Customs and Etiquette in Vietnam

Researching on the local customs and etiquette before traveling to a new country will help you understand more about their culture and also avoid embarrassing situations or offending anyone. In Vietnam, local people are very friendly, hospitable and willing to forgive if you do something inappropriate. However, it is much better and more appreciative to learn as much as you can about customs and etiquette in Vietnam when staying here.

Vietnamese Customs and Etiquette

Due to the millennium of Chinese rule, Confucianism is the dominant influence on Vietnamese customs and etiquette. This revolves largely around comporting oneself admirably in Vietnamese society, most notably with respect to age and status. All due respect and deference is paid to those of advanced years, with the oldest members of any group who are always greeted and served first. Their wisdom is also sought in important family or community matters.

Vietnam has a fair amount of customs and public etiquette in social situations. The following are some of the popular points.

1. Dining Etiquette & Table Manners

All members of family are enjoying a meal on Tet Holiday

All members of family are enjoying a meal on Tet Holiday. Photo by Đinh Văn Linh

In Vietnam, meals are typically served family-style. All the dishes are placed on a big round tray, put in the middle of a table or a mat. All members of family sit around and share the meal together while talking about their daily stories. If you have chance to join a meal with local family, it is better to know some table manners what you should do and don’t:

Dos:

  • If you are invited to Vietnamese home, you might like to bring a gift for the hostess such as flowers, sweets, fruit… A gift for children or an elderly parent is also appreciated. Gifts should be wrapped in bright wrapping paper.
  • When invited to join a meal with a local family, always wait to be shown where to sit. The oldest person in the family should sit first and serve first.
  • Pass dishes with both hands.
  • Chopsticks and flat spoons are the most popular utensils for eating in Vietnam. Learn how to use chopsticks and how to store them properly.
  • Set your chopsticks down when you want to speak or drink and for a rest after every few mouthfuls.
  • Hold your bowl of food close to your face – nose to bowl is acceptable.
  • Hold the spoon by your left hand while eating soup.
  • Try to finish everything on your plate/ bowl, which shows respect for the cook.
  • When you are finished eating, place your chopsticks on top of your rice bowl.
  • Cover your mouth when coughing, sneezing or using a toothpick.

Don’ts:

  • Do not give handkerchiefs, anything black, yellow flowers or chrysanthemums to the host. These are considered the bad luck things.
  • Stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice since it indicates funeral incense or tap the chopsticks on the side of a bowl.

2. Interaction, body language & gestures

"Xin chào" is a formal greeting when you first meet strangers in Vietnam

“Xin chào” is a formal greeting when you first meet strangers in Vietnam

In Vietnam, there are specific conventions in social life. For example, greetings have certain gestures and required etiquette that should be followed; trying to speak Vietnamese, a tonal language, should also be careful since the meaning of a word can change differently if your voice goes up or down at the end.

Dos:

  • Say “Xin Chao” meaning “Hello” when you meet local people. This is an appropriate formal greeting for strangers.
  • Handshakes are the common greeting and goodbye. Some Vietnamese use a two-handed shake, with the left hand on top of the right wrist.
  • Do initiate a handshake with a member of the same sex. If a woman extends her hand, you may shake it, if not, bow your head instead.
  • The traditional greeting is to press your hands together in front of your body and bow slightly, but this is a bit old-fashioned now and only practiced in formal situations. In most cases, a bow is enough.
  • Always remove your shoes when entering a Vietnamese home.
  • As a form of respect to the elderly, take off your hat and bow your head politely when addressing them.

Don’ts:

  • Do not point with your one finger – use your whole hand.
  • Do not touch someone’s head or shoulder or pass items over someone’s head. This is incredibly offensive, even with small children. In Asia, the head is the symbolic highest point.
  • Do not touch a member of the opposite sex.
  • Do not stand with your hands on your hips.
  • Avoid public displays of affection with a member of the opposite sex. Avoid hugging, holding hands, and especially kissing in public.

3. Visiting Religious Sites or Other Tourist Sites

Thien Hau Temple, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Tourists visiting Thien Hau Temple in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Chinh Le Duc

Vietnam has sacred sites for both the Buddhist and Hindu religion. While visiting one of the beautiful religious sites (pagodas, temples…), it is important to show respect.

Dos:

  • Wear modest clothes which covers your knees and shoulders.
  • Remove hats when visiting a sacred site.
  • Bow your head to pay respect to the temple and the Buddha statues inside.
  • A pair of sandals is better than a pair of shoes since you need to take off your shoes when entering some temples and pagodas.
  • Keep quiet in religious places.

Don’ts:

  • Never, ever point your feet towards any sacred statues, such as a Buddha.
  • Don’t ever touch the statues or ever touch the head of a monk. In fact, it is best if you don’t touch the monks at all.
  • Don’t wear tank-tops, shorts, short skirts above knees or tight-fitting clothing.
  • Try to avoid any public displays of affection when around temples or holy sites, they are considered extremely disrespectful.

You might feel confused and difficult to remember Vietnamese customs and etiquette, but don’t worry, they are not fixed and strict norms. For the first-time travelers, it is easy to make the mistakes, just do what the locals do and you will adapt with it to enjoy the good time in Vietnam.

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