Interesting facts about modern Vietnamese culture

14 Fun & Unusual Facts About Modern Vietnamese Culture

Vietnam has a fascinating history and culture that is more than just rice-fields and conical hats. Before you arrive in Vietnam, check out these 14 interesting facts about modern Vietnamese culture.


Burning Paper Mache Iphones in the Street

An ancient Vietnamese ritual of sacrifice, with a curious modern-spin

Twice a month, you’ll notice small fires burning on side-walks throughout the towns and cities of Vietnam. What are they burning? Take a closer look and you’ll see paper simulacra of luxury items: from $100 USD bills to helicopters to iphones. The belief is that the real items, as represented by the paper mache caricatures, will be transported into the spirit realm and into the spirit-hands of ancestors.

Fire in the streets of Hanoi to make offerings to ancestors
Bi-monthly offerings by fire. Photo credit: William @ vietnamdaily.ca

Why? It is a way of honouring and taking-care of ancestors. It is the duty of a head-of-household to provide for their current family, as well as their ex-family members who’ve passed away: the spirit-ancestors get the luxury gifts in the afterlife by burning the paper representations.

Wealthy community members have been known to buy truck-loads of such paper-products and burn them en masse for the benefit of their entire neighbourhoods’ ancestors. Suffice to say, there is a huge manufacturing industry dedicated to making hip, new paper mache representations of luxury items.

There are some signs that younger people are not maintaining this ritual, due to concerns over air-quality (source).

This may sound funny, and for most young Vietnamese it is, but on the other hand, it is an example of the care and dedication that Vietnamese people have for their elders and ancestors. Whatever is your culture, do you think that your loved ones will think of you this much after you pass away?

READ MORE about the fascinating ritual of Vietnamese burning paper-simulacra of luxury items and see pictures of Vietnamese art (to be burned)

Jay-Walking is Safe and Commonplace in Vietnam

Vietnamese people walk wherever they want, whenever they want.

Jay-walking is extremely commonplace. A blind person could criss-cross the busiest streets of Hanoi and never fear of being hit by a car. Drivers just expect that someone could, at any time, walk out in-front of them. They are prepared for it. Likewise, other drivers just expect that their neighbouring dirivers may suddenly swerve into their path at any time.

This has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, cities seem much more walkable and accessible — you feel like you can walk anywhere and aren’t afraid of being hit by traffic. Furthermore, Vietnamese drivers are generally more attentive to their surroundings, compared to the sleepy absent-minded commuters of North America.

But on the negative side, the chaotic nature of jay-walkers (and other traffic anomalies) means that everyone must drive much more slowly. This slows down all aspects of transportation and commerce.

And sometimes, people do occasionally get hit as well — it happened to me (and people just laughed).

Vietnamese are Vegan Twice a Month

Many Vietnamese are vegan/vegetarian; some are on a lunar schedule

At the beginning and middle of the lunar month, when the moon is new or full, many Vietnamese people go vegan. For the day, they abstain from meat, alcohol and other vices, as a nod towards Buddhist non-harm to animals.

This is great for travelling vegetarians: the regularity of periodic vegans has spawned a large food-industry that is some of the best in the world. There are plenty of amazing animal-free options, from greasy street-food carts, to back-alley canteens, to gourmet sit-down restaurants.

On that note, check out our favourite Bánh mì recipe.

Ninja Burkas – Vietnamese Full-Body Cover

Vietnamese women go to extremes to hide from the sun

When you visit Vietnam, you’ll be struck by the large number of people walking around looking like flower-dabbled ninjas. These aren’t martial-arts masters, but normal women who are trying to cover 100% of their skin: gloves, face masks, googles, hoodies, pants, and neck-coverings. It is functionally the same as a middle-eastern burka.

But, for Vietnamese women, these outifts are not due to “the patriarchy” or religious taboos or some authority’s prescription. They are entirely voluntary. The goal is to avoid skin-damage from the hot tropical sun.

Buy them on Vietnam’s online marketplace Tiki

Ninja? Or protector of skin?

Hot fashion under the hot tropical sun

These ninja skin-protection outfits are very useful and can be purchased in any local market for approximately 200k VND. On a long sunny motorbike trip, I found them to be a life-saver! Or, search for “áo chống nắng” on Tiki.vn

Skin-protection is a big theme in Vietnam — it explains other interesting cultural quirks of Vietnamese people. For instance, if you go to the beach, you’ll see that most women are swimming in their jeans, shirts, hoodies, etc., apparently motivated by skin protection rather than modesty or cultural taboos (modesty-in-dress is obviously not a big concern for Vietnamese women, as any nightclub can attest).

Vietnam has 54 Ethnic Minorities

Vietnam is a land of significant cultural diversity

Vietnam is not an ethnically homogeneous nation. The “người Việt” (or “người Kinh”) are the majority group, for whom the country and official language are named after. The Việt were mostly a lowland and coastal people, leaving the vast mountainous interior to a wide variety of other ethnic groups.

Many of these groups persist today, such as the H’Mong, Khmer, Tay, Thai, Cham, and even Chinese refuges. These groups have their own distinct languages, religions, rituals, and traditional style of housing and clothing.

Fun fact about Vietnam: Map of Vietnamese ethnic minorities
Map of Vietnam’s Ethnic Minority peoples. Source: “Viet Nam’s cultural diversity:
approaches to preservation” UNESCO 2001.

The official government policy has long been to promote and sustain minority peoples’ culture. But, most of them are becoming more assimilated into the national Viet culture, as young people move into Viet-dominated cities and adopt their economic behaviours.

READ MORE about the ethnic diversity in Vietnam and their ancestral origins

As a traveller to Vietnam, experiencing these diverse cultures is a definite highlight. If you are in Hanoi, you can visit the amazing Museum of Ethology which showcases the traditional buildings and village-layouts of various ethnic peoples. In Hoi An, there is the Precious Heritage museum. If you travel to places like SaPa or Ha Giang (read our review here), you can meet people from dozens of different minority groups. For example, you can stay at remote home-stay or attend the Saturday farmers’ markets where different groups trade and socialize (e.g., Du Già or Sà Phìn markets)

The Buddha Loves Choco-Pie

Blessed is the wagonwheel

If you go to any Buddhist pagoda in Vietnam, you are likely to notice that the Buddha is sitting peacefully in a heap of gifts from local people. Most gifts seem to be food and drinks, chief among them are the famous Choco-Pies: a snack cake consisting of two small round layers of cake, a marshmallow filling, and a thin chocolate exterior (also known as moon pies or wagon wheels).

Vietnamese buddha shrine with offerings of Choco-Pie: the sweet that is the symbol of hope, progress, and change in Vietnam
Choco Pie cakes are piled up as offers in a temple, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Southeast Asia. Source:  Morgan Ommer / NOI Pictures

Why does the Buddha like Choco-Pie so much? Choco-pies were one of the first Western snacks to be imported into Vietnam after it opened-up to foreign trade — a rare luxury and instant favourite in the country. Before then, sweets were limited to domestic confections like che (a sweet bean porridge).

As a symbol of luxury, hope, and progress, the Choco-Pie makes sense as a gift for venerable holy-persons like the Buddha.

People usually leave the pies with the Buddha for a day, after which the pies are considered blessed. The person who subsequently consumes the blessed pies gets good luck, as a modern-day play on the ritual of sacrifice.

Secret Suppliers of High-End “Japanese” Handicrafts

A talent for the unbelievably ornate

For upscale handicrafts and fine-artworks, such as oil-painting, embroidery, weaving, tailoring, silver-jewelry, wood-working, lacquer art, and ceramics, Vietnam has world-class artisans. Until recently, there were entire guild-towns in the outskirts of Hanoi that were singularly dedicated to a high-end craft, like the instrument-making village of Đào Xá.

Multi-generational family-business making handmade musical instruments, from Đào Xá village, outside Hanoi.

Exquisite embroidery art from the embroidery village outside of Hanoi

Workers in these industry have confided to us that there are many unscrupulous businesses who source their handicrafts from Vietnam and sell them as traditional “Japanese” art — Japan, of course, being synonymous with high-quality craftsmanship.

Is the rumour true? Who knows, but what is true is that Vietnamese artisans are renown in the area for producing high-quality traditional products. We have met foreign business-operators who go on sourcing-tours in Hanoi specifically to hunt for large volumes of traditional fine-arts and handicrafts, whether to resell in high-end European shops, or to outfit entire hotels in an Asian aesthetic.

Relationships Embedded in Language

“Please tell your age so that I can address you properly”

It is said that if you eavesdrop on a group of Vietnamese people talking among each other, you can quickly deduce the nature of all their relationships: their relative social status, their age, whether they are related, whether they are friends, or if they have an employee-employer relationship, etc.

This is because the Vietnamese language employs different words for different relationships. For example, there are different pronouns to address elders or high-status individuals (like bosses). These different ways-of-speaking are often referred to as “formal vs. informal”, although it is much more varied than that.

These speech-conventions are so important to Vietnamese society that when two people meet for the first time, one will ask the other “Can you please tell me your age, so that I may address you properly”.

RELATED: Learn how Vietnamese people can deduce the relationships among a group of strongs based on how they talk to each other.

The flip-side of this linguistic quirk is that, when a Vietnamese person comes to a foreign culture which doesn’t have such language-rules, they can feel uncomfortable and disconnected from other humans. They have the sense that relationships are more opaque and ambiguous, like they’ve lost a sense.

The Largest Cave in the World in Vietnam

A karst landscape full of hidden caves and other natural wonders

This interesting fact isn’t about Vietnam culture, but is nonetheless worth mentioning due to its impressiveness. The Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng region has the world’s largest cave. Although you can’t visit it specifically, the enveloping National Park has a few other well-curated caves that are just as mind-blowing to visit.

Large caves in Phong Nha, Vietnam
Caves of Phong Nha, photo credit: William @ VietnamDaily.ca

In our opinion, the Phong Nha caves are one of the most underrated travel destinations in Vietnam. Read more about our review of Phong Nha here.

“You look fat” is Okay in Vietnam

Vietnamese like to get frank and personal with strangers

Vietnamese people are remarkably frank with strangers. They like to ask personal questions, and get to them quickly: “Are you married?”, “Hey, how much money do you make?”, “How many kids do you have?”, “Why don’t you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?”

The funniest of all may be the following conversation that we heard between two newly-met colleagues at a workplace social function:

  • Man: “Hey, how much do you weigh?”
  • Woman: “I don’t want to tell you. Why do you ask?”
  • Man: “Hey, c’mon! You look fat, I want to know how much you weigh”

While the above dialogue is a little funny, it isn’t considered rude or malicious. For Westerners, it is hard imagine that someone could call you fat and it would not be considered mean. But, in Vietnam, people are not so sensitive about each others’ inquisitiveness and frankness. If you are overweight, people will notice it and tell you the truth.

The Vietnamese Love Side-Hustles

The Vietnamese work-ethic puts most of us to shame

The Vietnamese people are incredibly entrepreneurial. Not only is this true in terms of high-profile Silicon-Valley-esque start-ups, but also in the day-to-day low-tech commerce of ordinary people.

As a visitor to Vietnam, you will be struck by the density of economic activity happening on the streets — it’s like all public spaces are fair-game to be taken-over by some sort of business activity. Here are some of the side-hustles we come across:

  • a piano salesman serves bun-cha to passerbyers before his shop opens.
  • a worker at a Northface factory flips discounted merchandise to tourists.
  • an architect-assistant imports high-end men’s basketball shoes from the USA, to sell on Facebook.
  • a single mom in-between jobs sources bamboo furniture for export to a French home-decor shop.
  • a marketing-manager makes handmade oshibana cards for VIP guests at a trade conference.
Street food vendor working temporarily in the early morning hours, disappearing once trading hours begin.
Pop-up street food in Hanoi. In the early morning, before official trading hours begin, the streets are full of these temporary food vendors. Photo credit: William @ VietnamDaily.ca

Most people’s side-hustles seem to revolve around food. Before business-hours, the side-walks and streets are full of mobile food-vendors who operate for a few hours, complete with tables chairs and menus, and then disappear when the official stores begin trading.

Why are the Vietnamese so entrepreneurial? One idea is that prior to the Doi Moi free-market reforms of 1986, people required multiple-sources of income to eke-out a modest standard of living (e.g, we’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in Cuba). Regardless of the origins, the fact remains that Vietnamese people have a widespread endearing ambition to run their own business and get wealthy.

This entrepreneurial spirit is one reason why we think Vietnam is on the cusp of generation-long bull-run: 5 reasons to invest in Vietnamese stocks.

Business-Owners Worship the Three-Legged Toad

A that endows its devotees with good luck and success

If you enter a private business in Vietnam, look for a small, ornate toad with a coin in its mouth, surrounded by incense and other offerings. This is a common sight in traditional businesses as well as modern high-tech franchises.

Jin Chan, the feng shui lucky toad that are worshipped by VIetnamese business owners
Jin Chan, the toad of money and fortune. Source: wikimedia

Who is this toad? From Chinese myths, Jin Chan was the uncle of the celestial Jade Emporer (Ông Trời). He lived a licentious lifestyle of gluttony and drink, to such an extent that he hungrily ate half the moon (hence, why the moon is crescent shape). The Jade Emperor was so displeased, he transformed him into a toad.

Upon this disgrace, the toad became a more helpful, virtuous, and altruistic person/toad. The symbol of his generosity is that he has an infinite fountain of gold-coins erupting from his belly. He appears on full-moons as the bearer of good news and fortune. He therefore became the symbol of money and wealth, an attractor of success, and so beloved by business-owners.

Nowadays, the dutiful maintenance of his shrine is just expected of any serious and respectable business, regardless of the owners’ spiritual beliefs.

RELATED: Learn more about 13 Common Vietnamese Superstitions

If you want success in commerce, and enjoy dabbling in ancient Chinese spirituality, you can get your own Uncle Toad statue on Amazon.ca , Shopee.vn, or any other online marketplace.

The Vietnamese are Great at Math

The Vietnamese typically rank very well in international math competitions. In the international Math Olympiad, Vietnam has a median ranking of 7 for the past 10 years. Sometimes Vietnam places as high as 3rd place. For comparison, Vietnam often beats Japan, India, and Israel (source).

Vietnam also ranks 13th overall in average global IQ (source: Lynn 2010). Begin so smart and technically savvy has many Quora and Google users asking “If Vietnamese are so smart, why is the country so poor?” See our post that addresses the myth of Vietnamese poverty (read more).

A Problem with Chinese Traffickers in Remote Vietnam

We end with a sad story about rural Vietnam

In the difficult-to-surveil mountain areas of Northern Vietnam, along the Chinese border, Chinese traffickers move easily between countries and smuggle contraband — as well as woman. The Chinese traffickers purchase young brides from ethnic minority families to be sent to wife-less patrons in China.

“I haven’t seen my sister in six years. She was sold to a Chinese husband.” This story was personally relayed to us from a H’mong family in Sapa. What was so shocking, aside the horribleness of the situation, was how candid and accepting she was of her sister’s fate — like it was normal. These are illegal arrangements, but the insularity and remoteness of the region makes enforcement very difficult.

Often, the traffickers “sell” the arrangement by saying that the purchasing Chinese families are very wealthy and will take good care of their daughters. However, surveys of such women tell a very different story. Read more about the plight of these trafficked women and their stories here .

DONATE: Consider donating to organization Blue Dragon that combats slavery and human-trafficking in Vietnam.


14 Interesting Facts About Vietnam: Honourable Mentions

The above 14 items are our favourite facts about Vietnam. The following extra facts are honourable mentions taken from other bloggers.

Vietnam is the 2nd Largest Exporter of Coffee

Vietnam produced 1.85 billion kg of coffee (arabica and robusta) in 2020, and increased exports by 5% YOY. This makes Vietnam the world’s second larger coffee producer, after Brazil (which produced 3.38 billion kg of coffee), and ahead of Columbia in third place. Coffee makes up 0.86% of Vietnam’s total export by value. (source: oec.world).

Anyone who visits Vietnam should definitely go on a self-guided cafe tour and sample exotic dessert coffees like Egg Coffee and Yogurt Coffee (e.g, at the infamous Cong Cafe), as well as the black luxurious Weasel Coffee (which comes from civet excrement).

FUN TODO: Do a DIY walking tour of Hanoi’s exotic cafes and strange coffees. See our walking map of the Hanoi Old Quarter

Coffee is grown in the idyllic temperate mountains of Da Lat and Dak Lak. These are wondeful places to visit. Fun Fact: Da Lat is like the “Cottage Country” destination for residents of Ho Chi Minh City, who flee to the cool mountains when they want to escape the tropical heat.

Fun fact: Vietnam is the 2nd largest exporter of coffee
The idyllic mountains of Da Lat, Vietnam, a prime coffee-growing region. Photo credit: Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

Vietnam is #1 Exporter of Black Pepper

Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of black pepper (273K tonnes in 2018) followed by Indonesia (88K tonnes). Vietnam is also the world largest total consumer of Black Pepper. Black pepper makes-up 0.25% of Vietnam’s total trade export by value (source: globalnewswire)

Black pepper grows in hot, tropical, low-land areas in Central Vietnam such as: Quang Tri, Vinh Linh, Gio Linh, and Cam Lo.

Vietnam is the #3 Producer of Cashews

The Cashew plant (Anacardium occidental) is a tree native to Brasil, but Vietnam is one of the world’s top-producing countries. The cashew family also includes the mangoes and pistachios.

For the year with the most-recent complete data (2019), Vietnam ranked 3rd globally with 283,330 metric tonnes of cashews produced, following the Ivory Coast (1st), India (2nd), and Burundi (tied-for-3rd). This amounts to approximately 7.3% of the world’s total cashew supply coming from Vietnam.

About 50% of Vietnam’s cashews are grown in the highland region of Binh Phuoc , not far from Ho Chi Minh City in the South. There are about 77600 households that run cashew orchards, as well as a sizable investment by the Vietnamese government.

Fun fact about Vietnam: Vietnam is the #3 largest producer of Cashews. The cashew apple is very useful and can make beverages and oils
Cashew Apple in Vietnam. Source: Photo by Anton Shuvalov on Unsplash

The cashew plant is very useful. The nut that we eat is actually the inner seed of the Cashew apple: a fleshy fruit that can be used for making juice and fermented beverages. The hard shell has a special liquid that is used industrial processes, such as lubricants, varnishes, cements, drugs, and fungicides (source: cashews.org).

Vietnam is the 15th Largest Country by Population

In 2019, Vietnam was the world’s 15th largest country by population, with over 96 million residents. This is larger than Germany, France or the UK. There may be an additional 4 million Vietnamese living outside of Vietnam in countries like the USA, Canada, France and Australia.

However, by land-area, Vietnam is ranked 66th, with only 331,212 km2, which is smaller than Germany, Finland, and Japan.

SOURCE: “Total population, both sexes combined (thousands)”. UNdata. United Nations Statistics Division. 17 June 2019.

Finger Crossing is an Insulting Gesture

Crossing your fingers means “good luck” in many Anglo countries. But, in Vietnam, a slightly modified version means “F–k you”. The particular finger formation is thought to be a vulgar representation of female genitalia.

RELATED: Vietnamese cuss words: What does “Đụ má” mean in Vietnamese?

Fun fact about Vietnam: in VIetnam, crossing fingers is an insulting gesture
Crossed-fingers gesture in Vietnam means “f— you”. Image source.

Đá Cầu (or Kick Badminton) is the National Sport of Vietnam (not Football)

Although football is Vietnam’s favourite spectator sport, the national sport is Đá Cầu. It is like “Kick Badminton” with the same rules and points-system as badminton.

But instead of using rackets, the players use their feet to kick the shuttlecock. It is like badminton and hacky-sack combined into one sport. Not coincidentally, Vietnamese boys are also quite good at both hackey-sack and badminton. The shuttlecock is a little weird, being larger and having a spring-loaded shaft to increase the bounciness (for kids).

Interesting fact about Vietnam: the national sport is  Đá Cầu, or kick badminton
Kick Badminton in Vietnam, the national sport

Even though Đá Cầu is the national sport, adults seem to prefer playing regular badminton. It is quite common to see middle-age and elderly people player early-morning badminton in all of the big city public parks and public exercise-spaces.

40% of Vietnamese Have the Surname Nguyễn (even “Uncle Ho”)

Approximately 40% of modern Vietnamese have the surname Nguyễn (which is also one of the most difficult names to properly pronunce. See our Nguyễn Pronunciation Guide to learn a trick to pronunce it properly). The most famous Nguyễn may be the avuncular founder-figure “Uncle Ho”, whose fullname was Nguyễn Sinh Cung.

However, it is not the case that 40% of Vietnamese share a family connection. Instead, it is more likely that many people changed their surname to Nguyễn during the rise of the Imperial Nguyễn Dynasty in the 1800’s. Whether to mask their former loyalties to vanquished leaders, or to avoid persecution by new rulers, changing surnames has been common throughout the history of Vietnam when there was change in monarchs. Even the name of the entire country would frequently change as new rulers took control (in fact, the current name of the country, Việt Nam, was named-so by the Nguyễns).

RELATED: see our post on Past and Current Names for Việt Nam, and They Meaning in English.

Therefore, if you meet two people with the same family name in Vietnam, it does not necessarily signify a familial or hereditary connection.

Motorcycle Nation: Vietnam Ranks #4 in Total Motorcycles Owned

Vietnam ranks #4 globally in total number of motorcycles and scooters. These aren’t recreational Harley Davidson’s; they are small 50-100cc motorbikes used for essential commuting around cities and villages. Almost every family owns at least one or two motorcycles. Rain or shine, motorcycles are essential in the crowded, high-density tropical nation.

Fun-Fact: Vietnamese people call motorcycles “Honda” because it was the first brand that became widely available, much like Americans call tissues “Kleenex”.

As an expat in Vietnam, it is a great and liberating feeling to be able to rent a small automatic motorcycle for approximately $5/day and explore the country-side.

However, in urban areas like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the huge throngs of densely-backed motorbikes can seem overwhelming — so much so that impatient drivers overflow onto sidewalks. Traffic rules are lightly followed.

Cool fact about Vietnam: VIetnam ranks #4 in terms of motorcycle ownership. Cars have high tariffs.
Heavy traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. Most Vietnamese families rely exclusively on motorcycles for essential mobility. Cars have extremely high tariffs and are too big for high-density urban areas. Photo by Matthew Nolan on Unsplash

The noise, the exhaust, the congestion, the crowding-out of pedestrians: these definitely impact the quality-of-life for commuters and residents along busy corridors. This has prompted some policy-makers to want to eliminate motorbikes completely. For example, Hanoi plans on a ban in the city centre by 2030 in favour of cars. But, with the Hanoi monorail not yet fully operational, and with exorbitant tariffs on imported cars, there are few alternatives to motorbikes for essential travel. In our experience, cars and trucks are much more dangerous in Vietnam.

Vietnam is a Biodiversity Hotspot

Vietnam belongs to one of the top 25 Global Biodiversity Hotspots (the Indo-Burma bio-region; source). Within Vietnam, 8% of its species are endemic, meaning that they exist in Vietnam and nowhere else on the planet.

Vietnam also has significant bio-agricultural diversity, meaning that it cultivates a wide range of agricultural species. Vietnam currently cultivated over 800 species.

Sources: UN-REDD Programme, Vietnam Forest Facts and Figures.

The Hoan Kiem Turtle (Rafetus leloii) – Earth’s Most Endangered Species

Hoan Kiem Turtle is a species of large that only exists in Hanoi’s Old Quarter lake (Hoàn Kiếm). Some recent specimens weighed over 200kg and almost 2m in length. No one knows the exact number of individuals left, but biologists have speculated that the number is between 1 to 5.

Eye-witness accounts of the species are few and far between. The last specimen to be collected was in 2016, when the turtle known as “Cụ Rùa” was found dead floating in the lake.

Hoàn Kiếm is a very polluted shallow lake whose longest stretch is less than 700m. The small volume, high urbanization, and pollution levels mean that the Hoan Kiem Turtle may be the Earth’s most endangered animal, if it still exists.

Interesting fact about Vietnam: the Hoan Kiem turtle may be the most endangered species on the planet
Preserved specimen of the rare (or possibly extinct Hoan Kiem turtle. Image source: wikipedia.org

There isn’t clear scientific evidence whether the turtle is its own distinct species, or whether it is type of Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). The genetic and morphological evidence have been mixed.

The Vietnamese Language has 6 Tones

Unlike most Indo-European languages, Vietnamese is a tonal language. This means that words have very different meanings based on whether the pitch is rising, descending, or flat (plus 3 other variants). For example: has a rising pitch and means “mother”, whereas has a descending pitch and means “but/then”. To an English ear, they have the exact same pronunciation.

In contrast, non-tonal languages, such as English, use tones as a way to convey emotion or ask a question. This makes it incredibly difficult for English speakers to learn Vietnamese: they must re-train their brain to associate tone not with emotion, but as another dimension to signifying different letters.

There are six tones in Vietnamese. They are indicated by five diacritic-markers that are placed above or under vowels: ´, ̀, ̉, ~, . and “no marker”. They can occur on any vowel. This is why there are stacks of accents on some Vietnamese letters: some accents indicate the tone, whereas other accents indicate vowel-alterations (like in French).

For comparison, Mandarin has 4 tones.

RELATED: Audio Pronunciation Guide to the 6 Vietnamese Tones.

Vietnamese are Descendants of Dragons

In the Vietnamese creation story, it is said that the Viet people were descended from a Dragon and a Fairy Queen. The Dragon King Lạc Long Quân was the god of the sea, and Âu Cơ was the Goddess of the mountains. Fun tip: look for streets named after these two gods, like in Hanoi here .

Âu Cơ laid 100 eggs. When they hatch, 50 of the children followed Âu Cơ to the mountains and she divided the land for them to rule as different tribes. 50 of the other hatchlings followed Lạc Long Quân to the coast where they learned the skills of fishing and rice cultivation.

Although the story is silly if it is taken literally, it has a nice moral that is taught to Vietnamese children: “We should love everyone because we are all brothers and sisters of the dragon king and fairy queen.”

Breast Milk Fruit — A Once-Luxury in Vietnam

A once delicacy in Northern Vietnam was the fruit known as Quả Vú Sữa, literally “fruit boob milk”, a.k.a the Star Apple (Chrysophyllum cainito). It has that name because the juice looks like human breast milk.

However, the juice doesn’t taste like milk. It has it’s own unique taste, somewhat related to Soursop or Custard Apple (although it is distinctly unrelated to that family of fruit).

Only 20 years ago, the Breast-Milk Fruit was a luxury food in northern cities like Hanoi. Now, because of the de-collectivization of farms, free-market agriculture, and a modern distribution system, Breast-Milk Fruit is common in all Vietnamese cities. It is just one of over 800 cultivated species in Vietnam that you’ve probably never heard of — be sure to try it if you visit Vietnam, as well as other rare & exotic foods.

Teachers Have A Lot of Respect in Vietnamese Culture

Teachers command a lot of overt respect in Vietnam. For example, November 20th is Teacher’s Day, in which students brings gifts for their teachers, and write poems. Even on a daily basis, most classrooms have a teacher-praise board where students compete to write nice poems or design pictograms that praise their teacher.

More generally, there isn’t the same sort of low-grade hostility that exists in certain Western countries, such as the USA and Canada.

Why do Vietnamese like teachers so much? The most obvious explanation is that they do their job well and deserve their respect. However, there are some other possible explanations:

Vietnam has a “Cram Culture” that Strongly Values Education.

  • Since the Doi Moi free-market reforms kicked-off Vietnam’s economic boom (read more here), Vietnamese parents recognized the great new opportunities for their children to thrive and gain a higher standard-of-living than their own generation. One vehicle for such optimism and self-determination was through education: education allowed hard-working students to obtain skills and jobs were previously out-of-reach of commoners. Much like South Korea and China, Vietnam has become a study-obsessed “cram culture.” Teachers benefited from this renewed love of education.

During the Subsidy Era, Teachers Had Power.

  • Another factor which may have contributed to the respectfulness of teachers in Vietnamese culture is a relic of the “Subsidy Era”. During that time, the Vietnamese economy was largely state-controlled. Government workers, like teachers, received special benefits and were among the highest echelon of society. In such a system, parents have no option of private education or private tutoring to give their children an edge in life; instead, they can only do things like pay tremendous respect to the teachers, give them gifts, in hopes that their children will benefit. More generally, in a system with no money and no private enterprise, teachers had a coveted “resource”: the ability to facilitate or hinder children’s’ education. This became a tacit form of currency. For example, teachers could queue-jump the long-lines for government-provisioned food or government-provisioned bicycle supplies as a quip pro quo with the workers in charge of distributing goods — for such workers, it was one way they could ensure that their child received a better education.

Vietnam’s Love-of-Teachers is Normal; the West is Unusual

  • Alternatively, it could be that Vietnam’s tremendous respect for teachers should be considered normal. Instead, it is the West (and America/Canada in particular) which are the odd-ones-out. The public perception of teachers has declined in the West, due to a variety of factors. Recently, the extreme political views of powerful teacher’s unions have garnered more public attention and trickled-down to more a more general dissatisfaction with teachers.

Things Expats Find Surprising About Vietnam: Survey of Expats

We asked some of our foreign colleagues living and working in Vietnam: what were the things that you found most surprising about Vietnam after living here for a while?

See their answers on our post: 12 things expats find suprising about Vietnam.

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