Know Before You Go: Vietnam

By Rachael Funk


There’s nothing more exciting than crossing a new country off your travel wish list! Whether you’re on a birthday trip with your besties, a family vacation, or traveling with a partner, the thrill of expanding your horizons is unbeatable.

Before you burst onto the scene, here are a few helpful tips to use during your trip to Vietnam to keep things running smoothly and connect better with the locals.


Do This!

  • Smile, wave, and say xin chao (hello)!
  • Greet people by pressing your palms together and bowing slightly
  • Use both hands to pass things
  • Dress conservatively, even in warm weather
  • Remove footwear when entering homes and religious sites
  • Ask before taking anyone’s photo
  • Say cam on (thanks)!


Avoid This!

  • Touching anyone on the head
  • Pointing your feet toward an altar
  • Refusing an offer of tea at a reception or meeting
  • Public displays of affection
  • Losing your temper in public
  • Talking about the Vietnam War or politics in general
  • Flaunting your wealth in public


Eating in Vietnam

Vietnamese cuisine is among some of the best in the world. Eating is a social event in Vietnam and it is fairly uncommon to eat alone. In traditional restaurants, groups are seated at a table with dishes placed in the center. The food in the middle of the table belongs to everyone, and you serve yourself what you feel like you need.

When it’s time to serve yourself, use the serving spoon! It’s very rude to poke utensils that have been in your mouth into the communal bowl (pretty gross everywhere, if we’re being honest), and you’ll probably be quietly judged. Don’t jam your chopsticks upright into your food, either, as it’s reminiscent of the two burning joss sticks used for funerals and considered unlucky. Just lay em down. Be sure to also finish all the food you take.

Fun fact about eating in Vietnam: slurping and smacking your noodles is perfectly acceptable here! It means you’re loving every delicious bite!


Giving Face in Vietnam

In Vietnam, the concept of giving face is nuanced, but basically is described as a quality which reflects a person’s reputation, dignity, and prestige. It is possible to save face, lose face, or give face to another person. This concept is highly valued and extremely important to the Vietnamese.

It is crucial to be aware of your words and actions so you don’t unintentionally cause a loss of face during your trip. Understanding how face is lost, saved, or built is paramount, so here is a quick-and-dirty list of tips that can be useful:

How to build face:

  • Be quick to lavish your host/guide/chef with sincere compliments when they are due
  • Politely deflect compliments and turn them around to pass on to your team
  • Express interest in the local culture and listen carefully to tour guides and presenters
  • Laugh at yourself when you make mistakes and don’t make a big deal of it if something embarrassing or upsetting happens
  • If you notice something embarrassing has happened or is about to happen to someone else, do something to distract from it to prevent them from losing face

How to keep someone from losing face:

  • Mind your manners
  • Don’t point out someone else’s mistake
  • When you give anything – gifts, tips, even money to beggars, be as discreet as possible
  • Don’t shout unless physical harm is imminent
  • Pay attention to social cues. If you pick up on a lot of nervous giggling, reluctance, or discomfort, stop whatever you’re doing right away. Note: This includes asking pointed questions, aggressive bargaining at the markets, and staring.


Visiting Temples

Another occasion when it is quite important to be aware of yourself is while you are at a temple or other holy site. For those who have never been, it may not be obvious that there are certain rules and practices to follow while you’re there. Here are some good rules to abide by during your visit.

Don’t:

  • Touch the statues or the monks
  • Point your feet at the statues or the monks
  • Indulge in public displays of affection while in or near a temple or any holy sites
  • Wear revealing or skin-tight clothing. Also avoid shorts, as these are all considered disrespectful.

Do:

  • Bow your head to pay respect to the temple and the statues inside
  • Try to save the chit chat until you’ve left the temple. Whispering is ok in some areas of the temple, but you don’t want to ruin the experience for everyone else who has traveled thousands of miles to be here, too
  • Be sure your shoulders, chest, and knees are covered
  • Feel free to wear sandals for easy shoe removal upon entering the temple

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