Vietnamese Culture 101

We were fortunate enough to have our host organization give us a crash course on life in Vietnam…Of course, we had this orientation 3 days after we arrived, so we were forced to unknowingly dive right in.

The accommodations at the Volunteer House were very basic, which made mNo Right of Way in Vietnam1e appreciate the luxuries that we are so privileged to have at home. I had already been forced to get over a few of my lifelong phobias upon my arrival in Vietnam – more specifically, my intense fear of germs. One night, I happened to be passing by our kitchen as the cook was preparing dinner, and saw her cutting up the vegetables on the floor! With no cutting board or anything! My eyes nearly popped out of my head, as I had innate red flags and alarms ringing, but I just kept quiet because I didn’t want to be rude. I was told later that the Vietnamese hygienic standards are nowhere near that of the Western standards, but the food is completely safe and clean to eat. After thinking about it, I accepted it because my only other alternative was to not eat for my entire stay. It also made me think that perhaps we as Westerners have formed a bit of a bubble to protect ourselves from things that we don’t really need to be protected from! Not to say that we need to start preparing our food on the kitchen floor, but maybe we have taken it to a bit of an extreme. 

Another thing I had to say goodbye to quickly was my standard 2 foot radius of personal space. Usually, if someone enters my bubble of personal space, I take two steps back – like an involuntary response. That doesn’t work in Vietnam, because when I took two steps back, I would just run into someone else! I also learned that there is no such thing as a line, or saying “excuse me” to get by. It was rush hour and we were paNo Right of Way in Vietnam2cked in the bus without an inch of breathing space. At one point, I was standing with a death grip on both the leather strap above my head and the seat in front of me, and I felt someone slap the small of my back 3 times. Without releasing my hands for fear of flying to the front of the bus (literally), I turned my head slightly to peak out of the corner of my eye to see who did it. I suddenly felt the back of someone’s hand on my hip shoving me out of the way. It was a little older lady who wanted to see if the seat in front of me was available. I looked at her and thought “what the hell is your problem lady!?!”, and she just smiled and waved gently while turning back. I realized then that she meant no harm by the pushing, she just wanted a seat. Pushing people aside is very common here because no one waits in line. It’s not considered to be rude here….it’s just the way it is. Nothing is done maliciously.

There were a few other habits that I still had to get rid of. For example, it’s rude to point your finger. I know we learn this all the time at home, but everyone still does it anyway! The Vietnamese also speak very softly. Speaking loudly, especially on the bus, is considered very inappropriate.

I’m sure I will pick up more tips each and everyday. Hopefully I will fit right in before the end of my stay!



Leave a Reply