touch the head of a monk. In fact, it is best if you don’t touch the monks at all!

Gift giving etiquette in Vietnam

  • Flowers are normally given only by men to women.
  • Always wrap a gift in colorful paper.
  • When visiting a Vietnamese home, bring a gift for the hostess. A gift for children or an elderly parent is also appreciated.
  • Give items useful for daily activity, like designer soaps, cosmetics, lamps or framed pictures for the home.
  • Don't give handkerchiefs (symbols of a sad farewell). Most Asians consider the Western habit of using a cloth handkerchief and then returning it to your pocket to be barbaric.
  • In business, give whiskey. Giving a gift in an office setting may be misinterpreted as a bribe. Try to save your business gift giving until you are invited to your colleague's home.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some related questions regarding the Dos an Don'ts in Vietnam

Q. Is Vietnam safe to visit?

All in all, Vietnam is an extremely safe country to travel in.

  • The police keep a pretty tight grip on social order and there are rarely reports of muggings, robberies or sexual assaults.
  • Scams and hassles do exist, particularly in Hanoi, HCMC and Nha Trang (and to a lesser degree in Hoi An).
  • Be extra careful if you’re travelling on two wheels on Vietnam’s anarchic roads; traffic accident rates are woeful and driving standards are pretty appalling.

Here is our full guide of Vietnam safety and precaution.

When is the best time to visit Vietnam?

The best time of year to visit Vietnam is spring (February to April) and autumn (September to November). The temperatures are more moderate, and rainfall is lighter. In spring, March and April have the lowest rainfall across all destinations and temperatures are pleasant, though still cool in the far north.

It is the fact that Vietnam is a year-round destination. Every time of year, you can always find the sun somewhere (more or less).

How to find the cheapest flight to Vietnam (or anywhere)?

It will require a little effort to do some research on Google and compare the price via some platforms. Read our full guide to find the cheapest flight to Vietnam here.

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