Vietnam is notable for its spectacular scenery and long and rich cultural history. While the war is not too far in the past, and still affects the day to day life of many Vietnamese, its people are friendly and the country has opened up to economic liberalization. With a long and beautiful coastline and the Red River and Mekong Deltas, Vietnam is full of beautiful and unspoiled scenery. The Vietnamese are extremely cordial to Western visitors, and are eager for extra contact with the rest of the world.
Vietnam has become a favorite destination of more and more tourists. There is Hanoi, elegant with its friendly people; Sapa with colorfully-dressed ethnic minority groups, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Halong Bay, with amazing caves and islets. There is romantic Hue, tranquil Hoi An where the best tailors in Vietnam reside. Danang the third largest city in Vietnam nestles on the Han river, and Nha Trang sits beside some of the best bays of the world. The largest city in the country is the busy and westernized Ho Chi Minh City. There is also the Mekong-delta with the fascinating floating markets. Vietnam is truly a Cultural paradise, a country that has a little something for everyone, a country that will leave an indelible trace in your memory for years to come.
While we aim to provide useful information to help volunteers prepare for their placement, we do also recommend that volunteers undertake some research of their own into Vietnam. This allows the opportunity to learn more about the aspects of this country that you find interesting, help you set your expectations realistically and enriches your experience once you actually arrive in country.
Culture and Customs
Please keep in mind when you are traveling to any country that social conventions are often quite different to that of what we are used to. You could find yourself in situations in Vietnam where you think local people are being rude but the Vietnamese culture is quite a contrast to 'western culture' generally speaking, and so becoming aware of issues that you may encounter can help you to be understanding and tolerant, if not respectful of these differences.
You may find that sometimes local people may not fully understand or have the answer to a question you ask. To save face or not to shame themselves you may find you are not always given a truthful answer as you would expect. Culturally sometimes people think it is better to give you an answer that will please you, even if it is not always true.
Sometimes local Vietnamese people run a little late. It is part of the laid-back attitude of the country. Try to be flexible and remember that things don't always have to run to strict Western timetables.
People may say things to you about your appearance or the way you do things. This is not to been seen as insensitive but as an observation and noting the differences between you and them.
You can expect some local people to speak some basic English, however you should be aware that there could be cultural miscommunication due to the language barrier also. If you are working with children then you can expect communication to be harder as they will not have the same degree of English speaking ability.
As a female volunteer you may find that you are assigned duties based on your gender, for example females may be asked to teach arts and crafts while male volunteers may be asked to run the sports program.
Not having a family is regarded as bad luck in Vietnam. If you're young and have no family, you should say that you're not yet married. If you are older and have no family, it could be a good idea to pretend that you're already married.
Also, most people will expect you to remove your shoes before entering their house. It's also rude to point the soles of your feet towards other people, or towards anything sacred. Always remove your shoes before entering a temple, this is a sign of respect for Vietnamese religion.
If there is a waste paper bin beside the toilet, you should use it to dispose of your used toilet paper.
Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam, and is spoken nationwide, although there are differences between regions. Many older people in Vietnam speak French, while many younger people can speak English well. Many Vietnamese are interested in English to the extent that they will start conversations with westerners in order to help improve their language skills.
While it should be possible to get by using English, it would be courteous to learn some Vietnamese phrases. You may find this link useful where you can download a free program to help you learn basic Vietnamese, http://www.byki.com.
You will also be taken through some brief language training during your orientation.
- Hello! - Xin chao! (sin chow!)
- Goodbye - Tam Biet
- How are you? - Ban co khoe khong? (ban co kwe khome?) also, Ban the nao?
- I'm fine, thank you! - Cam on ban toi khoe (gahm un ban thoy kwe)
- What's your name - Ban ten gi (ban thane zee)
- My name is... - Toi la (thoy la...)
- Thank you - Xin Cam on (sin gahm un)
- You're welcome - Khong co' gi (khom go zee)
- Yes - Vang (vung)
- No - Khong (khome)
- Excuse me/Sorry... - Xin loi (seen loy)
- Can you help me? - Ban giup toi duoc khong? (ban zoop thoy duc khom?)
- Good - Tot (thote)
- Bad - Khong tot (khome thote)
- How much - Bao nhieu (bow nyew)
- Too expensive - Mac qua (mahk qwa)
- Hotel - Khach San (khack san)
- Coffee - Ca phe (cah feh)
- Where ATM - Cay ATM o dau
(English - Vietnamese - phonetic pronunciation)
Climate and landscape
Up to 75% of Vietnam is mountainous, especially the north and the northwest. The country's highest peak Fan Si Pan (3,143 m) is situated in the northwest. Plains stretch up to the Red River delta and the coast. Central Vietnam is divided into a narrow coastal strip, a broad plateau and the Annamite Mountain Chain, which separate the plateau from the coastal lowlands. The Mekong River delta is right in the south of Vietnam.
Southern Vietnam has a tropical climate, which becomes a subtropical towards the north. Both regions have monsoon seasons. Northern Vietnam has a hot and humid wet season from mid-May to mid-September and a hot and dry season from mid-October to mid-March. The seasons come later in the south and rainfall is heaviest in central Vietnam from September to January when the coast is subject to tropical storms.
The range of Vietnam's wildlife is decreasing rapidly because of illegal hunting and the destruction of habitats. Less than 20% of the country is forested now, and what remains is at risk because of slash-and-burn agriculture and intensive agriculture. Fauna includes elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, leopards, Asiatic black bears, snub-nosed monkeys, crocodiles and turtles. Vietnam currently has five national parks. The government plans to create other national parks and nature reserves.