Vietnam cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
It depends on the purpose of the meeting. If it is a business meeting, focus should be placed on work related issues. Start-off conversation with comments about weather or traffic, and then ask work-related questions. It is not uncommon that many Vietnamese working in Hanoi, Ho chi Minh City, or other major cities in Vietnam, were not born and raised in that particular city. Thus, a good topic for a first meeting could be "What part of Vietnam are you from?" or “Where is your hometown?”
If it is a social meeting, focus can be placed on family, which is extremely important to most Vietnamese. In this context, it is culturally acceptable to ask questions about a person’s age, marital status, parents (e.g., “How are your parents doing?”), siblings (e.g., “How many brothers/ sisters do you have”), children (e.g., “How many children do you have? How old are they? What grades are they in?”), spouses (Where does your husband/ wife do?”), etc. Vietnamese appreciate when such personal questions are asked, as these convey that a person cares about their lives.
Vietnamese would be impressed hearing someone speak some Vietnamese, it indicates an interest to learn some Vietnamese. A very common Vietnamese word used at the first meeting is “Xin Chao”, which can be used for greeting people of different ages and bidding farewell to them.
If a person meets a Vietnamese for the first time, it is suggested that he/she avoid sensitive topics such as politics, religion, democracy and human rights. Should Vietnamese be interested in knowing the person’s views on these topics, they would proactively raise them.
Vietnamese usually enjoy humour. However, when meeting someone for the first time, consider avoiding jokes, especially on the sensitive topics mentioned above.
Family is a crucial part of a Vietnamese person’s life; having pictures (of your children, parents, brothers and sisters) is a good idea; Vietnamese people will be curious to know what they do. They will ask you your marital status, how many children you have, and may even want to know your salary. They’ll also want to know what you think of Vietnam (your thoughts on the people, the food, the customs, etc.). Customs are also a topic of interest. Avoid politics during your initial contact.
Communication styles depend on the context of meeting. Both men and women shake hands at business meetings or formal events. In a casual context, Vietnamese usually say "hi" or "how are you?" instead of shaking hands. They tend to maintain a certain distance when speaking to someone. Vietnamese rarely greet by kissing each other on the cheek, even among close friends. Hugging is becoming more common, particularly among younger people if they know each other well.
Vietnamese do not usually maintain their eye contact when they speak to a person; however, they would not feel offended if someone maintains eye contact with them. Hand gestures are not common in communication. Sitting on the table, slouch, and pointing fingers at someone should be avoided.
Vietnamese tend to avoid direct confrontation, and keeping face in the public is very important to them. They usually prefer to speak in an indirect manner, particularly on sensitive or controversial issues. At the workplace, many discussions take place behind the scenes in order to seek agreement or consensus on these issues.
Communications remain challenging in Vietnam. The Vietnamese language is very demanding with its 5–6 tones, its nuances and discussion levels (e.g., you cannot talk to a youth as you would to an elder, etc.); even after a few years in Vietnam, a Canadian who has learned to speak Vietnamese will understand about 50% of a conversation. Communications often involve an interpreter, which creates an added challenge since some are more competent than others. The same goes for the translation of documents (it is estimated that about 50% of translations are 50% reliable). Do not hesitate to repeat the terms of an agreement or the conclusions of a discussion or to have them repeated to you; it is better to put everything in writing, even though this doesn’t ensure compliance with the terms or conclusions. As for non-verbal communications, remember that the Vietnamese always try to keep a neutral attitude.
Display of emotion
In business or formal settings, Vietnamese tend not to display their emotions. However, in a casual context, public displays of affection, happiness, anger, sadness, grief and other emotions are acceptable.
The Vietnamese are very discreet and rarely show their emotions (happiness, anger, fear); they expect the same attitude/self-control from the people they interact with (colleague, boss, etc.).
Dress, punctuality & formality
Vietnamese people generally like to dress formally. Many of them, especially in Northern Vietnam, judge others by appearance. However, the way people dress depends on the workplace environment. If they work for international organizations, companies, or local governmental organizations, business attire is expected. If they work for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), less formal dress is acceptable.
In Vietnam, offices are usually open from 7:30/ 8:00 a.m. to 4:30/ 5:00p.m. International organizations, international NGOs or foreign companies usually follow international working standards. However, in local governmental organizations, employees tend to have a long lunch (1.0-1.5 hour) and usually take a nap after lunch, for 30 minutes or one hour, which would make their lunchtime last even longer (i.e., 1.5 - 2.00 hour). In addition, in these organizations, deadlines and work schedules are not strictly followed (i.e., many people come late while still leaving early; or meetings and events can be scheduled and cancelled at the last minute).
Address Vietnamese colleagues and supervisors by their given names. When addressing a Vietnamese, a person is encouraged to learn how to add an appropriate pronoun to that person’s given name based on his/ her age (e.g., “anh” A, “chi” B, “ong” C, “ba” D; etc.). If someone is the same age or younger, simply call them by their given names without adding a pronoun.
Vietnamese people can be very strict. Therefore, be punctual and formal especially for work-related meetings; the atmosphere will become more casual during subsequent meetings, particularly if you build a relationship. As for the dress code, our tastes (style, colour, etc.) are diametrically opposed. As a general rule: dress formally, wear clean and ironed clothes (blouse, dress with sleeves for women; shirt and pants for men—no T-shirts, no need to wear a jacket, since the Vietnamese don’t necessarily wear them). Appearance is very important.
Preferred managerial qualities
Experience, leadership, education, work ethic and integrity are key qualities for a local supervisor/ manager in Vietnam. Local employees might set even a higher expectation as an expatriate supervisor/ manager, because they expect foreigners to share new knowledge, innovative ideas and creative methods that they would hardly acquire from local management/ resources. Local staff might have that perception, since expatriate supervisor/ manager is getting paid much higher than local people, it is expected that they work harder and perform better.
It is important to obtain feedback from local staff on a regular basis, build a strong rapport with them, and maintain frequent interactions with them. This would help any foreigner know more about their views of them. In addition, show care and respect for their local staff, as many of them would expect that their manager is not only competent but also personable and approachable. Given their long history of fighting against foreign invasions, Vietnamese tend to resist external imposition. Therefore, at the workplace, a person is encouraged to seek clarification and build consensus through discussions, including one-to-one engagement, rather than simply imposing their views, as this may negatively affect long-term relationships with local staff.
Impose your authority, especially if you are a woman. But be subtle about it, since the Vietnamese don't like to "obey," particularly if you are of the same age group. It is hard to know what they think, since they don’t externalize their emotions/feelings. Be patient and observant.
Note: in the 1990s, in each office or work unit, there was a person who was responsible for reporting everything to the local Communist Party representative; land lines were all under surveillance. Is this the case in 2016?
Hierarchy and decision-making
In a hierarchical society like Vietnam, the top-down approach remains preferred, and decisions are usually taken by the head of the organization. However, consultations and building consensus play an important role in the decision-making process, particularly in public-sector organizations, including governmental agencies and other entities that owned and/ or run by the government (i.e., state-owned enterprises; universities; schools, hospitals; etc.). In addition, as Vietnam is still maintaining a communist regime, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) still play a crucial role in most public-sector organizations. For instance, CPV representatives do not run these organizations administratively; however, they still have the right to review (and even revoke when necessary) major decisions made by managers/ administrators, particularly with respect to personnel issues.
Vietnamese people tend to keep their distance from their immediate supervisors/ managers and not to disclose their feelings and thoughts directly to their bosses. Therefore, they usually share their work-related concerns with co-workers and/ or family members or relatives, and seek feedback or advice from these people. Should Vietnamese be interested in discussing sensitive or controversial issues with their supervisors/ managers, they would prefer to raise these issues in an indirect manner. To avoid direct confrontation at the workplace, they tend to conduct one-to-one informal discussions regarding their problems/ challenges, rather than raising them during formal meetings.
(none provided – template had incorrect question so they did not answer the hierarchy question)
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Maintaining the communist regime, Vietnam is officially an atheist country. However many Vietnamese continue to practise "informal" religious customs and folk religions. For instance, most Vietnamese honour their ancestors and follow rituals for birth, death, marriage, opening a new business, moving, etc. Vietnamese and foreigners are allowed to practice their religions, provided that these religions are permitted and closely monitored by the government. Major religions in Vietnam include Mahayana Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Theravada Buddhism, Hoa Hao and Cao Dai. At this point, religion remains one of the most politically sensitive and scrutinized topics in Vietnam. Should anybody be interested in discussing this topic at the workplace, be aware of the specific sensitivities related to the issue.
Generally, the issue of class is not discussed in Vietnam nowadays. Instead, social gaps and inequality are becoming widely discussed topics. Instead of asking about a person’s class, Vietnamese people would be much more curious in learning about a person’s place of origin as well as social and economic backgrounds.
Vietnam has 54 distinct ethnic groups, and each group has its own language, lifestyle, and cultural heritage. “Kinh”, which accounts for over 86% of the population, is Vietnam’s largest ethnic group and dominant in all walks of life of the country. In addition, other major ethnic groups in Vietnam include Tay, Thai, Muong, Khmer Krom, Hoa, Nung, Hmong, etc. The government has attempted to build roads, schools and hospitals for the poorest ethnic groups. However, ethnic minorities are still facing numerous difficulties (i.e., widening poverty gap; higher illiteracy and school drop-out rates; later enrollment rates; etc.). Human rights of ethnic minorities remain a politically sensitive issue in Vietnam.
Although Vietnam has recently achieved some progress in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, it remains a male-dominated society, particularly in rural areas and among most ethnic minorities. Vietnamese women are still facing numerous obstacles, including poverty, limited access to higher education and employment opportunities, persistent discriminatory attitudes and behaviours, under-representation in politics; etc. However, female expatriates are usually respected and rarely face discriminations at the workplace.
Women are not valued in Vietnamese society. Women in key positions (politics, management, etc.) are often figureheads, since men make the decisions. That being said, women are often hired by foreigners since they work well and can accomplish difficult tasks in a governmental position, for example.
There are no social classes as in other Asian countries. Here, people refer to themselves as being from the North (Vietnam) or the South (Vietnam), the North (the victors) having the upper hand over the South (the vanquished).
Religion is a personal aspect of people’s lives and is not considered a taboo or source of conflict. The Vietnamese generally practise Buddhism. Religious holidays are a pretext to visit the numerous temples and pagodas.
As for ethnicity, Vietnam is dominated by the Kinh, a group that occupies all spheres of society; minority groups from the extreme North as well as the plains and mountains of the South are marginalized in terms of access to goods, services and rights. They are often used/shown as a tourist attraction.
A personal relationship in Vietnam is extremely important, which is based on the mutual interest and trust from both sides, and would take time to develop. A person might want to ask a third party to introduce him/her to Vietnamese colleagues or clients before getting to business. Frequent in-person visits would be much more efficient than phone calls or e-mails. Establishing a personal relationship with Vietnamese, can be done through inviting them for lunch, dinner, or drink, and sharing some personal stories, so that they would be able to understand him/her better. In addition, gift-giving is a common practice in Vietnam. A gift, which may consist of small, inexpensive souvenirs from a person’s home country, could help highlight his/her care for local colleagues or clients.
Personal relationships are crucial to business development or other work relationships. Vietnamese love to eat, so a meal will always accompany a formal meeting; gifts will also be exchanged. The Vietnamese host usually organizes the first meeting. He or she will take care of lodging arrangements and logistics. At subsequent meetings, the foreigner can choose his/her own lodgings and have a say in arranging logistics (places to see, people to meet, etc.). Be patient and observant. Foreigners might have to face some alcohol-related challenges; Vietnamese men love to drink strong alcohol during meals and will judge others by their alcohol consumption. A foreign woman can always admit her inability to follow suit with her Vietnamese colleagues—she is but a weak woman!
Privileges and favouritism
Local colleagues or employees might not explicitly ask a foreigner to give them special privileges or considerations given his/her personal relationship or friendship with them. However, such requests are not uncommon at the workplace and could even be accepted culturally, as working relationships and personal relationships tend to be blended in the Vietnamese society. In public-sector organizations, jobs, career advancement opportunities, overseas travel, etc. are usually given to family members, friends or acquaintances. In addition, in these organizations, personnel considerations and appointments tend to be given to those who are members of the Communist Party.
Certainly! The Vietnamese give gifts freely and expect to receive them. However, one should be firm with regard to terms of employment. Rules should be written and limits established. Do not hesitate to fire an employee if he or she has overstepped his or her bounds.
Conflicts in the workplace
Keeping face is extremely important to most Vietnamese who tend to avoid direct confrontations. Therefore, should a person encounter work-related problems with local colleagues or employees, it is best not to confront them publicly (unless other recourses have been exhausted). Instead, arrange a one-to-one meeting to discuss the issues privately. Consider starting the conversations by asking local colleagues/ employees how their families are doing before raising the issues. Think about consulting senior colleagues to obtain advice on an appropriate approach to raising sensitive and controversial issues at the workplace.
Work-related problems should not to be dealt with in public; one should not lose face in front of his or her colleagues. It is difficult to confront another person, since he or she will (seemingly) accept your reprimands in silence, yet may use it later against you. The Vietnamese don’t accept criticism well.
Motivating local colleagues
It depends on the sector; however, generally, financial incentives, recognition, job satisfaction, working conditions, overseas travel can be key factors to motivating local colleagues/ employees to perform better. Loyalty should not be taken for granted, particularly in the private sector, where younger employees tend to change their jobs more often should they find a better-paid work. As the base salaries of most public-sector employees remain very low, it is not uncommon that many of them seek additional incomes through extra works (e.g., selling merchandises online; or providing catering services; etc.).
The Vietnamese are a very proud people. The best way to motivate them is to congratulate them for work done or for their initiative even if the work or initiative was your own. Sharing a meal with colleagues is also a good way of showing interest in the people and their country.
Recommended books, films & foods
- “Vietnam - Culture Smart: the essential guide to customs and culture” (Geoffrey Murray, 2006)
- “Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture” (Huu Ngoc, 2004)
- “Culture Shock! Vietnam: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (Claire Ellis, 2002)
- “Understanding Vietnam” (Neil L. Jamieson, 1995)
- “The Foods of Vietnam” (Routhier, 1999)
- “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987)
- “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (2003)
- “Cyclo” (1995)
- “Three Seasons” (1999)
- “The Scent of green Papaya” (1993).
- “Vietnam in HD” (2011)
- “Vietnam: A Television History” (1983)
- “Tour of Duty” (1987)
- “Vietnam’s Got Talent”
- “Vietnam’s Next Top Model”
- Imperial court music: “nha nhac; “tieu nhac”; “dai nhac”.
- Folk music: “dan ca”; “quan ho”; “hat chau van”; “ca tru”; “ho”; and “hat xam”; etc.
- Traditional musical instruments: “dan bau”; “dan nguyet”; “dan tranh”; etc.
- Famous musicians: Trinh Cong Son, Van Cao, Phu Quang, Thanh Tung, Tran Tien, Pham Duy…etc.
- Popular pop singers: Thanh Lam, Hong Nhung, My Linh, Tran Thu Ha, My Tam, Ho Ngoc Ha, Lam Truong, Quang Dung; etc.
- Vietnamese rice-noodle soup (Pho)
- Spring rolls (“Nem” or “Cha gio”)
- Slad rolls ((“Nem cuon”)
- Sticky rice (“Xoi")
- Vietnamese sandwich (“Banh my”)
- Square cakes (“Banh chung”)
Learning to eat with chopsticks will impress your host. The Internet offers a great deal of information about places you can visit (north, south, capital, small provincial towns, etc.). Try visiting the Vietnamese neighbourhood or Asian Quarter of your city.
Seeking advice from other expatriates, particularly those who have lived in Vietnam for a while, as well as a person’s Vietnamese colleagues is a great way to learn more about the local culture and people. They would be able to recommend specific activities and share useful tips and insights into different cultural aspects of the city/ town/ area where he/she lives and works.
Also a person can go to local restaurants, coffee shops, markets, parks, museums, cultural houses, etc., to observe the local life and socialize with local people. Attend traditional and cultural events (performances). If invited by local colleagues, visit their homes. Visit the countryside and other cities/ towns/ areas of Vietnam to learn more about Vietnamese sub-cultures, which are quite different (i.e., Northern Vietnam; Central Vietnam; Southern Vietnam).
Upon arrival, accept the activities your host will suggest (Buddhist temple visits, typical shows, historic sites, etc.). The country is a beautiful place to visit; several transportation, lodging and activity options are available throughout the country. A woman can travel alone quite easily as long as she follows the usual precautions (passport and money in a secure place, appropriate clothing, etc.).
In Vietnam, national heroes (e.g., Hai Ba Trung, Ngo Quyen, Dinh Tien Hoang, Ly Thuong Kiet, Tran Hung Dao, Le Loi, Nguyen Trai, Quang Trung - Nguyen Hue, Vo Nguyen Giap, etc.) are honoured by naming streets after them, reflecting the country’s rich history of fighting against foreign invaders.
Ho Chi Minh is the most prominent national hero since he was the founder of modern Vietnam. General Giap also had a great impact on the history of the resistance of these very resilient, inventive and stubborn people. The Vietnamese are history buffs and love to share tales of their resistance against the invaders (Chinese, French, Japanese, Americans).
Shared historical events with Canada
Generally, Canada and Canadians are well regarded in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese are appreciative of the fact that Canada did not fight in the Vietnam War and even helped enforce the Paris Peace Accords that ended this war.
Nothing in particular. Canada and Canadians are welcomed in Vietnam
A stereotype about Vietnam is based on the perception of a “communist” Vietnam, which maintains “one-party system that prohibits free expression”. Although Vietnam is still governed by the Vietnamese Communist Party, people in this country come from different social, cultural, professional and political backgrounds and many of them have different ways of seeing the world and are quite open in expressing their views.
Vietnam has been at peace for 30 years. Those interested in the wars in Vietnam can learn more about them in museums and books. Several places and historic sites are worth the visit (Dien Bien Phu, Cu Chi).
Someone who always smiles at you is not necessarily your friend… Remember appearances count for a lot in this country.
Do not hesitate to repeat and make others repeat to ensure both parties are on the same wavelength.
About the cultural interpreters
The cultural interpreter is a Vietnamese Canadian. He was born and raised in Hanoi, Vietnam. He studied international relations, law, management, public administration and policy analysis in Vietnam, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and Canada. He has travelled to over forty countries and earned 25 years of professional experience working for business enterprises, academia, non-governmental organizations, governmental agencies and international organizations, in Vietnam and Canada. He speaks English, Vietnamese, French, Russian and Chinese Mandarin. He currently works as a policy analyst for a federal department of the Canadian government.
After my Engineering Studies at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, I began a career in international development. I have over 36 years of experience within Canada and throughout the world working for the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) which is headquartered in Ottawa.
As a volunteer in the Republic of the Comores (1978–1981) and as a regional director in West Africa based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (2004–2009), I have held a variety of positions: Teacher (Comores and Benin—1987-89); Country Director responsible for programs (Gabon—1982-85, Vietnam—1996–2001, Burkina Faso); Project Manager and Programs Director in Canada until 2014. I managed development projects subsidized by the Department of Global Affairs as well as more than 1000 Canadian volunteers and employees in Canada and in developing countries.
Since 2014, I have been working as a consultant in international development and have undertaken short missions (less than six months) in South Sudan and Sri Lanka.
I worked in Vietnam from 1996 to 2001 as a Director of English and French instruction programs (foreign languages) and Tourism. I coordinated the recruitment, mobilization and coaching of about 200 Canadian volunteers working in different universities and departments around the country. In this way, I was able to familiarize myself with the culture and working habits of the Vietnamese.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.