HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mind Your Manners

Since I've discussed some differences between Vietnam and the West in my last couple of posts, let's continue with some more. Today, let's talk about manners.

A number of gestures, phrases, and norms that Westerners take for granted as part of common courtesy and good etiquette are as foreign to locals here as the proper way to use chopsticks is to people in America or Europe. Let's take some of these one by one.

Exhibit A - "Excuse me, you just walked into my face."
In the West, we have a very well-developed sense of personal space. Usually, if a person bumps into you, or needs to get past you in a narrow space, they will say "excuse me." For some reason the people of Vietnam seem to be afflicted with a society-wide sense of complete obliviousness to the fact that other people could actually be around them. This seems odd, considering just how many people actually are around them. (It should be noted that this phenomenon is far from unique to Vietnam. It actually plagues nearly every country in Asia.)

Say, for example, you are walking down the sidewalk. A person is coming the other way, in the exact same path. In the U.S., you would both move move over one step, in order to avoid running into each other. Here, however, some people will actually walk directly into you. It's also common to have people stop directly in front of you without warning, suddenly turn around in front of you, nearly hit you in the face with a table, or burn you with the cigarette they are lackadaisically swinging about. (I didn't make those last two up.) Grocery stores are among the best (or is it worst?) places to either get run into or run people over. The aisles are basically a human demolition derby of individuals that seem to think they are the only person there.

This would all be a bit more forgivable if people were more courteous about it. "Xin loi" means "Excuse me" in Vietnamese, but it is not used in the same way that we use it in the West. I've tried to use it in the supermarket, to no avail. People completely ignore the phrase. If someone steps on your foot or pushes their motorbike into you, they often don't say much of anything. The lesson is: if you come to Asia, don't be offended if someone plows into you, and continues on without a word, as if nothing happened.

Exhibit B: "We're meeting at 8. Or 7:30. Or maybe 9. Or actually..."
I take pride in the fact that I am a punctual person. I always arrive either right on time or a little early, whether I'm meeting friends at a bar, going to an interview, or going to work. If I'm late, I usually have a good reason to be. So, one of the things I find most vexing about Vietnamese people is their chronic disregard for the time they set to either meet or do something. My landlady is a prime example: without fail, she comes about thirty minutes early to pick up rent every month.

There also seems to be no sense of obligation for letting people know if they will be late. A few weeks ago I was supposed to meet a couple of people at a cafe to discuss tutoring. I said we could meet at 6pm. I arrived right at 6, as usual. I sat there for twenty minutes, alone, no word from the people. I finally called, wondering where on earth they were, and they said  they were almost there. If you're going to be that late, send me a text saying so! I've heard numerous stories from other expats about times they either had to wait for ages for the person they were meeting to show up, or about times that the person showed up far earlier than they had agreed to. And there's rarely anything in the way of an apology once they do finally show up. (Again, this certainly isn't an only-in-Vietnam problem, but it's where I'm living.)

Exhibit C: Bodily Functions
Some of the most obvious differences in etiquette arise in the way Westerners and locals treat bodily functions. In the U.S., if you sneeze around a group of people, it is expected that someone will say "Excuse you," or "God bless you!" When my students sneeze, I say "Excuse you", simply out of habit, and I'm always greeted with a look of utter confusion. No one says anything when you sneeze here. Also, unlike in the U.S., no one covers their nose when they sneeze. Classrooms, especially those containing children, are transformed into giant germ factories by the end of class. Kids simply sneeze wherever they please, and wipe their snot on shirts, pencils, books, and desks. I'm amazed I don't have a constant cold from teaching. Adults really aren't any better: one of my friends caught a sneeze right in the face from a man she was walking past. Oh, and sticking a whole finger up your nose to dig out some boogers is also 100% kosher.

Belching openly is also not looked down upon. While I certainly find burping to be hilarious at times, there are situations where it's just rude, or disgusting. It doesn't much matter where you do it here.

Coughing, hacking up loogies, and blowing snot rockets in front of hundreds of people is also completely acceptable.

Finally, we come to the most important functions: peeing and pooing. In the U.S., where public urination can land you in the back of a police cruiser, outdoor pissing has to be done quickly, and in the shadows. Or on a tree on a golf course. Women would really never even consider going anywhere but a bathroom. Vietnam, however, is heaven for anyone with a small bladder. It is common to see men pissing on walls, trees, and in parks, in the middle of the day. I've pulled up at red lights, only to notice a man peeing on the tree standing a foot back from the road.

Women, fear not! If you have to go, you can, although this seems to be more reserved for the elderly. I've seen an old woman pissing in the middle of a very busy street, as well as elderly women defecating into storm drains.

Children, in particular, really have it good in this area. Nearly every day I see a mom or a dad holding their son's, or their daughter's, pants down while they relieve themselves. One time, I saw a young boy pissing while defiantly facing traffic, hands on his hips, as if to say "Haha! Look what I'M doing!" (Yet again, this is something that is common in most of the developing world. I actually say a women crapping in public in Poland last year.)

Those are probably the three main areas in which manners and customs are totally different from what I'm used to. If you travel to Vietnam, or to any rather poor country, don't be surprised if you encounter these things, even in the big cities. There is a good reason many of these apparent faux-pas' are committed in this part of the world: the explosive economic growth of countries like Vietnam, China, and Indonesia is largely focused in the cities. They draw in millions of people from rural areas; people that have never lived in a city, or even a town. They are used to rural life, where no one really cares where you sneeze or shit, and there are no supermarkets or sidewalks. Moving to Saigon or Jakarta from a farm is a massive change in lifestyle; like being hurled from the 15th to the 21st century in one day. Imagine how confusing and disorienting that must be. So, if you're in a big, developing city, and someone plows into you, or coughs on you, or craps in your garden, don't be offended. It's all part of the learning process for modern life.

Oh, and if you're in Vietnam, never EVER, use toothpicks after a meal without covering your mouth with one hand. How rude! Now, excuse me, I think I'll go piss in the alley...


  1. Oh man, you forgot the STARING and the complete inability to wait in line or even to know what a line is, what it looks like and how it works, especially in grocery stores! On numerous occasions I've actually seen people walk into things because they wouldn't stop staring at me. I hate the staring the most. I know it's me with the problem because it's not rude here, but it makes me so uncomfortable!

  2. Yep, I did indeed forget those, as well as the inability to let people out of elevators before barging in. Although staring doesn't seem to be as big of a problem for me.