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Facts about Vietnam to help you understand Vietnamese culture

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Vietnam is a diverse country with multiple minority communities, and this is reflected in the food and certain aspects of Vietnamese culture. We’ve outlined all the important facts about Vietnam for you to know before embarking on your trip. 

PS: are you busy planning your trip and feeling overwhelmed with all the research? Check out our comprehensive, eco-friendly 3-week itinerary to Vietnam.

Brief history in order to understand the Vietnamese culture and influences

Vietnam’s culture is rich and diverse. Vietnamese culture has been heavily influenced by the Chinese, with a touch of French and a little bit of Japanese culture too. 

  • In 700 BCE, Chinese people migrated to Vietnam, and in 111 BCE Vietnam was conquered by the Chinese until 544 CE, and again until 938 CE. And then again in 1407 for another 21 years. Essentially the Chinese occupied Vietnam for over 1000 years, which explains many cultural aspects of Vietnam (e.g. food, dragon culture, lanterns)
  • Buddhism and Confucianism were introduced between 300 BCE and 111 BCE.
lady buddha vietnam
Lady Buddha, Danang
  • In 1858, the French conquered Vietnam and the country became a French colony (hence the popularity of the Banh Mi sandwich made with the french baguette).
  • In 1940, Japan took Vietnam from France.
  • In 1945, after World War 2, France took over the southern part of Vietnam, while Ho Chi Minh took over Northern Vietnam and declared independence.
  • 1946: The US helped the French out to prevent the spread of communism.
  • 1954: Vietnam is divided into two: Northern Vietnam (Communist) and Southern Vietnam.
  • In 1959, Ho Chi Minh declared war in order to try to reunite Vietnam.
  • 1965: US troops arrive in Vietnam.
  • 1968: The Tet Offensive: unexpected attacks from North Vietnam against South Vietnam on Tet, the biggest holiday in Vietnam. 
  • 1969: Ho Chi Minh dies and the US begins to withdraw its troops.
  • 1973: The US leaves Vietnam but requests billions for their “help” during the war. Vietnam said no and so the US imposed an embargo on Vietnam.
  • 1975: Vietnam reunites as South Vietnam surrenders to the North, and Saigon is renamed Ho Chi Minh City. However, Saigon is still often referred to as Saigon.

I strongly recommend doing a tour of the tunnels to truly understand what the Vietnamese people went through during the war. Here are some options:

  1. A half-day tour of the Ben Duoc Cu Chi Tunnels, which are generally less crowded
  2. A Cu Chi Tunnels Guided Tour with a War Veteran
  3. A full day of the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta River

Fun facts about Vietnam and Vietnamese culture

  • Main languages in Vietnam: Vietnamese is the official language, but minority communities speak their own languages too. English is spoken mainly in big cities.
  • There are over 96 million people living in Vietnam. Vietnamese people are Kinh people and form the majority of Vietnam’s population (about 85%). The remaining 15% are minorities. 
  • There are 54 minority communities officially recognised by the Vietnamese government. The Hmong, Tay, Muong, and Khmer form the largest minorities. 
  • Vietnam’s geography is quite diverse, from mountain ranges, coastlines, and river deltas, which contribute to Vietnam’s natural beauty and famous UNESCO sites such as Halong Bay. This also means that the weather in different regions of Vietnam will vary within the same day.
facts about vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam
  • The main religions in Vietnam are Buddhism and folk religion. However, Vietnam is a communist country and therefore religious freedom is constrained. 
  • Buddhism in Vietnam is different from Buddhism in other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand. In Vietnam, they practise Mahayana Buddhism, and rituals are influenced by Taoist and Confucianist concepts. There is also a hint of Hinduism in Vietnam. We learned a lot about this during our Lady Buddha tour in Da Nang.
  • There is a “dragon culture” – dragons are an important symbol in Vietnam, as it represents strength and power. 
facts about Vietnam: dragon culture
Dragon statues near a Buddhist temple
  • But there are 3 other animals that are also symbolic: phoenix, unicorn, turtle.
    • The phoenix represents nobility, beauty, and good fortune
    • The unicorn, which looks a bit like a lion head, represents wisdom, peace, good luck
    • The turtle represents longevity (a long life)
  • The most important holiday is Tet, the lunar new year, during which gifts are usually exchanged. During Tet, everything is closed. 
  • Nón lá is a leaf hat worn by Vietnamese (anyone of any age or gender can wear them). Hats can be personalised so that people can recognise their own, by decorating the inside of the hat. Its conical shape is practical because it shields the wearer better from the sun, provides circulation, and is stable. The hat is deeply tied to the history of rice field farmers.
vietnamese hat
Nón lá (conical leaf hat)
  • Vietnam has a strong coffee culture (it is the second-largest coffee producer in the world, thanks to French colonialism).
  • Family and respect towards elders are important aspects of Vietnamese culture. 
  • There is a large emphasis on education and hard work in Vietnam.

Vietnamese culture, customs, and etiquette

Follow these unwritten rules when in public

  • Avoid too much PDA. Vietnamese people are not very physically affectionate in public.
  • Saving face is a very important aspect of Vietnamese culture, so it’s important to avoid embarrassing someone or pointing out their mistakes loudly.
  • Always ask permission before taking someone’s photo (this goes for most cultures, but is particularly important in certain countries).
  • Dress appropriately especially in more traditional villages where the attire is more modest than in big cities. Bathing suits and shorts are only meant to be worn at the beach. Do not walk around in a bikini top and short shorts unless you’re on a beach. 

Follow these Vietnamese etiquette when visiting sacred places and someone’s home

  • Shoes off, always, whether at a temple or someone’s house.
  • Dress modestly when visiting religious places. Cover shoulders, cleavage, and knees. This applies to men too.
  • Women are not allowed to touch a Buddhist monk. If they need to pass something on to a monk, they need to do it through a male or use a tissue to hold the object.
  • When in someone’s house, don’t walk in front of their altar and definitely do not step over them. 
  • Feet are considered the dirtiest body part, so do not point your feet towards the altar. 
  • When visiting someone’s house, always bring a gift, such as fruits or cookies, but don’t bring anything that’s black. Also avoid yellow flowers, chrysanthemums, knives, watches, and handkerchiefs. Yellow flowers, chrysanthemums, and handkerchiefs are associated with death or saying goodbye, while knives can symbolise cutting off a relationship. 
  • Gifts are opened when alone, not in front of the gift giver. 
  • Hierarchy is important in Vietnam, so always greet the elderly first and shake hands using your right hand.

Important Vietnamese etiquette when eating

  • Do not turn over a fish while eating – it’s considered back luck.
  • Meals are a social event and plates are passed around to share. Use both hands to pass the plates around.
  • Tipping is not expected at restaurants, but is common for tour guides and massages.
  • Do not stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of food, as this is very similar to burning sticks upright at funerals. Place them lying down on the chopsticks holder or on a plate.

Other important Vietnamese customs to know

  • Avoid using fingers, for e.g. do not cross your fingers for the good luck symbol; do not point at people; and do not touch people’s heads.
  • Humility and modesty are important aspects of Vietnamese culture. Do not brag about yourself or your family members.
  • Never accept the first price when buying something, always bargain, even for produce. Locals have to do this as well, it’s just part of the culture.
  • Crossing the street in Vietnam is a daunting task. The rule is to cross the street slowly and navigate your way around the vehicles. They will go around you. Never run or walk fast in the hopes that the cars and motorbikes will stop. I guarantee that they will not stop. Do not panic and try to retract your steps to go back. Just keep going slowly. 
  • Do not touch people’s heads. It’s seen as rude because the head is considered the most important body part.
  • Fresh food markets open around 6am, so people are usually up before then. This means there will also be some traffic and noise since early morning (if you’re in the North near Sapa, I recommend visiting the famous Bac Ha market with a tour).

FAQs about Vietnam and Vietnamese culture

  • Can you drink the tap water? 
    No, absolutely do not drink tap water in Vietnam. However, when you buy drinks it’s safe to order with ice, because ice is usually made with safe drinking water.

  • Is street food safe to consume in Vietnam? 
    Yes, street food is one of the best ways to experience Vietnamese culture and cuisine. However, check if the food seems fresh or if it’s been sitting out for a while. If unsure, you can always book a food tour and go with a local guide

  • Are people friendly in Vietnam?
    People are generally polite and friendly in Vietnam, but more so in small villages than big busy cities like Hanoi. 

  • When did the Vietnam war end?
    The Vietnam war (referred to by locals as the civil war or the American war) ended in 1975.

  • Is Vietnam a safe country to visit?
    Vietnam is generally a safe country, even for women travelling alone. But it’s always important to remain vigilant about your surroundings and not be too flashy with expensive travel gear. 

If you’re planning your trip, look no further as this 3-week itinerary to Vietnam has you covered.

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