After living in Vietnam for many years, marrying a Vietnamese citizen and learning the language to fluency, I have a lot of experience with the Vietnamese culture. That being said, the following is just my perception and may differ somewhat from the experience of other expats or from what you have read about Vietnam on the internet or in books.
Vietnam is known as a conservative patriarchal society and I have found this to very much be the case, although it is changing rapidly as the very large population of young people are influenced by globalization and the strong desire to move up in the world economically. So right now we seem to be undergoing a period of transition from a more old fashioned society where the woman stays home to cook and take care of the family while the man goes to work, to one where more and more households have two working parents and the situation is generally becoming more like the west. However, while this change is happening rapidly, it still appears that it will take many years, perhaps even decades until the culture is comparable to a western one. In my opinion, as someone who loves Vietnam as it is, this is good!
Vietnam, like many Asian societies, has a very strong focus on the family. One could go as far as to say that the family is the central aspect of society and everything else revolves around it. This reality has its roots in Confucianism, which came from China, but I suspect there is also a large element of necessity in terms of families having to stick together to get by in what continues to be a poor country (per capita income is still under $5,000 per year). Many families pool their resources in order to acquire real estate and increase their overall standard of living. It is common for an extended family of ten or more people to live together under one roof, although they may have multiple kitchens for each separate nuclear family. Family members often loan each other money as needed or simply give it to those in higher positions, which is basically based on age.
There is a lot of status based on seniority in Vietnam. So much so in fact, that the language has a system of respect for your elders built into it. For example, when referring to someone in conversation who is older than you, you will use a different pronoun that denotes respect. This is one of the more complicated aspects of the language for those trying to learn Vietnamese because we in the west do not do this in our languages. So in order to speak fluently and use the appropriate pronouns when talking to different people, you have to use several different words for “you” and “I” depending on not only the relative age of the speakers but the gender as well. There are several language resources throughout the site that will help you if you would like to learn how to speak Vietnamese.
If you want to understand Vietnamese culture, you can get far by simply reading the teachings of Confucius, as his influence is still being felt all over Asia, Vietnam being no exception. This is one of the reasons why you see a lot of formality in the Vietnemese culture, especially when it comes to ceremonies, such as weddings, exchanging of “lucky money” during the Tet holiday, and funerals to name a few.
Gift-giving is very common and is considered both a sign of respect and friendship. While we also do this in the west, I have found that it is somewhat more common here, even among the poorest in society. However, instead of giving gifts during Tet, like we do for Christmas, the Vietnamese give “tiền lì xì”, which is roughly translated as “lucky money”. But has a meaning slightly more like “prosperity” or “good fortune”, which doesn’t translate all that well into English. The idea is that with the gift of money, which is often a very small amount, you are wishing someone a new year filled with blessings, health, and general prosperity, and the giver will usually say a few words to this effect as they hand over the money in a specially designed Tet envelope.
Vietnamese society puts a strong emphasis on food, and while most foreigners may only think of rice or the famous Vietnamese beef noodle soup (phở) when thinking of Vietnamese food, there is actually a very wide range of dishes that the vast majority of children still learn how to cook when they are young, especially the girls. It has been my experience that Vietnamese are usually excellent cooks, and have been preparing traditional Vietnamese dishes from such a young age that they generally do not follow any recipes while cooking, but do everything from memory. This is one of the aspects of the culture that appears to be slowly dying off in the rush to get ahead economically and “modernize”. The same trend is happening with the “áo dài” or traditional Vietnamese “long dress”. Whereas it was once worn during pretty much all formal events, it is now being worn less and less, which I think is a shame because they are quite beautiful and are usually custom made by tailors or the women themselves. They still seem to be worn often during Tet though. The Vietnamese culture is very complex and has many elements to it in addition to the small introduction above. So stay tuned for more posts to come on this and many other topics!