Vietnamese Society

Although the country is now technically united, there are plenty of divisions that are clear to see. North and south view each other with some cynicism. Northerners tend to see Ho Chi Minh City dwellers as business-orientated and keen on displaying their new wealth; southerners claim northerners are tough and lack any sense of fun. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, given that each region took entirely separate paths for so long, yet it would be too simplistic to say the north hangs on to its communist roots while the south retains capitalist dreams. Vietnam may still officially be communist, but the hammer and sickle have been all but forgotten and replaced by the dollar and dong.

Along with an increasing desire for Western ideals of wealth has come a desire to speak English. Older generations may speak French, Russian or even German, but today’s young people are far more likely to want to learn English; it is the language of business, after all.

Children in the urban area learn English at school and at private language schools. Their confidence with the language and easy interaction with foreigners are noticeable. Teenagers will commonly listen to English songs and watch Hollywood movies on DVD, while everyday speech and online chats are liberally sprinkled with English words and slang. Students are quite likely to approach tourists in major cities for the opportunity to practice their English skills.

But whatever language they use, almost no subject is taboo (the major exception is political reform in Vietnam). So at your very first encounter with a Vietnamese, you are likely to be asked where you’re from, whether you are married, how much you can earn, what car you drive, and so on, in whatever fractured English the speaker can muster. This curiosity should not be misinterpreted as nosiness. There is a genuine fascination with foreigners, especially in the less visited areas of Vietnam. The Vietnamese are proud of what their country has achieved.

Sex And Marriage

Marriages were once seen as a form of business transaction between two families. Spouses were screened and selected by parents and other senior family members rather than by the prospective partners. These days, it is more common for couples to court each other before the wedding, though family approval is still a symbolic part of the process. Wedding rituals include the bride and her family bringing an odd number of gifts to the groom’s family. Given the tight family structure, a wedding is a huge event in any community. In order to demonstrate this, families often spend far more than they can afford to ensure everyone sees just how lavish their family’s wedding is.

Even today the wife is expected to move to the husband’s house upon marriage. This is a stressful and daunting prospect for any young bride as she is expected to please the whole family and follow the rules of the house.

Vietnam is still very traditional country, though not necessarily a prudish one. Pre-marital sex is taboo for the older, more conservative generations, but attitudes are changing rapidly. Internet chat rooms, websites, blogs and columns in the state-run media have become forums for young people to discuss subjects like love, sex and sexual orientation. In the past few years, there has been an upsurge in short stories or novels written by female writers on female sexuality.

Socialising

Vietnamese people of all ages love to “Di Choi” (go out to play). This means going out to have fun, hanging out with friends at a bar or café, singing karaoke, etc. When Vietnamese “Di Choi”, it’s often a case of the more merrier. Whether it’s celebrating a birthday or a job promotion, they will invite all their friends and partners/ spouses out for a meal, so local restaurants are often filled with boisterous drinkers shouting “tram phan tram” (literally 100 per cent) before dowing a glass of beer or shot of “ruou” (rice liquor)

It’s customary for the person who extended the invitation to pick up the tab. In fact, Vietnamese rarely split the bill, even if it isn’t a special occasion. Friends are forever trying to grab the bill in cafes and restaurants or surreptitiously bringing the waiter in an attempt to be presented with the bill first.

Streetlife

Living in a cramped house filled with extended three-generation families means that life often spills onto the streets. Itinerant vendors on bicycles and on foot, streetside barbers, shoeshine boys, not to mention the constant and chaotic flow of traffic, will assail your senses. Even in quieter residential areas, families often gather in the lances to gossip with neighbours or buy fruit from passing vendors.

With a lot more cars, motorbikes and people than ever before. Vietnam’s major cities suffer from chronic congestion, leading the government to impose restrictions on street activity. Street vendors, shopkeepers and food stalls are perpetually playing hide and seek with local police and district authorities who will confiscate goods – plastic stools, baskets, whatever – if these items are deemed to be blocking traffic or pushing pedestrians onto the road.