In Vietnamese society, gift-giving symbolizes deep connection between people; it represents friendship, tight bond, something that goes beyond being mere colleagues or companions.
While gift-giving is traditionally done during special occasions like birthdays and Tet, young generations of Vietnamese now give presents even on ordinary days to express love and gratitude.
Here we trace back the evolution of this special practice.
Feudal Society (7th century BC)
Centuries ago, neighbors gave each other food in daily life as a sign of friendliness, while more important gifts such as tea, antithetical couplet (câu đối), and money are reserved for ceremonial occasions — when a graduate passed the Confucian court examination, when an official got promoted to a higher position, longevity celebrations, and Tet holiday.
During Tet, the emperors would give out lucky money, gifts, and feast for their courtiers. The Trinh lords often gave money and objects (usually ceremonial dresses), while some Nguyen emperors gifted the officials with delicacies.
Subsidy Economy (1975-1986)
During the subsidy era, described as a period of hardships and economic distress, goods were allocated and delivered to people based on a coupon-based system, thereby essential items such as meat and fish were extremely scarce.
To improve their quality of life, many households had to grow crops and raise livestock by themselves. Gifts at this time were mainly "homegrown" like eggs, bananas, food, or even a whole chicken if the giver was generous.
Teachers, who hold a very important position in Vietnamese culture, may receive slightly more "premium" gifts such as soap bars, notebooks, clothes or fountain pens.
Doi Moi Period (after 1986)
In rural areas, besides traditional “homegrown” products, most people exchanged homemade items such as bamboo and rattan, or embroidery, whereas fabric and clothes are popular gifts among the upper class.
Around that time, as Doi Moi had just been around for more than 10 years, the ghost of poverty and hunger still haunted people’s minds, thereby the need of being fed, being clothed, and being practical affected their choice of gifts. It is not surprising that confectionery and fabrics dominated the gift basket of Vietnamese people.
Due to the influence of Western culture, more festivities and celebrations like Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Halloween were introduced to the country, giving Vietnamese people more “good excuses” for gift-giving.
Gifts were becoming more diverse and personalized. Electrical and household appliances were common gifts among families. On Vietnamese Women's Day, women often received jewelry, cosmetics, and shampoo from their loved ones.
In the past, gift-giving was a way to show gratitude to family members, or to forge connections with relatives and friends. In modern times, if you are working in the field of marketing or sales, the act of giving and receiving gifts also helps enhance relationships with clients.
Along with the tremendous economic boom are the big changes in the kind of gifts being given in modern Vietnam. People now prefer more luxurious and high-quality gifts, and those that have more long-lasting value.
Gifts in the age of technology
"Digital" gifts have become a trend in recent years because of their convenience. It could be gift cards, coupons, audiobooks, or eBooks. Many young people even make videos by themselves to celebrate their relationship.
In the face of the alarming air and food pollution reported constantly, Vietnamese have gradually become more aware of their health. Nutritional food supplements and body care equipment are on the top of the gift list, especially for the elderly.
“When my grandfather got discharged from the hospital, he had difficulty standing or walking. My grandma gave him a cane, and my parents gave him a blood pressure monitor. Instead of fruits and cakes, my family now gives gifts that are actually usable and helpful to the recipient,” Nguyen Huu Duc, a reader of Vietcetera, said.
In the era of advertising and over-consumption, green lifestyle and minimalism have emerged as new trends among many households. Some people think that buying gifts is like buying more garbage.
In recent years, many Canadian families have abandoned the traditional Christmas gift-buying habit. A woman gave tickets to the park for her children and tickets to a concert for her parents. Families and children make Christmas decorations with flour and water instead of plastic ornaments. For them, experiences are more important than material things.
Some eco-friendly gift ideas:
- Potted plants
- Cloth bag
- Products made from bamboo and wood
- Online educational course
- Travel package
Beyond material gifts
Banh chung and banh day have been typical gifts during Tet holiday for thousands of years. But for many Vietnamese, it’s not the material gifts that matter the most. Whatever the celebration is — whether its birthday or Tet or Christmas — the sincerity and love among family and friends far outweigh all the most expensive gifts.
“When giving gifts to others, I often attach a handwritten letter. Letters can be as long as an A4 sheet of paper or more. Usually, I talk about the first time I met them, our trips together, and all our most unforgettable memories. After reading the letters, my friends usually burst out laughing and tease me, but they keep all those letters after all, " Yui, writer at Vietcetera, said about his gift-giving style.
Perhaps, at a time when we’re bombarded with millions of gift options, a simple heartfelt handwritten letter is enough. Even more than enough.