As in other none-English speaking countries, you should expect to encounter language problems when you decide to take homestays in Vietnam. Teaching English in schools has only recently been introduced (the emphasis has been on French and Russian). Rather than seeing this as an obstacle, try to see it as a challenge. Try and pick up a few phrases such as hello, thank you, good-bye etc. In this way you can show the locals that you are interested in their language and culture and that you are more than a tourist passing though. Also remember that body language and finger signs can communicate a whole lot.
Traditionally, the Vietnamese did not shake hands, but clasped their hands together above the waist level and bowed slightly. But with the increasing number of foreign influence, shaking hands when greeting someone is now the norm.
If you know someone very well, it is common to shake hands using both hands. When greeting an older person or someone in authority, it is normal to shake hands with the right hand, then placing your left hand on the inside of your elbow. Due to the Confucian tradition, which put great respect towards the elderly, you should always greet the oldest person in a group first. Also, if you are greeting a group of people, make sure that you greet every person, including young children.
As is done in other Southeast Asian countries, given names always come after the family name. For example, in the name Nguyen Co Thieu, Nguyen is the family name and Co Thieu is the person’s given names. You will find that certain names are very common. As the Nguyen emperors allowed commoners to take on their family name, almost 50 per cent of Vietnams’ population has Nguyen as a family name. Children are often given names with special meanings, as parents believe that the lives of the children may be affected by the chosen name. Hence, a beautiful name may ensure a better life for the child. Examples of common female names are Huong (perfume) and Lien (lotus).
When you sit down, one important thing must be remembered: Pointing at someone with the sole of your feet when crossing your leg is considered rude. It is actually an indication that you think the other person is below you. So if you do cross your legs, try to point your toes downwards!!
The western gesture of asking someone to come to you by turning the palm of your hand upwards and using the index finger to beckon, is considered impolite. In Vietnam, this sign is only used for animals. Instead, turn your palm downward and wiggle all four fingers in unison.
In general, Vietnamese are more reserved than Westerners. It is less common with physical contact in public, particularly between individuals who are not close friends.
According to many books about etiquette in Vietnam, it is impolite to touch anyone of the opposite sex. Despite Vietnam being a largely conservative society, the point is that physical contact, at least between members of the same sex, is frequent and looked upon as a sign of friendship. The best advice to give is just to use your common sense. You will probably see two men or two women walking down the street holding hands. This is common between friends. It may feel a little awkward to us, but try and accept it as goodwill and appreciation.
When meeting someone’s infant baby, it is regarded as bringing bad luck of you comment on how beautiful the baby looks, how clever it is etc (different well-intended comments we would normally use when meeting a baby). For many Vietnamese, it actually means the opposite. A good way of avoiding this, is for instance by commenting on how much the baby resembles the mother or the father.