Oh Behave! (or what not to do on your vacation in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos)
All tourists can sometimes be seen in a less than positive light. Even the majority of travelers who are generally lovely, polite and courteous can sometimes cause offense without even realizing it. Some things which are perfectly normal at home can cause great offense when traveling.
If you have a genuine desire to tread lightly on your vacation in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, not just on the places, but also the cultures you visit, here is a list of things that might help. You’ll make friends more easily and learn a little about local life as well.
Top down – the head is culturally important to take note
The head represents the highest point in Asia. When entering someone’s house, meeting the elderly or monks, remove your hat and add a slight head bow. Never pat, touch or pass anything over someone’s head.
Conversely the feet are considered the lowest point, so never use your feet to point, never sit with your feet pointing at other people or anything sacred like a family alter or religious symbol. Crossing your legs with your foot resting on your knee often results in this so should be avoided. It is also very rude to enter someone’s house with your shoes on and never, ever enter a temple without taking your shoes off, this is a cardinal no-no.
Pointing is a hard habit to break. In Asia any extended finger is likely to cause confusion or offense, in place of your finger, try an open hand. Use both hands when passing anything, like money or a business card. This shows full dedication to the task at hand and is a formal sign of respect.
The idea of “face” as in saving face or losing face is very important. Be very aware of how your actions reflect on others. Never lose your temper as this causes both you and the other person to lose face. Anything that will cause embarrassment to a local will cause a loss of face so always hold back behaviour that can be misconstrued as overly aggressive.
Negotiating: do as the locals do
While bargaining in markets is part of most Asian cultures, it is important to keep this notion of face in mind. The tone should always remain friendly and conciliatory, and both sides should leave the negotiation satisfied. Don’t get too heated over 50 cents. It can be hard not to get caught up in the excitement, but usually the amounts of money being discussed are very small.
The Mouths of babes
In the West it is rude not to tell proud new parents how amazing their new bundle of joy is, but in Indochina the opposite is true. There is a traditional belief that evil spirits like to claim beautiful babies, so complimenting them draws unwanted attention.
Do unto others
Pious clothing is seldom required but dress modestly and hide those shoulders and knees
When visiting sacred places like temples, it can be easy to forget that it is not just another tourist site. Act with the same respect that you would show in a religious institution back home. Take off your hat and sunglasses and always ensure you are wearing appropriate clothing. Covering your knees and shoulders is a safe bet and no low cut or revealing necklines. As a broadly conservative region, travelers should aim to avoid the limelight!
Some time ago there was a story about a British couple that were arrested for getting a little too cozy on a beach in Dubai. Maybe they were a little too intimate but Asia has similar social taboos and the only sex on the beach you should be indulging in is the cocktail. This extends to PDAs (Public Displays of Affection).
Eating street food in Hanoi
While most restaurants are happy to provide a fork, try and learn to use chopsticks before you go. It not only shows that you’ve made an effort but can be great fun. Don’t stab things with a chopstick, or leave your chopsticks stuck upright in your food. If you’ve ordered a steaming hot bowl of delicious pho, try to hold the spoon in your left hand. Don’t be afraid to raise your bowl up to your mouth. It is a common practice for chowing down rice!
Don’t worry, be happy
Relax and enjoy yourself, once of the great joys of traveling in Asia is the break from routine and complete change of custom and scenery.
Have you ever made a social faux pas when traveling? Share your stories below!