Vietnamese are extremely friendly and hospitable to foreigners. The culture is refined, with many subtle customs and nuances. While it’s respectful to do your best to fit into Vietnamese traditions, it’s also important to remember that locals are understanding of others who were not brought up in this culture. You don’t have to feel pressure to do everything perfectly upon arrival. Vietnamese will appreciate your efforts to follow local customs, but almost never take offense at mistakes or oversights.
Shoes are removed in most Vietnamese homes and some places of business. Sometimes your host will tell you you don’t have to take off your shoes, but this may be a form of politeness. If your host doesn’t take off his or her shoes, then you shouldn’t either, but if everyone else removes their shoes you should, too. To follow others’ lead in situations of etiquette is usually the best way to fit in to social situations.
Vietnamese primarily use chopsticks to eat, but some dishes are finger food. The table etiquette is much less strict than in the West—if you need to use your hands to eat a spring roll or shell a shrimp, it’s OK. You may also pick up your rice or soup bowl and bring it closer to your mouth, this is common practice. However, it’s very important to always lay your chopsticks flat when not using them. It’s extremely rude to stick them vertically in your rice or other dish—this evokes incense, which reminds Vietnamese of funerals and death, which are not appreciated as table mates.
Gifts are an important part of Vietnamese culture. If you’re invited to someone’s house, it’s considerate to bring a token of friendship—flowers or a small bag of fruit is fit for almost any occasion. For closer friends or important acquaintances a small item from your home country is always much appreciated.
“Come here!” Crooking your finger in the common Western way is a rude gesture in Vietnam, used only to call animals. To summon a waitperson, or a friend from across a room, turn your hand palm-down and bend all your fingers toward you together, as if brushing a coin towards yourself across a tabletop. This gesture will become instinctive once you’ve seen it on the streets a few times.