Vietnam’s traditional religious background is based on three great philosophies and religions. These are Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism that coexist with a more ancient but still thriving mother worship cult, ancestor worship, popular beliefs, superstitions and ancient Vietnamese animism. It is rich and finely balanced amalgam that permeates not only the spiritual side of Vietnamese life (most will say they are Buddhists) and their understanding of the universe (taken from Taoist philosophy) but also regulates family and civic duties (which is the main focus of Confucianism)
Although religious identification is not such a clear-cut matter, statistics tell us that about 70% of the population are Buddhist, 10% Catholic, 3% Cao Daist, 2% Hao Hao and the rest of various other religious groups such as Protestantism, Islam, Hinduism and the specific beliefs of some minority ethnic groups. As far as individual beliefs are concerned, especially those of foreigners, Vietnam has to be one of the most tolerant societies. Actually, most Vietnamese couldn’t care less if you believe or what you believe in and will not try to convert you to their own sets of beliefs.
Vietnam has its own characteristics, quite different from its neighbors, including China. Vietnamese like to think they are very unique… because that’s what they are! Pleased accept the fact that you are a guest in Vietnam and always will be. You will experience what it feels to be part of a visible privileged minority. As such, you’ll enjoy special status but also have special responsibilities. Do try to learn as much as you can about the culture before you depart.
The Vietnamese will highly appreciate your efforts to understand them, their culture, and their language. If you are up for a culture shock then Vietnam is the place to be. Don’t blame it on the country because the cure is at your finger tips: understanding your new surroundings. Learn to enjoy Vietnam for what it is, a country neither better nor worse than home, but incredibly different. As much as Westerners are “task-oriented”, Vietnamese are “relationship-oriented”. If you have problems work up the relationship.
Do realize that the Vietnamese have a very different perspective on social, political and business organizations, most of which are modeled on the extended family concept. It would be difficult in fact to overestimate the importance of family and the extent to which the family model is present at all levels and in all social and professional structures. Don’t be offended if newly made friends poke into every detail of your personal life. They are in fact helping you become part of a Vietnamese group. Do understand that family matters are paramount and unexpected family responsibilities will take precedence over appointments and activities scheduled previously. In general, don’t judge what you cannot understand. As always, respect is the key word here.
You should show respect in general, as it will usually be shown by most Vietnamese in most situations. Don’t lose your temper; it is first seen as a lack of respect for yourself and a strong sign of disrespect for your counterparts. Nevertheless, although in many ways a very polite and courteous lot, you may sometimes find people in Vietnam to be quite rude by your own standards. Examples include that you should not bother with queuing up for things, since queues and line-ups just don’t happen in Vietnam. Also, don’t be offended by personal questions and remarks, people will often ask nosy questions like: how old are you? Where are you going? Why are you late?
Humor can be valuable tool in Vietnam. The Vietnamese truly love to have a laugh about almost anything, and someone who can crack a joke will be appreciated and even be taken more seriously by any locals. Do joke about things as a polite way of dodging the many questions you may not want to answer. Realize that Vietnamese people also laugh when they are sad, angry, embarrassed, puzzled, uneasy, shy and grieving. Overall, it’s a Vietnamese trait, and people will smile at you wherever you go. The Vietnamese are very tolerant of bad driving, noise, interruptions, invasion (or absence of personal space, discomfort (primitive living and working conditions, being squeezed into a crowded bus for hours) and the sharing of everything.
They are not very tolerant of insubordination, criticism of Vietnamese culture and homosexuality for example, though obviously present. Lying is not really seen as a sin in Vietnam. This does not mean that the country is crawling with malicious fibbers, but rather that truth may be yet another relative concept from that prevalent in your own culture. The most important thing in a Vietnamese context is to say the right thing. People will often tell you what they think you want to hear.