Do you have a plan to travel to Vietnam from the USA? from the UK? In spite of your different origins, you’re about to discover a country with cultural diversity. Especially, you will find out a lot of cultural differences during your travel-like-a-local journey. Some of them are obvious while some are subtle, requiring your attention to realize.

It is common that tourists try to look up for cultural differences between North and South Vietnam. That’s not enough! Vietnam has three main parts which are the North, the Central, and the South. Each region has particular cultural aspects. 

Are you looking for useful information about Vietnamese culture for tourists? Here’re the most noticeable and helpful Vietnamese culture factswhich are not the same from North to South. 

1.  Language – the cultural difference you might find out easily

In Vietnam, Vietnamese (or “Tiếng Việt”) is the national and official language that people use to express and communicate in daily life. When comparing the way locals of three regions talk, you will see significant differences within dialects. 

The North, the South, and the Central of Vietnam each uses different words, phrases, as well as phonetics elements. For example, with one word “pineapple” in English, while the North calls “quả dứa”, the Central calls “trái khóm”, and the South calls it “trái thơm”. That’s why it’s hard for them to understand each other, though. The difference seems to be a more challenging experience for foreign tourists. 

Vendors in Vietnam
Vietnamese is the official language but varies in different regions

Are you curious about the reasons?

It’s a long historical story of topographical characteristics and the mix of migrant ethnic groups. They combined their ethnic languages with Vietnamese that then gradually created regional dialects. In addition, Northern locals use both Vietnamese and Sino-Vietnamese whereas people in the South usually use Vietnamized words nowadays.

2.  Coffee and tea

Coffee and tea both contain high caffeine that’s helpful to boost the human mood. When you travel like a local in Vietnam, you will notice the drinking routine of people is different. 

Iced coffees play an important role in daily life in the Central and the South. The resident loves enjoying the taste and texture of a coffee cup in every period of the day (morning, afternoon, and night). 

On the other hand, North Vietnamese prefer a glass of tea instead. To them, coffee is less prevalent than tea. They love the bitterness with sweet after taste of tea, especially in the morning or when talking with friends. 

On top of that, you will never find “chè xanh”  which is fresh leaf green tea anywhere but Northern Vietnam (from north of Hue city onwards). You can easily try this special drink served in all roadside shacks. The taste of this special treat is bitter, tangy, flowery, and sweet after taste.

Don’t assume that central and southern Vietnamese don’t like tea, though! They also enjoy this type of drink but in a different way. Tea here is often served with ices: it varies from jasmine tea, pandan tea, lotus tea, to artichoke. 

Vietnamese iced coffee
A cup of ice coffee to start a morning off is a usual part of daily life in the South.

We guess that the cultural difference can be explained by regional climate and soil. Those elements of the North are just perfect for growing tea whereas in the Central and the South they can grow coffee trees wonderfully. Thousand years ago, trading goods from region to region was pretty hard so locals just got used to drinking what they had on hand. As time passed by, it became a daily habit of people.

3.  Alcohol (high spirit and beer)

Drinking alcohol varies from North to South Vietnam. While the North loves enjoying rice liquor, other parts prefer beer, to be more specific, lager. Even though drinking those treats is not good but in some aspects, that is a highlight when talking about the traditional culture of Vietnam. 

You will see locals have alcohol every time when they are at a party like a wedding, reunion, wedding anniversary, birthday, and farewell. Some people can’t have a great meal without a cup every day. In highlands of the north, rice liquor is so common and widely consumed as tea. 

The way locals choose their favorite common drink might be in relation to regional climate. In the North, it’s cooler with four seasons in a year. Therefore, people would like to take a shot of rice liquor to heat the body up. On the other hand, ice-cold beer is a perfect choice for those hot days in the Central and the South. Just a cup of this drink and your body will feel so good and refreshing right away.

4.  Vendors

Traveling through the length of Vietnam will let you understand deeper about the daily Vietnamese local lifestyle. Vendors and street foods are common parts of this country. The seller can be found in every corner on the street and at every time. From them, you can buy various types of goods such as snacks, street foods, fruits, and even fresh vegetables.

The difference in vendors is from the way sellers run their jobs. In Northern Vietnam, you will see more traditional vendors who use wicker baskets and bamboo sticks. They put their food and a lot of stuff into the basket and use their shoulders to bring them everywhere. Otherwise, people of the Central and South seem to prefer aluminum carts.

Vendors in Vietnam
Northern vendors keep the tradition with wicker baskets and bamboo sticks

The reason for thatcultural differencemight come from the thought of vendors. North people tend to stick to tradition and it’s hard to change it. When they get used to doing something for a long time without any problem, they will keep doing that. On the other hand, Central and South locals are willing to learn and change at all times. 

5.  Flavors in food

Experiencing food is one of the best ways to explore new land and enjoy wonderful peculiar cuisine. Thanks to favorable geographical location and climate, Vietnam has numerous tropical ingredients with thousands of dishes to discover. The flavor of food changes from South to North Vietnam with different cooking methods and combinations. 

In terms of food in the South, you can taste the sweet and spicy flavor in every dish, even though it’s savory. Plus, the South is such a flourishing land that produces numerous ingredients.

To get the ideal balance in flavor, locals usually add sugar. This style of cooking was somewhat infused by Chinese, Thailand, and Cambodia cuisines.

You will see the sweetness reduce and the saltiness increase when eating food in the Central. In this part of Vietnam, people have to face up with harsh climates like storms and droughts. They don’t have diverse foods like the other two parts of Vietnam. Therefore, locals tended to put more salt on their food so that they could eat more rice (with a little food) in the past. That habit still exists until now.

Vietnamese family dinner
Try to eat like a local to get more exciting experiences

The taste of food in the North is milder than that of two other regions. In addition, Northern people often can’t take the heat of spicy food as well as Southern and Central people do. The flavor in North Vietnam comes from its long history. People have used available seasonal ingredients to create daily meals with elegant taste.

6.  Dipping sauce (fish sauce)

Dipping sauce appears in every Vietnamese table meal. It is not only for adjusting the saltiness to taste but also adding more flavor. As you go further to the South, you will find the sweetness is more distinct. Here are some common dipping sauces from North to South Vietnam:

  • Northern Vietnam

In the North, locals always have a small bowl/dish of fish sauce. Overall, this type of dipping sauce is tangy (from the lime juice), salty (from the fish sauce or salt), a little bit of spicy (from red chili pieces and black pepper). They tend to add a small amount of MSG to balance the saltiness. 

  • Central and South Vietnam

As opposed to “salty” fish sauce, Central and South Vietnamese love the combination of sweet, sour, and salty flavors with a kick of heat from well-mashed chili peppers and garlic. Maybe it’s pretty pungent for foreigners, so just try a little bit before dipping your whole food into the sauce.

Thanks to a long coastline, people can harvest a huge amount of seafood from the ocean. That’s why locals have various fermented dips (which are called “mắm”) to choose from. The list of fermented seafood dips is too long to name but two common ones are “nước mắm” and “mắm nêm”. They also have fermented tofu dip (which is “Chao” in Vietnamese) for a vegan option.

Fish sauce Vietnam
You can find fish sauce everywhere in Vietnam but in various versions

7.  Architecture

Pitched roofs and turrets are particular to North Vietnam. Meanwhile, you can see the obvious change while traveling from Dong Hoi city onwards. Many houses featured tiled roofs, some with little turrets. In the South, people would like to build their houses with flat and gently sloping rooftops. 

If you travel to the outskirts, you will see a lot of old houses built with more natural materials than concrete houses in big cities. The difference in architecture is also found between highlands and lowlands: people in mountainous areas tend to build houses on stilts to prevent dangerous animals from attacking; in lowlands, locals just build their houses based on the land.

The main reasons for diverse houses are building techniques, history, religion, location, climate, and available regional building material. For example, North Vietnamese use palm leaves to cover their house roof whereas people in the south usually use water coconut leaves. Especially, some locals consider their small ships as a house, and their live stick to the river (they don’t have a real house on land).

8.  Daily fashion

Since the North is more subdued, it’s common to see people in discreet costumes. That comes from Confucianism which has affected their thoughts for thousands of years. In the mind of the old, wearing clothes showing a lot of skin like a crop top, short pant/skirt, lace top is unacceptable, especially girls and women. 

Meanwhile, fashion in the Central and the South tend to show their ostentatious wealth with a lot of golden pieces of jewelry. They are more open-minded in fashion. But still stay well-aware to choose appropriate clothes when you visit sacred places such as pagoda, temple, and church.

The way Vietnamese people dress in daily life depends deeply on thoughts, customs, weather, and history. You might be surprised when getting to know that our country has 54 ethnic groups. Among those, Kinh is the largest one. Each ethnic group has its own clothing and lifestyle. Therefore, the daily fashion of Vietnameseis so varied.

9.  Etiquette

Last but not least, the etiquette of Vietnamese people throughout the country is slightly different. You might see that people from the South and the Central are more open-hearted than people of the North. Although they’re all friendly and kind inside, the way they show out to strangers isn’t the same. This difference is also rooted in Confucianism.

Vietnam traditional hat
It seems to be easier to share smiles with people of Central and South Vietnam

You can see this cultural difference while talking with Vietnamese people. In Southern and Central Vietnam, locals tend to smile easily with everyone, even though they are strangers or foreigners. They are willing to share their thoughts and expressions, too. Otherwise, it’s hard to share emotions with Northern people. They tend to be more restrained and formal. You need to let them know they can trust you through talking and interacting. After a few times,  you will be able to crack their protective shell and see warm connections. 

Conclusion 

Long history, widespread land are the main reasons which lead to Vietnamese cultural differences. The more you travel, the deeper you go through the amazing culture of Vietnam.  The best way to avoid culture shock in Vietnam is to prepare your knowledge well about your aim-to-visit destination. As a result, you can be into experiencing local culture full of amazing memories.

Do you want to know more about Vietnam as well as useful travel tips for FIT? Our Xinchao blog contains numerous articles for you! Keep following and feel free to contact us to set a proper travel plan to Vietnam.

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