- Filial piety
Vietnam is one of the most populous countries in Southeast Asia and deeply multifaceted. Its culture reflects a mixture of local traditions that have come to incorporate the advances of globalisation. These two aspects of modern-day Vietnam often coincide in curious ways; today, a farmer making traditional offerings to the spirits of his ancestors may burn pictures of mobile phones and other technological devices that are perceived as valuable to those deceased. Vietnamese contemporary ideologies have also been significantly shaped by the foreign influences of both neighbouring and Western countries. Despite the many prolonged cultural invasions by other countries, the Vietnamese sense of national identity has survived and still engenders a strong patriotism and affiliation from many people. Today, the Vietnamese spirit is independent, opportunistic and resilient.
Vietnam has endured a huge amount of difficulty and suffering in its recent past. Its people are generally very conscious of this history and take the legacy of past events very seriously. Many are still impacted by the physical, emotional and economic effects of the American War (known to the West as the ‘Vietnam War’). The culture does not have a naturally happy-go-lucky feeling to it, as there remains a collective lamenting felt throughout the society. Yet, to their credit, the Vietnamese people rarely complain and continue to be motivated and resilient despite having experienced so much adversity. They are often very stoic and realistic; problems get put into perspective as almost every family has a story of grief or loss relating to the war. Contemporary struggles also continue, as much of the population has to work very hard in order to make ends meet.
This consideration should not be misunderstood to give the general perception of Vietnam as a poor, sad and underdeveloped country. It has progressed incredibly quickly in the last few decades to have one of the fastest-growing market-based economies in Asia. Furthermore, the current population of Vietnam is exceedingly young. Roughly 24% of all Vietnamese are 15 years old or younger while over 50% of the population is under 30 years of age. This means that two out of three Vietnamese were actually born after the war and are somewhat unacquainted with the devastation the older generations suffered. The war should continue to be acknowledged as it continues to play a key role in many Vietnamese people’s identity. However, avoid characterising all Vietnamese as products of the conflict.
Today, Vietnam is governed as a communist state through a one-party system. Many Vietnamese support democracy and feel disenfranchised by this government. This is particularly true of those from Southern Vietnam, which was heavily influenced by Western ideals of individualism and liberalism. On the other hand, the North of Vietnam is generally considered more conservative, traditionally minded and complicit with the communist regime. Some Southern Vietnamese continue to resent those of the North due to events occurring in the war. They may renounce the communist flag and show allegiance to the flag of South Vietnam (a yellow flag with three red stripes). This is flown on commemoration days and on the day they call the “fall of Saigon”. They may also continue to refer to Ho Chi Minh City by its original name of “Saigon”. However, the current government imposes limits on freedom of speech and does not tolerate disrespectful or critical comments about Ho Chi Minh. It also officially rejects the Southern Vietnamese flag and there can be serious implications if one is found in possession of it.
It is important to understand that this dichotomy between the North and South, regarding the perceptions of historic events and the current Communist Party, can be a very sensitive subject for Vietnamese. While most Vietnamese in Australia are from Southern Vietnam, people’s opinions may vary depending on their region of birth, age, education and personal experiences.
There are a few shared cultural norms that deeply influence behaviour and communication across the general population of Vietnam. The first is the concept of face. This is the quality embedded in most Asian cultures that indicates a person’s reputation, influence, dignity and honour. By complimenting people, showing them respect or doing something to increase their self-esteem, you give them face. Similarly, people can lose face by being criticised or behaving in a way that is considered socially inappropriate. Therefore, individuals generally act deliberately in Vietnam to protect their self-worth and peer perception. People speak quite indirectly and politely as one’s speech is assumed to reflect their virtue.
Many Vietnamese may also have a fatalistic attitude and take a more reactive approach to problems as opposed to proactive action. This is influenced by the Buddhist belief that what one did in their previous life determines what they experience in their current life – “to the same degree, they reap today what they have sown in the past”. This view can make some Vietnamese quite receptive and resigned to difficult situations, as they may believe the circumstances are the result of a predetermined destiny.
The value of ‘khiêm’ (modesty) or ‘khiêm tốn’ (modesty and self-restraint) is also central to Vietnamese life. Vietnamese people often show a great deal of humility by self-humbling and downplaying emotion and communicating indirectly. This disposition is thought to maintain more harmony. However, while the Vietnamese may speak quite modestly, they are also observed as being especially honest.
The Vietnamese do not like to stratify their people into ‘classes’ and prefer to feel unified in their society. The government’s communist orientation particularly supports this view. Nevertheless, in reality, there are quite distinguished stratifications in society. Many people were left impoverished as a result of the American War and the policies of the Communist Party’s governmental regimes. The differences in wealth between those living in rural and urban areas are becoming bigger. As such, there is not much of a recognised middle class; people are mostly distinguished as either ‘rich’ or ‘poor’. Brand items are admired and those who are wealthy tend to exhibit their affluence to differentiate themselves. The term ‘nha que’ (peasant or country person) carries derogatory connotations. As of a 2014 estimate, roughly 67% of Vietnamese live in rural areas while 33% live in urban areas. There is a visible differentiation in cultural values between the two lifestyles, with the urban areas now very commercially oriented and motivated.
There is a general cultural acceptance of hierarchies in society regarding one’s age, gender, status and education (relating to Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist concepts). Education is highly valued and often the most respected above all other attainable attributes of status – approximately 94% of the population is literate. By filial piety, there is also a strong cultural emphasis on the importance of age. In Vietnam, age determines the grading of respect in many interactions. Often, this can mean a person has to unconditionally obey seniors or defer to the views of the older person in an argument. People should not disagree with their elders unless able to do so very respectfully.
China has had a recurrent influence on Vietnam, significantly shaping the composition of the country’s traditional culture. The continual efforts by China to assimilate Vietnam have noticeably Sinicized some cultural customs (such as family systems) and ideologies (through the introduction of Confucianism and traditional Chinese philosophies). However, the Vietnamese people have generally always maintained a distinct identity and resisted being subsumed by the influences of China. It is important to understand this as comparisons between China and Vietnam often make them seem very similar. However, Vietnamese national identity and culture are determinedly different.
From their intense and long history of national and cultural survival, the Vietnamese have developed a strong independent streak. There is a noticeable nationalism in the culture as the retention of the Vietnamese identity has been such a long-enduring feat. Many people find this a source of pride. This can make it quite difficult for older generations of Vietnamese to acculturate to Australia, as there has been a long history of resistance to cultural change.