Learning about a country’s customs and culture is part of the joy of traveling — but in the process, embarrassing faux pas is inevitable. Understanding why locals find direct eye contact rude, for example, can save you a lot of trouble.
While people in the hospitality industry are often more forgiving, others may not be. Offending a police officer or someone who’s in charge of your trip, such as your tour operator, could ruin your travel plans. In short, going somewhere new is all about making sure that the messages you try to send to locals are the same ones being received. If you’re reading this on a plane to Vietnam or still planning that dream vacation, here are a few cultural considerations you should keep in mind when in Vietnam.
General Vietnamese values
Traditionally, Vietnamese people value family, respect and reputation over worldly goods. Despite western influences as well as restrictions imposed by the Communist regime, Vietnamese people still practice traditional elements in their culture, and they are proud of their unique customs and celebrations.
It’s also worth noting that Vietnamese culture has great respect for the elderly. In every situation, it’s best to respect and care for elderlies.
Proper ways to greet and address locals
Learning Vietnamese is probably one of the hardest things to do. Foreign speakers often rate the difficulty of the language as 8/10. But nevertheless, it’s important to at least try.
One thing to always remember is that Vietnamese is a tonal language, so the meaning of a word can change based on your intonation.
While you’re at it, when greeting the locals, say ‘Xin Chao’ (seen chow), which means hello.
As mentioned, Vietnamese people value respect and prioritize the elders so addressing them correctly according to age is extremely important. Here’s a basic guide to using correct pronouns:
Same age - use ‘em’
Slightly older - ‘chị’
Female that is 70 years old or older - ‘bа’
Young male - ‘em’
Slightly older - ‘anh’
Male that is 70 years old and older - ‘фng’ (ohm)
So, if you’re a female in your early 20s and your tour guide is in her 30s, you can say, “Xin chao, Chi” to impress her. Or “Xin chao, Anh” if your guide’s a male.
When visiting religious and historical sites
Vietnam has plenty of sacred sites for both Hindus and Buddhists. Aside from being places of worship, they tend to also be popular attractions — usually filled with tourists, both believers and non-believers.
If you’re visiting any temple, no matter how small it may seem, always show respect by wearing a non-revealing outfit like a shirt with sleeves and a bottom that at least reaches the knees, or bringing a scarf to make sure you’re not exposing your skin that much or causing a major distraction. Also, remove any headgears like hats or helmets.
The head is considered the most sacred spot of the body and the foot is the least. Knowing that, never touch someone’s head and don’t point the soles of your feet toward a person or a sacred statue.
What to wear in public and on special occasions
Unless you’re attending weddings or special events, you don’t have to worry about what you wear while roaming through the country. Just keep in mind the rules mentioned above when visiting religious sites.
Overall, it’s generally a good idea to wear long shorts and casual shirts. Because of the warm and humid weather, make sure to pack breathable fabrics and a lightweight raincoat in case the weather suddenly changes. Also, only bring sweaters and jeans if you’re headed to Sapa or the north of the country.
Eating and drinking etiquette
Anthony Bourdain loved Vietnam for a reason — the food!
Before digging into anything, do your research and make sure to experience the unique flavors of the region you are visiting.
A few Vietnamese lessons here: before eating, say “Chъc mọi người ăn ngon miệng” (choo-k ma new-ey ang nong min). It basically means “Enjoy,” but also shows your excitement for the meal.
Remember, Vietnamese people prioritize their elders, so the eldest eats first. We strongly advise not to munch on anything until the eldest person at the table begins eating. It’s pretty common everywhere, but leaving food on your plate is considered offensive in Vietnam. That’s why it’s important to know how much food you want to eat in advance so you only take what you eat and finish the meal.
As in most places that use chopsticks, don’t hold yours vertically (as in pointing at the ceiling). The chopsticks resemble incense sticks and could be seen as a reference to burning incense at a funeral. This is highly offensive.
When out for a tour, always consider tipping your tour leader for their satisfactory service throughout your trip.
Although tipping isn't mandatory or customary in Vietnam, it is always appreciated. It’s pretty simple, if you’re happy with the services provided by drivers, waiters, or other service workers to leave a small tip in order to show your appreciation. While it may not be customary to you, it’s of great significance to the people who take care of you during your travels.
Carrying small notes of the local currency will make tipping easier, or bring a couple of dollars just to make it personal. Also, it’s best to avoid tipping with coins, very small denomination notes, or dirty and ripped notes, as this can be regarded as an insult.