We all have misconceptions about a culture we’re not familiar with. Like any country, Vietnam has a number of stereotypes and surely many of which are inaccurate. As a born & raised Saigonese, I find myself explaining the same misunderstandings multiple times about my imperfect lovable tiny densely-populated country Vietnam. Of course I cannot speak for more than 90 million Vietnamese people but I hope to be objectively informative. In no particular order, here are 9+ misconceptions you might have about Vietnam. (By the way, if you know Vietnam a bit too well and wonder “who on earth would ask such things?”, let me tell you that I have first-hand experienced all of them.)
1. Do Vietnamese eat dog meat?
I get so defensive when I get asked this question. Our family has a dog that is guaranteed the most spoilt dog you’ll ever meet so no, we don’t eat dog meat. However, it’s true that you can find restaurants that serve dog meat legally or… illegally, more common so in the northern region. It’s my family’s biggest fear to have our beloved dog got dognapped and we’re not an exception in Vietnam. Many households have domestic dogs and cats as pets. The thought that they might be illegally taken for meat does happen and is terrifying to us. So, there are people who eat dog meat in Vietnam but it is not something you can find in the supermarket, not every Vietnamese eats it or has eaten it and it’s becoming less popular.
2. What about insects?
Although I personally believe that insects are the future as they are a rich source of protein as many OCED countries are developing the concept and making it a norm, the present me and many Viet friends of mine have never ever digested an insect voluntarily. Oh wait, I just remember I have eaten silkworms, probably twice or thrice! As for crickets, grasshoppers, ants and other types of worms, they’re either personal preference or merely a tourist trap!
3. Do you live on a farm? On a rice field?
Well many Vietnamese live very close to their rice fields or animal farms, some peeps in the Mekong Delta even live on their fishing boats their whole life, but many others live in big cities (as big as you can think of). Vietnam’s urban population is currently at 35% in 2017 (and rising)*. Although there’s a lot of us live in rural areas, some 32 million of Vietnamese live in the cities with full electricity coverage and running water. The capital Hanoi has some 7,5 million residents and Saigon some 8,5 million.
Are you planning to visit Vietnam for the first time? Let me help answer some of your most frequently asked questions!
4. Are you from North Vietnam or South Vietnam?
I was born and raised in Saigon and geographically it’s in the south. In case you wonder, neither South Vietnam or North Vietnam is a country. That Vietnam War you were thinking about ended in 1975 (we normally refer it as the Resistance War Against America or just the American War), on the 30th of April which officially known as the Reunification Day. The Vietnamese who fled Vietnam due to political reason might call this day differently but I’ve been calling it Reunification Day my whole life growing up in Vietnam, so yeah.
Oh and since our history is long and complex, I’ve seen people mistakenly call 30th of April “Independence Day” or “National Day” which I’d like to reconcile. It’s not entirely wrong butttt if you want to be politically correct, Vietnam’s Independence Day is 2nd of September when Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam as a Socialist Republic state in 1945. It’s obviously another public holiday, yay!
5. Are Vietnamese anti-American?
You’d be surprised to see how many pro-American things exist in Vietnam: all the big American chains, American English centers, made in USA products, etc. The US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City is hands down the busiest diplomatic mission in Vietnam. And American expats seem to have a comfortable life here so no, we’re not anti-American.
6. Do Vietnamese speak French? Chinese?
No I don’t speak French and I learned Chinese by choice. Neither language is official at school, unless it’s a French or Chinese school which I cannot name any on top of my head. Most people nowadays learn English as a second language but many still struggle to speak it. And guess what, English with American accent is preferred! Anyway, Vietnamese Tiếng Việt is our official language. Here is a sample of a written Vietnamese phrase: Sau đây là một ví dụ cơ bản. As you can see, a word doesn’t compose of many letters (maximum 7 – that’s probably why German doesn’t make sense to me) but we have six extra letters ă â ê ơ ô ư and six accents which I’m gonna demonstrate on the letter a: a á à ả ã ạ. In exchange, we don’t have letters f, j and w. Gender doesn’t exist in our language nor conjugation of verb (that’s why it’s been a real struggle to learn Spanish).
Back to French, we do have a few words we “borrowed” from the French language, for example almost everything that belongs to a bike: pê-đan (pédale), sên (chaîn), ghi-đông (guidon), etc. And Chinese? We “borrowed” even more. In fact, we were writing in Chinese characters for a until the 19th century. The Vietnamese that you see now is only two hundred years old credited by a French guy called Alexandre de Rhodes (there are streets in Vietnam named after him). But curiously enough the first Vietnamese dictionary that this guy was working on was Vietnamese – Latin – Portuguese (WHAT?). I might go insane going in depth explaining the linguistics science behind it. Perhaps you might be interested in Wikipedia for more information?
7. Is your language similar to Chinese?
Grammatically yes, there are similar words and expressions with exact translation. But for someone who grows up only speaking Vietnamese without any Chinese background or knowledge, there’s zero chance to understand what a Chinese person says in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien or any other dialect. ZERO chance! Vietnamese – Chinese relation is incomparable to Portuguese – Spanish – Italian cousin-ship, for example.
… or is it like Thai? Khmer? Laotian?
No. I actually have no basic knowledge of neither language, which is a shame I think. We don’t learn about our neighbors enough, I must admit. Languages of the neighboring countries are not taught at school, exception with Chinese, Japanese and the trendy Korean. If you think about it, Japan and Korea are a lot further from Vietnam than Thailand, Laos and Cambodia!
8. Do you eat PHO everyday?
Sorry for the disappointment but I don’t and I don’t know anyone who eats phở everyday, either. I love phở but we have a million other wonderful food.
9. Do Vietnamese eat rice everyday?
Well yes, this is accurate and relevant. In fact, we love rice so much we are not only consuming but also producing large quantity of it. Vietnam exports anywhere from 4-8 million tons** of rice every year for the past decades and if math sounds foreign to you just remember that we’re amongst the top three rice’s exporters in the world. So of course we export a lot but we also consume a decent amount of it. It only makes sense that we love our rice. In Vietnamese, we say “ăn cơm“, which literally means “to eat rice”, to imply general food consumption even if there’s often no rice in the context.