Vietnamese people are very gracious, polite and generous and will make every effort to make guests feel comfortable. Do not be surprised if somebody you have just met invites you home to meet the family and friends. These are the experiences that will enrich your visit to Vietnam.
Vietnamese culture is very different to the Western interpretation of life and politeness. For instance, it is practically normal for Vietnamese people to ask very personal questions during first encounters. There is no need to be offended, they are just trying to be friendly!
How to answer these questions? If you don’t want to provide private information, a simple smile is the irreproachable reply that can save and please both parties. And remember, don’t take it seriously, and do refrain from giving a crash course in Western politeness!
From the worker’s simple outfits in the rice fields to western style business suits in the city, the Vietnamese are conservative in their dress. Visitors wearing shorts are tolerated, even though you may see many shirtless Vietnamese men in shorts.
Wear conservative clothing if you visit a culturally sensitive area such as a temple or pagoda — the less bare skin the better.
Keep in mind that, although tolerant, people may be judgmental. Unfortunately you cannot expect hospitality at every turn and you may experience problems with petty theft and pick pockets. This is more prevalent in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Nha Trang. In other areas, especially in the north, reports of these activities are extremely minimal. It is not something to be paranoid about but be aware of your surroundings.
Below is a list of do’s and don’ts to help you avoid some of the social taboos during your visit. Take heed of these pointers and you will be rewarded with a culturally and socially enriching experience.
- Store your cash, credit cards, airline tickets and other valuables in a safe place. Most 4-star hotels have in-room safes, otherwise ask the reception to keep your valuable things in their deposit facility.
- Take a hotel business card from the reception desk before venturing out from your hotel. This will make your return to the hotel in a taxi or cyclo much easier.
- Carry a roll of toilet paper in your daypack on long excursions from your base hotel. You never know when you might need it!
- Dress appropriately. Not only for the prevailing weather, but also not to cause offense to the local people. Vietnamese have conservative dress codes, and it is only in larger cities that these codes are a little more relaxed. Do not wear revealing clothing.
- Drink plenty of bottled water. During the summer months you should be drinking a minimum of 2 liters per day. If you drink tea, coffee and alcohol you should increase you water intake accordingly as these will help to dehydrate you.
- If invited into a Vietnamese home, always remove your shoes at the front door when entering.
- Ask for permission when taking a photograph of someone. If they indicate that they do not want you to, then abide by their wishes.
- Never carry more money than you need when walking around the streets.
- Do not wear large amounts of jewellery. There are two reasons for not doing this (1) It is considered impolite to flaunt wealth in public; (2) It is more likely that you may become a victim of a pickpocket or drive-by bag snatcher.
- Don’t be paranoid about your security, just be aware of your surroundings.
- Don’t wear singlets, shorts, dresses or skirts, or tops with low-neck lines and bare shoulders to Temples and Pagodas. To do this is considered extremely rude and offensive.
- Avoid giving empty water bottles, sweets and candies or pens to the local people when trekking through ethnic minority villages. You cannot guarantee that the empty bottles will be disposed of in a correct manner, and the people have no access to dental health. If you want to give pens, ask your guide to introduce you to the local teacher and donate them to the whole community.
- Never sleep or sit with the soles of your feet pointing towards the family altar when in someone’s house.
- Never lose your temper in public or when bargaining for a purchase. This is considered a serious loss of face for both parties. Always maintain a cool and happy demeanour and you will be reciprocated with the same.
- Do not try to take photographs of military installations or anything to do with the military. This can be seen as a breach of national security.
- Never take video cameras into the ethnic minority villages. They are considered to be too intrusive by the local people.
The above advice is meant to help you have a perfect trip to Vietnam.
Do not be overly paranoid though. Generally, Vietnamese people are very appreciative if they see you trying to abide by their customs, and very forgiving if you get it wrong or forget. If you make the effort, you will be rewarded.