Vietnamese towns and cities are loud — honking is incessant, karaoke sounds flood entire neighborhoods, government loud-speakers broadcast music and news, and everyone just seems to talk louder in order to be heard over the ambient noise. Overall, the culture simply tolerates loud noises its in a way that most foreigners do not.
If, as a traveler in Vietnam, you are sensitive to loud noise, then you must learn to adapt and tolerate. You must not lose your cool and start yelling at people (as I have done, and regretted it for being rude — and ineffective).
Instead, a key skill for foreigners in Vietnam is learning to ask for quiet in a polite way. If you are an old person (40+) then the Vietnamese youth will respect your opinion, given Vietnam’s culture of reverence and obsequiousness towards the elderly. If you are younger, then you must ask in the most persuasive way possible…
How to say “Please be quiet” in Vietnamese?
Please be quiet – Với làm im lặng
The polite and non-confrontational way to ask for quiet is Với làm im lặng. The expression literally means:
- Với làm – please
- im – be still
- lặng – mute
… which may not seem to make sense, but together they combine to mean “please be quiet”.
In order to pronounce the expression properly, you must pay attention to the tones: Với sounds like voi but has an up-tone like you are asking a question (notice the up-tick diacritic on ớ). Làm sounds like lamb but has a deep down-tone (notice the down-tick diacritic on à). Im is flat and natural. Lặng sound like la, because the short down-tone has a quick, truncated sound (notice the dot diacritic below ặ).
How to say “Shut up!” in Vietnamese?
Unless you are super-old, or you are speaking with children, you probably shouldn’t use this rude expression. To say “shut up!” in Vietnamese is simple Im lặng. The most offensive way to say it is just Im!
Shut-up! – Im lặng (very rude)
You’ll notice that the rude expression Im lặng is embedded within the polite expression Với làm im lặng. This is key to the Vietnamese notion of politeness, where saying a shortened or truncated version of an expression is considered informal (and rude to say to an old person), while saying the full expression, as it appears written in a book, is considered formal and polite.
Can I tell children to be quiet?
As an adult, you may tell kids to be quiet in Vietnam.
Vietnamese society has a lot of respect for older people, and children must obey people who are older than them. Therefore, if you are being disturbed by unreasonably loud children beneath your window, you are entirely within the norms of acceptable behaviour to ask them to be quiet. Best of all, they will obey! This is unlike the West, where helicopters parent may feel insulted if you chastise their children.
However, the younger generations of Vietnamese are becoming more like their Western counterparts, and so, some day soon, kids may turn around and challenge you!
Why are Vietnamese so loud?
The Vietnamese government has programs to reduce noise-pollution. But nonetheless, the Vietnamese culture is undeniably very tolerant of loud noise. We’ve seen things like a motorcyclist drive right-up to a young mother with a stroller and blare the horn loudly to compel her to move out of his way — and this isn’t considered rude.
Sometimes, a cultural quirk has no explanation — things are just the way they are for no discernible reason. However, we hypothesize that the Vietnamese are so tolerant of noise due to two things: i) urban-density and driving-behaviour, and ii) a history of collectivism and little sense of entitlement to privacy.
Regarding the first point, high-density living means that one cannot escape the sounds of traffic. To wit, Vietnamese drivers use the horn all the time to navigate through traffic — for example, if you are going to pass someone, you honk. If you see a pedestrian crossing the street, you honk. If you are turning into traffic, you honk. The sounds of honking are inescapable, and everyone just gets acclimated to it from a young age.
As for the second point, consider that 30 years ago there was no private-enterprise nor private ownership of property. Even doing things like wearing Western clothes or listening to Western music was prohibited and guarded by the Cultural Police. Government loud-speakers were in every community, blaring early-morning broadcasts at 6:00am (or earlier) to bring news, announcements, music, and even health-tips to the people. In this environment, there was no entitlement to a separation between private and public life, aside from the most intimate activities. Likewise, one wasn’t entitled to a quiet private space, but shared in all the sound that everyone else was making.
Dancing Grannies in Public
One of the funniest manifestations of Vietnam’s tolerance to noise is the Dancing Grandmas phenomena: huge crowds of old ladies will assemble in public places, pump deafening music, and dance dance dance. Is it for exercise? Is it for fun? Is it a celebration of their new-found freedom to dance and listen to Western-styled pop music (which was once banned)? Who knows — but it is a hilarious demonstration of the Vietnamese fondness (and acceptance) of loud sounds in public.
A similar phenomena is happening in China, but instead of being viewed as a positive thing, neighbourhoods are fighting back violently against the noise. But not in Vietnam!
Is Karaoke a problem in Vietnam?
The Vietnamese have a love-hate relationship with Karaoke. It is traditionally the most beloved form of entertainment: there are Karaoke bars everywhere, and it is common for random people to do Karaoke on the street, gathering plenty of admiring on-listeners. However, the reputation of Karaoke bars have been sullied recently by high-profile incidences organized crime, prostitution, and drugs — not to mention to loud noise.
Where and when you will have problems with late-night Karaoke is kind of random. For example, we’ve never had a consistent problem with Karaoke in family-centric urban neighbourhoods where we’ve lived. But, we’ve also traveled thousands of kilometres to remote beaches only to have nearby fishermen-villages blare Karaoke late into the night. Its not something you can predict.
In general, it seems that smaller towns have more problems with Karaoke. Whereas in big cities, the dedicated Karaoke bars are kept concentrated in certain discernible (and avoidable) hot-spots. Big cities are also doing more pro-active planning.
Where to go if you hate honking sounds
A few places in Vietnam are starting to erect “No Honking” signs along famous pedestrian streets and commerce strips — especially those popular with tourists. Mostly, these signs seem to be ignored, but we predict it is only a matter of time before they catch-on.