Think before you do, here are tips for traveling well in Vietnam. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos.
Vietnam: a magical nation bursting with culture, integrity and charm. Each year, tourists flock to the country to take in its breathtaking scenery, gorge on its unique flavors and experience a culture quite unlike their own. While there are some newly introduced influences from the West, it’s of the utmost importance that visitors remember to be mindful of the lifestyle and culture of the locals. While there’s no need to completely change one’s way of life while visiting Vietnam, here are some matters of etiquette and subtle social differences people should be aware of before visiting.
This is standard protocol in just about every Southeast Asian country, but you’d be surprised how many people willfully turn a blind eye. Regardless of the temperature outside, tourists should bare in mind they’re visiting a holy site that is most likely held in high regard by the locals. Walking onto the property dressed like you’re prepared for a night out isn’t respectful and there’s a good chance you’ll offend those who are there to actually pray. Ready an extra sarong or a light sweater should you stumble onto a random temple site you’re wanting to explore.
One of the most fascinating aspects of travelling is getting to experience the way of life in a culture so far removed from what we know. However, if you’re travelling to a small village for a homestay or a simple visit, try not to be too invasive. It is understandable that you may want to have memories of the experience caught on camera, but bear in mind that it’s somebody’s home/community and imagine the discomfort you would feel if the roles were reversed. The people understand that your cultures are different, so always ask permission first before taking a photo.
If you’re finished with your meal but still have some leftover rice, place the chopsticks next to the bowl rather than vertically into the rice. The act of standing the chopsticks in the bowl resembles the incense sticks Vietnamese people burn for their deceased loved ones. Vietnamese people may feel too shy to reprimand you for doing so, but it is an irreverent gesture.
The most rampant of crimes in Vietnam is petty theft and can be avoided by you, so long as you stay attentive of your surrounding. It is important to keep your eyes peeled for opportunistic thieves who usually conduct their thievery on the back of motorbikes. The police officers in Vietnam do not generally regard personal theft as a crime, but rather a civil dispute, so lackadaisical travel can be detrimental.
Most Asian cultures practice the custom of removing your shoes before entering a home. The behavior has physical and social implications, the physical being a liking for cleanliness and the social relating to a regard for one’s personal space. If you are worried about your shoes being stolen in public places, carry a reusable tote should you be required to go barefoot.
Did you know that it’s considered rude for the soles of your feet to be directed in someone else’s direction? In Vietnamese culture, it indicates that you are under the impression the other party is below you, or lesser than. Avoid a cultural faux pas should you find yourself in a situation when you’re sitting cross-legged. Another idiosyncrasy to keep in mind is to not point at objects with your feet. If you’re asking how much something costs and it’s situated on the ground, bend over and gesture with an open hand to identify the item rather than pointing with your foot.
In many Asian cultures, slurping food is considered a compliment to the chef. While it may be rude in some parts of the West, understand that audible diners are making their satisfaction known to the person who prepared their meal. It may be unsettling at first, but understand this response is actually rooted in politeness in Vietnamese society.
Many travelers may feel uncomfortable with the act of haggling, more worried about insulting vendors or shortchanging locals. With that said, Vietnamese salespeople are generally not trying to rip you off when asking for higher prices; it’s customary practice across Vietnam and one that does not distinguish local from foreigners. If you’re unhappy with a price, present a new offer and simply walk away if it is rejected. If the vendor thinks the price is fair, they’ll beckon you back. As a recommendation, count your change after a transaction just in case you have been shortchanged.
Vietnam travel is synonymous with motorbike culture. Nowadays, tourists can partake in the local mode of transport simply by hailing a motorbike taxi (called a xe om) or booking a motorbike tour. For the hardcore adventurists, many tour the country from north to south or vice-versa by way of motorbike. Arguably, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is a more economic option in comparison to air travel, but it can be extremely dangerous. Motorbike accidents are everyday occurrence throughout the nation so set aside the mentality of feeling invincible and invest in a heavy-duty helmet.
You’ll find that one of the most in-demand tourism activities in Hoi An is getting a custom-made outfit or two. While this is a unique opportunity and often offered at a reasonable cost, please be aware that some of these tailors are running sweatshops behind closed doors and aren’t paying their seamstresses liveable wages. If you go into a fitting and the tailor says you can pick it up within hours, this should be a cause for alarm. Do your research ahead of time and support those helping their fellow community members fairly.
If you see a child selling some sort of trinket on the side of the road, do not support this. The child is most likely a pawn of hustlers, who often use little ones to bait kindhearted tourists.
Interested in sipping on the coffee generated from weasel poop (also known as civets) at coffee plantations around Da Lat? Think again. The animals are forced to live in cages and made to eat and excrete the coveted coffee beans day in and day out, which can be a daunting and painful process.