Vietnam is Vietnamese. For Westerners traveling through Asia, it is always a surprise to discover countries based largely on homogeneous cultures. In many countries in the world, development has been associated with population movements and integration, resulting in systems and attitudes reflecting the multicultural nature of its citizens.
Vietnam’s history is mainly the story of one ethnic group – the Kinh – still representing nowadays 85% of the population.
DO remember that Vietnam was specifically fashioned for the Vietnamese, not for foreigners. It’s their country and – for the most part – they are extremely proud of it and fiercely nationalistic.
DON’T fall for the stereotype that all Asian countries are alike. Vietnam has its own identity and characteristics, quite different from its neighbors, including China. If you were Swede, you wouldn’t consider yourself the same as a German or even a Norwegian, would you? Similarly, Vietnamese are unique.
DO accept that you are a guest in Vietnam. You will experience what it feels like to be part of a visible minority. Fortunately however, you are part of a rather privileged one.
DO reflect that guests enjoy special status but also have special responsibilities.
DO try to learn as much as you can about the culture, to integrate as much as possible into the life of the people around you. The Vietnamese will highly appreciate your efforts to understand them, their culture and their language. And you’ll benefit from better treatment, better prices, and wider smiles.
Everyone gets it. Talk about it, laugh about it, and share it with fellow travelers… Don’t keep it on the country. If you’re looking for home, use your return ticket.
The cure is at your fingertips: understanding your new surroundings.
Your responsibility: to learn to enjoy Vietnam for what it is, a country neither better nor worse than home, but incredibly different.
If this is any consolation in times of utmost despair…, Vietnam is host to thousands of expatriates, many of whom don’t wan to leave. There must be reasons: go out and find them!
DO remember there is no right or wrong in cultural difference: only difference.
Family, the pillar of Vietnamese society. In fact, there are three pillars of Vietnamese society, and they are family, family and family! This could be spelled out as family (immediate), family (extended) and family (projected).
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of family and the extent to which the “family” model is present in all of the country’s institutions.
Ward and districts are run like extended families. Even in a business environment, employers and colleagues will treat you as part of an extended family, taking care of you when you are sick, visiting you at weekends and holidays, inviting you to their weddings, funerals, housewarmings, and so on (and expecting to be invited to yours!). Naturally, there is also a downside to all this intimacy: people regularly enquiring about your everyday doings or movements and interfering in your personal life. You’ll receive plenty of unsolicited advice – but if you listen, you’ll soon learn plenty about how things are done the Vietnamese way!
DO realize that the Vietnamese have a very different perspective on social, political and business organizations, most of which are modeled on the extended family concept.
DON’T be offended if newly made friends poke into every detail of your personal life. They are in fact helping you become part of a Vietnamese group.
DO enquire about your Vietnamese friends’ health, families and personal life. It will show interest and respect.
DO understand that family matters are paramount and unexpected family responsibilities will take precedence over appointments and activities scheduled previously.
Take a second look at the legend of the origin of Vietnamese people. All Vietnamese, from the deltas to the mountains, descend from the marriage of a dragon lord (Lac) and an immortal princess (Au Co). The dragon is said to have come south from China and, once all their children were grown up, the dragon and his wife the princess returned to the spirit world. What Vietnamese retain from the story is that all Vietnamese people are related to each other. More than one country, this is one (very) extended family… or at least that’s what they would like it to be!
As much as Westerners are “task-oriented”, Vietnamese are “relationship-oriented”. You have a problem? Work on the relationship.