"How to be Liked in Vietnam,"
(in The Vietnam Inquirer
, June 18, 1968)
Western Practices that Are Taboo in Vietnam
Westerners are prone to make comparisons, to argue the pros and cons of a decision, the weaknesses and strengths of a proposition. Neighbors experience no embarrassment in bragging about the relative merits of their cars. There is little hesitation in pointing out to one's neighbor that he should be more progressive, keep up with the times.
This practice, if carried out in Vietnam, is fraught with danger, even though no offense is intended. In the first place, such practices - argument, comparisons, boasting - are more conducive to controversy than to harmony. The Easterner prefers to avoid expressions of disagreement. Secondly, the Easterner is proud of his heritage, his culture, his way of life, and to him, international comparisons are particularly odious. He regards those who indulge in them as being arrogant and belittling. And here we have a key point: Humility is a cardinal virtue in the East. If you would be loved by Easterners, be careful not to convey a pronounced air of self-importance or arrogance.
Westerners favor the direct approach in conversation, they don't like to "beat around the bush." The Easterner indulges in more subtleties and insinuations. A direct question is considered impolite and usually is not given a straight answer. You will make more progress by avoiding a brash frontal approach in conversation. Let's look at this more closely:
A direct request to an individual is in poor taste. You will do much better by hinting around the favor desired and let the listener offer what you want. A direct request may be considered as underestimating the listener's intelligence. Take a boy-meets-girl example. A typical village Vietnamese will attempt to gain a girl's attention by singing a question:
"At this chance meeting, Plum would like to ask Peach
In case she does not want to start the conversation, or if she is already married, she will keep quiet. Otherwise, she may reply as follows:
Whether anybody has entered the Rose Garden."
"Now that Peach asks, Plum would like to answer:
Fortunately, Vietnamese do not expect foreigners to go to such an extent. But I suggest you remember that you have better odds if you avoid blunt questions and requests for favors. An experienced foreigner will not launch immediately into the business at hand. He will inquire of the children or mention some subject of mutual interest.
Americans, particularly, like to get on a first-name basis quickly. Such a practice is very effective in America: "The sweetest term in the language is the man's first name." But in Vietnam, this is interpreted frequently as undesirable familiarity. The people of the East, like many Europeans, are more reserved and prefer a warming-up or courting period. You won't lose anything by keeping things on a Mr. or Mrs. basis. Let your Vietnamese acquaintance advance to the first-name level when he is ready.
While on the subject of name; the full name of the addressee should be spelled out in correspondence. For example: Mr. Tran Van Dong, not Mr. T.V. Dong. In addition to the etiquette aspect, there is considerable possibility for error if you resort to initials.
Similar remarks apply to the question of introducing oneself to strangers. The American is not shy about introducing himself. It is different in Vietnam. A man in a respected position will be more favorably disposed if you arrange to have a mutual acquaintance effect an introduction. Frequently, the arranger will attempt to make it appear as though it is a chance meeting, but this still does not lessen the fact that self-introductions are normally not favored.
A wise man in any country refrains from giving advice too freely and too frequently. He subtly lets the idea or the benefit to be derived from the idea spring from the listener. This is particularly true in Vietnam. To overcome a natural skepticism among Vietnamese toward untried ideas, a Westerner should not push his listener into a new venture too rapidly. The Vietnamese, like the Missourian, needs a bit of showing by concrete example or demonstration.
A Westerner in Vietnam does well to shy away from discussing local politics in company. Confidentially, don't discuss local politics with a Vietnamese until you know him quite well, and only then if he is responsive. At cocktail parties, it is better to limit your conversation to pleasantries. The terms Asiatic, Annamite, native, and Indochina should be avoided today.
From early youth, the Asian is impressed with the need for self-control. Angry comments, "letting off steam," public display of affections are considered unmannerly and extremely coarse. So keep your voice down and avoid too great a display of emotions - both parties are likely to lose face.
The use of slang, and especially American slang, within a homogeneous group is quite acceptable but would lead to misinterpretation and a possible inferiority complex when there are Vietnamese present whose mastery of the foreign language is still far from good.
If you want to summon someone, please do so with a soft voice and not by waving your index finger. If you beckon someone by your finger, your gesture will be interpreted as a display of authority on your part and an indication of lack of esteem for your subordinate, whose assigned work will probably suffer by being done halfheartedly.
Whatever you do, be careful about how you use your hand in motioning someone toward you. You're sure to get a dirty look or worse if you hold your palm up and wriggle your fingers in signaling to someone. The sign is ordinarily used in Vietnam to attract the attention of dogs and children. However, if you make the same sign but hold your hand flat, palm down, nobody will take offense.
Never tap anyone on the head. Undoubtedly, it will be taken as a personal injury to the individual's human dignity and possibly as a blow to his ancestors as well. Reserve any friendly pats on the back for intimate friends who have long been exposed to foreigners. Better still, keep hands off if you don't want to offend a Vietnamese.
You may be asked to a Vietnamese friend's house. When you enter, you may show your respect to his parents and wife by a silent nod. Don't offer to shake hands with a woman. Of course, if the woman takes the initiative, then promptly and lightly shake her hand (no crushing or pumping, please).
You may notice an ancestral shrine. It is perfectly all right to look at it and even to get close to it, but under no circumstances touch any part of the shrine. One further comment - if you sit down and cross your legs, be sure neither foot is pointed toward the shrine. Similarly, a foot pointed at an individual may be offensive.
If you are invited to eat at a friend's home, let the older people start to eat before you commence. Locally, this honor is given to the seniors rather than the guests.
The common plate from which you take food to your personal plate should always have one or two things left, and under no circumstances should you take the last bit of food from it. If you clean the common plate, the hostess might feel embarrassed because she had not prepared enough food for her guest. However, once you take the food to your personal plate, it is expected that you clear your plate to show that you appreciate he hostess's good cooking and that you know what you want when you take the food.
It is bad taste to inquire about the cost or the purchase place of household articles. It is also considered bad taste in Vietnam to put one's feet on a desk, chair, or table. This is considered haughty behavior.
If you want to return a friend's courtesy by inviting him out to a restaurant, be careful to select a fairly expensive restaurant, even though the food may not be as good as at a cheaper restaurant. If you take him to a cheap restaurant, even to one serving good food, he may feel slighted.
On a chance meeting, if you are the senior, you are expected to pick up the tab. The practice of "Dutch treat," in which each one pays for himself, is not in vogue in Vietnam.
If you feel like sending a gift to a household, it is better to send something for the children rather than for the wife. An odd number of gifts is not well received. It is better to send two presents to a child, even though the combined cost of the two presents is less than one. This aversion to odd numbers is particularly true for wedding gifts. If you send one present to a wedding couple, it might be interpreted as a prognostic that this marriage will not last.
With Vietnamese, there is still a sharp distinction between manual labor and intellectual work. A man who styles himself an intellectual would rather do some clerical work at lower pay than work with his hands. Thus, cafeterias and other notions of self-service and do-it-yourself are still very foreign to Vietnamese life. A Vietnamese of means and dignity pays servants to work for him. He does not move a heavy object and does not help his wife with the cooking. If you like to wash your car yourself or to help around the house, it would be prudent to let your servants know that you do not mean to be a miser or to take work away from a laborer, but that you enjoy doing those things for physical exercise.
If you have picked up Vietnamese phrases from servants, it is wise to check them with a close friend before using them indiscriminately. In this connection, it would be very profitable for you to learn at least the rudiments of the Vietnamese language and a few common expressions. Vietnamese is admittedly a difficult language. However, you will receive considerable esteem and satisfaction from knowing and using the basic expressions of Vietnamese.
The Rose Garden has an entrance, but nobody has been admitted."