As well as magnificent landscapes and a long history, Vietnam also boasts a diverse cuisine and culture. Vietnamese rituals and habits arouse the curiosity and surprise of Westerners. Here are habits that are surprising to foreigners during their daily life in Vietnam, like a culture shock 🙂
There are over 60 million motorbikes registered in the country (5th in the world), which means that almost every adult owns their own motorbike!
In Vietnam, motorbikes are everywhere, hence its nickname “the kingdom of motorbikes”!
With many different types of vehicle travelling together on the same road, the traffic is therefore quite chaotic. The first thing tourists have to learn when they come to Vietnam is how to cross the road. For many foreigners, their journey through the city is also an adventure, so much so that even on many tourist forums expatriates and travellers exchange secrets on how to cross the street in Vietnam.
An experiment: approach a local and cross the street with him or her, or join other pedestrians to form a group. A group of people makes it easier for the locals to see you. If no one is around you, forcing you to cross the road alone, raise your hand to attract attention; drivers will see you from a distance and pass by your side. Pedestrians must move slowly and firmly so that drivers can react correctly.
It’s not unusual to find bulky, overloaded vehicles in the streets and on the roads. In the countryside, a buffalo or an ox is transported on a motorbike. And a family of 4 or even 5 people can get around on a two-wheeler.
For tourists, hiring a motorbike to explore the city may be an option, but the traffic is quite complicated and they need to have solid experience of driving motorbikes in heavy traffic. Alternatively, it is advisable to take a taxi, motorbike taxi (xe om) or hire a car with a private driver.
Don’t be afraid of heavy traffic
At first glance, crossing the road in Vietnam can be frightening. Traffic is dense and seems totally anarchic. What’s more, there are no traffic lights. So how do you cross the road without putting yourself in danger? Don’t worry, the traffic is heavy, but the Vietnamese don’t drive fast.
So all you have to do is take your time and walk quietly. Motorbikes, scooters and cars will take care of dodging you. Driving is no different. Think about the way you walk in the street. And then do the same thing at a slower speed with confidence. You’ll be fine!
You have to follow the “flow”
Saigon is said to have the highest concentration of motorbikes in the world. Hanoi is just as impressive. It’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed at first by the dense traffic. The main idea is to “go with the flow”. If you are a pedestrian, keep the same pace and walking speed. Drivers – skilful and alert – spot and adapt their next move. The slightest sudden decision can upset them.
If you’re on two wheels, keep up with the wave of motorbikes cruising through the streets, following the rhythm of the traffic and (sometimes) the traffic lights. By the way, foreigners need a Vietnamese driving licence to drive a motorbike. Finally, if you’re in a car, keep an eye out for the Vietnamese “flow” around you and the rhythm of pedestrians.
The senses in turmoil
If you had to classify them, hearing is surely the sense that will be most in demand in Vietnam, particularly in the big cities. The sound that comes up most often? The horn! It means “I’m here”, “I’m going straight on”, “I’m turning”, “Watch out I’m going past”… It’s hard, but you’ll have to get used to it. The eyes are also very busy, with the bustle of the streets, the colourful decorations, the brightly painted monuments and pagodas. Much more pleasant is the delicious and renowned food.
Women cover their faces and wear long dresses
Unlike Western women who want a tanned complexion, Vietnamese women always protect themselves from the sun because they (and men) believe that white skin is a standard of beauty. Throughout Vietnam, women are always seen wearing masks, gloves, scarves, long-sleeved shirts and long dresses to carefully protect their skin from the sun’s rays. This is why Vietnamese women do not swim in the sea before sunset. Bleaching baths and skin whitening cosmetics are also popular services in Vietnam. We frequently see advertisements for these products on television or on social networks.
Smoking tobacco by water pipe
Smoking tobacco by water pipe is a habit and a rite in the daily life of the inhabitants of the North and Centre. Western tourists will very often see men smoking pipes in a roadside tea stall. However, beware: water pipes cause dizziness, light-headedness, tremors, vomiting and even tobacco intoxication in new smokers, due to the high concentration of tobacco.
It is said that drinking a glass of green tea may help recovery after waterpipe smoking. Water pipe smoking is a popular culture in some rural areas of Vietnam.
Eating all meals with chopsticks
The Vietnamese are accustomed to eating all meals with chopsticks: from main meals to snacks, from ordinary meals to major celebrations and for all the different dishes. Whereas Westerners use different utensils for different dishes.
In Vietnam, most tourists are surprised and interested by this strange habit. For them, using chopsticks for all the dishes of the Vietnamese is a very artistic skill, many people try it but few of them fail.
5. Wearing pyjamas in the street
Many Vietnamese women think that there’s nothing more comfortable than going out in the street in pyjamas, but in the West, nobody wears pyjamas in public places. It’s quite normal for Vietnamese women, especially in rural areas. They wear pyjamas with countless patterns: shirts with colourful flower-shaped buttons, shorts or baggy trousers… when shopping or in the street.
At first, foreign tourists are surprised by this way of dressing, but once they understand this way of life, they envy the comfort and relaxation of Vietnamese women’s clothes.
Eating all kinds of food
Vietnamese cuisine is very diverse and rich, but there are many dishes that Westerners consider unusual and atypical, such as dog meat, fresh coagulated blood soup, fertilised duck eggs, chicken feet, snake meat, mouse meat or insects…
Many other dishes are popular with the Vietnamese, such as fermented prawn sauce, tofu, vegetables and aubergines marinated in Vietnamese style, fish sauce… which may seem strange to foreign tourists. However, if you don’t want to eat it, don’t worry, there are plenty of other dishes to choose from, as Vietnamese cuisine is very rich and diverse.
In the ranking of regions and countries with the best dishes, Vietnam came 3rd in the world with its almost 500 dishes!
Take a siesta
With cold winters in Western countries, midday is the best time of day. In Vietnam, with its warm climate, people don’t want to go out at midday, so they take a siesta.
After lunch, the average siesta lasts between one and two hours. Most shops, with the exception of restaurants, will take a break at midday. Office workers will sleep on their chairs or on the sedge mats spread out on the floor. The Vietnamese normally wake up very early at 5 or 6 am and do a lot of work before the lunch break, so they need a nap to recover. There are also long buses with bunk beds so that customers can sleep on a long journey. Many museums, tourist sites, administrative offices, etc. are also closed from 12pm to 1.30pm for a lunch break.
The majority of Vietnamese have the surname Nguyễn
As soon as you meet the locals, you’ll hear the same family name over and over again. Don’t worry, you haven’t misheard because 38% of Vietnam’s population have the surname “Nguyễn”, and 11% share the name “Trần”.
According to historians, in the past under feudal rule, when a new dynasty acceded to the throne, people were obliged to adopt the family name of that dynasty. Nguyên was the last Vietnamese imperial dynasty (the last monarch of the last Nguyên dynasty, the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, abdicated in 1945), so there was no change thereafter, which is why so many Vietnamese bear the surname Nguyễn.
Ho Chi Minh, the national hero, also bears this name (his birth name was Nguyễn Sinh Cung).
Drinking beer and iced coffee
Because of its fairly warm climate, beer and iced coffee are among the most popular drinks in Vietnam, particularly in the south. Even if the beer is already chilled, ice cubes are still added to the glass. Iced café au lait is only available in Vietnam.
People also add ice to tea, smoothies, fruit juices, fizzy drinks and so on.
Bargaining is part of culture
Above all, don’t think of it as a scam: prices are naturally inflated and everything can be haggled over, except in supermarkets, restaurants or when prices are displayed. Negotiating a price is an almost standard procedure and will not offend anyone. It’s even part of the country’s culture. Bargain, yes, but remain friendly, pleasant and patient with the Vietnamese.
Asking about salary and family circumstances 🙂
In Vietnam, you can ask about your age, salary and marital status without it being impolite. For the Vietnamese, these are simply greetings and ordinary questions about personal life, which allow you to situate yourself socially and thus avoid blunders. Note that they do not expect a precise answer. For example, for the question “How much do you earn? a simple answer of “enough for life” (with a smile) is sufficient.
Finally, accepting that we are different
Foreigners, whether passing through or on expatriation, are faced with a new culture, but also with another way of acting, thinking, functioning and perceiving what surrounds us. In Vietnam, for example, affection is shown in private, multi-generational families live together, and asking about age is almost systematic. Accepting differences also means accepting that people have different concerns. In short, let’s look beyond the differences, discover a new culture and perhaps… question ourselves a little.
There will be many other differences awaiting you, such as: being able to take food from one restaurant to another, processing raw food at the market, eating or doing work in the street, burning paper offerings such as money, a house, a car, clothes and shoes in particular, so that the deceased can use them in the realm of the dead…
These are things that are normal in daily life in Vietnam but seem strange to foreigners, differences that make Vietnam attractive to visitors, changing them from their everyday lives.