In traditional Vietnamese culture, elders are treated with great deference and respect. Although expectations are more relaxed when dealing with strangers, it is a good idea to be polite, respectful and reserved towards those who look older than you.
In some regions, it is common for residents to fortify it, especially in rural areas outside the big cities and in the central and northern regions of the country. Residents of the south are generally more accustomed to foreigners. But wherever you are, expect to be asked probing questions at the start of a conversation: How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children? While this may seem strange in the West, here these questions are perfectly normal and good – they help people determine how to address you. The best thing to do is to play the game.
An Asian woman travelling with a non-Asian man often attracts a rather unwanted kind of attention. Probably due to memories of the sexual escapades of GIs during the Vietnam War, people often see her as an escort or prostitute and may be insulted or harassed even if she is not in a relationship with the man. These prejudices have diminished somewhat in recent years, but they are still present. The Vietnamese themselves do not usually show affection in public, even to married couples, as this is considered disrespectful, and couples are therefore advised to keep a low profile in public.
The most amazing thing about the Vietnam War issue (the American War or War of Reunification as it is called in Vietnam) is that many Vietnamese have no animosity towards visitors from the countries that took part in it, and in the South many Vietnamese (especially older Vietnamese who were involved in the conflict or had relatives in the war) appreciate or respect previous American- or French-led military efforts against the North. Two-thirds of the population were born after the war and are quite positive about the West. Some attractions present an anti-American view of the war, while many are surprisingly reserved.
Be sensitive when you need to discuss past conflicts. More than 3 million Vietnamese have died and it is best to avoid any conversation that could be seen as an insult to the sacrifices made by both sides during the wars. Do not assume that all Vietnamese feel the same way, as some South Vietnamese are still bitter about the defeat at the hands of the North.
Souvenir shops in Vietnam sell many T-shirts with the red flag and portraits of “Uncle Ho”. Many overseas Vietnamese are very critical of the Vietnamese government. So you should consider this before wearing communist items in your home communities. A less controversial purchase would be a nón lá (straw hat).
Although the official census says that most Vietnamese are not religious, you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. Whether they attend religious services or not, most Vietnamese are actually very devout and incorporate a variety of religious traditions, beliefs and rituals into their daily lives.
As in neighbouring Southeast Asia, the most influential and widespread religion in Vietnam is Buddhism. Buddhism in Vietnam generally follows the Mahayana school, which is widely practised in China, unlike its Southeast Asian neighbours who follow the Theravada school. This means that monks must be vegetarians, and devout people seeking a special blessing often abstain from meat as well. Unlike in other Southeast Asian countries, it is not common for monks to collect food on the street. They buy their food from donations from the temples or grow their own food. The monks who hang around tourist areas asking for donations are fakes. As in China and neighbouring countries, swastikas in Buddhist temples are often considered a religious symbol; they are positive signs representing holiness and blessings and have no connection with Nazism or anti-Semitism.
Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese place great importance on spirits and ancestor worship. You will see at least one shrine in every Vietnamese home and workplace, where residents burn incense to honour or appease specific spirits. These shrines are often decorated with statuettes or images of sacred figures: for devout Buddhists, this may be Buddha or Bodhisattva; for Catholics, a crucifix or the Virgin Mary; for “non-religious” people, representations of various deities or traditional spirits. If you see a picture of a person on a shrine, it is usually that of a deceased family member. Burning incense to the spirits of deceased family members is usually a sign of respect.
The Vietnamese are generally quite superstitious about death and the spirit world, and there are certain taboos you should avoid. Here are some of them:
- Place chopsticks standing up in the middle of a rice bowl: Rice bowls are placed next to the body of the deceased in this way at a funeral, reminiscent of a burial.
- Photographing an odd group: Superstition says that the person in the middle of a group is targeted by evil spirits. Pictures of even groups (2, 4, 6 or 8 people, etc.) are no problem.
- Sitting with your back to a family shrine: Considered disrespectful to the shrine and the spirits of the deceased.
- Climbing on the altars to pose for photos with the statues: Considered very disrespectful to the revered deities.