Cultural quirks that become norms for expats in Vietnam

April 12, 2024 | 06:12 pm PT
Darren Barnard Teacher
Upon arriving in a new country there are numerous unique cultural oddities that contrast one's own culture and this can often be alienating yet exciting.

However, as an expatriate spends more time in one location they begin to adopt many of these into their own lives and have a greater appreciation of the place they now call home.

Here's a list in no particular order of some elements of Vietnamese culture that one may find abnormal at first but would quickly miss if they didn’t live here anymore.

Drinking beer with ice

The idea of putting ice cubes in a glass of beer, particularly if the beer is already cold, is one that baffles many people when they first come to Vietnam. This is especially true if someone is accustomed to drinking pints of hoppy ale, where each ingredient has been painstakingly prepared to create a unique-tasting craft beer. If you were to plop some ice cubes into that glass in the west, the barman would give you a very judgemental look. Despite that, many expatriates living in Vietnam eventually prefer their beer with some ice in, particularly on an unbearably hot day making the crisp lager even more refreshing.

Eating noodles for breakfast

The first meal of the day in the west usually consists of cereal, bread or perhaps eggs if you have time at the weekend. Rarely would anyone consider introducing any other carbohydrate for breakfast. Meanwhile in Vietnam, you can often witness a gathering of people outside a pho restaurant before the sun has even risen. Once an expatriate spends more time here, this phenomenon begins to make sense. A flavorful bowl of pho (other noodles are available) is a great way to start the day, especially if you’re about to start a road trip or wake up extra hungry.

Sleeping after lunch

The working day in the west predominately begins at 9am and finishes at 5pm, therefore no matter how tired you are, you have to grind your way through the day and probably spend a large portion of the day dreaming of your bed. Whereas in Vietnam, one often has to start work earlier, particularly if you’re working in a school. One practice that is common across the majority of Vietnamese workplaces is to find somewhere to rest your head, whether it’s a desk, the office floor or if you’re lucky an arm chair to nap after you’ve eaten your lunch during the hottest part of the day. This is not too different to the siesta that take place in parts of Europe, however many Vietnamese people have found it extraordinarily confusing as to why an expat wouldn’t sleep during this time and reiterate how tired they’ll feel later if they don’t. Over time most expatriates eventually succumb to nap time.

Using a handheld bidet

One note that an expatriate will read every time they enter a bathroom here is 'don't flush the toilet roll after use.' This can be a little confusing at first as it contrasts the teachings of your parents when you first learned how to use the bathroom as a child. Just below this sign, an expatriate will also notice the handheld bidet, a tool that is often new to many and can even intimidate before the first use. However, it’s only a matter of time before their bathroom habits have changed forever and quite frankly revolutionized by the wonderful handheld bidet. Upon returning to their home country for Christmas, many feel their bathroom is incomplete, just like the cleaning process after using the toilet.

Sitting on tiny stools

A sidewalk drink shop with small plastic tools for customers in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

A sidewalk drink shop with small plastic tools for customers in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

It is obvious to many that the height, and often waist, of westerners is significantly larger than Vietnamese. Therefore, the challenge of sitting on plastic stools can be intimidating and unusual at first. After many months and years here, it becomes no more comfortable, however the feeling of having your knees close up to your body at a bia hoi with no backrest becomes normalized. The bunched up nature of countless plastic stools at these establishments can even encourage a greater sense of community and collectiveness.

Covering up in the sun

One of the most distinguishable differences between an expatriate who’s been living here for a while and a traveler is how they dress when the sun is blazing on a clear day. Over the years, you’ll likely see an expatriate slowly cover up more and more until they are indistinguishable between being a westerner or local whilst driving their motorbike covered head to toe in protective clothing. Many individuals find Vietnamese hunting for shade and covering up strange initially, but eventually become all too familiar with the dangers of the heat.

*Darren Barnard is a British teacher in Hanoi.

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