What you should do when meeting Vietnamese at the first time? These are some general notes which help you to be polite with Vietnamese culture and people.
Most of the Vietnamese in urban areas no longer bow when they meet each other. In formal gatherings, at religious place, and sometimes in the country areas, one may see the people clasp their hands together in a prayer-like gesture and bow slightly. This is not practiced to any extent in everyday life in Vietnam as it is in neighboring Thailand.
The custom of handshaking, formerly considered barbaric to the Vietnamese, is now achieving popularity due to the Western influence in the country. Men will generally shake hands and say the equivalent of “how are you” and tip their hats when greeting people. Women, especially those in the countryside, 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.
Whereas Americans often immediately introduce themselves in given situations, the ordinary people of Vietnam think this to be rather bold and like 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.
Names carry great importance in Vietnam. Often Vietnamese will have secret names, known only to themselves and their parents. If it is given away, the person believes he is exposed to evil spirits. Except in rare cases, family names are seldom used outside of the family circle. Children are often called names in rank of birth, such as Chi-hai, Chi-ba (daughter two, daughter three).
One should call Vietnamese people by Mr., Mrs., or Miss until asked to go on a first name basis. They do not do this as quickly as Americans in their relationships with people. Especially important, when in the company of a third person, your friend must be called by his name with a Mr., Miss, or Mrs. proceeding it, as the case may be. If this is not done, it may suggest great intimacy or friendliness, or can also be interpreted as being arrogant treatment of the individual by a superior.
Most Vietnamese names consist of a family name, middle name and a personal or given name. The order is reverse to the American custom. For instance, John Paul Jones’ name in Vietnamese style would be Jones Paul John. However, we do not call someone by his family name in Vietnam. If we use the names for instance, Miss Hau Dinh Cam. Hau is the family name. We would call her Miss Cam. Jones Paul John would be Mr. John. On very informal occasions, we might at their request call them Cam or John, but would always add a Miss or Mr. to the name in the presence of other people outside of the group.
An exception to this rule dates back to traditional customs of long ago when beloved leaders were called by their family names.
Taboos in Personal Relationships
It is best to call to people in a quiet voice, using their names preceded by Mr. Mrs., or Miss. Waving or beckoning with an upturned finger is considered highly impolite. If you must silently 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.
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 there. Hence, the belief is that if a person is beheaded, his spirit will roam forever without finding a resting place. Also, 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 and this helps offset the bad luck.
Confusing Personal Traits of Vietnamese
Vietnamese people have a habit of not looking into your eyes when they talk to you. This is often because of shyness, but one of the main reasons is that traditionally they do not look into the eyes of those they respect or those higher in rank when talking to them. This is to indicate politeness.
The smile of a Vietnamese can be very confusing in Vietnam to an outsider and cause misunderstandings. In some Oriental countries, a smile can mean sorrow, worry, or embarrassment. In Vietnam, it may indicate a polite, but perhaps skeptical reaction to something, compliance or toleration of a blunder or misunderstanding, or on occasion represents submission to judgment that may be wrong or unfair. This is particularly true if the one making the judgment is at a superior level and perhaps has lost his temper. For instance, a laundress may ruin a favorite 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 instead is submission to the fact. If the owner of the shirt loses his temper, she may keep smiling indicating politeness or patience with superiors.
Because of this, foreigners should be very cautious in voicing their opinions and perhaps be a little more delicate, more tolerant and restrain from being obstinate.
Loud arguments or heated discussions are frowned upon and are seldom heard among the Vietnamese. Well-bred people are trained in self-discipline. It is best, therefore, for Americans or other foreigners to do their best to keep tempers in check, no matter what the circumstances, lest they be looked upon with disdain.
Vietnamese seldom use a direct approach in their dealings. To do so indicates a lack of tact or delicacy. Directness is appreciated in the Western world, but not in Vietnam. The Vietnamese do not like to say “no” and will often reply “yes” when the answer should be negative. This problem is further complicated by Americans posing negative questions such as, “It doesn’t look like it will rain today, does it?” The correct answer is often the one given by the Vietnamese–“Yes.” We expect to hear “No.” Think it out and you will see that the Vietnamese is really correct.
Best advice, don’t ask negative questions.
The Vietnamese love to be hospitable and will often invite you to dinner. If gifts are taken for the family, they should be items that they could not easily obtain themselves. To take something that they could buy easily would be a bad reflection on their economic means. They love anything from western countries, and it does not have to be expensive. If you give the children things, each should have a separate gift. It is not polite to take a whole bag of candy and give it to them as a group.
On short visits, drink the tea that is offered, even if you don’t like it and are afraid of the local water. It shows that you are welcome and well respected.
Rank is always carefully observed by the Vietnamese in their homes and elsewhere. Servants never sit at the same table with their employers if outsiders are present, and only in rare cases otherwise.
On some occasions at an informal meal, the whole family except for the person inviting you to dinner, may get up from the table and eat elsewhere. This is not a show of disrespect for you but is simply a way of letting the guest spend time with his special friend.
At banquets, one should arrive on time and greet elderly persons first. If the dinner is served Chinese style, food should be transferred from the main bowl to your individual bowl before eating. It is impolite to eat anything with your chopsticks directly from the serving bowl. A guest may refrain from taking something he doesn’t like, but if the hostess serves it to you unknowingly, force it down if at all possible. If the guest refuses, the host may doubt his sincerity and coax him even more. Individual bowls are usually changed with each course and are generally removed only when empty, except the last course. Here, a little something should be left to indicate to the host that there was enough food and everyone is satisfied.