Happy Birthday in Vietnam

Birthdays in Vietnam – Expat Guide to Birthday Gifts, Traditions and Expressions

Image credits: Will @ VietnamDaily

How to say “Happy Birthday” in Vietnamese?

Chúc mừng sinh nhật! – Happy birthday!

The chúc mừng means “congratulations!” It is a widely used expression for all special occassions, such asl Chúc mừng năm mới (which means happy new year), as well as for general well-wishes. Pay attention to the up-tone on chúc and the down-tone on mừng

Sinh nhật literally means “birth day.” Notice the short down-tone on nhật.

Do Vietnamese Celebrate Birthdays? – Past and Present

While the Vietnamese have recently adopted Western-style birthday parties, traditionally birthdays were not celebrated in Vietnam. Instead, a Vietnamese family would celebrate the 1st month anniversary of a child’s birth, and the 1st year birthday, but nothing beyond that. This was because high rates of infant mortality made it genuinely celebratory for a child to survive the first month, as well as the first year. If they survived, they had a good chance of reaching adulthood.

Beyond a child’s first birthday, Vietnamese custom is to celebrate big decadal milestones in late-age. For example, someone’s 70th or 80th birthday were traditionally cause for a big celebration.

FUN FACT: In the recent past, most people did not know their own birthday — they just had some random day listed on official ID. Currently, it is likely that a majority of Vietnamese aged 60 and over have a completely made-up date as their official birthday.

Nowadays, the Vietnamese celebrate each other’s birthday, every year, in much the same way as in the USA or Canada, with cakes and candles and gifts, etc. However, things like “sweet sixteens” are non-existent, nor are 20th, 30th or 40th birthdays singled-out for special celebration. Instead, the first-month anniversary and first-year birthday remain the most important and most extravagant celebrations, in keeping with Vietnamese traditions.

Ironically, the Vietnamese use the modern Gregorian calendar for marking birthday celebrations, but they use the traditional Lunar Calendar for their “spiritual birthday” — this is used whenever they seek advice from Fortune Tellers and for other quasi-religious practices.

READ MORE about our visit to a Vietnamese Fortune Teller and how they used our Lunar birthday to predict our future.

How do Vietnamese Celebrate Birthdays?

For children, the most common place to celebrate a birthday is at school: a parent (typically the mother) will go to class, at some pre-arranged break-time; she’ll bring a Western-style cake with candles, and there will be a mini celebration in school. However, gifts will typically be exchanged at home, and usually none of the other children will give a gift to the birthday-child.

One funny thing about Vietnamese childrens’ birthdays is that all children, not just the birthday child, will get to blow out the candles and make a wish. It is not uncommon to see Vietnamese re-light candles in order to give another child the opportunity to blow them out, and then repeat again and again — hilarious!

Vietnamese children and cake
Each child will get a turn to blow out the candles

Among adults, the Vietnamese will celebrate birthdays by simply going out to dinner with family and friends. Most restaurants will help prepare a Western-style cake with candles and deliver it to the table at the end of the meal. However, the staff won’t sing “happy birthday” like in the USA.

It is especially popular for birthday dinners to take place at feasting restaurants like hot pot or lẩu (grill-at-your-own-table). Such restaurants offer gluttonous servings that are borderline sinful (and certainly wasteful). If you are from the West, chances are you’ve not seen such a decadent feast before.

Birthday celebration at a Hanoi Hot Pot restaurant

For younger adults, a birthday may have “three shifts”: the first for feasting, the second for drinking, and the third for late-night mawkish karaoke.

Gifts for Vietnamese Birthdays? — Breakdown by Age

The standard birthday gift in Vietnam includes: a birthday card, a Western-style cake with candles, and flowers for women.

For young children, gifts should be toys, clothes and games — much like in the West.

A gift for a young adult female would stereotypically include flowers, an excessively large teddy-bear (Vietnamese girls love these), hand-bags, jewelry, dinner-date, perhaps even a trip somewhere.

Giant teddy-bears are a common birthday gift for young Vietnamese women
Giant teddy-bears are a common birthday gift for young Vietnamese women

A gift for a young adult male may be clothes, fashionable accessories, or any some sort of tech-gadget.

For adults, gifts among intimate family members, such as spouses and siblings, are more likely to be cash. Unlike in the West, money-as-a-gift is perfectly reasonable in Vietnam (like in Tet). Between unrelated adults, special food-stuffs are popular, such as from one’s home-country or region. Any foreign-sourced high-end luxury item, like whiskey or wine, makes a great gift.

For older adults, gifts will be of finery and traditional things, like traditional clothing, fine-woven clothes, tasteful jewelry, rare foreign spirits — and of course cash!

Birthday Gifts for Vietnamese Bosses

It is very common for Vietnamese bosses to be showered with gifts from their employees. This is in contrast to American/Canada, where buying the boss a serious birthday gift is viewed as unseemly and sycophantic — unless it is a joke gift with no actual material value.

Not so in Vietnam! People are much more open about using birthday gifts to opportunistically curry favour with the boss, especially in government-run offices where expensive birthday presents are expected.

At the very least, Vietnamese employees should get their boss a birthday card and cake, as well as flowers (for females), and perhaps a main gift that is office-related, like a tie, or an office ornament (like Tỳ Hưu), or a dress-shirt. Weirdly enough, clothes are perhaps the safest gift for a boss.

Tip about colours: Beware the boss’s lucky and unlucky colours — Vietnamese businessmen and government works are very superstitious, and it is very insulting to give them a gift in their unlucky colours — it is like wishing them death. To ascertain their colours, you’ll need to know their birth-date and consult a fortune teller to “calculate” their colours.

Read more about superstitions in Vietnamese business here.

Birthdays Gifts for VIP Clients & Government Officials in Vietnam

In Vietnam, birthday gifts are important for maintaining relationship with clients, business partners, and (especially) government regulators. At least, a business should send their important clients/regulators a birthday card, and some flowers (for women), and perhaps some beer or wine (for men).

A standard corporate gift would include: luxury, wines, whiskey, European cheese, gift baskets. A clever corporate gift is a custom-made and ornate office-object with your trademark on it, such as a high-end desk calendar, tea sets umbrella, i.e. something pretty that a client can show-off in their office, and which reminds them of the gifter. Sometimes, corporate gifts can get super-elaborate depending on how important a client/official is to one’s operations: prepaid trips, luxury handbags, precious metal ornaments.

Accounting-wise, such gifts are not allowed to be expensed in Vietnam. Prior to 2019, a business could claim 500,000 VND in gifts, but this has been discontinued. Vietnamese accountants have to come-up with clever tricks to legitimize their gift expenses.

The tradition of gift-giving among businesses & regulators is a sensitive issue — it straddles the line between traditional culture and “informal charges” (aka, corruption). Some people refer to the practice as the “Asian way of doing business”. Whatever it is, such gift-giving practices make it more difficult for foreign B2B businesses to compete fairly in Vietnam. We have personal experience with a well-established European business that had to shutter its Vietnamese operations because they weren’t willing to compete in the “Vietnamese way” (i.e., schmooze regulators and bureaucrats). So, unless you’re willing to participate in corporate gift giving, you’re unlikely to succeed in Vietnam in highly-regulated industries or in B2B niches.

If you are a foreign entity and are worried about doing business in Vietnam, check out the Vietnamese Provincial Competitive Index. The Index measures a variety of free-market indicators and ease-of-doing-business indicators, including “informal charges”. You can allocate your business-operations to those provinces which score better on reducing informal charges.

Death Anniversaries in Vietnam

According to Vietnamese tradition, a person’s death-anniversary is more important than their birthday. Whereas a birthday may pass by forgotten or uncelebrated, the Vietnamese take the death-anniversaries much more seriously. Families will adorn their household alters with flowers, food-offerings, incense, and do some praying.

Ancestor worship is the dominant (quasi)religious practice in Vietnam. The crux of the practise is that one has a duty to “take care” of one’s deceased ancestors, much like one should take care of one’s living family. Alter-offerings are a way of ensuring the ancestors are happy and well-provisioned in the afterlife.

Family alter in Vietnam
An alter in Vietnam for Ancestor worship

READ MORE about Vietnamese religions — from Ancestor worship to state Atheism

Lunar Birthdays and Fortune Telling in Vietnam

Fortune tellers are incredibly popular, in Vietnam: they are almost like a religious institution unto themselves (but with no formal organization or accreditation). And they really care about your birthday: they use it to do all sorts of calculations and make recommendations about important life-decisions, like whom to marry, when to get divorced, when to buy real estate, etc.

Fortune telling is mainly predicated on your Lunar birthday and how, based on that one eventful date, you subsequently interact with the spiritual forces of the moon, sun, planets and starts. We have a whole article dedicated to our experience with a Vietnamese fortune teller (read more here) — the experience was surprisingly fun and eerie.

Vietnamese fortune-teller makes numerological prophesy
The script from a Vietnamese fortune teller is based on one’s Lunar birthday. The cenre triangle prophesizes this year’s main themes, like promotion and travel.

Modern Vietnamese often have to use an app to covert their Gregorian birthday to a Lunar calendar day. For example, use this conversion table from the Hong Kong government to figure out your lunar birthday — then, you can pursue all sorts of superstitious fun!

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