For Vietnamese people, correct behaviour is defined by Confucian
precepts. In the past, the rules were observed to the letter.
For example, in an age when polygamy was the norm, a woman’s
subjugation was absolute, first to her father, then to her
husband, and finally (if she was widowed), to her son. A
wife was also subject to her mother-in-law. Nowadays, the
code is no longer mandatory, and is observed in the spirit,
rather than the letter of the Confucian code.
Except in rural areas, many of the extreme
demands of Confucianism are considered outdated. Nevertheless,
female subservience and obedience are still taken for granted
by a large proportion of men and women - even in the cities.
Behaviour in the family
Children are not regarded as having ‘rights’. Daughters
are expected to assist with household chores from an early
age, to defer to men, to protect their virginity, and to
regard marriage as automatic. Boys are often indulged, and
encouraged to pursue ‘manly’ activities. Children share
rooms with their brothers and sisters, and in poor families,
with their parents as well. Nakedness and family discussion
of sexual matters are taboo.
A woman’s obligation to care for her husband
is unqualified. As an extreme example, a wife whose husband
had contracted HIV from extra-marital sex or drug use would
be expected to comply with her spouse’s wishes were he to
want to make love to her without protection. Both families
would be likely to support the man’s attitude were she to
resist. When AIDS began to develop, she would be obliged
to care for him until his death regardless of any risk to
her own health.
new wife is expected to live in her husband’s family house,
and take over the responsibility for household chores from
her mother in law, who then supervises her. Even if the
couple move elsewhere, the daughter will be expected to
resume her domestic role when she returns for a visit. ‘Modern’
husbands will be more relaxed, and even help in the house
– more traditional spouses will expect meals to be cooked
on time, the house to be clean and the children supervised
as a matter of course, and may forbid his wife to leave
the house for social purposes without his permission.
Behaviour in the workplace
Traditional Vietnamese organisations operate strict hierarchies.
Individuals have defined roles and report to an immediate
superior who will direct his or her work. Information is
on a strictly ‘need-to-know’ basis – if a senior manager
is away from work, only his superiors will know where the
person has gone and is going to return. Deference to superiors
is essential at all times – in a meeting, for example, the
most superior person present will hold the floor and give
permission to inferiors to speak. Disagreeing with a superior’s
view would be a serious breach of etiquette. Much time is
taken up with social ceremonies – tea drinking and circuitous
discussions take precedence over work output.
Behaviour in society
Correct deference must be paid to the representatives of
authority. Police officers, bureaucrats, and public officials
have to be approached with appropriate humility, and should
be given an appropriate gratuity for services rendered (usually
in advance). Such behaviour, often regarded as corruption
in the West, is a hangover from the Confucian tradition
of public service being an honourable activity performed
without direct recompense, but rewarded by grateful supplicants.
In the past, the ‘reward’ was usually by payment in kind,
but is now nearly always money.
Arguing in public and losing one’s temper
is definitely incorrect behaviour, and leads to a serious
loss of face.
The rules only apply
to the family
Confucianism’s chain of deference omits any obligations
towards other members of society outside the family unless
they are of higher social status and connected through work
or some similar activity. In 'western' cultures, not helping
someone in trouble is condemned. In Vietnam, this is not
so. For example, if a stranger is involved in an accident
and is injured, or is in obvious distress for some other
reason, a large crowd will congregate immediately, but rarely
will anyone intervene or do more than watch.
Vietnam’s class divisions
Despite Vietnam’s communist orientation, there are clear
divisions of status. The term ‘nha que’ (‘peasant’, or ‘country
person’) is highly pejorative.
It is far easier to distinguish members
of the artisan class from middle class Vietnamese than it
would be in any developed country, even those with a tradition
of class division, such as the UK. Vietnamese female peasants
wear distinctive shapeless clothes with baggy trousers,
often with a conical straw hat, and often cover most of
their face with a handkerchief. Male peasants also wear
shapeless clothes, often with a green ‘pith helmet’.
People who consider themselves ‘middle class’
distance themselves both physically and in dress and appearance.
For women, long fingernails and pale skin are de rigueur
to proclaim their superior status. They wear more fashionable
clothes and either expose their hair or wear a variety of
hats. On sunny days, middle class women often wear elbow-length
gloves and cover their faces to avoid the tanning effect
of the sun. Men sometimes grow a single long nail, usually
the little finger, to show that they are not manual workers.
Social interaction between the working and middle classes
is virtually non-existent.