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Living in Vietnam: eight observations about local life

Places to visit in Vietnam - Ghenh Da Dia on GlobalGrasshopper.com

One of our writers Emma Clair Kelly spent a year in Vietnam teaching English. Thinking of doing something similar? Here’s what to expect from local life

The Vietnamese people in general are a special mix of culture, tradition and superstition however despite the religious, historical and socio-economic backgrounds that exist among the 89 million people of this enigmatic country, they all love to smile and are genuinely interested in tourists. Anyone who visits Vietnam and makes an effort to ingratiate themselves into the culture and way of life they will find themselves warmly welcomed however there are a few things to take note of before throwing yourself into being Vietnamese.

Food

Ho Chi Minh Food - Life in Saigon on GlobalGrasshopper.com

Unlike in the modern west, food is central to the Vietnamese culture, with mealtimes being a fundamental part of family and social life, there’s no such thing as food on the go here. Once, while at work I took myself outside to a street stall to have a ‘banh mi’ (traditional Vietnamese baguette) only to find myself joined by a number of my Vietnamese colleagues. No one eats alone. The locals, will also encourage visitors to try new foods – however, avoid durian at all costs. The western stomach can’t handle this odorous fruit and it is an age-old Vietnamese trick to watch a westerner try to stomach it! While eating with chopsticks, and a lot of restaurants and street stalls will not even have knives and forks available, it is important to remember to always place your chopsticks over your bowl, never sticking into it.

Language

Ho Chi Minh City Shops - Life in Vietnam on GlobalGrasshopper.com

The Vietnamese language is almost impossible for a Westerner to learn, it is a complex system of tones and sounds which, is alien to our latin roots. However, all locals will appreciate you learning a few words and will try their best to help you. I once spent an entire taxi trip with the driver teaching me to count to ten and my local shop always enjoyed listening to my faltering Vietnamese while ordering necessities. Although, sometimes it can go horribly wrong – once while ordering a Coca Cola, I was brought a fishing rod! The most important phrase to know? Just call ‘em oi’ in a restaurant to get the waiting staff’s attention. However, don’t get offended if they laugh at your attempts, laughing and smiling in Vietnam is a compliment.

Kindness

Vietnam

By their nature the Vietnamese are a caring race, so if you are to become part of them, be prepared to pay it forward. During my time there I received no end of kindness from a lady telling me that my handbag was open to a passing man helping us with a flat tyre at 2am and a returned wallet. They will give you advice about cooking rice to hailing a cab or in my case, helping me when I fell in the street.

Family

Ho Chi Minh City People - Life in Ho Chi Minh City on GlobalGrasshopper.com

They are supremely family orientated, those that live in the cities spend hours travelling home for special occasions, hand over large amounts of money to family members during the Tet festival and care for elderly members of the family in their homes. Oftentimes, the grandparents live with a young couple and the woman of the house takes care of the older members of the family. My colleagues couldn’t understand how I could live so far away from my family for so long and were as excited as I was when my parents came to visit.

Respect

Vietnam

Respect is the foundation of the Vietnamese society, there are an intricate set of social rules in place in terms of how different members of the family are treated and spoken to. Call an elderly person ‘Anh Oi’ and you will be in serious trouble, this term is reserved for younger people while ‘Chi Oi’ is for more senior family members or older people. The people are quite a deferent and reverent race, often bowing to westerners, officials and monks- in essence, they have old-fashioned manners which, is quite refreshing. So don’t forget to dust off your etiquette before landing!

Religion and superstition

Tombs of Khai Dinh, Hue Vietnam on GlobalGrasshopper.com

A lot of the population are Buddhist which, also accounts for the kindness of the people. They believe in karma and more often than not, are compelled to do good for fear of bad karma. Following the rules of respect in temples is paramount, this includes talking and dress as well as bowing the obligatory three times before the statue of Buddha with lighted incense. You will find a statue of Buddha in all restaurants, bars, homes and stores. They are also a superstitious race with a myriad of beliefs, including children wearing Buddha beads to encourage good health to men flipping a fish on a plate to ensure the safety of fishermen at sea- apparently, if a woman turns the fish, it means that a fisherman will drown!

Culture

Vietnam Cafe

The culture of Vietnam revolves around food, music and song. Their idea of a good night out is karaoke and café sua da (iced coffee) or sitting around on the floor eating and singing – for the most part business is conducted on cushions on the ground or small stools. As a teacher I spent my days sitting cross-legged on the floor teaching lessons, shoeless of course. It is essential to remove your shoes before entering a person’s home, temples and some restaurants. This is a mark of respect to the owner. They are also very conscious of tanning – not for health reasons but because the paler you are the richer you are perceived to be. My Vietnamese colleagues, thought I was crazy when I talked about going to the beach and sunbathing! They spent all their time covering up in the sun and used whitening creams the same way westerners use fake tan.

Driving

Ho Chi Minh City Motorbike on GlobalGrasshopper.com

It is impossible to talk about living in Vietnam without talking about driving and negotiating the traffic. There are over 12 million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh city – that is twice the population of Ireland! So needless to say, it’s pretty hectic. Westerners are not allowed to drive cars, so learning to drive a moped is essential to navigating the city. It’s not shocking to see people carrying huge loads on the back of their motorbikes, I have seen a chicken coop strapped to the back, a man carrying a massive pane of glass and more than one dog, sometimes, families of five or six all pile on. The most important thing to remember is to give way to vehicles larger than you – cars, buses and trucks and beep your horn.

Once you leave the airport of Ho Chi Minh city you will be greeted with a barrage of smiles and it’s impossible not to let a little bit of the culture get in on you and when you leave – if you ever do, there’s a part of it that will never leave you.

With itchy feet, an inquisitive nature and an ardent wanderlust, Emma Clair has always been a traveller at heart. Hailing from the Emerald Isle she calls a tiny coastal town near Dublin home, but has lived in a few countries including Saigon, Vietnam where she resided for over a year. She counts supping on Bloody Marys on a rooftop in Manhattan, downing Singapore slings at the Raffles Hotel, daring a paraglide on the Grand Cayman, spending an exotic Christmas in Malaysia and exploring the Angkor Wat Tomb Raider-style as her all time favourite travel moments. Although, she’ll always have a special place in her heart for the city where she makes her annual pilgrimages – Paris, her true city of lights.

24 Comments

  • Thuy Khanh Nguyen

    29 March, 2015 at 8:19 am

    As a Vietnamese, I am much obliged to the writer’s sincere evaluation. It is deeply trueeeee about the country and people here.

    Reply
  • Frank

    4 October, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Just arrived in Thailand and surprised to see all the whitening creams in the drug stores by huge companies such as Nivea. I guess there’s a market for it – but what a shame we’ve made skin tone such an issue.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    Reply
  • Dale

    22 August, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    Really wish we’d been able to visit Vietnam as all we’ve ever read since way back before we started backpacking in 2012 is incredible things, and of incredible locals.

    I’d love to just sit at the side somewhere, just to watch the people go by, just as you must have done for some of these great pictures.

    Reply
  • Shikha (whywasteannualleave)

    21 August, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    I loved the warmth and kindness of the Vietnamese people when I visited and the food there must be amongst the best in the world – I laughed reading the bit about durian though – I’m pretty good with trying many different types of fruits and veg but I really REALLY cannot stomach this!! And the smell – I feel like it lingers for hours!

    Reply
  • Thanh Van

    21 August, 2014 at 7:44 am

    A quite good and interesting insight of a foreigner to Vietnamese people and culture. However, what do you really mean with ‘The people are quite a deferent and reverent race, often bowing to westerners, officials and monks- in essence, they have old-fashioned manners which, is quite refreshing.”? Want you to be clearer on it because i, myself, a Vietnamese don’t feel ok with deep implications that any can reason from it.

    Reply
  • Sarah

    15 August, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    Wow, what a great introduction to Viet Nam. I want to pack my bags and go. I especially appreciate your hints for food etiquette…I love to try all the different local specialities. I’ll be sure to place my chopsitcks across the bowl. Do you have a few dishes you can recommend for someone new to Viet Nam but an adventurous eater?

    Reply
    • HH

      14 October, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      Hi Sarah,
      As a native, I would recommend phở – the most popular Vietnamese dish abroad. It certainly is a difficult dish to cook – the most difficult in my opinion to master, but it’s appropriate for so many occasions. Locals can eat it for breakfast (my favorite), lunch, not as often for dinner because dinner is family time, unless you’re planning to eat out. Another of my favorite is bún bò Huế, another type of noodles with beef but very, very different from phở, with different herbs and seasoning. Cơm tấm (broken rice), often coupled with sườn nướng (BBQ pork) is also a favorite of mine that’s mostly reserved for breakfast, as the broken rice is supposedly “easier” on the stomach than normal-sized rice. These dishes should be Westerners-friendly, as there’s nothing in there (noodles/rice, meat) that you will find “strange”, other than fish sauce (but again, this seasoning is what makes Southeast Asian food what it is. It’s in everything.)
      Other than that, most Vietnamese food in my opinion is super delicious. I’ve lived abroad in the US for 12 years, have had the chance to experience some of the best cuisines in the world, but nothing beats the variety of Vietnamese food for me 🙂 Enjoy, I think food is probably one of the best things about Vietnam (the humidity and heat definitely aren’t hahaha, try to avoid the summer).

      Reply

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