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Watch your language!

I have many nice memories with customers from leading a large number of groups travelling in Vietnam, but some memories are quite embarrassing, mostly caused by misunderstandings with language.  You aren’t to know that some words you use daily in English that are ‘forbidden’ words or ones rarely used in Vietnamese.

I took a group from Australia to visit a local family for dinner (that is part of the V V T ‘Local Tours’ that experience local activity) that was beautiful group.  They bought flowers and presented them to the local family.  The owner also called all children back home to host my group.  After a few Hanoi beers we sat down for dinner with all members of  the family.  Before the meal I tried to explain a couple of rules on English to customers on the dining code in Vietnam.  Everything had gone fine until the owner came over (she was busy with her last cooked course) and ask in Vietnamese, “Do you like our food?”   I translated.   All the Australians replied, “Yum, yum!” and kept repeating “yum, yum” over and over.  I saw the owner’s face getting red, but she acted with a smile and shot back to the kitchen. The visitors did not know that ‘yum, yum’ sounds very close to ‘break wind’ in Vietnamese!  I followed the owner into the kitchen and explained to her the different meaning of those words to an Australian. Party ended up perfectly.

That was my most embarrassing memory though. So, be careful when you speak to Vietnamese. Some of the English words so far I know below may sound very funny to Vietnamese too:

–         Loan: Never ever speak this word to Vietnamese, especially to girls. You know what I mean

–         Alone: Speak it quickly and try not to repeat it often. That is also sounded like ‘a female’s stuff’

–         Among: sounds very much like ‘bum, butt or ass’ in Vietnamese (people are still very shy talking about it)

–         Still in thinking…

Vietnamese are not ugly

Beauty is said to be ‘in the eye of the beholder”.  Someone from the West may think Julia Roberts is charming.  She certainly may be, but some of the older generation in Vietnam may think differently.

I have a friend who broke up with his girl just because of a comment from his Mum about his girl’s high cheekbones.  The Vietnamese think that a girl like that will bring bad luck to her husband – and may even bring death to him!  The round face shape represents prosperity and wealth to Vietnamese. While you are travelling around Vietnam you may see many Vietnamese woman who cover their faces with masks and gloves, said to be necessary because of the pollution in the streets.  This is only part of the reason; the main reason is to protect their white skin.  That is the second of the two main beauty rating standards of Vietnamese.  First is slim shape, second is pale skin!

These values may be different in different parts of the country too. For example, Hue people have as many as 10 values of beauty: they put the sweet voice first; teeth and hair are also ranked highly. Mountainous areas value strong people: if you possess big and strong legs, that will attract lots of boys and girls around you.

Vietnamese parents also suggest their own standards to guide their children in marriage. They think a girl with a small waist (called a “bee’s waist”) strongly indicate excellent prospects for hard work and bearing of children.  This thinking still exists in most Vietnamese people since 90% are still farmers with limited education.

You are not acquainted with the values above?  No worries, because Vietnamese people think that all Westerners are beautiful because they are white and tall, but Vietnamese have trouble in recognizing or remembering Westerner’s faces as they seem to be all the same. I have heard lots of stories about this situation, so don’t be surprised the next day if your new friend just passes by without a word to you.

Today the values are changing as the young Vietnamese people are exposed to international values, but trust me, the traditional values developed over thousands of years still exist for the majority of the people.

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