Vietnam is a welcoming country with a conservative culture. You’ll meet lots of people eager to tell you about their lives, their traditions, and their religion. If you want to try out a few words of Vietnamese, you’ll be met with good-humored encouragement.
Vietnamese culture varies across its three distinct regions. Southern Vietnamese people have a harder-partying reputation. During the Vietnamese war, more Americans were based in Ho Chi Minh City, and southern Vietnam is considered the more westernized part of Vietnam. Contrastingly, central and northern Vietnamese are known for being more conservative with their money and placing a greater emphasis on education.
It’s common for adult children to remain at home until they get married. Even after children are married and have children, it’s typical for several generations of the family to live together under one roof. Families are typically quite close and parents expect a good deal of deference from their children.
Men and women typically have strong personal boundaries. Groups of friends are typically all male or all female. Their somewhat conservative culture makes dating a serious affair, and couples are unlikely to make public displays of affection.
Drinking and Party Culture
Drinking is popular, and you’ll see groups of men out drinking together, gathered around the low plastic tables outside of street food stalls. Nights out typically begin with coffee, continue to beer and shots (served alongside plenty of street food), and end with karaoke. You’ll hear shouts of “Mot, hai, ba, dzo!” which means “One, two, three, cheers!” Vietnamese have a saying about nights out: “Not drunk? Don’t go home.” It’s worth noting that the authorities have a more lax attitude about drinking and driving.
Manners are an important part of Vietnamese culture. It’s rare to hear raised voices or to see people in a serious argument. You’ll notice that merchants hand you your change or goods with two hands, or with one hand as the other hand touches the opposite elbow. This is considered more respectful than handing something over with one hand.
That being said, Vietnamese people are very frank. Friendly questions might include asking someone why they aren’t married yet, or to take note of someone’s weight. Vendors in Vietnam are likely to give you a hard sell. Shopkeepers will approach you as soon as you enter the store and urge you to examine all their wares. This is especially true in touristy places and in traditional “villages.” You can offer a firm “no thank you,” but expect to be met with persistence.
Vietnamese culture has many superstitions in common with Chinese culture, especially regarding numbers. According to the lunar calendar, some days are more auspicious than others, and it’s normal to consult a fortune teller before picking a date for an important date like a wedding.
Modesty and Dress
Women dress modestly, typically in long pants and loose-fitting shirts. This is the norm, especially in rural areas. If you visit a temple, keep in mind that short shorts and tank tops are discouraged. Policies differ depending on the temple, but some places simply ask that you rent a modest apron for a small fee.
Many professional women (hotel employees, secretaries, stewardesses) wear an ao dai as their uniform. This is a long, simple sheath worn over plain trousers. This became part of Vietnamese traditional dress in the 1930s, and has become a signature look for Vietnamese women.
Conical straw hats have gradually become a symbol of Vietnam. Called non las, these hats are the traditional headgear of Vietnamese peasants, and they are designed to keep their skin shielded from the strong sun. Besides non las, Vietnamese try to guard against the sun as much as possible, another reason for wearing long sleeves and pants even in the hot weather.