Etiquette in Indochina

Although this section is based upon Vietnam, etiquette in Laos and Cambodia is similar.

Our experience over several years has taught us that the majority of visitors who come to Vietnam want to respect our way of life, traditions and customs, and would like to know what constitutes politeness in our country. Although we’re quite easy-going, there are a few things that are regarded as rude.

Eating etiquette
As you probably know, we normally lay out our meals in small communal bowls rather than ‘courses’. It’s polite to wait until everyone has filled their glasses, and ‘clicked’ them together, before eating. Usually, someone will provide you with chopsticks and fill your bowl with rice.

The correct way of eating is take a piece of food with your chopsticks, dip it in the sauce if necessary, put it in your bowl and then place it in your mouth. Every so often, someone will distribute morsels of food around the group – if you don’t want any, briefly cover your bowl with your hand and smile.

It’s normal practice to lift your bowl to your lips and scoop the food into your mouth with your chopsticks.

However, older people are likely affronted if you put your fingers in your mouth when eating, or use a toothpick without shielding your mouth from view with your other hand. Blowing your nose is frowned upon – turn your head away if necessary. However, the younger generation is much more relaxed about such matters.

Talking during the meal is expected, but we don’t indulge in after-dinner conversation – as soon as everyone seems to have finished, someone will stand up and head for the door, and everybody else follows.

In the street, etc.
Eating food walking along the street is considered impolite – unfortunately, men spitting isn’t.

Watch what you do with your hands
Gestures need particular attention. In the West, it is commonplace for people to cross their fingers to invoke good luck. In Vietnam, this gesture represents the female genitalia and is the ultimate obscene gesture. Its inadvertent use, however well intentioned, will provoke considerable offence.

In Vietnam, public body contact is only OK between people of the same gender - a man can hold hands with another man, but to do so with a woman would be embarrassing. We recognise that foreigners behave differently and make allowances, but passionate kissing and similar behaviour make us very uncomfortable!

Beckoning should be done with the palm facing downwards using the whole hand. Beckoning Western-style with the palm upwards is used only for young children and animals in Vietnam - beckoning upwards with a single finger is also an obscene gesture. It's highly insulting to beckon old people however you do it.

It’s also unwise to touch a child on the head, and particularly on the back of the head. Try to suppress your instinct to ruffle a child’s hair as an expression of friendliness – you’ll get the opposite reaction.

Handshaking by men, often with both hands, is normal, but not for women.

In some pagodas and most houses, it’s normal to remove shoes. If you’re visiting someone’s house, you will be treated as a guest. This usually involves sitting at a table and drinking green tea.

Sometimes, you’ll be offered sweets and biscuits, and perhaps even a class of whisky or brandy. This is not really intended to be refreshments – it’s more of a tradition of hospitality, so it’s polite to accept a little of what is offered as a token of gratitude and respect.

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