Vietnamese culture is intriguing for foreigners, its varied influences rendering it quite mysterious and unpredictable. Even the large number of expats who’ve lived here for a while still find it so. But if you get better acquainted with the culture of Vietnam it’s a fascinating, rewarding and extremely helpful experience that will enable you to integrate and establish sturdy local relationships.
The Concept of Saving Face
The concept of ‘saving and losing face’ is a prominent driving force in much East Asian culture, including Vietnam, where it tends to pervade many social interactions.
‘Saving face’ for someone means to deflect blame or shame from them and stop them from looking bad or experiencing embarrassment in front of others, while ‘losing face’ is the opposite. To argue heatedly with, or blame and shame someone, or reject a kindness, not only makes them lose face but you do too; sometimes even bystanders may feel they have lost face as well if they witness such scandalous behaviour. It can be something as little as not letting someone pay for your drink, or drawing attention to a mistake they made. It may seem baffling to foreigners, but causing someone to ‘lose face’ doesn’t merely push buttons and cause a great deal of friction, it can actually sever personal relationships … for good! So, it’s definitely a cultural difference that’s worth being aware of if you want a harmonious and uncomplicated stay in Vietnam, or anywhere else in East Asia for that matter.
Superstitions and rites play a pivotal role in Vietnamese society, and stem from a variety of cultures and religions. A common belief is that eating a boiled and half-hatched duck egg – a common delicacy in Vietnam – straight out of the shell will make you stronger. But only when consumed in a certain way, so be sure to do your research on where, when, how many, and what to do with the remaining shell after you’ve scoffed down your semi-raw egg.
Other popular beliefs which might seem amusing but are taken fairly seriously by some Vietnamese: getting a haircut before an exam will cause you to forget everything you learned; if you buy your boyfriend or girlfriend a pair of shoes they will leave you, and flipping fish on your plate during a meal is not only considered rude but will result in some serious bad luck. Often shop and business owners have their own set of superstitions and rituals and tend to consult numerologists or fortune tellers when making big decisions.
The lunar calendar holds great significance in Vietnamese culture, with certain days of the month thought to bring good fortune and others considered to be unlucky. While some other dates lend themselves to a range of festivities and activities.
Foreigners, particularly those from a Western culture, may find it a bit unusual or difficult to understand at first, but Vietnamese people often refer to the lunar calendar for lunar-based holidays, like Tet holiday. They also tend to use it in their daily life alongside the international solar calendar. As an expat, it can be both fun and useful to try to get grips with this, especially if settling in Vietnam for some time.
The moon, widely believed to control tides and even our emotions at times, is a significant object of worship and adoration, like in many cultures. It is thought to be particularly special when in its full moon phase, and there are beach parties and town festivals thrown in its honor, including the Hoi An Lantern Festival in the Old Town. Hence, the first and 15th (full moon) are regarded as special days of the month, when many Vietnamese will go to temple or pagoda to chant or worship. It is also common for people to refrain from eating meat on these days to cleanse their souls and show respect.
The anniversaries of ancestors are the most important occasions on a Vietnamese person’s calendar. Many Vietnamese believe that after someone dies their spirit lives on, hence descendants will “worship” their ancestors to continue demonstrating their respect and devotion.
Vietnamese often consult their ancestors’ “souls” when making big decisions, such as before getting married or having a child. On the anniversaries of their deaths, families will get together to hold meaningful ceremonies to remember and pay tribute to their loved ones; they are also celebrated throughout certain lunar festivals.
The main religions, philosophies and schools of thought that have influenced Vietnam are Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, though, over the years the country has been shaped by a melting pot of nationalities and religions. Confucianism – a doctrine that was based on the ideology of a man named Confucius – was introduced during the Chinese rule, but still appears to have a strong presence in the country today. A temple called the Temple of Literature was built in 1072 in Hanoi as a homage to Confucius, and his 72 disciples.
Confucianism has played a significant role in organizing society in Vietnam. For a long time the government implemented a Confucian-style examination system in the country. It has also shaped the way in which the Vietnamese raise and interact with their family, emphasizing the importance of obedience, unity and interdependence over individuality and independence. The idea is that individuals form an integral part of the family whilst families make up a village – the individual means nothing without the group. The Confucian view of social control is that villages and families are mutually responsible for their members, with a firm authoritarian and patriarchal hierarchy in place. Such ideas continue to persist; whilst women’s rights have increased and women have started to take on leadership roles more frequently, Vietnam is still very much a patriarchal society with a strong focus on the fulfillment of traditional gender roles, both within the family and community. For instance, father is often deemed the head of the family and it is thus his responsibility to provide food, shelter and other necessities for everyone.
Buddhism was introduced to Vietnam in the 2nd century, reaching its peak in the 11th century during the Ly dynasty. More than 60 per cent of people in Vietnam are said to be “Buddhist”, with a majority belonging to the Mahayana school, which means that rather than directly following the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, his ideas have been interpreted and expanded upon over time in pursuit of the greater good.
Buddhism has had a big impact on the way Vietnamese people think and act, and this is manifest in everyday attitudes and beliefs, for example, the notion of reincarnation as well as belief that we ultimately ‘reap today what we sowed in the past’ are a very common. Architecturally, the mark of Buddhism is evident throughout the country, with a number of beautiful pagodas and temples still standing today.