Living in Vietnam: A Few Things You Should Know

by Ed Forteau /
Ed Forteau's picture
Jan 15, 2012 / 0 comments

Living in Vietnam, you’ll quickly see that life is much different than what you are used to at home. Family and culture are very important to the Vietnamese. Showing respect at all times towards parents and older generations is expected, especially for the oldest male in the family. The oldest male is the most important and considered the head of the family. Next in line in order of importance would be the oldest son.

Life in Vietnam is structured with many cultural beliefs and practices intertwined. If you’re going to live in Vietnam you should put forth the effort to learn and understand these customs. You can develop some wonderful relationships with the locals, but only if it’s clear that you genuinely respect them and their beliefs. Here are just a few of the customs you should be aware of while living in Vietnam...


First Time Meetings

While a slight bow was once customary, it’s seldom used these days. The Vietnamese used to frown upon shaking hands when you meet, but with the growing influence of westerners it is common practice now. You’ll see that men will often tip their hats and ask how you’re doing when you shake their hand. Women are different, though. Many women are hesitant to shake hands. When meeting a woman, wait for her to initiate a handshake. She may or may not.

Native Vietnam locals are typically reserved and shy. While you may be more than comfortable stepping right up and introducing yourself, you won’t see many of them do so. They prefer to have a mutual acquaintance do the introductions in order for you to meet. Also, always refer to them as Mr., Mrs., or whatever the case may be. They don’t go to a first-name basis immediately like most Americans do. First name and family name use is usually reserved for very close friends and members of the family.



Food & Dining While Living in Vietnam

Vietnamese food isn’t usually as heavy as the foods you typically find in other Asian countries like Thailand. The most common meals will include seafood and fish, seeing as Vietnam is a long, skinny country with miles and miles of seemingly endless coastline. The vegetables served with the fish that often comes as very spicy are commonly served raw and uncooked to offer contrast to the fish or whatever meat that is being served. This is especially true for the southern areas of the country.

Some of the most common flavors in dishes are lemon grass, black pepper, mint leaves, rice vinegar, green onions, and coriander and fish sauces. The meat and veggies are often served over rice, but another common practice is to roll them up in lettuce leaf or rice paper.

Interesting fact: If you’re from America, then you’re probably used to eating cereal, eggs-n-bacon or muffins for breakfast. While living in Vietnam, you’ll usually be served soup for breakfast – yes soup!



Getting Around in Vietnam

If you’re going to travel on the ground, you have a lot of options. But you’ll quickly realize that getting around in Vietnam can be an experience all in of itself. There are cheap buses that you can use, but they’re overcrowded and slow, not to mention that road rules are often completely ignored. Safety is an afterthought for the most part. Express buses are available, but don’t think you’re getting anywhere too fast… they only run about 30 MPH.

Your best bet is to charter a mini bus if you have the funds. If not, then consider a train ride. It’s far from perfect, but usually better than a bus. Petty theft is a common occurrence and you’ll be told to make use of the metal shield provided to cover the window. Kids are well known to throw everything from rocks to cow poop at the windows (yuck!).

If you choose to hire a driver, expect to be stopped by the police several times to pay ‘fees’. If you have an International Driver’s Permit, you can drive yourself around on a motorcycle if you’re brave enough. If not, don’t be shy – randomly asking motorcycle drivers for a ride will usually get you a ride for a fee. They are often more than happy to do so.



Using the Phone in Vietnam

If you have a cell phone, buy a Vietnam SIM card to avoid unruly fees and charges. If you use your cell phone from home without one you can end up paying exchange rate fees, call duration fees and be charged at both ends. If you’re going to be living in Vietnam, buy a local phone. Most people don’t bother to get a landline. If you want cable TV then you might want to get yourself a landline though.