click to enlargeReligion
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)

click to hear it - give, bestow, proclaim
click to hear it - table, desk; discuss, talk
click to hear it - friend
click to hear it - to sell; semi or half
click to hear it - copy, composition; mountain village
click to hear it - dirty
click to hear it - busy

Here's a Vietnamese tongue-twister:

Means: "Three busy friends sell four dirty tables."

Learn to Say Hello in Vietnamese

Language
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.

The Vietnamese have many unique traditions and beliefs.
Here are just a few:

Hello, how old are you?
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 Papaya
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.

click to enlarge-Oh 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 celebration.

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 plate.

To learn more about Vietnamese customs and traditions visit our links.

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