Growing up as a first generation Vietnamese in America, I learned the hard way that there are behaviours allowed in American culture that are very offensive in Vietnamese culture. Luckily, between my Dad, Ba Noi (Grandma from my dad’s side) and all my aunts and uncles, I was able to get a good understanding of the big NOs in my culture. This came in super handy when traveling around Vietnamese and meeting distant Vietnamese relatives. Following the social rules are so important and here are five of the big ones.
1. Don’t Point at Vietnamese
Just don’t do it. Pointing with your index finger is so rude, that it can land you in a brawl very quickly. In Vietnamese culture, pointing is reserved for animals ONLY. If you need to indicate, use your eyes to show direction.
2. Don’t Blow your nose
I can’t tell you how many times I broke the rules on that one. Growing up in America, it
was perfectly acceptable to blow your nose wherever and whenever. In fact, it was encouraged compared to sniffling. In Vietnamese culture, you had better go to the bathroom and take care rather than risk offending anyone at your dinner party. Blowing your nose in public is like farting out loud in the west.
3. Don’t Lose Face
This is one of the key things that westerners tend to overlook. “Face” or social reputation– how people view you in a social context, is EVERYTHING. Losing face will put you at a huge disadvantage whether you are meeting new people, reconnecting, building business relationships or working with colleagues. There are a couple main ways to “keep face” (maintain a good reputation). Probably the most important way is to never get angry in public. No matter what, you should never express the emotion of anger or disappointment in public.
4. Don’t take yes and no to mean yes and no
In a saving face culture, it is also important to not give other people a reason to
become angry. You’ll find many times when you invite a guest out to dinner or to a movie, it is more polite for the Vietnamese to say yes in person even if they know they can’t make it. This is to avoid putting you in a position to be angry with them. It is more polite for them to cancel at the last minute or simply not show up because they “forgot” rather than directly tell you they can’t make it. Make sure you confirm over the phone or by text message, giving your guest a chance to back out if that is what they intended.
5. Don’t take the first price at the market (Negotiate!)
Negotiating is a power tool in Vietnam and almost anything not at a restaurant or with
a sticker price is negotiable. When buying from locals at places like Ben Thanh Market, all foreigners are considered wealthy and you will get a first price that might be 10 or 20 times the cost they will go for. They are testing you, it has happened to me numerous times. A trinket will cost VND 25,000, and they start off at VND 100,000. If you can negotiate them down to 40-50% of their original asking price, well done! You should expect to get them down about 20-30% for a fair deal. Two notes. First, if you negotiate, you must be prepared to pay what you offered if they agree to that price. It is incredibly rude to engage in negotiation and not pay an offer you made. It makes them lose face and can make some angry. Second, a trick I learned is that if you start to walk away they will suddenly start to come down in the asking price.
6. Don’t clean your house on the first day of New Year
On the New Year Day ( first day of the new year in Lunar Calendar) , do not sweep the floor clean your home. Vietnamese believe every household has good luck on the first day of the new year. If we tidy our homes or throw out the garbage, we will lose good luck!
7. Don’t leave before a meal
When you are visiting someone it is a good courtesy for the host to invite you to stay for the meal. However, it is a custom that you must first decline the offer or try to decline the offer several times before actually accept (even if you really want to stay for the meal).
8. Don’t open a gift right away
Vietnamese will not often open a gift received in front of the giver; they put it aside instead. It does not mean they are not interested in the gift, but simply a polite course of action.
Although there are many more different rules for Vietnamese customs and culture, these are five great ways to put you ahead and show off your knowledge of local customs. Be safe out there! And if you need more info on traditions and customs, make sure to check out our other pages.