The Vietnamese are very welcoming and tolerant to foreign visitors. They are a proud race who went through a lot of trials in the past, yet have overcome them. Now, their country is one of the leading countries in Southeast Asia today. Their cultural traditions are complex, but knowing a little about them will help a traveler understand their ways and why they behave or do things in a certain manner.
The teachings of Confucius greatly influence the Vietnamese and the way they relate towards others. Confucianism puts an emphasis on duty, loyalty, honor, respect for age and seniority and sincerity—these are the reasons why Vietnamese life revolves around the family.
The Vietnamese family is made up of the nuclear and extended family. Upon visiting a typical Vietnamese home, it is not uncommon to find three generations living together under one roof. The father is the head of the family and the provider and protector, and everyone who lives in the home is expected to obey the head of the family. It is also a common sight to see little altars dedicated to departed family members, because descendants will worship their ancestors to ensure their good favor. That is how much family means to the Vietnamese.
Just like other Asian nations, the concept of face is extremely important to the Vietnamese. This can be described as a quality that reflects a person’s reputation, dignity and honor. It is possible to lose face, save face or “give face” to another person. For instance, a person can be given face by praising him for a job well done, while reprimanding him publicly can cause him to lose face. Foreigners must understand that it is possible to unintentionally cause someone to lose face, so it’s crucial to be aware of one’s actions and words.
With that being said, here are a couple of things to remember when in Vietnam:
Handshakes are the most common form of greeting. Two men will usually greet each other with a gentle and brief handshake. A lot of people also use a two-handed handshake when greeting and saying goodbye. A woman greeting another woman may also shake her hand, but sometimes a nod of acknowledgement will do. If a man is greeting a woman and vice versa, it’s fine to shake hands, but the man must wait for the woman to initiate it.
Never touch someone else’s head, because the head is considered a sacred part of the body. The same goes for the shoulder, even if it’s just a quick pat. Passing an object over the head of someone is likewise considered to be very rude behavior.
Don’t point with your finger, instead use your hand with your palm flat to gesture at an object. When beckoning to a person, extend your arm, palm facing down and make a scratching motion with your fingers. Don’t stand with your hands on your hips, and don’t cross your arms over your chest. Both may be interpreted as a sign of anger or a threat. Also, avoid crossing the index and middle finger because it is a rude gesture.
The Vietnamese prefer standing at least an arms’ length from one another. When conversing with a stranger, keep your distance to about two and a half to three feet away. But if you’re talking to friends the distance may be a bit shorter than that.
The Vietnamese favor indirect eye contact. They view overtly direct eye contact as suspicious and threatening. Feel free to glance away at the person you’re talking to. When talking to the opposite sex, be careful not to touch them.
Make sure to always use two hands to give or receive any object, even if you are not the direct recipient
and you’re just passing the object to the person near you. Vietnamese society is still very reserved when it comes to showing affection for the opposite sex. Though it is acceptable to hug and give your partner a quick kiss in Hanoi or Saigon, it is considered social taboo elsewhere.
Remember to keep your temper in check. Never show your anger because this will only embarrass you and your Vietnamese friends. If you’re not happy or you’re disagreeing with something that’s been said, discuss the issue in a respectful and calm manner.
Women who are traveling to Vietnam, should avoid wearing revealing clothing and wearing too much makeup. Women should take care to cover their legs and cleavage, and be modest in behavior and attire at all times.
Dining at a Vietnamese Home
If ever you get invited to dine at a Vietnamese home, expect to leave with a full belly and the memory of the most authentic, sumptuous dishes that you will ever have in your entire life. To make sure that you don’t unintentionally offend anyone, here are a couple things that you should do.
Bring a gift for the family. Fruits and sweets are both appropriate, and don’t forget to wrap them in colorful paper. Avoid giving gifts that signify death or mourning, such as handkerchiefs, anything black, or yellow flowers or chrysanthemums.
Take your shoes off before entering a Vietnamese home. Be sure to step over the threshold.
You will be shown where to sit. Wait for the oldest person to sit, and after he or she does, the rest of the family and you may now sit. Before you eat, wait for the oldest person or the head of the family to start eating. As an act of hospitality, members of the family will often serve you food.
Remember to pass dishes with both hands, and use your chopsticks. Place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest after every few mouthfuls or when drinking or speaking. When eating, hold the bowl close to your face, and hold the soup spoon with your left hand while eating soup.
Try to finish everything on your plate or bowl, and when you’re done, rest your chopsticks on top of your rice bowl.
If you’re in Vietnam for business, it would be in your favor to understand the etiquette and protocol before starting negotiations.
Appearance is very important, and being well-groomed is appreciated by Vietnamese businessmen. Men must wear a suit in black, grey or navy, and complete the look with a coordinating tie. Women should wear conservative pant suits or skirt suits, with minimal makeup and neatly styled hair.
Appointments should be made before the meeting, so don’t just barge in someone’s office. It’s best to make the appointment several weeks in advance. You may also want to bring someone with you to act as a translator or interpreter if there’s a need for one. Be punctual for the meeting, and shake hands with members of the same sex only. If a Vietnamese woman is present during the meeting, wait for her to extend her hand. If she doesn’t, then greet her by bowing your head slightly.
Exchange business cards before you start negotiations. Present your card with both hands, and receive business cards in the same manner. Start with small talk and inquire about their families before discussing any business matter. You’ll most likely be asked the same type of questions, and that’s because the Vietnamese will want to get to know you a little before doing business with you, especially if this is the first time that they’ll be meeting you. Hierarchy is extremely important, so defer to the senior person in the room to begin and guide the conversations.
Negotiations can be slow and decisions will typically go through a lot of red tape and group consultations, so be patient. The Vietnamese value relationship-building and harmony so avoid pressure tactics or hard selling and any sort of confrontation. At the end of the meeting or during business meals, it is customary to exchange business gifts. They should be small but not expensive. Something bearing your company logo or a small item that is typical to your country are both appropriate gifts.
Whether you’re in Vietnam for business or pleasure, knowing the local customs and etiquette will ensure that you and your Vietnamese friends or business associates will have a pleasant time together. Most of all, it will show that you have the utmost respect for the culture and people of this wonderful country.
So take the time to remember the do’s and don’ts while you’re in Vietnam. You’ll draw more people to you, and maybe gain a friend or two.