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Vietnam Customs  & Social Etiquette by Iris Culp


Vietnamese is a tonal language that uses a Roman alphabet together with tone markers.   English is the second language taught in the school system and is becoming more commonly spoken in Vietnam.  Chinese and French also are to be spoken and understood throughout several cities in the country.


Food is a real adventure in Vietnam and rice is a staple food throughout the country. Across the region in the morning you can find fresh–baked baguettes, orange juice, and drip-filter coffee–for which who can thank the French, who instilled a strong café culture. You can buy ice cream made with Italian machinery–but the flavors might be durian, soursop, or custard- apple.  Some great places for combinations of markets and good restaurants would be the following: SAPA (Northern Vietnam–weekend market, mountain herbs and spices, minority group), HOI AN (Central Vietnam–fish markets, specialities cooked in local restaurant), CANTHO (Southern Vietnam–amazing floating markets with fruit from nearby orchards).  Some general tips regarding food while travelling in Vietnam are:

  • Avoid street side eateries;
  • North Americans are not used to the food they offer and may have trouble with the dishes.
  • The traditional dipping sauce/fish sauce is often too strong for Americans.
  • Western restaurants are widely available in Vietnam.
  • The tap water is undrinkable; do not drink beverages served with ice.

Holidays, Festivals and Religion

Vietnam:  The most important festival is “Tet”, Lunar New Year determined by the lunar calendar but usually falling in February.  Most businesses will close for a five day period.  Other holidays are New Year’s day (January 1), The Liberation Day of Saigon (April 30) and Vietnamese National Day (September 2). Vietnam is home to both Wester and Eastern religions and philosophies, including Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Caodiaism.

Important Social Etiquette

  • Handshaking and vocal greetings are the norm.
  • Footwear should be removed when entering Buddhist pagodas.
  • Never touch the Vietnamese on their heads, as it is highly inappropriate.
  • Photo taking is prohibited at ports, airports and harbors; always ask for permission before taking pictures of people.
  • Vietnamese might laugh during occasions in which other cultures found inappropriate; do not take this as an insult or offense.
  • Vietnamese might decline gifts during the first offer because they are frightened of not showing enough gratitude or appearing to be greedy.
  • In general, Vietnamese are very friendly and eager to offer assistance whenever applicable; however, they sometimes can be over enthusiastic.

Dining Etiquette

  • When dining, it is polite gesture to pass all dishes using both hands.
  • Place your chopsticks on the designated chopsticks holder when taking a break to drink or to speak.  It is a sign of disrespect to stick your chopsticks vertically in the middle of the rice bowl.
  • It is customary for Vietnamese to hold rice bowls close to their faces while dining.
  • Never eat directly from the serving dish.
  • Hold the spoon in your left hand while consuming soup.
  • It is acceptable to ask for forks to avoid embarrassment. However, make sure to confess about your inadequacy before doing so.
  • Try every dish that is served before obtaining more of your favorite ones.
  • Do not consume only meat, as it is the most expensive ingredient of the meal. It is courteous to leave some for others. Meals are usually served family style.
  • Remember to finish the food put on your plate. This shows respect for the cook and is not wasteful.
  • It is considered rude to turn down any food offerings despite being full. To maintain politeness, inform the host that you are full prior to being offered another dish. 
  • When you are done eating, place your chopsticks on top of your rice bowl.

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