Upon coming to Vietnam I barely knew anything about their culture, customs, and way of life. Even after 11 months here I find that I’m still discovering new things every day. Every culture is different in one way or another. Some differences can be dramatic while others are subtle. It’s important to be open to these differences during your time in Vietnam. To fit into Vietnamese culture you must be aware of their norms and values. This blog is aimed at highlighting some of the cultural aspects that I’ve learned from my time teaching in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese are very proud of their food. To fit in you'll want to know the basics. First and formost, you'll have to learn how to eat with chopsticks, there's really no way around it. If you don't already know how don't sweat it you'll pick it up in no time. There's a ton of different ways to grip your chopsticks so whatever way you can get the food off your plate and into your mouth is just fine. Learn simple phrases to help when ordering. Hot/Cold (iced) will help with drinks and when you order food it's helpful to point at the dish on the menu you want to avoid any confusion. Always be respectful of the cooking and don't be afraid to experiement with different dishes. A great way to do that is pointing and asking for what others are being served.
The first lesson I learned was to be aware of the different mannerisms and to be conscious of what I would see and hear. When I first arrived I’d often take offense when interacting with locals. However, the offense I felt really was me being ignorant of their culture and way of life. The Vietnamese communicate in a different way than what you might be used to. They often grab your arm or pat your shoulder in order to get your attention. Back home that’s often seen as rude but here it’s simply how they communicate, they tend to touch more than we’re used to. Another different aspect is the tone of voice. The Vietnamese are loud. They shout a lot when they talk and will often yell to get your attention. This took awhile for me to get used to, I don’t like people yelling at me. Again, there is no disrespect intended it’s just the norm here.
Coming from the states I’m used to direct communication. Back home, if I had a problem or something needed correction I would simply say what was wrong. We value a timely approach by getting to the point as efficiently as possible. Vietnam, on the contrary, values indirect communication in the workplace setting. If there’s a problem it can be seen as rude to confront someone in person. They tend to value a more round-about way of getting to the point. Emails and messages are a preferred way to handle disputes. Timeliness can be a frustrating result of this indirect communication. Many times I’ve had to send countless emails to try to get an issue resolved. While this truly can be rather annoying at points it’s their cultural norms and shouldn’t be taken personally.
The Vietnamese, for the majority, are extremely friendly to westerners. There is a huge push in Vietnam to promote English. You will often be confronted by Vietnamese people looking to chat and improve their skills. In this way it’s very easy to fit in with the locals, they are very open to foreigners.
It’s easy to communicate in English so learning Vietnamese to fit in is not mandatory. Before coming to Vietnam, I was attempting to learn the language. Soon after arriving I gave up on it. I use simple phrases to help with daily life and to show I care, but found becoming fluent in Vietnamese to be extremely difficult. Reading, writing, and listening can be obtained without too much difficulty. However, speaking and accurate pronunciation I found to be extremely hard. there are six different tones to Vietnamese. For example, you might think you’re saying milk “sua” but depending on your pronunciation you could be saying one of five other words with completely different meanings. Don’t let this persuade you from learning Vietnamese though. If you can become conversational many doors will open for you that have been closed to me. In many ways it’s kept me from being able to truly understand the Vietnamese culture. Learning the local tongue will enable you to fit into the culture in ways you simply cannot with just English.
Fitting in with the Vietnamese culture can be challenging and overwhelming at times, but if you can learn to appreciate and respect the cultural differences you will be able to assimilate. Be open, reflective, and value the people you meet. This is an extraordinary opportunity to learn a different way of life.