Western and Eastern values vary tremendously. There are enormous cultural differences some of which might seem strange to foreign eyes. However when the Vietnamese get it right, they really do get it right. A straw poll among expats saw the same subjects coming up over and over again. Here are five of the things that expats singled out as positives in the Vietnamese way of life.

1. Family Values

This was far and away the single most repeated subject. I have to say that I too would single this out as an extremely positive side of Vietnamese life. The Vietnamese family unit is a very strong unit indeed. From the minute a child comes into the world, it will be cosseted and nurtured not just by the mother and father, but also by the whole extended family. In fact more often than not, the grandmother takes an even more active role than the mother. New birth mothers get to recover surrounded by family members. More often than not several generations of a family will already be living together anyway. This love and support is extended towards the elderly in a way that, quite frankly, puts the West to shame. Old people live with their young family members, not for them the retirement home. Vietnamese in general show a deference and respect to older people all the time.

family
The Vietnamese extended family, often all under one roof

Siblings will help each other out all the time in a way that is both admirable and sensible. It is not uncommon to see a brother or a sister giving up portions of their weekly income to support a sibling who is less well off. On a recent Facebook post, one young girl wrote that when she is married and working at the same time, she would expect to give 50% to her family budget, 30% to her parents budget and keep 20% for her own needs. Boy! The West could learn a lot from these people. Pay it forward?

2. Teachers are held in Higher Esteem

The roll of a schoolteacher is quite possibly the most vital one in the world. People will cite doctors, nurses and top scientists, but without the role of their educators, we would have none of them. I count many schoolteachers amongst my friends; dozens in the UK and many more here in Saigon. The ones in the UK feel under valued, under pressure and under the hammer at all times. Teachers are leaving the profession in the UK in alarming numbers. The average length of time a teacher stays in education in the USA is now 5 years. This appalling neglect of our teaching staff is embarrassing and dangerous. In many US schools they now have permanently armed police officers on duty. In Britain attacks on teachers are commonplace.

Teachers
Teachers at Saigon Star International School receive gifts on Teachers Appreciation Day

However here in Asia it is quite the reverse. All my teacher friends here love the job. The politeness of the pupils towards their teachers is admirable and borne out of both a respect for authority and a respect for the fact that they are getting an education. Asian children are simply thankful to get an education, whereas in the West a large number don’t even want one. I was recently at an event on Vietnamese Teachers Appreciation Day, what a concept! Speaking to the teachers afterwards they were quite emotional at the level of appreciation they had been shown by their pupils and their parents.

Children are encouraged to engage with adults here in a way that has been almost abandoned in the West. The paranoia around paedophilia has put paid to that. Despite the fact that sex crimes are no different nowadays than they were a hundred years ago, parents are over protective of their children to the detriment of their development.

3. Road Etiquette and general Manners

Road rage almost doesn’t exist here. It is amazing at times. The roads are crazy, everyone seems to do what they wish and yet, arguments are extremely rare. In the West a car horn is used as a signal of aggression, drivers sound their horns in anger and shout and scream behind the wheel. In Vietnam, the horn is simply an “I’m here be careful” sort of a device. I quite like the underlying anarchy of Vietnam. It implies that you have a certain amount of responsibility for your own actions. If you trip over a paving stone in the West, it’s lawyering time, in Asia its “Why didn’t you watch where you were going” time. That carries on into the ‘highway code’ here. Yes, you are likely to meet someone coming in the opposite direction on the wrong side of the road carrying a settee on a motorbike, but if you crash into him, it’s as much your fault as his.

this chaos
Somehow amid all this chaos, tempers are controlled

The traffic moves at a very slow pace here, but that simply means you get where you are going quicker in the long run. Everyone weaves about and struggles through the traffic, there are after all approximately 37 million motorbikes here, but tempers rarely get raised. I would hazard to guess that if you put 37 million motorbikes on British roads the resulting carnage would rival a war. Vietnamese also have a smile for everyone, walk down a street here and almost everyone you pass, will smile at you.

4 Recycling and Green Issues

It is amazing in a country that is supposed to be behind the world’s big countries, but recycling in Vietnam puts most of the world to shame. It has to be said that in many cases it is done out of a financial need rather than a commitment to the green cause, but nonetheless, conditions are put in place to ensure that just about everything gets recycled. It is incredible, to see the lack of household waste going into landfill. In fact I haven’t seen a landfill site here in Vietnam. Every household separates plastic, paper, cardboard, cans and any number of other things to recycle. I live in a Vietnamese household on a housing estate in District 2. On the street there is one normal sized dustbin for about every 50 houses. It is quite simply, incredible. If you have something that is of no use to you anymore, you just put it outside your door and it will be gone in an hour or so.

streets
This One Wheelie bin services two streets

There is also a lot of common sense that goes into house building. Houses are tall and narrow and often have a kind of atrium running through the floors taking excess heat out through the roof. People are also incredibly industrious and make the most beautiful things from items that we in the West would simply toss. I’ve seen handbags, artificial flowers, and even items of jewelry and clothing made from throwaway stuff. And I don’t think anyone EVER throws clothes away. Throw out a shirt and you are likely to see it being worn by one of the Xe Om (motorbike taxi) guys the day after. Opulence it seems really is the biggest threat to green issues.

5. National Pride without Nationalism

The Vietnamese have an inner strength and resilience that is to be admired. They have been attacked numerous times in the past. They’ve been colonised and had many attempts to destroy their sovereignty. Every time they have eventually come out as the victors. Yet they are humble and magnanimous in victory. They are passionately proud of their country. At Tet, on National Independence Day and other holidays the Vietnamese flag is everywhere to be seen. It lines many streets and flies from every taxicab. Yet it never seems to cross over into that awful flag waving negative type of nationalism. I still feel uneasy when I see the flag of St George; such was the level of my sense of it being hijacked by the far right in the 70s and 80s. Many English people wave their national flag in anger and hatred of others. The Vietnamese wave it purely just to say, I am Vietnamese and proud. There is an enormous difference. When any national team is playing on TV it seems that the whole country watches.

Independence Day
A typical Vietnamese street scene on Independence Day

Vietnam is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but on these subjects I think they have much to teach us in the West. By all means let me know if you disagree or indeed if you have other subjects which you feel I should have included.

  • tan

    what a pile of BS

    • Keith Hancock

      There is nothing like constructive criticism and that my friend was nothing like constructive criticism. It takes a special kind of hubris to tell someone that their ‘opinion’ is BS, you seem to demonstrate that arrogance in abundance.

    • Anh Tuan

      may i ask what the pile of BS is? this is the point of view of the writer who feels Westerners must realise when they are living in Vietnam and have a knowledge of what is happening in other countries to compare it to the way we live in Vietnam. Your opinion can be listened and also discussed but stating this, without backing it, makes what Keith wrote stronger. you must resent something strongly and that is very sad of you. you may have lived and experienced something different and of course you have that right to disagree but does stating this makes a difference? not really as we still cant see your point. Thank you Keith for sharing what you experience and believe

      • Keith Hancock

        Thanks Anh Tuan. It seems that some people don’t understand what an opinion is. My opinion is that I love this country. Others may not love it, but to state that I am wrong is simply arrogant.

  • Matt

    You must not understand the meaning of nationalism

    • Keith Hancock

      Of course I do, I’m English!

  • Keith Hancock

    I love how these negative comments are hidden behind anonymity. lol

  • John Bellew

    Absolutely awesome article … it addressed many of the very reasons that I fell in love with Vietnam on my first visit in 2002 and couldn’t wait to find a way to live here. About the road rage, you can actually get shot at for using your horn in many places in the states.

    • Keith Hancock

      Thanks John, I am pretty much a ‘glass half full’ kind of person, some people are not. lol. I have lived in Asia for 7 years, and just because I love it and remain positive people accuse me of being a newbie. I move to Saigon almost two years ago, and can’t imagine moving to be honest.

  • Huw Thomas

    Fully agree with John Bellow – I reckon you pretty much hit the nail on the head here Keith. Perhaps Tan would like to elaborate on why he has taken exception.

    • Keith Hancock

      Thanks Huw, Its nice to know that I am not alone in loving the country in which I choose to live.

  • Luo

    Spot on about the national pride without nationalism. Vietnamese seem to have a serene national confidence which doesn’t need to be waved in people’s faces. I compare it to the kind of nationalism I see in modern China (where I’m currently living) – loud, brash, jingoistic but ultimately betraying an underlying sense of insecurity and uncertainty. Vietnam seems much more comfortable with itself, and unlike China it isn’t desperate for the approval of foreigners.

    • Keith Hancock

      It is the same in England my friend. It is not often that you see the Union flag or the flag of St. George waved without the accompaniment of the uglier side of nationalism. America seems the same. I think the Australians fare better, but may be this is all just my perception. Certainly here in Vietnam, it just seems to be a case of “we’re are Vietnamese and very happy about it” I was in a bar watching the Vietnam v Malaysia football match last night, and it really was just a happy occasion. Thanks for the positive comments.

  • Ann-Marie

    Great piece and I agree completely. I am guessing that those who can’t agree with these points have either been here far too long and can no longer see the beauty and the simplicity of the place or have not been here long enough to experience what you describe.

    • Keith Hancock

      Thanks, Ann-Marie. Yes, people can get jaded. When I lived in Bangkok I had friends who could never see the good. I’m glad I left before I got jaded.

    • Keith Symington

      Ann-Marie I have been here for a long time (10 years) and I do see “the beauty and simplicity of the place”, thank you very much. But I dont see why or how having a different opinion on certain aspects of this list necessarily means someone is jaded or intolerant. Your statement itself sounds a bit intolerant.

  • Adam McDonald

    Particularly enjoyed this one. Friends and family in England have been asking what Vietnam is like so I’ve shared this one as it sums up the strong points really well.

    • Keith Hancock

      Thank you Adam, My friends and family are always interested also. Some people seem to pick out the bad, I like to pick out the good, and there is plenty to like.

  • Vanessa

    There are some good points made here, and vietnam has much to be proud if but I would have to disagree with your comments on road rage. I have moved back to the uk after years of living in Vietnam and find the car drivers here to be courteous and polite. They stop to let you out at junctions, don’t try and push through even when you are in front of them, don’t skip red lights or drive on the wrong side of the road, and don’t constantly put your life in danger by ignoring rules to suit their own needs. They are considerate towards other drivers and pedestrians. On the other hand I witnessed daily incidents of road users in Vietnam putting others lives at risk by their selfish behaviour and several incidents of road rage. People not getting angry is not necessarily a good thing in these situations as many lives are lost unnecessarily due to acceptance of inconsiderate and dangerous driving.

    • Keith Hancock

      I understand where you are coming from, but I actually prefer driving here in Vietnam. In the UK, everyone drives far too fast. Most certainly drive faster than their ability. Here it is utter chaos, but it does work. I have never sat in a 6 hour traffic jam here, which I have in England on many occasions. I have never seen or even heard of the massive multiple vehicle pile ups that you get in Britain. I was right in the middle of one 20 years ago that was terrifying. 150 vehicles slamming into each other on the A1 at 80 miles an hour, vehicles on fire and utter carnage, in FOG! The driving here is different, a friend of mine from Ireland once said that his father viewed traffic lights poorly in an advisory capacity, that sums it up her. I rather like the Anarchy. Thank you for reading. K

    • Keith Hancock

      Hi Vanessa, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I do understand where you are coming from, but I honestly prefer driving here than England. I would NEVER dream of riding a motorbike in the UK. Everyone drives too fast in the UK and certainly faster than their ability. I have never seen any incidents of serious road rage here, as I have in England. I have never seen massive multiple pile ups here, in fact I have never even heard of them. Having been in the middle of a 150 car pile up in thick fog on the A1 20 years ago, I can honestly say that I don’t miss UK roads at all. It was horrendous, I drove up a grass bank to get out of the way and watched in horror as cars, trucks and buses slammed into each other at about 80 MPH. Driving is certainly different here, but I prefer it.

    • Taco Fleur

      Extremely well said … I would like to use some of that in an article about traffic safety

  • Abbie Holmes

    Great article 🙂 well done! I love the teacher appreciation part 🙂

    • Keith Hancock

      Thank you Abbie, as a fan of teachers, I think this is one of the best things about Vietnam.

  • I agree with a lot of what you said, but the amount of trash I saw at low tide all along the rivers between Saigon and south was astounding (not in a good way).

    At the same time, city streets were quite clean and I did see lots of people sweeping up and picking up litter.

    But I still think the trash problem appears far worse in Vietnam than I have seen in many other Asian countries, let alone Europe or the US.

    • Keith Hancock

      I think it is far worse in Cambodia and Bangkok is not great. I’m not saying litter doesn’t exist, but everything seems to get reused, here. Thanks for reading.

  • Keith Symington

    Spot on with 1, 2 and 5. #3 I know where you are coming from but I sometimes think VN are too accepting at times (some bonehead moves deserve recognition…). “Green Issues” is not something I would particularly describe as a plus in VN. Indeed there is the de-facto near-100% recycling (and city rubbish pick-up is as good or better than anywhere in SEA). So it could be worse I guess. But when you look at all the other stuff…the (non-recyclable) trash that gets dumped anywhere (take a train trip and check out every intersection, every ditch) the environmental quality data in and around industrial areas (including the cities) and the track record of the companies etc, it does seem a stretch to list “green issues”.

    • Keith Hancock

      Fair comments Keith, I am yet to make a train journey here, I do intend to change that soon. I think the Vietnamese do throw a lot of litter, but there always seems to be someone who’ll pick it up and reuse it. Thanks for reading and taking the time out to comment.

  • Thùy Dung

    Hi Keith, would love to give you a hug, on behalf of Vietnamese. Thank you so much for loving my country

    • Keith Hancock

      What a lovely thing to say. This is why I love the Vietnamese people so much. Anytime you see me around, always accompanied by my laptop, come and say hello. Best wishes, Keith

  • Fabio Cappiello

    Dear…As a long term expat living in the Blue Dragon Country…I appreciated and I could not Agree more with you…but let me do a necessary distinguish…between the different Viet Nam….despite the deep homogeneity and the widely sense of national proud..Viet Nam is at the same time the country Which count more then 53 minority ethnics…. but is especially between Ha Noi and Sai Gon that your consideration should be adapted based on the place…driving bikes and related drive style are widely different between the 2 cities the recycling and green awareness between Ha noi and Sai Gon seems at me quite different as well….the same for the family concept I have seen much more mono family in Sai Gon in 4 months that in 5 years in Ha Noi..

    By the way….VietNam still a big and united country with his specific different result of millennium civilization!!!

    Thanks!!

    • Keith Hancock

      Yes Fabio, there are indeed 54 ethnic minorities. It is my intention to spend some time with as many as possible next year. I am fascinated by them and thing it is wonderful that they are surviving, though some are struggling. I have been to Hanoi three times and whilst I found it pleasant enough, I don’t think I would want to live there. I much prefer Saigon. Thank you for your kind words.

  • SimonJonston

    I’ve witnessed many many road rage incidents in VN, over small accidents. Helmets and fists fly. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, they have weapons like iron bars or knives.

    Also, the vietnamese do have landfill, they also have land onto which they dump plastics etc to rot at the side of the road, into rivers and lakes, and eventually into the sea.

    Have you ever swam in the sea here? Its like one big garbage dump.

    • Keith Hancock

      Well I can only write what I see. I have driven over 10,000 km on my bike in the last year alone and have never seen ONE road rage incident. The “many” that you have seen have not been in your wake by any chance? 😉 I never said they do not have landfill, I merely said I haven’t seen one. I would be interested to know where they are in HCMC soi I can set the record straight. Send me the locations and I’ll write about them. Regards,
      Keith

      • SimonJonston

        Look in the canals and rivers around D8, full of toxic plastic rubbish.

        Also, a quick google search for “landfill hcmc” will find articles like this one:

        http://www.saigon-gpdaily.com.vn/Nature/Environment/2011/10/97466/

        • Erb

          I have to jump in here. I have to agree with Keith Hancock on the road rage thing. I’ve been here six months and have not seen a single incident. It’s crazy and crowded but nobody takes it personally. They just get where they have to go as efficiently as possible. Your comment about weapons is a little ridiculous. As far as recycling is concerned; sorry Keith but I haven’t seen it. Our condo doesn’t have recycling and I have seen very few recycling bins in Saigon. From what I’ve seen, plastic, paper and cans all end up in the trash. I haven’t looked for landfill sites but I see a lot of garbage strewn all over the place. Especially by rivers and swamps. Well, that’s my two cents.

          • SimonJonston

            Glad to have you jump in Erb but having been here over 13 years, my experiences are slightly more than you. I saw one guy smacking the hell out of another with his helmet at the junction of De Tham and THD just last week. And you can frequently read the vietnamese newspapers about road rage fights which include weapons so, just because you haven’t been in District end-of-the-world when it kicks off, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, because it does! Cheers.

  • After having been here 7 months on our second stint living in HCMC I have to say I agree with most of what you have to say. I drive a motorbike and have local friends. I regularly walk around the city, often in the early morning, and note the clean up efforts. I haven’t seen any road rage either, which is utterly astonishing to me, considering the traffic. I have met a lot of people trying to improve things and make the experience for visitors of all types a better one. The great majority are extremely proud of their country but are astonished (and delighted) when I tell them how great something is. I’m also a teacher and have definitely experienced the benefits of being held in relatively high esteem. I don’t take this lightly and behave accordingly. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case with foreign teachers and I have seen a distinct shift in attitude since my time here a few years ago.

    The usual peeps, who are happy being miserable,will be out to challenge your observations. You certainly have created a storm on Expats HCMC. That’s their prerogative, as long as they don’t get personal. That’s their experience, their opinion. Everyone’s entitled. I’ve been to 106 countries (so far) and Vietnam is one of my favourites,

    On my website, Ho Chi Minh City Highlights, I like to take a positive spin because that’s the outlook I have on life in general. I certainly don’t gloss over the less pleasant issues, but I do try and propose solutions on how to deal with them. The website is a bit of a hobby while I’m here. I don’t get paid for anything I write on the site, so there is no conflict of interest. I write what I feel.

    Vietnam has a lot to offer to both visitor and expat alike. It may have a long way to go on many issues, but I guess that’s why it is still referred to as “developing”. Credit where credit’s due. As you repeatedly say, you can only write based on your own observations. Nice job.

  • Bob’s Your Uncle

    Excellent piece of trolling.

  • philwatson

    This article is a ridiculous parody of life here.
    Road rage doesn’t exist because people don’t like to lose face by arguing; hundreds of people per week die on the roads due to the careless and unthinking way that people use the roads.
    Rubbish is routinely piled high at the side of the road, and often burned including plastics and other toxic things because people won’t pay the small charge to have it removed.
    Still, many children do not attend school, due to the cost or because the parents didn’t and don’t see the benefit in sending their kids; easier to send them out barefoot to sell lotto tickets.
    I could go on.
    Have you ever actually opened your eyes whilst riding your motorbike? There are many great things about Vietnam, which is why I choose to live here but, sorry, your article is flowered up bullshit nonsense.

  • Hi Keith,

    Hope you’re well, mate.

    Was just looking for advice on where the best place for a musician is to live in SE Asia?

    Thinking about travelling over at the beginning of next year with a few mates to stay for a while & was just wondering where it’s easiest to get work playing in bars etc.

    Also, are they pretty strict about musicians having a working VISA? Played the Whisky A Go Go in LA a few weeks ago and nearly got into some bother at US customs when I didn’t have one!

    Will be taking my condenser mic for writing & recording a bit too – hopefully will be able to sell a few singles/EPs to keep me going in terms of cash too.

    Many thanks in advance,

    Scott

  • Capri Chan

    What a wonderful viewpoint of you! You make me feel more pride of my country.

  • James Cooke

    The family and education values, as well as the thrift, are strikingly similar to an older Ireland. One of my great-great uncles was a “hedge” teacher and highly regarded. The hedge schools were hidden the rural hedges to avoid detection by the invaders who had outlawed education for the Irish.

  • vktr

    I was there recently. Surprised that there were so many AMERICANS. They are welcome there as all tourists are. I asked an American I met who lives in Vietnam how he is received and regarded by his Vietnamese neighbors, colleagues and community. He said that he nerver felt any kind of animosity. It was as if they have forgotten and forgiven the suffering they went through under the Americans. Or they just did’nt care anymore about the pains of the past. The Vietnamese are truly a forgiving, warm, hospitable people with great sense of humor.

  • Ypse Dixit

    I grew up in Viet Nam back in the 50’s & early 60’s (lived through 6 Coups & survived 3 bombings) — a bit much for a little kid and yet I have nothing but the fondest memories of the country, it’s people, and the food. The sweetest pineapples in the world are Vietnamese in my opinion. I believe the usually soft-spoken Vietnamese are some of the gentlest, kindest, generous, and forgiving people on this earth.

  • Florian

    Some truths but also some misleading conclusions. Regarding point 2, a difference has to be made between foreign teachers and Vietnamese ones. In addition to the salary gap, Vietnamese show a great respect for foreigners living in VN, teachers or not. I disagree on point 3, you can witness people fighting after accidents or throwing stones at cars. It is something I have never witnessed in Europe. Moreover people will just stop and honk after an accident, instead of helping people getting their motorbike on its wheels. And regarding point 4, Vietnam is everything but environment friendly. Just look in the streets, no bins, all the garbage laying on the pavement, people burning plastic bags in front of their home, the over-use of plastic containers and bags in shops, burning the leftovers from rice paddies or throwing them in the Mekong river, using coal to produce electricity, almost no public transportation. What you are mentioning (people sorting their waste) don’t apply in Hanoi, from personal experience. But don’t get me wrong, I love Vietnam 😉