It’s been a while since our weekly Freaky Friday – travelling takes all of your free time! We are now back on track!

This is a different Freaky Friday this week as I do not focus on 3 things that happened during our week, but I will discuss 3 aspects of the Vietnamese life that I would like to discuss about.

We have lived in Vietnam long enough to now be able to understand the Vietnamese way of life and their habits. I am not saying that you can actually apprehend everything about the culture of your host country. Everyone is different. It is impossible and it would be wrong to put everybody in the same box. This is why I’d like to warn my readers that this is just my point of view as a French expat living in Vietnam. Other expats would acknowledge the cultural differences in a different way and even my fellow countrymen/women could disagree with me.

However, I have always been passionate about noticing and understanding cultural differences. Everywhere I go, I enjoy observing people and discussing with locals to ask them: “why…?”, “how…?”, “when…?”, “what…?”, “who…?” Therefore, here are my observations on 3 facts about the Vietnamese way of life.

1. Rainy season in HCMC and across Vietnam

Before moving to Saigon in May this year, we knew already that we were going to experience the rainy season in Vietnam. As I come from France although not from the region of “Bretagne” where people believe it rains every day haha – I am used to rain and storms. However, I was not aware and really prepared to be soaking wet driving my motorbike through deep water puddles.

  • Life keeps going on!

There is one thing I really appreciate and I respect Vietnamese people for this: life keeps going on when it is raining. The same happens in France and you will hear about it for days on the news, schools will close and people will complain. Here people keep on riding their motorbikes, keep on selling, working and moving on.

  • Be prepared: the rain poncho fashion & the floating roads

You would need to get used to this sudden heavy rain and be well-prepared. Always carry your rain poncho and some rain shoes – flip flops are probably the best option since it is not a problem if they get wet, simply wash your feet when you reach home sweet home! Once the rain starts, you will see lots of motorbike riders stopping on the side of the road to get their rain jackets out.

There are different types of them: whether you bought the one available at the convenient store which is just a thin layer of colored plastic with rubber-band at the wrist and it looks like a condom ; or you have the premium rain jacket covering your motorbike dashboard along with a large surface of plastic to protect your entire family. I have the intermediate version of the rain poncho which protects my body minus my arms, however I have a visor which allows me to not squint while driving under the stormy weather.

Another thing you might need to get used to are the floating roads. Since most streets are not flat and might be a bit bumpy, the water can stock up in these wholes. It makes the experience even more challenging when you have to judge if your motorbike will get into a deep puddle or if it is just going to be small splash.

We have even driven next to disastrous places during our road-trip to the North of Vietnam. When a big storm stroke the region of Hanoi, we observed many damages caused by the lightening: trees down, floating roads, broken road signs and power cuts.

2. Work ethic in Vietnam

Even though both Steve and me haven’t fully embraced the Vietnamese work atmosphere, we have acknowledge a few cultural differences with both our home countries attitude in the office. Steve goes to a coworking space every day when I either work from home or go to a cafe.

  • Casual work environment & strong hierarchy 

We noticed that casualness is common in most places between colleagues. Vietnamese people tend to spread a fun-loving atmosphere within their company. When relationships with coworkers and bosses are quite casual, there is still a traditional hierarchy at work. They respect their superiors and older colleagues.

It is not rare to see colleagues teasing each other, playing together or taking a “siesta”. The nap time after lunch could be considered as unproductive in some Western countries when it is actually more a way to return to work refreshed. Managers would need to set clear boundaries of what is acceptable in the work space since employees openly chatting in front of customers could be against so-called “office practices”.

On the other hand, Vietnamese workers attach a great importance to work relationships. It is common to see them meeting up after work for a few drinks with their colleagues and bosses. They would also visit their ill coworkers outside of their working hours. It sounds like a fun-loving-caring work atmosphere to me.

However, this old-fashion way of thinking may cause some work relationship issues: an older worker usually has trouble being under the lead of a younger person. They assume the older you are the wiser you are even though the younger generation is well-educated and has degrees from uni.

  • Importance of genders and respect of the elderly

This being said, Vietnam is still a gendered country. While men expect women to take care of the household work (cooking, taking care of the children and elderly), women are the business-head of the family. I have seen many young men holding their girlfriend’s handbag and helping them out in the kitchen. The country is slowly transitioning to an equal gender based mindset.

I was glad to learn that a few women have powerful positions. However their wage is still a bit lower than men’s one and employers expect them to work more hours. For instance, the Vietnamese CEO of the budget airline VietJet Air is a women named Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao. She has been named among the world’s most powerful women in 2016 by Forbes magazine.

  • Professional looking workers

In terms of dress code, it seems that most office workers are quite onto the business attire. I have seen many well-dressed women when men would wear trendy fitted suits. In restaurants, employees would wear a uniform. In some traditional places, females have long pants and long-sleeve skirts with two high cuts on both sides from the bottom of their skirt to the middle of their ribs showing off a seductive slice of their body skin. Other shop vendors would wear any casual outfits and pajama looking matching pants and shirts for women at night.

  • Friendly customer service

In general, the customer service in Vietnam is really good. Some vendors or waiters may seem rude sometimes when they ignore your order or give you the stink eye when you hand over a 500.000VND bill. Most of the time when we needed assistance whether it was in a shop, at a desk or at a restaurant, employees would make any of our wishes happen.

  • Everybody works in Vietnam

Some people might think that Vietnamese are lazy because they could be perceived as lazy people taking naps and being slow, however this is the culture and climate that influences their behavior. I strongly disagree with this opinion! I think that they have they are hard workers. Everyone is trying to earn money in any way. It makes me feel respectful for them being so brave.

3. Motorbike riding etiquette

Often qualified as an “organized chaos”, road traffic in Vietnam is quite intense and requires practice and adaptation. Once you understand their few road rules you can master the street crossing and motorbike riding exercises. The key is to follow what the Vietnamese people do and simply copy their moves. When some people might believe Vietnamese motorbike and car drivers always seem to be in a hurry, they never get angry or mad. A simple horn blast will testify of their annoyance.

  • Crossing the street like a champion

It took us a few days to get the trick. Just walk slowly, do not rush/stop/slow down if someone is coming towards you. Follow the same walking pace and motorbike riders will avoid you. Therefore, it is essential to move your head around looking for upcoming obstacle and to keep an eye on the bikes crossing your way.

It may sound crazy scary. However, it is fun when you turn it into a challenging game where the goal is to make it to the other side of the road in slow motion on a Mario Bros mode.

  • The motorbike attire

Most Vietnamese would wear hoodies/jumpers along with gloves, socks and masks in order to cover their skin from the sun. I have only adopted the mask to protect my face from the sun and the exhausts. It is also compulsory to wear a helmet. You would notice that their helmets do not protect them at all sometimes. They look more like a bicycle helmet or one that they would wear for fashion. However, the best helmets should cover your entire neck.

In period of rain, the poncho is an essential as I explained earlier. Motorbike riders would stop on the side of the road to put them on or even buy one to a roadside vendor.

When acquiring a motorbike in Vietnam, you will be given a blue card. This is the purchase/ownership evidence that you should bring with you at all times in case a policeman pulls you over.

  • Learning the Vietnamese code of conduct on the road

Vietnamese road traffic clearly looks like hell. However, with a few implied rules, it becomes easy to find your way through the traffic. These few rules can be limited to the number of fingers of one hand.

1. There is no real priority – When you turn left, you are going against traffic. However, you are allowed and sometimes would have to force your way against the upcoming traffic.

2. The horn language – There are different uses of the horn in traffic. The slight or double horn blast is to let you know either a car or another motorbike is passing you. A longer blast would show the danger or the annoyance of a driver. Then it’s up to your judgment and to the context. You quickly learn and educate yourself on the horn language.

3. Only mind people in front of you – This rule can be applied at all times. Even if you have mirrors, people rarely use them. Motorbikes enter traffic without checking if there is someone coming. If you wish to pass someone or avoid someone coming in your way, anyone else behind you will avoid you.

4. The turning left hand signal – When you turn left you are going against traffic on the other side of the road. In Vietnam you also might go against your own traffic when you were standing on the right side of the road to turn left. Whether your passenger will give the down wave hand signal or you will have to do it yourself.

5. Turn signals do not mean anything – People might have their turn signal on, however they are not turning. It could be because they forgot it. Some turn signal do not make any sound anymore, therefore it is easy to keep it on. There are many different types of turn signal sounds: they are usually different between cars, motorbikes and buses. I personally like the buses’ childish sounding turn signal.


Online discoveries of the week

  • CULTURE – “Bonjour Vietnam” by Pham Quynh Anh – I discovered this song while landing in Da Lat in a VietJet Air. This Vietnamese songs was translated in a few different languages including French and English.
  • NOTEWORTHY – Padlet.com – This is a virtual wall that allows people to express their thoughts on a common topic easily posting content such as images, videos, documents, text.

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