Vietnam: Cultural Norms

When you travel to a country that’s different from your own, you’re bound to encounter differences. In fact, even traveling within one country, you’ll encounter many differences. Being from the States, there are stark differences from state to state, especially when I’m comparing to Salt Lake City, Utah, where I’m from, to just about anywhere else.

This is no different when traveling in Asia. I’ve written a bit about general cultural norms in Asia but wanted to make a post on Vietnam, specifically. I’ve been living and working in Vietnam for a year and a half and am constantly learning and adjusting to the environment around me.

Right now the Lunar New Year holiday is here and the whole country is preparing to ring in the new year. This is my 2nd time celebrating Tết in Vietnam and I’m reminded how big this holiday is. Growing up in a Chinese-American household, I celebrated the Lunar New Year growing up, but it was never a big deal. The Chinese community in Salt Lake City basically consisted of my huge family and that’s about it. We would eat, light some incense, and receive red envelopes filled with lucky money. And of course the adults in my family would complain that we didn’t get time off for the holiday or reminisce how much more fun the Lunar New Year was pre-immigrating to the U.S.

Anyways, Tết in Vietnam is HUGE. I have 2 weeks off from work and everyone is making the pilgrimage back to their hometowns to celebrate with their families. The streets are lined with blossom trees, kumquat trees, and tons of flowers, fruit, fire monkey decorations, and more in preparation for the new year. It’s times like this that I see just how special this holiday is. I take my motorbike drives or daily runs around town and am reminded that I’M LIVING IN VIETNAM. I’ll be wrapping up my time in Vietnam soon to go back to the U.S. It’s been an amazing past couple of years which I’ll get to explaining more about in a future post.

For now though, as I get ready for the year of the Fire Monkey and a year full of new and exciting things, I want to take the time to appreciate the things that make Vietnam… Well…. Vietnam. In all its differences that are exciting, frustrating, and at times just plain unfamiliar.

Getting someone’s attention. In the U.S., you would politely raise your hand or make eye contact to get someone’s attention, which can work in Vietnam, but it’s not uncommon (or rude) to yell in order to get someone’s attention. Of course, you’ll need to use the correct (and polite) pronoun when yelling for someone’s attention first. Another way to get someone’s attention? Making a kissy noise. You know when someone purses their lips together and makes a kissy noise at you in the U.S.? That’s sexual harassment. In Vietnam? There isn’t the same negative connotation when making that noise in public. If you need to get someone’s attention, it’s perfectly fine to make said kissy noise.

Showing affection. It’s common in China and Vietnam for friends of the same sex to be affectionate with each other. It’s not uncommon for male friends or female friends to have their arms around each other and even hold hands. My Vietnamese or Chinese female friends love linking arms with me or putting their hand on my arm or leg. Male friends aren’t uncomfortable sitting very close to each other or touching each other which contrasts to men in the U.S. On the other hand, Americans are big huggers, but people in Asia? Not so much. So what makes Vietnam different when it comes to affection? Smelling someone. Yes. That’s right. Smelling someone. People in France kiss cheeks  (but really just touch cheeks while making a kiss sound) when they meet each other. In Vietnam, if you want to show affection with someone, you’ll sniff someone. Sort of like the French way of saying hello except instead of touching cheeks, you’ll sniff the other person’s cheek. You of course don’t just sniff anyone. This is to greet someone, mostly kids and babies or a romantic partner, whom you care for.

Traffic etiquette. Okay, let’s be real here. Traffic etiquette in Vietnam doesn’t exist in the way that I understand traffic etiquette in the U.S. At first glance, things seem chaotic, and while Vietnam doesn’t have a very good track record when it comes to traffic safety, there is some order to the chaos. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way, but you get used to crossing the streets after awhile. While this isn’t Vietnam specific, it’s something that I’ll never get used to…Honking. In the U.S., horn honking is seen as aggressive and rude behavior. In Asia though, people honk their horns not because they’re angry or because another driver did something wrong. They honk to just be like, “hey, I’m right here.” or “i’m passing you” or “don’t cross the street, I’m not stopping for annoying pedestrians.” I can’t help but feel my blood boil a little bit when I hear so many honking horns because I’m programmed to think it’s aggressive behavior. It’s especially annoying when I think it’s completely unnecessary or when it’s a huge semi and the horn scares me or blasts right in my ear, making it hard for me to concentrate when I’m driving. It’s not uncommon for cars especially to just lay on the horn non-stop in order to pass the motorbikes. I don’t like driving in general and while I like cruising on my little motorbike, I don’t like dealing with the traffic and the lack of order when driving. I am, however, super impressed by people’s motorbike skills. It’s amazing to see people operate their motorbikes while carrying a baby or their whole family on one motorbike or someone holding onto a TV on the back of their bike while only using one hand to drive. And since people are preparing for the New Year, you’ll see lots of people carrying TREES on the back of their bikes. It’s super impressive.

Night time entertainment. If you combined street performers in the U.S. with those people in the NYC subway trying to sell you things, this is what you would get. This is something that I haven’t seen anywhere but Vietnam. Most restaurants/food joints/food stalls are outdoors or have outdoor seating which explains a bit why this happens. It’s not as common here in Vung Tau compared to when I lived in Tra Vinh, but still prevalent.  In Vietnam, once it’s evening time people with huge stereos on their bike will ride around to eating spots and blast really loud music and sing you a song. When I first saw this, I thought. Oh a street performer. Does he want money? Well…. Sort of. These guys with their stereos strapped to their bike serenading you to a popular Vietnamese song are actually selling candy. Yes. Candy. They sing and go from table to table with candy in their hands trying to entice you to buy something. And if you’re lucky, you can pay to sing your own song! And if you’re REALLY REALLY lucky you won’t get the guy with the stereo, you’ll get a magician. Yes. A magician. Not a very good magician but a magician. Selling candy.


IMG_20160204_094704Lotto ticket sellers. Vietnam’s government boasts of its low unemployment rate which was most recently reported just over 2%. I don’t know if I really believe this but at the same time, you really don’t see THAT many beggars unless you’re in a very touristy area. You will however encounter lottery ticket sellers. If you’re at an outdoor cafe or food join, the chances that someone will come up to you selling you a ticket is pretty high. The government runs the lottery with a chance of a daily prize so when you buy a ticket, it’s only good for the day of purchase. Numbers are pre-printed so you can look through the numbers and choose one that you like. Tickets are 10,000 VND and ticket sellers get 10% of each ticket sold.

IMG_20160203_170028Sun coverage. Vietnam is very sunny. Which means that women in particular will try and stay out of the sun or cover up every inch of their body to avoid the sun. My understanding is that people don’t want to get darker, so they cover up. I’ve actually seen women run with an umbrella between stretches of shade. I guess even one minute in the sun is unacceptable. It’s just crazy to me to see the lengths people will go to cover up in the sun. Especially on extremely hot days. I always cover up and apply a little SPF when I go outside because I don’t want skin cancer but I don’t cover my face with a mask or wear gloves or socks underneath my sandals. That’s just too much work and I would overheat.



Cafe culture. Vietnam is all about the cafes. You can’t go one block without running into a cafe. While cafes are becoming more popular in other countries in Asia, they’re usually targeted towards the more affluent population. Cafes in Vietnam, however, are for everyone. You can find fancy cafes that are more expensive but you can also find street-side cafes that are affordable and there for you to kick back and relax. I’m a huge fan of the cafe culture in Vietnam. This is probably one of the top things that I’ll miss about Vietnam.

IMG_20160203_170247Hammock life. I love that people will just bring their hammocks and tie them up wherever they can to take an afternoon nap. It’s not uncommon to see hammocks hung up between trees or poles near a sidewalk. Vietnam life is super relaxed. Even though I live in a city, not everything has to be fast-paced all the time which is really nice and refreshing. People here really know how to relax.


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