New arrivals in Vietnam are often a bit confused by the customs and behaviour of the Vietnamese, but one of the most evident characteristics of this society is its tolerance. This means that if you make any slips and do something you shouldn’t, your hosts will probably forgive you instantly, supposing it was unintentional. Nevertheless, it pays to keep a few points in mind to avoid any potential problems.
Firstly, keep in mind that however free-spirited and commercial this country is, it is still a communist nation, meaning that the police and soldiers have great power. Though you are unlikely to run into them in any numbers, if they tell you not to go somewhere or not to photograph a certain building, respect their authority. If you argue or go ahead regardless, dire consequences may result.
Play with your Food
Your mother may have told you not to, but in Vietnam you are actively encouraged to play with your food. In fact many dishes involve the diner’s participation in preparing, such as certain types of spring roll, which you wrap and roll yourself.
Also, in most basic eateries, feel free to chuck bones, tissues and other debris from eating on the floor, as that’s what everyone else does. Watch how locals eat noodles too – there’s no fancy twirling here; just push a few strands in your mouth with the chopsticks, then slurp until they’re gone.
It’s also important to remember that although the Vietnamese are easy going and casual in their dress, they are very conservative at heart and can be easily offended by foreigners wearing skimpy attire, especially in places like temples. If you are planning a temple visit, dress appropriately, meaning no sleeveless shirts or shorts, and remove your shoes before entering the temple buildings.
Gay and Lesbian Tourists in Vietnam
This conservative trait in Vietnamese culture also affects attitudes to gays and lesbians, which are generally negative. Unlike their Western counterparts, Vietnamese homosexuals are not free to shout it from the rooftops, and prefer to keep a lower profile. This means that there are no clubs specifically for gay or lesbian travellers in either of the big cities, though there are several bars that are reasonably tolerant and might be termed gay-friendly.
One important concept to bear in mind, which Vietnam shares with all Southeast Asian countries is loss of face. This means that you should control your temper at all times, because someone who gets angry and starts shouting is deemed to be acting foolishly. If you do have any difficult situations in which you feel you are about to explode, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down, then put on a smile and a gentle tone of voice.
Tips on Tipping
Tipping is not a common feature of Vietnamese culture, and cooks at a street kitchen would probably faint if you tried to pay extra. However, everybody involved in the tourist trade, particularly cab drivers and hotel bell boys, know that foreigners usually leave a gratuity. The staff in classy restaurants would also not refuse a tip to show appreciation of attentive service, so dip in your pocket sometimes. It’s a chance to get rid of those bundles of worthless dong – a tip of 10,000-20,000 dong (US$0.50 – US$1) will bring a smile to someone’s face.