Culture, English, Expat, Non classé

Lost in Translation: culture differences

It’s almost two months we are here in beautiful Vietnam and life is sweet. I cross my fingers, but so far we haven’t had any major trouble and we haven’t regretted one second coming here: the temperatures are pleasant, the variety of food is convenient, taxis are ridiculously cheap and can therefore replace public transport very easily. This is a major positive point as I was very worried as to how I would be able to move around, and I’m sure taking the bus is even cheaper than a cab, but in my area, I just need to get out of my building for a taxi driver to nod at me and stop for me to get in. I mean, it’s difficult to beat that! The internet is fast – twice as fast as in Belgium; there are tons of cute little restaurants and cafés that would need at least a year to explore and they have baguettes. Yes, we are definitely in the honeymoon phase, and I know that some frustrations are bound to come our way some time soon.

In fact, to be completely honest, we have already had a few, and they were all related to cultural differences. We were of course expecting them, we are not stupid, but we weren’t expecting these! Here’s a list of things we have found awkward, rude or funny:


Some Vietnamese people speak English, lucky for us, and some of them speak it quite well. On paper. I mean, literally: they speak it quite well in writing. But when they try to communicate orally, that’s a whole different story. Their accent makes communication difficult at best, impossible sometimes, especially if you’re not used to hearing different accents like Alex. I have an advantage here because I’m a teacher, so I’ve heard all sorts of accents and my mind is trained to recreate meaning and order out of chaos. But for my dear husband, it’s really hard. I’ve seen him numbers of time go ahead and speak confidently, not expecting one second to face communication problems. He then looks at me with his eyes screaming “heeeelp”. I’m sure that with time he’ll get used to it and understand everything they say. It’s already great that these people make the effort of learning English of course! And to be honest, their level is higher than in other countries, such as Thailand for example.

On the other hand, learning Vietnamese seems painfully difficult. I have been repeating “thank you” for weeks and I always get this feeling from people’s face that I’m not saying it correctly. But to be honest I haven’t really had to time to study it properly and my Assimil method has been left untouched on my bookshelf… Shame on me.

Say Whaaaat?

That said, language structure and pronunciation aren’t everything. Indeed, even when both parts have good command of the language, effective communication isn’t guaranteed. Why? Have you ever heard the expression “lost in translation”? That’s exactly what I’m talking about. A language isn’t only a language. It’s a culture. And when you learn a second (or a third) language, its cultural load adds to your own cultural background. And that’s the part where communication is broken: on one side, our jokes aren’t funny to them and on the other side we could get offended at something that wasn’t meant to be offensive. The tone used isn’t the same, so it’s difficult to say if either speakers are asking a question, making a statement or sarcastically joking… I just assume that everything that could offend me is a joke and I laugh at it, but it’s not always that simple…

Good Manners, Bad Manners

Indeed, the cultural differences go beyond what people say, it also shows in what people do. This is probably what we have been the most surprised with: what Vietnamese people naturally do when invited to someone’s house. I don’t know where you come from, but in my country, when I invite people over, be it for a drink, a chat, a business talk, I expect them to sit on the couch or on a chair and to patiently wait for me to come back with a drink. If they want to use the bathroom, I expect them to subtly ask where it is. Is it the same in your country? Well, not here. Apparently, it’s broadly accepted for guests to open your fridge and help themselves. This makes me think of some accepted behaviors in the US or in Canada, where close friends and family members are allowed to go in the fridge or in the cupboards to fix themselves a sandwich. Well, here it’s like that even if you don’t know each other much. Also, asking where the bathroom is isn’t a requirement: they would just go and leave you wondering where they are in your house. On the positive side, they would also take care of their own litter and start sweeping the floor. I could take offense at this and think “What? Are you implying my house is dirty?“, but instead I think I will just stop cleaning and invite people over 😀 Just to make things clear, as much as these things surprised us at first, we now understand (after a good chat with a super-cool Vietnamese artist) that this is just good manners to them!


Something that’s more difficult for me to come to terms with is the general behavior in terms of  queuing anywhere. I mean, it’s the jungle. In most northern European countries, you can expect people to impatiently wait in line with a ticket in their hands (although some citizens seem better at this than others – then you would be allowed to get angry and tell them to go back to the end of the line, with a complimentary insult). Here, there’s no line, no ticket. People just go straight to where they are heading: the reception desk to book a tennis court, the lady at the supermarket who weighs your vegetables, the elevator, the cinema desk. They just go for it, sometimes pushing you out of their way as it was the most normal thing in the world to do, and unless you’re the feisty type, you’ll just accept it. I must admit Alex is much more able to deal with this than me. I hate confrontation and I am still naïve enough to believe that people who screw you over don’t really mean it. I know, I know, I should work on that. But I like my world of unicorns and rainbows…


How to greet people is another convention that has led to some awkward moments: I had read before coming here that Asian people aren’t really the touching type. In Belgium and France, we shake hands when we meet for the first time, or when we are in a business relationship. Other than that we kiss each other on the cheek. Sometimes ones, sometimes twice. Sometimes even three times. Yeah, I know, this may seem awkward to other cultures. Americans are huggers, the French are kissers. But you knew that already, didn’t you? Well here, I don’t know. When I meet someone I have met before, I just don’t know what to do. They just stand there and say hello. So I just imitate them and do nothing, except nodding. But to be honest, I have no idea if this is because this is the normal way of greeting someone or they are just afraid of offending me by doing anything else. I mean, I’m open to novelty: we could do a high five? A little dance? No? Nothing? Ok, fine…

What about my manners?

That said, I can only start to imagine how rude we can appear to the locals! I haven’t been invited to someone’s house yet, but it would be very difficult for me to just go to their fridge and make myself a mixed salad, or to start washing their windows. I know I must blend in, but I guess I’ll need a few more years for that…

PS: Dear Vietnamese readers, I’m very happy to be in your country and even if your cultures are different, I don’t think that one is better than the other. Also, you guys are awesome for inventing Cafè Sùa Dà! So thank you so much for that!



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