Vietnamese Traditions


  • To address people formally, use Mr. or Ms. or a title plus the first name. There are several titles of respect in Vietnamese, but they aren't used in English.

  • "Thua" (meaning please) is added in front of the first name to show respect.

  • Women do not shake hands with each other or with men. Physical contact between grown-up relatives or friends (both males and females), or between the same or opposite sexes, is not a common sight.

  • Many may greet by bowing slightly to each other, they may join hands. Usually, higher ranking people are greeted first (the family head).


Vietnamese is basically a monosyllabic language having six tones, which give the language a sing-song effect. A word can be repeated with any one of six tones to indicate six different meanings. For example, the word ma has six different meanings according to the tone which the word carries: phantom, ghost; cheek; but, which, who; tomb; horse; young rice seedling.

Vietnamese has three basic dialects, all are generally understood by most Vietnamese speakers. It is very different from English; verbs do not change forms, articles are not used, nouns do not have plural endings, there are no prefixes, no suffixes, no definitives and no distinction among pronouns. Its complex vocabulary reflects basic cultural values.

Many refugees of the first wave are bilingual. Older urban people may speak some French, and those who had government jobs in South Vietnam speak some English, or are even fluent.


* Note: For the Vietnamese living abroad, the traditional etiquette changes slightly adapting to the western etiquette.

  • Vietnamese culture is concerned more with status (obtained with age and education) than with wealth.

  • Breaking a promise can be a serious violation of social expectation. It is very difficult to re-establish a lost confidence.

  • When inviting a friend on an outing, the bill is paid for by the person offering the invitation.

  • Vietnamese may not take appointment times literally, and will often arrive late so as not to appear overly enthusiastic.

  • Speaking in a loud tone with excessive gestures is considered rude, especially when done by women.

  • Summoning a person with a hand or finger in the upright position is reserved only for animals or inferior people. Between two equal people it is a provocation. To summon a person, the entire hand with the fingers facing down is the only appropriate hand signal.

  • The elderly grandparents and parents are taken care of until they die.

  • Only a few urban people, influenced by Western customs, celebrate birthdays, since that occasion is not a Vietnamese customs Nor do Vietnamese send Christmas cards. Wedding and funeral ceremonies are important events and are usually performed with solemn and traditional rituals.

  • Modesty and humility are emphasized in the culture of the Vietnamese and deeply ingrained into their natural behavior. Therefore, bragging is often criticized and avoided. When be- ing praised for something, a Vietnamese often declines to accept praise by humbly claiming that he does not warrant such esteem. The Vietnamese do not customarily demonstrate their knowledge, skills, or possessions without being asked to do so.

  • The majority of Vietnamese women never sip alcohol and usually shy away when alcoholic beverages are offered to them. Drinking women are despised in our society. Drinking problems are rare and practically nonexistent among women.

  • While smoking has gained wide acceptance among men, very few Vietnamese women smoke; those who do are generally older women. Women's smoking, in public has been traditionally considered something "unusual."


Traditionally, Vietnamese people list their family name first, then their middle name, with their first (given) name listed as last. Family members use different given names (first names aren't passed down), and the name reflects some meaning. Most names can be used for either gender. Many in the US have adopted western customs of naming.


  • To avoid confrontation or disrespect, many will not vocalize disagreement. Instead of relaying negative communication, people may not answer a question.

  • It is disrespectful to touch another person's head. Only an elder can touch the head of a child.

  • When getting a praise, people usually smile instead of saying "thank you". A smile is like a silent "thank you". Most people are very modest and deflect praise.

  • Insults to elders or ancestors are very serious and often lead to severed social ties.


Many customs are rooted in both the Confucian respect for education, family and elders, and the Taoist desire to avoid conflict. Vietnamese tend to be very polite and guarded. Sparing one's feelings is considered more important than factual truth. Many alter these practices in the US, especially when dealing with non-Asian people.


The family in Vietnam is an extended one, unlike the typical family in the United States, which normally consists of teh father, mother, and unmarried children. The Vietnamese family is composed of the parents, all children, and their in-laws, the gradparents, the great-grandparents, and also in some circumstances, uncles and aunts and their spouses, cousins, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and all in-laws. In other words, it might embrace up to six generations, with everybody who is related either by blood or marriage. There is always a strong feeling of attachment between the members of the same family in spite of the generation gap, which can be large or small.

The center for the family is a house which does not necessarily accommodate everybody. The availability of living space determines the size of the family living together. But typically, one finds grandparents, father, mother, children, and grandchildren living under the same roof. Although not all members of the extended family are housed together, they tend to cluster around a certain area such as a village, small town, or places of easy access in large cities.


Influenced by Buddhist theology and Confucian philosophy, Vietnamese believed that fate in marriage, as well as wealth and position, were preordained, though choice could play some role in activating a positive or negative fate. Traditionally, children lived with their parents until marriage, then the couple moved to the husband's father's household. The extended family arranged marriage, but individuals were usually consulted on the choice of their mate. The typical engagement lasted six months, with little contact between the bride and groom prior to the marriage. Traditionally the marriage was at one of the couples' homes. Men usually married between 20 and 30 years, and women at 18 to 25 years. Women kept their maiden names legally but used their husband's name formally.

As western influence increased in Vietnam during this century, parents began to take more of an advisory role in the choice of their child's mate, and arranged marriages are starting to decline. In the US, most young Vietnamese date in the same way as American youth. Though rarely given absolute choice, family still bears heavy influence over the decision to marry. There are a variety of different wedding practices, most common in Seattle are Buddhist and Christian ceremonies. Divorce is uncommon, even in the US, and is considered shameful. In Vietnam, a man is responsible for his spouse until death.

written by Pamela LaBorde, MD, from

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