Getting to grips with the right or wrong way to go about things in any country is always a minefield of ever-changing goal posts. In Vietnam, luckily the people are largely very forgiving of our faux pas and a little bit of common sense and humility goes a long way in bridging the gap between cultures. In a tourist-reliant town like Hoi An, understanding the basics really does make a difference. For starters: although the town itself is booming, Quang Nam province is still one of the poorest in Vietnam, with most of the surrounding villagers earning their main income from farming and fishing. Thinking is far more conservative than in the big cities.
This really is a common-sense one. Dress to the occasion and you are not going to offend anyone. In town, shorts and a T-shirt are fine, though if you’re female and planning on stopping in on a few pagodas and temples, the normal rule of covering shoulders and knees applies. Beachwear is fine at the beach, although bathing topless or nude is positively frowned upon. When walking, cycling or motorbiking around, wear a shirt — girls in bikini tops and bare-chested boys anywhere but the beach cause offence, just as they do to most in the West.
Never buy anything off a child no matter how cute they are. The same applies to paying for photos. These children are put on the street by their parents when they should be at school or at home in bed. The money they make, more often than not, is used not for helping the family or for the child’s education, but for funding gambling or drinking habits. Donate to an NGO doing reputable work instead.
The Vietnamese are natural performers. Most are more than happy to pose for a photograph, but before you shove your camera in their face, it’s simple manners to ask if it’s okay. Paying for shots is a no-no. If you are photographing a market stall owner, buy something from their stall and check they don’t mind, rather than encouraging them to demand a fee — and they will likely be happy to pose for you. The exception to this is in the countryside. Farmers and fisherpeople do struggle and quite often live in poverty. If you offered 10,000 VND, it would really make a difference to them.
If you think about it, good manners are not so different in Hoi An as back home. You wouldn’t buy things off an eight-year-old, walk into a shop topless or pay a stranger for taking their photo. It’s easy to forget all these things when everyone else is doing them in a foreign country, but you’ll be rewarded with much more respect and more often than not a positive interaction with a local if you don’t follow the herd.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 12th December, 2014.