So you want to travel Vietnam. This little Southeast Asian gem is a magical, wonderful nation bursting with culture, integrity and charm. Each year, tourists flock to the land to take in its breathtaking scenery, gorge on the unique flavors and experience a culture quite unlike their own. While there are some newly introduced influences from the West, it’s of the utmost importance that visitors remember to be mindful of the lifestyle and culture of the locals. While there’s no need to completely change one’s way of life while visiting, there are some rules of etiquette and subtle social differences people should be aware of before visiting! Below are some ways you can travel Vietnam responsibly.
1. Dress conservatively when visiting holy sites
This is standard protocol in just about every Southeast Asian country, but you’d be surprised how many people willfully turn a blind eye. Regardless of the temperature outside, tourists should bare in mind they’re visiting a holy site that is most likely held in high regard by the locals. Walking onto the property dressed like you’re prepared for a night out isn’t respectful and there’s a good chance you’ll offend those who are there to actually pray. I find it’s best to carry an extra sarong in my bag so ensure I’m always prepared, should I stumble onto a random temple site.
2. Don’t invade people’s privacy
One of the most fascinating aspects of traveling is getting to experience the way of life in a culture so far removed from what we know. However, if you’re traveling to a small village for a homestay or a simple visit, try not to be too invasive. I understand you may want to have memories of the experience caught on camera, but bare in mind that it’s somebody’s home and community and the discomfort you would feel if the roles were reversed. The people understand that your cultures are different, so just ask politely first!
3. Keep your chopsticks next to your bowl
If you’re finished with your meal but still have some leftover rice, place the chopsticks next to the bowl rather than vertically into the rice. While it may seem like nothing major in our Western culture, it resembles the incense sticks Vietnamese people burn for their deceased loved ones. While I’m sure nobody will reprimand you for doing so, it’s always a good call to stay mindful in all situations when in a different culture.
4. Hold onto your items
I’ve long been an advocate for this nation and encourage others to travel Vietnam extensively; it’s one of my favorite countries in the world. However, as with anywhere on our beautiful planet, it’s important to keep your eyes peeled for opportunistic thieves. The police officers in Vietnam do not generally regard personal theft as a crime, but rather a civil dispute, so lackadaisical travel can be detrimental.
5. Whatever you do, take care of your shoes
Before entering another person’s home, be mindful about removing your shoes first. Put them in your bag as if you leave them outside, someone else may be interested in them and then you’ll be barefoot for the rest of the day. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
6. Keep your feet to yourself
Did you know that it’s considered rude for the soles of your feet to be directed in someone else’s direction? In Vietnamese culture, it indicates that you are under the impression the other party is below you, or lesser than. Avoid any cultural faux pas by being mindful of this should you find yourself in a situation when you’re sitting cross-legged. Another idiosyncrasy to keep in mind is not to point at objects with your feet. If you’re asking how much something costs and it’s situated on the ground, bend over and point with your finger to identify it rather than pointing with your foot.
7. Tune out the loud eaters
In many Asian cultures, slurping food is considered a compliment to the chef. While it may be rude in some parts of the West, understand that the noisy eaters are just letting the person who prepared the meal know they’re thoroughly enjoying it. It may be gross at first, but remember it’s their culture, not yours!
8. Remember that bargaining is the norm
I am the worst haggler in the history of haggling. I am really bad at doing so in fear of insulting vendors or shortchanging a local. With that said, don’t be like me. Vietnamese salespeople are generally not trying to rip off others when asking for higher prices; it’s customary practice across the board and took place long before foreign influence. If you’re unhappy with a price, simply walk away and they’ll beckon you if they think it’s a fair price. I do recommend always counting your change after a transaction, though.
9. Wear a helmet
It’s no secret that riding a motorbike in Vietnam is a rite of passage among many travelers and expats, but please be mindful of your safety. Sure, it’s a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the more sustainable option in comparison to air travel, but it can be extremely dangerous. There are quite a lot of motorbike accidents every day throughout the nation, and these types of incidents can involve anyone. Don’t worry about looking cool or spending the extra cash – do yourself a favor!
10. Avoid tourist traps that promote exploitation
You’ll find that one of the most in-demand tourism activities in Hoi An, Vietnam is getting a custom-made outfit or two. While this is a unique opportunity and often offered at a reasonable cost, please be aware that some of these tailors are running sweatshops behind closed doors and aren’t paying their seamstresses liveable wages. If you go into a fitting and the tailor says you can pick it up within hours, the chances of he or she taking care of employees is not high. Do your research ahead of time and support those helping their fellow community members.
- If you see a child selling some sort of trinket on the side of the road, do not support this. The child will most likely never see that money as con artist adults often use little ones to bait kind hearted tourists.
- Interested in sipping on the coffee generated from weasel poop at the Trai Ham farm in Da Lat, think again. The animals live in cages and made to eat these coffee beans and excrete them, which can be a daunting and painful process. I had a cup of this coffee while I was visiting and felt terrible when I realized what I’d supported. We all can learn from our mistakes.
Whether you’re traveling the country for several days or a few months, it is paramount to respect Vietnam and its inhabitants – plants, people and animals alike. Support the locals and keep an open mind. Safe travels!