Navigating Vietnam’s Culture Shock: Tips For American Travelers

Vietnam, the South East Asian country known for its history and heritage, has reached a considerable number of international visitors in 2022, increasing the tourism rate to 70.6%. Asians, Americans, and Europeans are the top three tourist categories that visit Vietnam.

Navigating Vietnam's Culture Shock: Tips For American Travelers
Photo by Chris Slupski on Unsplash

People are drawn to this wonderful country for the natural landscapes that are like no other, but nothing beats the cuisine. Vietnamese culture leverages great coffee since it’s the world’s second-largest exporter and exceptional food that has widely expanded, increasing its global popularity.

Visiting Vietnam for the first time as someone whose culture and lifestyle are completely different might be challenging. For example, as an American, you may be surprised by the variety of meals, the ingredients used, and how the national language sounds.

There are many things you need to be aware of when visiting Vietnam. So, if you want to be respectful of their culture and enjoy your stay, here are some tips to help you overcome cultural differences.

Things to know about Vietnam

In terms of inhabitants, Vietnam is a diverse country with plenty of significant minorities and religions. Although Viet people are the majority, you can also find Thai or Chinese residents of the country. The official language is Vietnamese, which is challenging to learn as an English speaker due to its multiple tones, sounds and pronunciation. However, English is the country’s second language, so don’t worry; you’ll be able to get around with just English.

Vietnam is a safe country for tourists, and the best time to plan your trip is during the Spring season, but you’ll need to get a Vietnam visa US citizen document before departing. At the same time, you need a valid passport and check the vaccine requirements. Travel insurance is also required considering the country’s zero-Covid policy.

What does having a meal in Vietnam look like

The Vietnamese diet is one of the healthiest and full of nutrients. The main dishes are rice, vegetables and fish, usually cooked by steaming or stir-frying. The most popular meal is called pho, a rice noodle soup with beef or chicken broth and bean sprouts. Pho is usually an excellent choice for breakfast, while you can get banh mi, a vegetable sandwich with pork, for lunch. Dinner can consist of rice, steamed vegetables and either fish or pork.

There are many other delicious Vietnamese meals you shouldn’t miss. Street food is the best here and includes freshly made foods, from rice noodle soups, sandwiches, hot noodles, spring rolls and sea snails. Of course, if you feel like the food is not to your taste, many restaurants offer meals you might be familiar with; don’t worry about traveling to Vietnam and not finding good food!

While in urban settings, there are chairs and tables inside restaurants, if you’re going to the countryside, you may be surprised that people use the floor or a mat where a large tray will be placed with food to enjoy. The usual meal structure is based on multiple side dishes that complete each other, so it would be best to learn what they are and how they should be eaten to enjoy the Vietnamese culinary experience fully.

How to get around Vietnam with English

Vietnamese is the country’s official language, but English is also widely used in tourism and international affairs. Children are also taught English in schools. You can definitely travel to Vietnam and use only English, especially in bigger cities such as Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and Da Nang. If you want to visit the countryside and explore nature’s beauties, you may need the help of a translator or learn some basic words and expressions. But consider that Vietnamese can be challenging to understand.

Body language is an accessible communication method, but don’t use excessive gestures. It’s necessary to know how to greet, ask the price of things or show your appreciation for the meals you’ve been offered, so try to study basic Vietnamese and always have a dictionary or language guide with you.

How to abide by customs and etiquette in Vietnam

Generally speaking, Vietnamese people value modesty, so it would be best to avoid being loud on the streets and dress plainly. Clothing should be breathable due to the climate with high moisture levels, but you also need to be prepared for the rain, so bring a lightweight raincoat with you.

Elders are highly respected here, so always ensure you’re letting them sit down on a bus or be respectful towards them. It’s also best to adopt humility when visiting someone, get your shoes off when entering a home, and receive a gift with both hands.

Regarding eating and drinking etiquette, always start eating after the elders have started to show respect. There’s also an expression that Vietnamese people use to show their excitement for the meal, so you may want to learn it. Try to eat everything from your plate, as leaving food might be offensive, and learn how to use chopsticks if the restaurant doesn’t offer regular cutlery.

When visiting religious sites, you must be extra cautious with your clothing and etiquette. If you get to the famous Hindu sacred site Mỹ Sơn or the Linh Phuoc Pagoda Buddhist site, you must respect people’s beliefs and customs. Dressing up decently, with long sleeves and knee-length shorts or skirts, is best, while tight pieces should be avoided. Hats need to be removed when entering the sites.

Another small detail you must be aware of is avoiding public touching, especially on the head. Vietnamese culture considers the head the most sacred part of the body, while the feet are the least, but touching the head is highly disrespectful.

What do you think about Vietnam?

Vietnam is a wonderful country with beautiful scenery, great people, extraordinary customs, and religions. It may be challenging to face all the cultural differences, but Vietnamese people are welcoming, and you’ll always feel at ease if you show people gratitude for their heritage and habits.

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