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 Important Vietnamese Customs for Foreigners

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PostSubject: Important Vietnamese Customs for Foreigners   Mon Mar 26, 2012 10:13 am

As one of the oldest cultures in East Asia, there are many Vietnamese customs that are unique to Vietnam. On the other hand, foreigners should be aware that Vietnamese customs have also been heavily influenced by Confucianism brought by the Chinese, who ruled the country for 1,000 years, and to a much lesser extent by the French who ruled the country for around three quarters of a century.

For foreigners who plan to spend an extended period of time in Vietnam, the following Vietnamese customs or cultural traits are well worth noting and understanding:

Confucianism in Vietnam. Confucianism, which stresses loyalty, duty, honor, filial piety, respect for seniority and sincerity, tends to permeate Vietnamese customs and culture. Hence, foreigners need to remember that individuals in Vietnamese society are often considered to be subordinate to the group – whether it’s family, the employer or the school. Moreover, there tends to be a strict hierarchy in Vietnamese culture that is based upon age and sex – hence why, for better for worst, the country seems to be run by men who are all approaching age 70!

Vietnamese names. As with Chinese and other East Asian names, Vietnamese names follow the family name, middle name and given name convention. However and unfortunately for foreigners, the Vietnamese are not very creative when it comes to family names. In fact, 15 family names account for approximately 90% of all Vietnamese people while the name Nguyen accounts for around 40% of the population followed by the name Tran which accounts for about 11% of the population! This means that chances are, you will meet several Nguyens who may also share the same first name – making things very confusing, even for the Vietnamese! Hence, Vietnamese with very common family names may often be referred to by their middle name along with their first name.
The Vietnamese language. Another hurdle for foreigners in Vietnam is the language. And while Vietnamese is fairly easy to read thanks to a Romanized scrip introduced by French Jesuit missionaries, the language itself is very tonal. In fact, trying to learn or speak Vietnamese can be a great but exhausting form of exercise for one’s mouth muscles! However and while I do not know if this is true or not, I have been told that Vietnamese tends to be an easier language for native French speakers to speak rather than native English speakers given that French and Vietnamese speakers would be using the same muscles.
Vietnamese sense of time. Foreigners should be aware that unlike in other Southeast Asian countries, the Vietnamese can be fairly punctual – at least for business and other important matters in big cities like Ho Chi Minh City. However and given how bad the traffic is in Ho Chi Minh City and in Hanoi to a lesser extent, traffic can always be used as a “valid” excuse for not being right on time for something!
Vietnamese attitudes towards foreigners. Given that Vietnam was repeatedly invaded and subjugated by outsiders, you would think that the Vietnamese would still have hardened attitudes towards foreigners. After all and a few centuries ago, a Vietnamese who married a foreigner would have been disowned by his or her family – even if the marriage was arranged between by the families of a Vietnamese princess and a foreign princeling. Thankfully though, the Vietnamese, especially among the younger generations who were born after the Indochina wars, no longer harbor such harsh attitudes towards foreigners or those Vietnamese who choose to marry one. Moreover and while the French and the Americans both waged destructive wars on Vietnamese soil, France and the USA are among the biggest investors in the country while the USA is increasingly being seen as a potential ally against Vietnam’s age old nemesis – China.
Vietnamese clothing. While the Vietnamese today, especially the urban youth, wear the same international clothing brands that can be found anywhere else in the world, the ao dai is considered to be the national dress for Vietnamese women. Popularized in South Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, the ao dai consists of a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pantaloons and it’s commonly worn by high school girls, secretaries, stewardesses, hotel employees and waitresses in upscale restaurants. In fact, the ao dai does such a good job of showing off the beauty of Vietnamese women that it has become the symbol of Vietnamese femininety and its perfectly acceptable for a foreigner to wear one – although you may get mistaken for a Vietnam Airlines flight attendant!

Vietnamese "Ao Dai"

If you o plan to live in Vietnam, by far the best source for learning about Vietnamese customs and culture in general would be Huu Ngoc’s book, Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture
Huu Ngoc is a Vietnamese writer, translator and cultural researcher and his thick 1,100+ page red book is a compilation of his columns over the past ten years for Viet Nam News and these columns have all been neatly organized into categories such as “Dishes and Drinks,” “Family and Society” and “Dishes and Drinks”. The book is available in French and English at most Vietnamese book shops and certain gift shops (such as the one in the General Post Office across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral) and is a must have item for anyone who plans to spend a considerable amount of time in Vietnam.



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