If Vietnamese hospitality has always been fascinating to you, you should make a trip to Vietnam and study the culture here because there is more to discover. Read our guide on what to know about Vietnamese culture and learn more about the beliefs, customs, and family values in this amazing country.
Vietnam is a country in the Southeast Asia cultural sphere, and thus shares many resemble traditions with other Asian countries such as the traditional holidays (i.e., Lunar New Year and Mid-autumn). And because Vietnam was colonized for over a thousand years by China, Vietnamese values, norms, and moral compass have been affected by the Chinese culture and values like Confucianism teachings. Influences from French culture were started since the colonization in the 19th century, reflected in the country's architecture and foods. And from the 20th century to the 1990s, Vietnam has been exposed to Western, US in particular, culture through media.
Even though there are still forms of hierarchy like that between boss and employees in the office, but the distance is not as significant as it used to be. According to a study by Hofstede, Vietnamese welcome changes and “deviance from the norm”, and believe in investment for the future, but “are restrained by social norms” and value their group opinions. You will see the results are mostly right and reflected in the daily life of the Vietnamese. The locals are friendly, mild-mannered, quickly update and welcome new trends, especially the support for the LGBT Vietnam movement in 2015. However, the group decision and acceptance are fundamental, which is why the LGBT movement was carried out to raise awareness and acceptance of society.
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There are 11 recognized religions in Vietnam: Buddhism, Islam, the Bahai Faith, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, the Pure Land Buddhist Home Practice, the Four Debts of Gratitude, the Threefold Enlightened Truth Path, and the Threefold Southern Tradition. Buddhism is the mainstream with more than half of the population being followers. Many are not strictly practicing Buddhism but also believe in Buddha's teachings. (Check out here to see Vietnam pagodas worth visiting and temples and pagodas in Ho Chi Minh City)
Over 50% of the population are Mayahana Buddhism followers.
1.2% population are Theravada Buddhism followers.
7% population is practicing Catholicism.
2.5-4% are practicing Cao Dai.
1.5-3% are practicing Hoa Hao.
1.2% population are Protestant followers.
And other religions only account for 0.1% population.
In Vietnam, Confucianism is a way of life rather than a religious belief. The teachings have encouraged fondness for learning, love for society, and love for family. Besides that, ancestor worship is another tradition of the Vietnamese; there are shrines and altars of a family ancestor in every home, even for people with Catholic beliefs as long as there are no superstitious practices. The death memorials are held every year with the appropriate offerings like food that the ancestors liked. The wedding ceremony can also take place in front of the altar to receive blessings and approval.
Read more on Religions in Vietnam.
It is not uncommon for children to stay with their parents even after high school graduation or getting married. Families of three or even four generations living together are not rare, even though this trend is starting to change, as young Vietnamese – the Millennials and their next generations - are joining in the global citizenship trend, moving around the world or in the country to study and work.
In Vietnam, children are taught to pay respect to anyone who is older than them by greeting them and their use of language. They are also expected to take care of their parents and grandparents when they get older, even though they have their own families; putting their parents in the nursing house is not common. On the other hand, parents always prioritize their kids' studies and expect them to do well at school. The parents are supposed to take care of their children’s children so that their children can go out to work.
Even though the Vietnamese are friendly and mild-mannered, there are things you should do and should not do in Vietnam to not be an unaware visitor.
-Dress appropriately. The top sleeves’ length has to be long enough to cover your shoulder. Going to religious places like temples, pagodas, and churches, you should wear pants at least knee-length.
-Greet the elders when visiting one’s house to acknowledge them that you are coming to visit and say goodbye to notice upon leaving.
-Ask if you need to take off your shoes before coming into a house. There are houses where they will walk bare feet or walk with their home slippers. In some religious places, they will ask you to take off your shoes and use your slippers. You may want to put your shoes in a bag and bring it with you inside; otherwise, they may get stolen, especially those expensive sneakers.
-Use both hands when receiving from the elder. It is to show respect and gratitude to the elder.
-Bring gifts when invited to houses and parties. Common gifts in Vietnam are fruits, confectionery, flowers, beers, wine, and other types of beverages. Avoid using Marigold (Chrysanthemum) – because it is offered to the dead, or giving sharp objects like a knife and scissors as they indicate separation.
-Offer to let the elder sit first and sit at the place you are shown to. The colors of the presents also have meanings. Black and white should only be used on funeral occasions, while red is used to wish someone good luck.
-Ask before taking a picture, especially at sacred places.
-Beware of your surroundings. There are small shrines and altars in the local house, so you may not want to point your feet or bottom towards those places accidentally.
-Cover your mouth when using a toothpick
-Hold your bowl while eating
-Try to finish your food. For a developing country, it is a custom since there are other places with severe starvation and not enough to eat, so leaving food behind is considered a waste and disrespect to people who have grown the produce and prepared the meals.
-Show affection in public. Acceptable physical contacts in public places are handshakes, holding hands, and hugs (depending on how close you are to the person). Restrictions include cuddling and kissing. In general, showing too much affection will give you stares. And make sure to ask if you want to give a hug or shake hands with other people, especially the opposite sex.
-Point your finger at someone. It is simply rude and disrespectful. If you need to address someone, use your hand.
-Talk with food in your mouth. If you need to speak while eating, cover your mouth so that people cannot see food in your mouth.
-Stick your chopsticks vertically in the bowl. If you need to put them down, put them on the table or horizontally on the bowl. Sticking chopsticks in the bowl is only for the dead, as it represents an incense offering.
-Wear too much jewelry. You would be seen as a show-off, and at the same time, expose yourself to more danger such as being robbed. Put valuable things in the safe in hotel rooms or hide them where they cannot be found easily.
-Lose your temper in a public place. Vietnamese have high face value so making a scene in public areas only makes both sides lose their faces.
Family meals and table manners
Important symbols representing Vietnamese culture include the dragon – the symbol of royalty, strength, and prosperity, the turtle - the myth in Ho Guom lake, a wise and mysterious power, and lotus – the simple and pure beauty that was once featured in a poem of Ho Chi Minh. Besides those symbols, the buffalo had been chosen to be the mascot of the 2003 SEA games because it represents Vietnamese agriculture and strength. Other icons of Vietnam you may find familiar in tourism are the bronze drum, non la, ao dai, and pho.
When communicating with Vietnamese, many things are not said verbally but rather implied between the lines or through non-verbal gestures. To save face, people will usually not turn down an invitation, but later find an excuse not to attend. A smile could have many meanings like greeting, approval, apology, and acceptance. There is not as much eye contact as when speaking to Westerners, but lack of eye contact also means dishonesty. In Vietnamese body language, a nod means yes, shaking your head from side to side means “no”, a two-finger pose of a V-sign means “hi”, “thumbs up” means good - “number one”, agree, and the middle finger doesn’t have any meaning to the elderly. Read more on Useful Phrases in Vietnamese.
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Clothing: ao dai, ao ba ba, and ao tu than. Each has its unique design but still shares similarities with the costumes of other cultures in Asia.
Food: pho and banh mi. They both came into existence after the French colonization, reflecting the poor living condition at the time. Their ingredients are simple and native to Vietnam, but the combinations create complex textures and flavors. Read more on Must-try foods in Vietnam.
Martial arts: Vovinam, the proud martial art of Vietnam martial arts with the neck lock is the most iconic feature.
Vietnam is not only a country with beautiful beaches and delicious foods but also a place to discover a rich and diversified culture. Vietnamese culture is a fusion of traditional and contemporary values; the harmony of many religions in one country and the closeness of one member to the other family members are what you may find interesting. Make sure to read the tips on Vietnamese customs and communication to blend in with the locals and have a memorable trip exploring a new culture.
If you are looking for a tour of Ho Chi Minh City to discover the culture and history, check out our Day adventure, Cu Chi Tunnels tour, and Mekong Delta tour.
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I've lived in Vietnam for 10 years and it has never ceased to amaze me how vibrant the Vietnamese culture is. It's like wherever I go, there is something new to learn about the local lifestyle. I feel it is pretty unjustifiable to summarize the beauty of this country in one article, but you guys did a great job of showcasing the most special characteristics of Vietnam
What a wonderful country with fascinating culture
What a wonderful and informative blog tour vietnam.Vietnamese culture is a perfect mixture of chinese and french culture.One can easily feel the influence of these cultures while travelling in vietnam.