We conducted a survey of our expat colleagues living & working in Vietnam, asking them: “what did you find most surprising about Vietnam after living and working here?”
The results provide a great lesson about the subtle differences in culture between Vietnam and the West. Most of their answers weren’t the things you’d expect (as a Vietnamese).
Here is a summary of their responses: 12 surprising things about Vietnam according to expats…
1) Vietnamese are very quiet (and extremely loud)
The Vietnamese are often very quiet when they’re in formal public meetings, like classrooms, conferences, work meetings, etc, as if they are reluctant to express their personal opinions in public. This may be due to things like having a more conformist culture, or growing-up in a school-system which discourages children from asking questions.
For example, there is sense that if a student asks their teacher a question, it is akin to “challenging” their authority. This is opposite to Western schools which have a history through-line to the Socratic Academies, whereby questioning is considered part and parcel of learning.
In contrast to formal meetings, the Vietnamese are otherwise incredibly loud when they are in public. They speak loudly together and laugh raucously in cafes, restaurants, the airport, etc. It is common that neighbours will make very loud sounds in public spaces at 4 or 5 am when most people are sleeping, like hammering or revving engines beneath one’s bedroom window. There is simply no sense of entitlement to quiet.
We talk about the Vietnamese relationship to sound in our post how to say ‘please be quiet’ in Vietnamese?
2) You can fix anything in Vietnam
Almost every Vietnamese town has a plethora of small shops that can repair one’s shoes, watches, broken phone screens, electric devices, glasses, jewelries, clothes, bags, suitcases, and much more. The Vietnamese do not have a habit of throwing things out. Instead, they fix them until they can’t be fixed anymore. Often, one merely has to go to the proper “guild street” (a region of town where competiting businesses all concentrate together) and you can easily find someone who can fix your item, cheaply.
In the West, labour costs are much higher than the price of commodity-items (like electronics) such that it doesn’t make financial sense to pay someone to repair your stuff — and so these repairman skills have evaporated.
This proclivity for repairing and recycling has its origins in the “Subsidy Era” prior to the Doi Moi economic liberalizations, in which there was a ban on privately-owned businesses and private property. Instead, the government provisioned its citizens with everything — including the clothes on one’s back. In order to make the few items that one had last a sufficiently long time, there blossomed a vast black-market economy of repair services that have carried-on to this day.
This Mr. Fix-it attitude is one reason (among many) that large foriegn manufacturers are flocking to Vietnam — See a list of famous multinational brands that have the majority of their manufacturing in Vietnam.
3) Financial services at VinMart/Circle K
A wonderful convenience in Vietnam is that you can pay your bills at small shops like VinMart and Cicle K, including your water bill, electricity bill, phone bill and more. One merely take’s an invoice and cash-payment to the shop-clerk, the clerk enters the invoice’s barcode into the utilty’s electronic system, and your utility-account is creditted with the payment.
This makes it easy for the unbanked population to live and pay their bills, including foreigners who can’t open bank accounts.
4) Everything gets moldy in the Spring in Vietnam
In March and April in Northern Vietnam, there is a lot of rain and the humidity is very high. The Vietnamese call it the “wet season”.
During this time, clothes, furniture, and walls all become slightly moldy with a thin greenish-white fuzzy film. This can be extremely shocking to foreigners, but is a normal seasonal occurence in Vietnam.
The mold will go away when summer arrives, and the Vietnamese aren’t so agitated by the mold.
5) Retired Vietnamese grandparents become nannies for their children
Married couples will often stay with the husband’s family. It is the daily role of the grandparents to look after their grandchildren as the young mother and father go to work — that is their expected duty!
If you live in a condo in Vietnam, you’ll see the common areas full of day-time grannies and young children playing and screaming having lots of fun.
If an elderly couple doesn’t have grandchildren to take-care of, they will be seen as “losers” by the community.
6) There is no 911 in Vietnam
The Vietnamese equivalent of 911 is split into three numbers:
- 113 – police
- 114 – fire-fighting
- 115 – public emergency ambulance
The fire-fighting services are generally fast in Vietnam, but some neighbourshood alley-ways are so narrow that there is no way to reach a burning building.
For robberies, domestic abuse, major accidents, don’t expect to dial the emergency number and get a rapid response. Every foreigner needs to reckon with this fact and prepare ahead of time what they would do in an emergency. Consider having multiple taxis on auto-dial, as well as a private ambulance service — don’t relay on the 115 ambulance service. Worse still, it is common for ambulances to get stuck in traffic.
READ MORE about how to ask for help in Vietnam
Overall, one must be extra careful in Vietnam not to take unnecessary risks that could put one in harm’s way. Things that may not be serious in the West could be personally disastrous.
7) It is easy to adopt pets in Vietnam
In order to adopt a pet from a pet agency, no one will inspect your home, or do a background check, or verify your financial status — they just give you the pet! You also don’t need to have a pet passport/medical booklet to go to the vet; you can just take your animal to the vet without one! These are strange ideas to some of our survey respondents who come from highly-regulated socialist countries in North-Western Europe.
On the plus side, the Vietnamese government has a good program to give rabbies vaccinations to everyone for free or a nominal price, and they maintain good central records.
8) Rapid Development in Vietnam
A common experience among Expants was the following: you discover a beautiful beach with a quaint cabin, or a gorgeous farmstay hidden among karst hills in the middle of nowhere. You enjoy the remoteness and love the scenery. You decide to return two years later and surprise! — there are now multiple backpacker hotels, loud pumping music, and dance parties.
With the Vietnamese economy growing at an amazing ~7%, the capital and infrastructure are doubling every 5 years, and this is very noticeable on the landscape.
9) Eating exotic wildlife in Vietnam
Vietnam has a culture of eating exotic wildlife, such as deer, bear, tigers, rare birds, snakes, monkeys, pangolins, and even domestic pets like cats and dogs. This is also true in countries like Korea and China.
There is a supernatural component to this unusual diet — people believe that certain animals will imbue the consumer with special benefits, like health and vigour, even cure cancer.
Fortunately, eating exotic animals is not popular among urban Vietnamese. Young hip urbanites tend to love pets and animals more generally. In the countryside, eating exotic animals is still quite common.
10) Vietnamese love to take selfies
Selfies and self-portraits are a major industry in Vietnam — people love to get pictures of themselves. The purpose of photographs are not to memorialize beautiful landscapes or monuments or wondrous architectures. Instead, the face of someone should always be in the picture.
There are plenty of cafes and private “parks” and unusual landmarks that just exist for domestic tourists to take pictures. At the more popular places, people may line-up to pay 10-20k just for permission to take a picture take.
Some of the funnier establishments are small nature-parks with faux-huts and faux-bridges and man-made that are not meant to enjoyed for their own sake, but to use as props in photography. For example, a classic photo is to pose in-front of a large ceramic water-urn and scoop-out water with a ladle. Why? It’s just the fashion ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
One consequence of this selfie-culture is that everyone in Vietnam kind of has the same photos — and they like it that way.
11) The Vietnamese love Choco-Pie
It would be an easy mistake to think that the Vietnamese worship the Choco-Pie: the round caramel and vanilla cakes with a thin chocolate coating.
You’ll see the red boxes everywhere at religious temples and ceremonies, for example: nearly all Buddhist temples have stacks of Choco-Pies next to Buddha statues fortune-tellers will place Choco-Pies on their alters; stores will make big displays of Choco-Pie to sell for auspicious days like Tet.
Why are there so many Choco-Pies in Vietnam? And why are they associated with temples and alters? We think there are two reasons.
Firstly, the dessert was one of the first chocolate imports to arrive in Vietnam after the 1986 Doi Moi liberalizations and free-market reforms (prior to which, there were only traditional candies like che and sweet-ginger), such that the Vietnamese people lovingly associate Choco-Pies with those remarkable days of increasing freedom and consumerism.
Secondly, the Choco-Pies have a red-coloured box. This is a big deal in Vietnam, because red is associated with luck and fortune. The Vietnamese have strong superstitions about colours, especially on auspicious days like Tet. So, the tasty treat could have become the /de facto/ brand for religious ceremonies just coincidentally owing to the colour of its packaging.
Ask a Vietnamese person, and they will just be as confused as for why it is so unusual — people just like them!
12) Vietnamese like the USA and Americans
Hanoi residents were ecstatic the last time President Trump came to Hanoi in 2019 to meet with the North Korean Leader, or when President Obama and Anthony Bourdain sampled bun nem in Hanoi. There was a palpable excitement and energy in the air, with USA flags flying proudly on Au Co street, vendors hocking USA-themed shirts, and young people gossiping like “Did you see him?” or “My cousin said they drove by his school!”
These are mere anecdotes of a more statistically-validated fact: the Vietnamese have consistently high regards for the USA, as demonstrated by their high-ranks in the cross-country comparisons of attitudes towards the USA (Pew Research). You may not notice this fondness in your day-to-day errands as a foreigner in Vietnam, as people will ignore you as any other foreigner, or harass for a sale. But in private conservation, many American expats are surprised to learn that the USA is very dear the minds of Vietnamese. We detail this surprising fact in our article “What do Vietnamese think about America?”, including a generational breakdown and survey data.
Vietnamese artists are incredibly technically proficient
(We admit, this was not a survey answer, but our opinion added to the results — but it is one of our favourite things about Vietnam)
The Vietnamese have a long history of incredibly talented traditional artisans and craftsman making highly-detailed ornate craftworks, like lacquer-wares, ceramics, paintings, instrument making, embroidery art, woodwork, silk-making, weaving, and much more. Their craftsmanship is of the quality that we’ve only seen in other countries like Japan or Germany.
One of favourite things to do is tour the artisan guild-streets and guild-neighbours to observe the small-scale manufacturing and craft-making: learn more here.
Are you an expat living in Vietnam? Share with us your most-surpring thing about Vietnam, so we can collect more data.