Manners in Vietnam
An emphasis on modesty (‘khiêm’) and virtuousness strongly underpins Vietnamese culture. However, these values are understood slightly differently in Vietnam, causing manners to be exhibited in distinctive ways.
The Vietnamese tend only to apologise or thank a person when they truly believe that one’s actions have indebted them or deserve gratitude. This reflects sincerity and virtuousness. Meanwhile, small acts of courtesy can actually be interpreted negatively. For example, ritualised expressed in Western culture, such as “thank you”, “excuse me” and “sorry”, are often automatic responses said to acknowledge minor incidents and courtesies. This can be considered insincere by Vietnamese, as the words are not necessarily a genuine apology or gesture of gratitude. Furthermore, verbally uttering “thank you” to praise may be interpreted as a lack of humbleness.
This cultural difference in manners sometimes leads Australians to perceive Vietnamese as rude or disrespectful. For example, they may forget to apologise when they accidentally bump into another person on the street, or they may not give a grateful response when offered compliments and kind words. However, respect is perceived and exhibited in different ways in Vietnam. People are expected to defer to status and maintain a modest disposition. Etiquette follows an age hierarchy that shows acknowledgement of the power balance the old have over the young. The Vietnamese language itself gives an established lexical system of addressing and interacting with people respectfully depending on their relationship to one’s self.
- Objects should be passed, given or received with both hands together.
- Incense is generally only lit for rituals, anniversaries, times of mourning or in temples.
- Women are forbidden to touch a Buddhist monk. If they are required to pass an object to a monk, it is best to pass it through another male or to hold the object with a tissue.
- Feet are thought to be the ‘dirtiest’ part of the body. The soles of one’s feet should never be pointed at another person. One should sit in a way that avoids this.
- The top of the head is considered to be the most important part of the human body. To touch someone on the top of their head, especially a baby or child, is rude and insensitive. Similarly, do not pass things over another person’s head.
- It is considered poor manners/uncivilised for women to smoke cigarettes in public.
- In the south of Vietnam, it is good manners to offer food to someone when meeting up with them. This is usually a token gesture and it is expected that the person politely decline.
- It is common for a Vietnamese person to be humble about their cooking, seen in the common phrase “bữa cơm rau / dưa” – “a poor meal to invite somebody to”. Offer compliments in return.
- At meals, everyone usually helps himself or herself to food that is in the centre of a table.
- Drinks are not usually served until after a meal.
- Do not rest your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice as this symbolises the burning of incense (which is usually reserved for times of mourning).
- The person who invites other members of a company out to a meal generally pays for the bill at a restaurant.
- Some Vietnamese may be vegetarian.
- When giving a gift, the Vietnamese commonly belittle it as being unworthy of the receiver. For example, they may apologetically say the gift is too small when they have, in fact, spent a lot of money on it. A common expression is “chút quà mọn” – “a humble gift to give somebody”.
- A Vietnamese person may say a gift is from someone else to downplay the role they had in making the kind gesture. For example, “my wife gave me this to offer you”.
- Do not give handkerchiefs, yellow flowers, chrysanthemums or anything black as a gift. This can be interpreted as a bad omen.
- Gifts are given on special occasions such as New Year’s Day.