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People and Culture

Vietnam's people are a special mix of cultures, languages and historical backgrounds. The one common denominator amongst them is that, as in most Southeast Asia countries, they love to smile and are genuinely interested in foreign visitors.
With ten million followers and 20,000 pagodas, Buddhism is undoubtedly the largest established religion; however Vietnam has a rich and wide variety of religions based on imported faiths and popular beliefs, with several indigenous groups embracing animism, theism and ancestor worship. Catholicism, introduced by European missionaries, is the second largest religion, with about six million followers, and more than 6,000 churches.

Vietnam's indigenous religions, including the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, have their holy lands in the city of Tay Ninh and the provinces of Chau Doc and An Giang in the Mekong Delta. They peacefully coexist with one another and have contributed to the struggle against foreign aggression through the Vietnam Fatherland Front.

Visitors entering Buddhist pagodas are expected to remove their shoes and it is considered impolite to point feet, especially the soles, at people or statues of the Buddha. Donations to the upkeep of temples are not expected, but are received gratefully. Permission should be asked before taking photographs of people or in places of worship.

The most appropriate manner of greeting is a gentle handshake and a smile. Though occasionally rigid, Vietnamese officials appreciate being treated in a firm, yet diplomatic manner.

One more highlight of Vietnamese culture is the various cultures of hill tribes in the country. About eight million of Vietnam's current 86 million population comprise 53 ethnic groups divided into dozens of subgroups some with a mere hundred or so members, giving Vietnam the richest and most complex ethnic make-up in the whole of Southeast Asia. Ethnic minority groups with members numbering upwards of 500,000 include the Tay, Thai, H'mong, Muong, Hoa, Dao and Nung. Kinh (or Viet) people make up about 88% of the population.

The vast majority of Vietnam's minorities live in the hilly regions of the Northern part, down the Truong Son mountain range, and in the Central Highlands – all areas which saw heavy fighting in recent wars. Several groups straddle today's international boundaries, spreading across the Indochinese peninsula and up into Southern China.

Undoubtedly the most colorful of the hill tribes reside in the Northwest and Northeast, in the plush mountain territory along the Lao and Chinese borders, while many of the tribes in the Central Highlands and the south can be difficult to distinguish, at least by dress alone, from ordinary Vietnamese. The French called them Montagnards (meaning 'highlanders' or 'mountain people') and still use this term when speaking in French or English. Most of the individual ethnic groups share basic, similar traits in their daily lives and are often most easily identified by differences in language, physical features and traditional dress. Despite their differences, there are a number of similarities among the highland groups that distinguish them from Viet people. Most immediately obvious is the stilt house, which protects against snakes, vermin and larger beasts as well as floods, while also providing safe stabling for domestic animals. The communal imbibing of rice wine is popular with most highland groups, as are certain rituals such as protecting a child from evil spirits by not naming it until after a certain age. Most highlanders traditionally practice swidden farming, clearing patches of forest land, farming the burnt-over fields for a few years and then leaving it fallow for a specified period while it recovers its fertility. Where the soils are particularly poor, a semi-nomadic lifestyle is adopted, shifting the village location at intervals as necessary.

The memorable impression of tourists with these hilly regions might be winding roads led deeper into the mountains, green terraced field in frost, roosters crowed in the distance as locals pushed their wooden carts of wares, and drivers lined the street outside the train station, engaged in friendly banter, or typically, local hill-tribe women, heavily laden with finely woven baskets on their backs, traveled on foot toward town to trade their goods. Showing a totally different cultivation from the low-land’s culture, the hill tribes will definitely bring to adventurers such experiences and feelings they never have yet. 

The last thing you may need to know is to deal with misunderstandings by patience and good humor. Local people who offer assistance appreciate small gifts such as cigarette lighters, pens, foreign cigarettes, liquor, perfume and even shampoo. However, giving money to street beggars can lead to mob scenes as other beggars also attempt to impose upon such generosity.

By preparing properly before adventuring, there is no reason that you cannot fully explore the special and unique beauty of Vietnamese culture and the local people.