Inside Vietnam: Cambodia Laos

Customs & etiquette in Vietnam

Social decorum, customs and etiquette are different across Indochina, however there are many instances where they are the same. As a rule of thumb, what's disrespectful in Vietnam is usually the same in Cambodia or Laos, and vice versa.

Below is our basic starting point for how to conduct yourself in Vietnam, and you can also read our ultimate guide to Vietnamese etiquette here - and print out our handy cheat sheet too.

If in doubt, always use your common sense and you'll be fine!

Appropriate clothing

Comfortable lightweight clothing in natural fabrics such as cotton is most suitable for travelling in Southeast Asia. The dress code is fairly casual, as in most parts of the tropics, but it is advisable to cover arms and legs in the evenings against biting insects, and when visiting temples where modesty is expected (ie shoulders and knees properly covered - not just with a scarf or shawl).

Shoes (and socks) must also be removed before entering any religious building or private home. It is therefore useful to wear shoes without too many laces and which can easily be taken off.

Though it's accepted that tourists will wear swimwear on the beach in Southeast Asia, it is considered vulgar to wander around the streets in a bikini or trunks. Though it may not be remarked upon, this will probably offend some people so try to cover up when you're not on the beach.

Haggling

Negotiating is part and parcel of life in Vietnam - it goes on all around and in no way is limited to the tourist industry. This is Vietnamese culture in action, and getting involved in trying out your haggling skills is a fun way to interact with the locals, and pick up some bargains.

The first and most significant rule in all bargaining is to keep smiling! As in many Asian countries, in Vietnamese culture maintaining "face" is very important, so ensuring both parties come out of a transaction with pride and dignity intact is the goal.

There can be a tendency for foreigners to feel a little aggrieved that they are being "ripped off" by being charged a higher price than locals, and this sense can colour the tone of negotiation. Better perhaps to accept that most of the people you are dealing with are smart businesspeople with limited resources, seeking to make a decent living, and that in a culture where negotiating is commonplace the first price is expected to be rejected.  

Places to try your skills are when hunting for souvenirs in markets or street stalls (if prices are fixed they will display a sign to that effect), buying fruit or snacks from vendors, and when using a cyclo or xe om. You will not normally be expected to haggle in restaurants or street food stalls, or in larger stores with displayed pricing. Taxis are now metered by law, and we would advise against getting in any that are not.

Here are a few haggling tactics recommended by the InsideVietnam team:

1. Keep smiling. Good humour usually results in a better deal, and always in a more enjoyable experience!

2. Try to get a feel for the going rate before you get started. Ask your guide, or if several vendors are offering the same product some casual price enquiries will give you a good idea of a decent starting point for negotiations.

3. Decide what you are willing to pay before you start - translate into your home currency so you feel comfortable of what price are willing/able to go up to.

4. Counter a high opening gambit with a lower counter-offer - 50% or more of the initial offer is not unreasonable, depending on the item and context. The two opening offers set the boundaries for the negotiation, and you can be sure the vendor will be aiming high!

5. Negotiate in local currency rather than USD - a foreign currency premium of some degree is inevitable.

6. Use the tactical 'walk away' (keeping smiling of course) if the price isn't coming down to a level you're happy with. You'll be called back if they really have room for manoeuvre - if they let you go then you've probably pushed it as far as they can go. Don't be afraid to go back and accept the last offer if so.

7. Go for a multi-item deal - you're likely to secure a better price if purchasing a few items.

Don't get carried away! Ultimately the last 10,000 dong will be worth a lot more to them than to you.

Tipping in Vietnam

As a general rule there is little tipping in either Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos - however in tourist-focused areas it has become more common. In general, no tip is expected at restaurants or in taxis, but it is generally accepted that those working in the tourist industry now supplement their income through the tips they receive from their clients. If you are happy with the service that has been provided our tipping guidelines are as follows. In the case of guides and drivers, custom has it that the tip should be given at the end of the time spent with them, which is usually at the airport or station at which they drop you. It can be given in an envelope if preferred.

Optional tipping guidelines

Vietnam:
Guide (Full Day) 
Single traveller USD 10 / per day
2 people   USD 15 / per day
3 people  USD 18 / per day
4 people USD 20 / per day
 
Driver (Full Day) 
Single traveller USD 5 / per day
2 people   USD 6 / per day
3 people  USD 8 / per day
4 people USD 10 / per day
 
Boat crew 
Short tour (1-2 hour) USD 1 / per person
Long tour (half day) USD 2 / per person
Overnight cruise USD 3 / per person
Other 
Cyclo, tuk tuk driver USD 1 / per person
Hotel porter  USD 1 / per room

Other helpful advice

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are conservative countries, and public displays of affection - including kissing, hugging, or anything more than holding hands - is frowned upon.

Since Buddhism is the dominant religion, there are many customs relating to Buddhism that have influenced social customs. For instance, in Buddhism the head is considered the holiest part of the body and the feet the most unholy - meaning that touching someone's head is a severe violation of their personal space, while putting your feet up on furniture or using them to point at things is considered extremely rude.

In Vietnam, it is polite to pass things (especially dishes at the dinner table) using both hands, and to finish everything on your plate to show respect for the cook.

For further help, feel free to ask our consultants as they have extensive travel and experience of living in Vietnam.