A little over a year now, I packed my bags and moved to Vietnam to teach English. My life in Vietnam is completely different from my life in the United States. I knew that was going to happen. Living with a new culture for so long has shed a lot of light in the differences (and surprising similarities) between the culture in Vietnam and in the US, so I thought I’d share some of these with you.
In the United States, you can find yourself saying “hello” to any random person on the street. And it’s always the same greeting to each person. The greeting culture in Vietnam is a whole array of guessing someone’s age and gender. You have to use a pronoun when greeting someone, and it changes with each generation.
People in your generation have a different pronoun than you, people in your grandparent’s generation have a different pronoun. It was soooo difficult for me to assume someone’s age, because if you say they’re younger than they really are, it can be offensive. I could go on for pages and pages describing this to you, but we’ll save that for later. Luckily, there’s a universal greeting, “xin chao” that can be used with anyone (although seen as very formal/impersonal).
The Social Hierarchy
The culture in Vietnam has a definite social hierarchy. It all comes down to age. The older someone is, the more respect you need to show them. Showing respect happens in many way. You have to use the correct personal pronouns. Handing things to an elder must be done with two hands. When you speak, there are certain words used to show submissiveness (da, a).
In the United States, respect is all about how close you are. We just call this politeness. If you know someone, you don’t need to worry about being polite. If someone is a stranger, you crank it up with “Miss” or “Mister”. Overall, the culture in Vietnam stresses this hierarchy way more than Americans do.
Small Talk Conversation
The type of small talk normal in Vietnam was very intrusive to me in the beginning. When you meet someone knew in the States, you ask them basic life questions: Where are you from? What do you do? Where do you live? What do you think of the weather? And it’s total taboo to talk about income, weight, and why you’re single.
The opposite is the case for Vietnam. When you meet someone, they always ask: How much money do you make? Why are you so big? Do you have a husband? No? Why aren’t you married? It seemed so forward when I first arrived. But it’s completely normal for Vietnamese.
Side Note: The culture in Vietnam even has a term for women over 30 who are single that loosely translates to “not marriage material,” and has a very negative connotation. That’s how important marriage is to their culture.
Standing in Line
Lines straight up don’t exist in Vietnam. If you’re polite like the standard American, you’ll be standing “in line” forever. With the culture in Vietnam, who ever can muster their way through first gets the priority. It was annoying at first, but now when I actually do stand in a line I get really impatient.
The dining culture in Vietnam is so different that my habits were in the US. Cheap and quick food is plentiful. It’s actually cheaper to eat out each meal than it is to cook at home sometimes. Where I live, I can get a decent meal for $1. That’s right… ONE FREAKING DOLLAR. As opposed to $10 for a cheaper meal in the States.
Customer service is also not stressed very much in Vietnam. The servers will stand over you until you decide what you want, and to get their attention, you literally just yell at them. It’s completely normal.
In the US, a typical night with my friends including getting dinner and/or drinks in the evening at a bar. If it’s a wild night out, we’ll go to a night club for dancing on the town. This is pretty typical for most twenty somethings.
Interestingly, in Vietnam being social doesn’t always include alcohol. A typical hangout evening with my Vietnamese friends starts with dinner at a restaurant. Hot pot and snails are really popular social meals. We then usually go out for tea or coffee at a local coffee shop. A meal is almost always followed by a coffee shop, which is interesting to me because coffee shops in The States are usually reserved for morning or day time activities, but you can find them packed on a Friday evening in Vietnam.
Alcohol is such a highlight of nights out in America; there’s always alcohol involved in nights out. Whereas in Vietnam, alcohol isn’t always the center of the stage. I’ve seen a lot of older men drinking alcohol, and I’ve also met a lot of female college students that have never had alcohol a day in their lives.
A favorite phrase of mine in Vietnamese is “ĐI NHẬU,” which means going out. But its more specific, it refers to going out at night and eating food and drinking beers. You usually sit around in little chairs with tables full of “ĐI NHẬU” foods and beers.
Transportation and the Thirst for Sunshine
Americans have this amazing image of riding in a convertible with the top down and the sun shining in sunglasses and short shorts. This is the furthest from everyone’s mind in Vietnam.
Americans drive cars everywhere, or use public transportation in the big cities. Public transportation is also similarly used in Vietnam, but with some differences. You have to flag the bus drivers down, and they barely even stop for you before you have to jump off at your stop. And most taxi’s are motorbikes.
In Vietnam, everyone drives a motorbike or uses a motorbike taxi. Because motorbikes offer no shade from the sun, the locals do all they can to cover up their skin and protect themselves. They wear hoods, face masks, jackets, long pants, and driving skirts that cover their legs (we call this the Vietnamese Ninja).
The Universal Language
Overall, everyone wants to enjoy life to the fullest. Whether that means driving a convertible down the coast or hiding inside a tea shop on a hot day, we all just want to be happy.
The best part of all of this is how accepting the Vietnamese have been. I’ve really enjoyed my experience getting to know their language and culture. It’s a beautiful country that has opened it’s arms wide open to my arrival.
Contact us if you have any more questions about the culture in Vietnam!