One of the ways you can begin to understand a culture that’s different than your own is to learn how to be polite. To make a good impression with the locals in a country you’ve never been to, be aware of how the way of thinking there might deviate from what you’re used to back home. This article aims to serve as a guide for how to do this in Vietnam. This is not to say that all of these rules apply to every single Vietnamese person, but rather these can be “rules of thumb” during your time here. Naturally, individuals are more complex that a set of rules can ever encompass. However, making some generalizations is a necessary part of learning to navigate and better attempting to integrate int can you come to expect during your visit?
Depending on where you’re from in the world, this might surprise you. Where I’m from, you generally don’t do this (particularly to women). However, this is a Vietnamese person’s way of showing respect, as they want to address you properly when they see you again. They’re really not making a judgement about you but rather they’re abiding by a system to categorize people in these terms. As there are 10 different ways to address someone in the Vietnamese language (!!), they’re trying to mentally place you within this complex linguistic hierarchy. The ways of addressing someone are dependent on whether someone is male or female and on how old that individual is in relation to the speaker. Greetings are different for someone much younger, slightly younger, the same (same) age, slightly older, and much older than whomever is speaking. At some point it won’t make sense to ask this question (i.e. if you’re at a restaurant and you’re speaking with a server) so you simply need to make a judgment call about how old that person is in relation to you based on their appearance. However, if you’re having a more in-depth conversation with someone (particularly with an older person or in a business setting) this question will likely come up in conversation.
For example, there’s an older gentleman who lives in my hostel (the father of the manager) and he can’t speak much English beyond common words like “hello” and “thank you.” However, upon meeting a new guest at the hostel, he can ask them (in a rather unaccented, authentically American-sounding way, mind you) how old someone is. The first time I heard him ask this, it was sort of jarring given the fact that he normally speaks with me completely in Vietnamese. Thankfully technology is amazing and I can usually rely on the google translate voice feature to speak with him and my hostel mom, although it’s admittedly pretty screwy with tonal languages. The fact that he clearly took the time to practice saying that phrase over and over again to say it as clearly as possible really illustrates how important knowing that information is for him. Anyways, now you know to not be offended when this question comes up when first meeting someone new, it’s very normal around here!
Naturally I can only speak for life in the US, but your salary is absolutely a topic of conversation that you should generally avoid. There’s literally a saying that the 3 topics you shouldn’t talk about on a first date are religion, politics, and finances (and I’m assuming that this is applicable in many other countries). One time my former (also American) coworker and I were discussing how much money we made and we swore to each other that we would never talk about the other person’s information with anyone else. It actually made me feel quite vulnerable and uneasy to reveal this information, as I’ve been so conditioned to keep it a secret. This is absolutely not the case in Vietnam, however, as this is a fact that the locals might like to know about you, even when meeting you for the first time. I’m not really sure if this has always been normal or if this is just a modern day thing but expect this to come up in conversation at some point. It’s really not really considered rude at all so don’t worry too much about it. It seems to be from a place of genuine curiosity to learn more about someone rather than something more sinister.
On another note, asking how much money you paid for a new purchase is another pretty routine thing around here, too. I think that this may be tied to the Vietnamese haggling culture- everyone pays different prices for various things because very seldom do goods sold in markets actually have price tags. There actually is somewhat of a logic to how much someone pays for goods in a market. Apparently there’s a local price, a non-Chinese foreigner price (double), and an even higher Chinese price (triple) for most things. This is likely very frustrating to hear if you’re of Chinese descent but don’t shoot the messenger! I’m just being real with you. There are limits to what you can haggle for, however, so try to be cognizant of that if you’re new around here. For instance, do not try to do this for bus tickets, SIM cards, any taxi or motorbike rides you take via the Grab or GoViet apps, things bought in a franchise convenience store like Circle K, and for meals at sit-down restaurants. I think the majority of food stalls have set prices, as well, so just pay whatever they ask for. Things that are acceptable to haggle for include motorbike and taxi rides (if you’re not using the Grab app), anything bought in a pharmacy, anything in a market without a fixed price, and anything in mom-and-pop type convenience stores that don’t have any prices on their merchandise.
If you observe locals paying for things around here, you will notice a certain etiquette involved. Most transactions are done in cash. NEVER assume you can just pay with a card, unless you want to live in a constant state of disappointment. Only bougie establishments that cater to rich westerners would do that. It is a tricky thing to be polite with paying things around here, as “small money” is extremely important but most ATMs will mostly dispense “big money” (500,000 VND notes). Get small money (10,000 VND, 20,000 VND, and 50,000 VND) by going to a chain store like Circle K in HCMC, 7 Eleven, Family Mart, a grocery store, etc. Please, please, please do not pay for a transaction at a local store or food stall with a 500,000 VND note. You will literally fuck up every subsequent transaction for them. If they were to give you the change for a 30,000 VND meal, you’d normally be taking all of the other money in their cash drawer. They might not even have enough money to pay you back in general. If they did, they won’t be able to give change to any other customer after you. In this situation, the cashier will often need to go up to some other random person to get the change for you which is both embarrassing and annoying for them. Then the person who gave the restaurant the small money is kinda fucked because now they don't have any small money. It's a problem that carries onto other people and it's an entirely preventable problem! I would assume that it grates on the nerves of the locals over time and creates a sense of frustration towards some situations with tourists.
True life: A small part of my soul dies every time a watch a foreigners pay for food at a food stall with 500,000 VND note. If you're new around here, I get that you don't really know the system yet. That's fine, just know that you can make life a great deal easier by paying in small money and all it takes is some extra preparation. If you're going on a street food tour, please bring 10k, 20k, and 50k notes with you if possible. If a group hands a tour guide several 500,000 VND notes at once, you're putting a lot of stress on them to get everyone the right amount of change and to find enough small money to pay everyone back. The restaurant owner may need to go to multiple customers or workers at the restaurant to get enough money to pay the people with the 500,000 VND notes back. The person getting you your change might not get it exactly right every single time. I've heard people complain about being shortchanged 3,000 VND which is literally worth $0.13. Please don't put anyone in this position, if possible.
I've actually seen guests on the hostel's street food tour do this multiple nights in a row. Like the issues associated with doing this the first time weren't even a blip on the radar for them. They actually just went ahead and fucked everything up again a second time without noticing or caring in any way (at least not outwardly). It's really not the Vietnamese way to criticize people openly, so a tour guide will often say nothing to you about how they feel about this (but I absolutely will). After witnessing this many, many times, I've become increasingly jaded about the situation. It just feels like some (but not all) of these tourists are only concerned with their own instant gratification and convenience. They don't care to adapt to the situation and try to act with compassion for the people around them because they're so absorbed in taking pictures for Instagram and they can't get over the fact that they're paying $0.85 for a beer. Yeah, I'm a little salty about it, not gonna lie. I've also become quite protective of the local system. Sometimes I just interrupt a transaction and offer to pay for the person trying to pay for their 20,000 VND meal with a 500,000 VND because I'm fortunate enough to have the means and it’s just easier for everyone involved. If you're in Vietnam and eating at local establishments, please get small money however possible. The locals will be very appreciative of it.
If you have really small money (1,000, 2,000, or 5,000 VND), please try to pay with that, too, as it will make things much easier for any business. For instance, if the cost of the transaction is 103,000 VND, you can give them 200,000 VND because it’s more convenient for you but it would be more polite to give them 203,000 VND. If you don’t have enough small money, you can give the cashier an extra 10,000 VND as an alternate option. If your bill comes to 207,000, you can give them 110,000 VND so they can give you 103,000 back. It’s much easier for the business and it will often be reciprocated with a head nod and a smile. When you hand them the money, unfold all of the bills into a flat pile. The man on every Vietnamese note is Ho Chi Minh, who is inarguably most important historical figure in modern Vietnamese history, if not all of Vietnamese history. To say he is a beloved figure within Vietnam would literally be the understatement of the century. He is a symbol of optimism, character, autonomy, and pride for the Vietnamese so if you want to make a good impression, handle his image with the care and respect it deserves. You can hand the cashier the money with two hands, say “cảm ơn,” and bow your head slightly. When they give you your change, take it with two hands and bow your head slightly again.
In the US, when you experience something embarrassing in public (i.e. tripping over something), random strangers don’t really acknowledge it too much. If someone does laugh, however, it probably means that they’re laughing at your expense and it’s really quite rude. In Vietnam, however, laughing about something like this carries a different meaning than what you might be used to. You probably know that Vietnamese culture has more of a collectivist mindset to it (this is generalizable to some other Asian cultures, as well). In Vietnam, these onlookers are actually laughing to help take some of the pressure of public embarrassment off of you. In their minds, they’re actually “helping” you to get on with your day without having to deal with the event on your own. I fact-checked this with the Vietnamese manager of my hostel so I know it’s legit. As a newcomer to this type of thinking, I think that it’s actually a very pleasant and thoughtful way of looking at the situation. However, foreigners who aren’t familiar with this concept will likely feel insulted if it happens. Help spread the word about this so you can educate others, I think it’s a pretty wonderful and interesting quirk of Vietnamese culture.
This practice is clearly indicative of the deep sense of respect and admiration that Vietnamese people hold for older people in their society. It’s a very tangible representation of the social order here, although this custom is not practiced by everyone uniformly. If you’re a foreigner, however, respecting this custom is a simple way to show respect for a school of thought that’s different than your own. If you’re having a casual meal with a Vietnamese family, it’s not necessarily required (but it’s definitely encouraged). If you’re in a more formal setting, however, you should absolutely observe this rule if you ever want to be taken seriously. It’s pretty disrespectful to not do so, as it sends a message that your instant gratification carries more weight than respecting the wiser and more seasoned people of the society. Do yourself a favor and always practice this custom during your time spent in Vietnam so you don’t need to worry about accidently disrespecting someone.
If you’ve ever traveled to Asia before, you’ve may have noticed that there is an etiquette associated with the use of chopsticks. In Japan, for instance, you should flip your chopsticks around if you’re sharing a piece of food with someone else at your table who is not a close friend (to not do so is patently rude). Vietnam is no different, as there are definitely things you should keep in mind while eating with Vietnamese people. For instance, you do not need to turn your chopsticks around when sharing food, so no worries about that. In my experience, if you have too much rice or other food attached to your chopsticks, a Vietnamese person may request that you use a fresh pair if you’re at a family meal. Just go along with it and don’t argue even if it seems strange to you (i.e. you can just eat the food that’s stuck to the chopsticks, but that’s beside the point).
As I’ve been dining with a Vietnamese family pretty regularly as of late, I’ve noticed that the parents are very invested in making sure I get enough to eat. It’s actually gotten to the point where I’m regularly being fed double or even triple the amount of food as anyone else at the meal because they refill my bowl so frequently. I sometimes try to push back about this but I don’t protest too much, as I know that this is their way of showing affection and I don’t want to be unreceptive to it. In the same way that the society treats the elderly with a higher degree of respect, older people seem to feel compelled to give back to the society by taking care of those who are younger (especially when the situation involves food!). It’s a nice sense of reciprocity which exists in other cultures to varying degrees but it seems to be more of an expectation around here than you might find at home.
This might be surprising to some of you but at a Vietnamese meal, it’s really not customary to eat and drink at the same time (at least not when you’re drinking water. It seems to be more acceptable to do this with coffee, however). When I wake up in the morning and have my usual bánh mì sandwich (courtesy of my “hostel dad”), he strongly discourages me from drinking water, even though I’m usually dying of thirst after I wake up. I actually have to chug water before I go up to the roof to eat because I know I’m probably going to get scolded for drinking water with my meal. In his mind, I won’t be able to finish my food if I drink too much water beforehand and again, he seems to view making sure that I’m sufficiently fed as a sort of personal mission. Where I come from, I’m so used to eating and drinking at the same time that this initially felt very strange but now I don’t really think much of it. Just keep in mind if you’re dining with Vietnamese people, save drinking water for before or after a meal but definitely not during.
If you’re at all familiar with the concepts of “saving face,” “building face,” and “losing face” which exist in many Asian cultures, this likely won’t come as a surprise to you. However, if you’re new to the idea, you should know that expressing public disapproval of someone’s actions or decisions is not really a common occurrence in Vietnamese culture. To some degree the opinion is changing with the younger generation but this mentality is still quite prevalent among older generations and in business settings. First off, “saving face” is the idea that you shouldn’t criticize others publicly. “Building face” consists of actions taken to elevate someone’s importance in front of other people by publicly giving that person complements and talking them up to others. “Losing face” is what happens when you put another person down in public, which theoretically diminishes the reputation of that person. Note to British/Australian/other banter-loving type people: banter is like... the antithesis of saving face. The culture is different here. Some Vietnamese will be in on the joke but some of them won't be. Know that you may be setting yourself up for disaster if you banter as you normally would at home.
Causing someone to lose face is traditionally a social faux pas in Vietnam. Especially if the witnesses of this don’t know you well, it may negatively affect their opinion of you. Try to avoid doing this to better integrate with the culture here. In an ideal world, the witnesses of this would give you the benefit of the doubt, especially if you’re from a culture where this isn’t really a thing. However, not everyone is going to do that and you really shouldn’t expect them to since they’ve been raised to avoid this behavior at all costs. Some specific examples of causing someone to lose face include partaking in a public argument (making a lot of noise in a public setting is seen as very rude), trying to resist having your boss pay for a meal, pointing out that someone is lying, and complaining that someone you don’t know well is late (you should really come to expect this in Southeast Asia anyway. It’s not really commonplace to be right on time. I know it’s wrong to stereotype people but “Southeast Asian time” is a thing). Always expect everything to run minimum 30 minutes behind. If it's your friend, you will probably wait longer (sometimes several hours longer than expected).
The durian is both a famous and infamous fruit in Southeast Asia. The region seems to have a real love-hate relationship with this food, which may be confusing to some foreigners. Walk down the street in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and beyond and you’re going to see about a million fruit stands selling this item. Some fruit stands only sell durians so their entire livelihood is based around this one type of food! However, the fruit has a reputation for being particularly stinky (food writer Richard Sterling describes the aroma as a cross between “turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”). Apparently it’s banned on Singaporean public transit and I’ve seen a few signs in hostels saying that durians are not allowed inside. However, this does not stop locals from eating copious amounts of the fruit in outdoor settings. Actually in the middle of Kampot, Cambodia, there is an absolutely gigantic statue of a durian surrounded by small pineapples as if to send the message that the durian is king in Kampot and don’t you dare forget it!! It’s a pretty fascinating dynamic for a newcomer to this area!
Matchmaking (in the romantic sense) has historically been a big part of Vietnamese culture. In this day and age, young people are free to choose their own partners but the focus on one’s romantic life remains alive and well. Particularly when speaking with older Vietnamese people, it’s kind of expected that you be open about your marital/relationship status. Even if you’re a tourist, you may be asked whether or not you’re spoken for already and the listener might try to set you up with someone they know. I personally think it’s rather endearing and I’d hope that newcomers to the country won’t take offense. I’m sure to some people, however, this may be a bit off-putting. Believe me, you’re not the first person they’ve done this to and they’re doing it because they think you’d probably want the help. It’s not meant to be an invasive question or a slight. If you’re single and you’d prefer to keep it on the down low, apparently you can say it’s a “secret” and they won’t press you on it (per a youtube video from the “Learn Vietnamese with Annie” channel). I’d highly recommend her channel if you’re looking to learn more about the culture and language of Vietnam- I’ve learned a lot from her.
Naturally, this is not unique to Vietnamese culture- this is a standard in many parts of the world (my country not included). Show respect for the cleanliness standards around here and please put your shoes on the designated storage rack. Beware, however, if the rack is outside the building and you’ll be spending an extended period of time inside. Actually, someone stole my shoes in Vang Vieng when I left them outside on the rack (so it didn’t happen in Vietnam but same same concept). Since then, I usually take my shoes off but bring them inside to my room to avoid this happening again if the shoe rack is outside. When you don’t have this option, I guess you just have to trust that the universe won’t do you wrong but know that it does happen. I guarantee, however, that a local would literally never do this- it was likely some drunk (or drugged up) backpacker, as this is Vang Vieng we’re talking about. Often the tourists who don’t do this simply forgot but just know that this is disrespectful and the locals will likely clean the floor right after you leave. Don’t make extra work for them and expect to do this when you enter a home, hostel, and even some businesses and restaurants in Vietnam.
In Vietnamese culture (as well as in some other Asian cultures) it’s usually extremely rude to touch someone on the head. The head is seen spiritually as the “highest symbolic point” and so it shouldn’t be touched, as this can be interpreted as a sign of intense disrespect. Nevertheless, you may notice that some Vietnamese people will touch you on the shoulders as you become better friends with them. I’ve noticed that Vietnamese women often do so as a gesture of affection and trust, so the dynamic becomes quite different as you get to know someone better. I come from a culture where people are a bit more “hands off”- I rarely touch my friends outside of hugging when I greet or say goodbye to them or when I’m comforting them. Young Vietnamese women tend to be more publicly affectionate than this with people they know well and if they do this to you, take interpret it as a friendly gesture and sign that they’re “letting their guard down” around you. It’s a real complement, actually.
These are just a few of the ways you can show respect to the locals while in Vietnam. Overall the people here understand that foreigners won’t pick up on all of the intricacies of their culture, at least not right away. It’s important to still be perceptive and to not rely on their willingness to overlook the mistakes you might make. If you want to make a good impression here, observe the locals and see how they interact so you can better know how to conduct yourself during your visit. Safe travels!
About the author:
I’m an American backpacker who has been living and traveling in South East Asia for the past several months. I left a job in finance to see more of the world and to teach English abroad. I’ve loved my experience in HCMC and beyond and I hope to share some of my experiences with prospective and fellow travelers.