Walk into almost any home, cafe or shop in Vietnam and you'll find a small
red altar tucked into a corner of the room. On it sits a small ceramic
Buddha silently keeping watch. Fruit, wine and incense are offered daily
at the shrine to pay respect and ensure protection from bad spirits. In
every household altars are set up to honor deceased relatives and are
kept well stocked with food and drink to help the spirits of loved ones
as they wait to be reincarnated. Eighty percent of Vietnamese practice
a Buddhism that is mixed with Confucian, Taoist and Animist beliefs. Twenty
percent of Vietnamese believe in the Catholicism introduced by missionaries
in the 16th century. There are also very small populations of Hindus,
Muslims, Protestants and religions of indigenous tribes.
A word in Vietnamese
changes with an accent or context. Here is how the word "ban"
changes with the accent used.(click on the word to hear the sound)
- give, bestow, proclaim
- table, desk; discuss, talk
- to sell; semi or half
- copy, composition; mountain village
Here's a Vietnamese
"Three busy friends sell four dirty tables."
to Say Hello in Vietnamese
In the late 1600's, Portuguese and French missionaries translated Vietnamese
into the Roman alphabet, adding five tones . The goal was to make missionary
work easier, but it ended up revolutionizing the country. The script gradually
replaced Chinese characters as the preferred writing style, taking literacy
out of the hands of a few scholars and giving it to the masses. But don't
think the familiar letters help foreigners pronounce the language -- one
word can have six different meanings, depending on the accent used. This
language is not for the linguistically handicapped.
Vietnamese have many unique traditions and beliefs.
Here are just a few:
Hello, how old
Don't be surprised if Vietnamese people ask you how old you are upon first
meeting you. While it's considered rule in western cultures, it's essential
information to the Vietnamese, whose greetings are age-specific. Based
on the teachings of Confucius, the important hierarchy of respect from
old to young is at the heart of Vietnamese society.
Don't Eat the
Like other Chinese influenced cultures, the Vietnamese believe in Yin
and Yang. It's a philosphy dealing with positive and negative, male and
female, hot and cold. It has an impact on every aspect of life, even food.
The balance of Yin and Yang in a person is important for strong health.
It can be affected by "hot" and "cool" foods. Fruits
like mangos and litchees are considered "hot." Eating too much
of them will cause your body heat to rise and even cause skin problems
like acne. Papayas are "cool" but perhaps a little too
cool -- they're considered detrimental to a man's sex drive. But never
fear, ginseng tea and seafood are generally held as heating agents, and
can remedies to this small problem.
Tet - It's not an "Offensive"
Imagine a mix of Christmas and the Fourth of July (minus the beer and
wine) and you'll have an idea what Tet, the celebration of the lunar New
Year, is like. For five days the country all but shuts down as people
visit friends and relatives, offering small red envelopes of lucky money
to the children. The first visitor of the New Year for each household
is carefully planned, as it's believed the year's good or bad fortune
will be brought by the first person to cross the threshold. The pagodas
swell with people making offerings in hopes of a fortunate year ahead.
Kumquat Tree, Oh Kumquat Tree...
Maybe it doesn't have the same ring, but similar to Christmas trees in
the States, families buy small kumquat trees during Tet to have in their
homes. (Kumquats are orange-like fruits about the size of a golf ball.)
Some families prefer to buy small cherry blossom branches or trees which
have been painstakingly shaped and raised to bloom just in time for the
Why Dog Meat?
Horrific to foreigners is the practice of eating dog meat. Vietnamese
believe that eating dog on the last day of the month is good for removing
any bad luck or negative vibes. This can also be done at other times of
the month if you've just suffered some really bad luck. If it's
any consolation, only specially raised dogs make it to the dinner table,
and only then at restaurants that specialize in dog dishes. Many Vietnamese,
especially women and the young, don't subscribe to the practice and find
it as disturbing as most foreigners would. Unless ambushed by a tour guide,
the average tourist doesn't have to worry about finding Lassie on their
To learn more about
Vietnamese customs and traditions visit our links.