Before embarking on your journey to Vietnam, it would be a good idea for you to familiarize yourself with the social behavior expected there, so you’ll know what is and is not acceptable. By doing this you will avoid misunderstandings, as well as gain an appreciation of the local customs.
Meeting and Greeting
The traditional way of greeting others is to press your hands together in front of your body, and then bow slightly. Nowadays however, the western custom of shaking hands has become the norm.
Handshakes are usually shared only between members of the same sex. If a woman wants to shake hands, she will extend her hand first. Otherwise, a slight bow of your head is sufficient. Vietnamese women are usually more inclined to bow their heads than to shake hands.
If you know someone well, then it is common to shake hands with both hands by putting your left hand on their right hand. Or, if you’re greeting an older person, you can shake with your right hand, and put your left hand on the inside of your right elbow. This is considered a respectful gesture.
When greeting someone, you can say “xinchao” + given name + title”, but be aware that Vietnamese is a tonal language with six different tones. So to avoid embarrassment make sure to learn the phrase properly before practicing it in a real situation.
Business cards are customarily exchanged in business contracts, even for small transactions.
Be sure to dress modestly when in Vietnam. Women’s tops should cover the shoulders, especially when visiting religious sites. Short pants should generally be reserved for beaches. It is considered inappropriate for women to wear heavy makeup or revealing clothing.
Avoid displays of affection in public places. Holding hands is acceptable.
Using Your Hands
When you give something to somebody, always use both hands. Do not cross your arms at your chest or stand with your arms on your hips as this posture is considered rude.
Walking holding hands between people of the same sex may seem awkward in the west, but is simply seen as a gesture of friendship in Vietnam.
Head vs Feet
Like in some other parts of Asia such as Myanmar, the head is considered sacred, while the feet are considered dirty.
Hence, it is considered rude to pass something above somebody’s head, or to touch somebody’s head. Parents or grandparents, however, are still allowed to touch a child’s head.
Likewise, it is also considered rude to point your feet towards other people, especially towards anything sacred such as a Buddha image. When entering someone’s house, you are expected to take off your shoes.
When dining in Vietnam, you will find yourself using chopsticks a lot of the time. Remember not to leave your chopsticks sticking out vertically from a rice bowl. This is seen as resembling incense sticks burned for the dead. It is also considered rude in other parts of Asia, such as China and Japan.
When eating with chopsticks from a rice bowl, hold the bowl in your hand close to your face. When eating soup, your spoon should be held with your left hand.
When invited to dine with Vietnamese, wait to be shown where to sit. The oldest person should sit down first. Meals are usually served family style where the dishes are shared in the middle of the table. When passing the dishes, use two hands.
An offer of tea is a friendly gesture of hospitality and should be accepted.
When invited to a Vietnamese home, you can bring fruit, sweets, or incense. Several gifts are considered taboo, such as handkerchiefs, knives, watches, or clocks. A handkerchief is considered the symbol of a sad farewell, while knives or other cutting tools symbolize cutting of relationships, so they should be avoided.
Gifts should be wrapped in colorful paper, but avoiding the colors yellow and black. Yellow and black are considered to be bad omens, so do not give any yellow or black gifts either.
Gifts are usually not opened immediately upon receipt, but later when the giver has left.
In Vietnam, you can ‘lose face’, ‘gain face’, or ‘save face’. A person’s ‘face’ is a combination of his or her good reputation, dignity, and social standing. Vietnamese see this as a very important aspect of their social identity.
This concept is similar to that in neighboring countries such as China and Japan. To ‘save face’ or ‘gain face’ is when a person is seen in a better light, while to ‘lose face’ is when a person feels publically shamed or seen in a less favorable way.
Vietnamese are always self-conscious about face and try to avoid losing face. So you need to be aware of this and avoid making anyone lose face by pointing out their mistakes in public.
Losing one’s temper is frowned upon and considered to be very poor manners. Shouting or arguing in public will result in losing face, so this is to be avoided. Also, do not raise your voice or scream at someone, as this will cause the other person to lose face.
Smile and Be Friendly!
While in cultural exchanges, there is always the risk of making an unintended mistake, do not let that discourage you from interacting with locals. Our knowledgeable local tour guides will be a great source of input for you. So, put on your best smile and enjoy making a few new Vietnamese friends!
Explore Asia with Asia Highlights
At Asia Highlights we offer tailor-made tours through Asia, where you can enjoy all highlights as well as amazing cultural experiences. To get started, send us an email.