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Vietnamese Customs & Manners

1. In formal gatherings, at religious places, and sometimes in the country side, one may see the people clasp their hands together in a prayer-like gesture and bow slightly. This has gradually been replaced by a handshake. Men will generally shake hands, say the equivalent of “how are you” and tip their hats when greeting people. Women still shy away from shaking hands, especially with men from their own country. It is best not to offer to shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first.

2. Whereas Europeans often immediately introduce themselves in given situations, most Vietnamese people think this is rather bold. They prefer to have a mutual acquaintance make the introduction. They will rarely introduce themselves when going into a home or office until asked to do so. This may be due to their innate shyness and modesty.

3. It is best to call people in a quiet voice, using their names preceded by a title such as Mister or Miss. Waving or beckoning with an upturned finger is considered highly impolite. If you must silenly signal for someone to come toward you, do so by using the whole hand with the palm turned down. Not to do so would indicate an air of authority or superiority over the person being called or beckoned.

4. Never touch anyone on the head as this would be considered as a personal insult to the individual and perhaps even to his ancestors. Many Vietnamese believe the spirit resides in the head, leading to the belief that if a person is beheaded, his spirit will roam forever without finding a resting place. In addition, don’t touch anyone on the shoulder. Some people believe that a genie resides there and it is undesirable to disturb him. If you mistakenly touch one shoulder, you must also touch the other shoulder; this help offset the bad luck.

5. The Vietnamese smile can be very confusing to an outsider and may cause misunderstandings. In some Asian countries, a smile can mean sorrow, worry, or embarrassment. In Vietnam, it may indicate a polite but perhaps sceptical reaction to something, compliance or toleration of a blunder or misunderstanding or, occationally, represent submission to judgment that may be wrong or unfair. This is particularly true if the one making the judgment is in a position of authority and perhaps has lost his or her temper. For instance, a laundress may ruin a favourite shirt and is called in by her employer to be asked about it. She may smile. This does not mean that she thinks it is funny that she burned the shirt, but rather submission to the fact. If the owner of the shirt loses his or her temper, the laundress may keep smiling, indicating politeness or patience with her employer.

6. Try not to visit a Vietnamese family on the first day of Lunar New Year ( Tet holiday). Vietnamese people strongly believe that the first visitor to their house on the first day of New Year, especially in the morning, will bring luck – either good or bad.

7. Vietnamese shop keepers believe their day’s fortune – good or bad – depends on the first buyer of the morning. They do not like their first customer to bargain too much or to be too demanding. A smooth sale is highly appreciated as it is believed to signal a good day of sales.