Anyone going to Vietnam would be wise to bone up on some of the unique customs and superstitions of the country, lest they cause confusion, misunderstandings, hard-feelings, or loss of friendship. The old saying, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" cannot be applied to the letter in Vietnam, but it is still very important that we respect certain customs and superstitions of the people.
Many Vietnamese having extensive contact with foreigners have begun to understand foreigner ways and have even adopted some of them for their own use. However, there are thousands of ordinary folk whose customs have not changed in generations. This chapter is about those people.
Most of the Vietnamese in urban areas no longer bow when they meet each other. In formal gatherings, at religious place, and sometimes in the country areas, one may see the people clasp their hands together in a prayer-like gesture and bow slightly. This is not practiced to any extent in everyday life in Vietnam as it is in neighboring Thailand.
The custom of handshaking, formerly considered barbaric to the Vietnamese, is now achieving popularity due to the Western influence in the country. Men will generally shake hands and say the equivalent of "how are you" and tip their hats when greeting people. Women, especially those in the countryside, still shy away from shaking hands, especially with men from their own country. It is best not to offer to shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first.
Age at Marriage
Formerly, girls were often wed as early as 13 and boys at 16. Economic reasons often spurred on young marriages. For example, one family may have wished to have their daughter marry so that they would have one less mouth to feed. On the boy’s side, a wife would mean another helping hand in the field, plus the prospect of more children to work on the land.
Daughter-in-laws were considered to be "free domestic help," and many girls were older than their bride-grooms. On occasions, marriages were held for very young couples to bring about alliances between families.
In Vietnam today, the marriage age may range from 18 to 22 for women and 22 to 25 for men. These figures rise to higher age levels in the cities where the Western influence is felt. Child marriages are not common in Vietnam today.
The Vietnamese Ao Dai
The word Ao Dai means ‘Long Dress,’ and is a two piece garment. The bottom part consists of loose pants that reach the ankles. The top is a tight fitting tunic with long sleeves and a high collar with two panels that float loosely down the front and back.
The Ao Dai is famously known to ‘cover everything, but hide
nothing,’ and it perfectly accentuates the long, lithe body possessed by Vietnamese women. When choosing to wear the Ao Dai it pays to have a similarly shaped figure.
Historically the Ao Dai is believed to come from China, when the newly crowned king Nguyen Phuc Khoat decreed in 1744 that the Ming Chinese style of dress would be adopted by all his subjects. Since then, both men and women have worn different variations of the Ao Dai. It has never been an official ceremonial dress, and has always been used an everyday outfit.