If you’re new to Vietnam, then a lot of things about Vietnam and Vietnamese culture are going to seem strange. Since I’ve lived here for a few months now, I’ve had the chance to ask questions about some of the things that I’ve found confusing about Vietnam. So read on to learn 10 weird things about Vietnam and their explanations.
Why are all the trees in Hanoi painted white? It’s not something I’d ever seen before moving to Hanoi and when I first noticed it, I thought it was a bit weird.
I’ve heard a lot of explanations for this, but the explanation which I most believe is bugs. The white paint is made of lime, or so I’ve been told, and it’s used to keep bugs from infesting the tree.
No Childrens’ Helmets
If you’ve seen Vietnamese traffic, then you’ve probably wondered the same thing that many Westerners wonder. Why, for the love of God, don’t children on the back of motorbikes wear helmets?
It’s apparently due to a belief that if a child wears a helmet it will stunt the growth of his head and his brain. Weird fact: for this same reason many Vietnamese boys apparently don’t wear underwear.
If you’re new to Vietnam, you might see men and women wearing matching tops and bottoms and wonder why people wear pajamas on the street during the day. It’s especially surprising when these day-wear items are in traditional pajama patterns like plaid or have lace on all the edges like nighties.
Well, there are a few reasons for this. First of all, Vietnamese people don’t consider this type of garb pajamas. I’ve been told that a lot of Vietnamese people don’t have a separate set of clothes for sleepwear. They simple wear their day clothes to bed, and then whenever they shower (in the morning or at night) they change into their next day’s set of clothes.
The second reason is practicality. In hot, humid, Vietnamese weather lightweight cotton tops and bottoms just make sense. These clothes are also cheap and affordable, making them a sensible choice for a lot of people.
Vietnamese houses are typically very tall and very narrow. Sometimes very, very narrow.
The reason for this is taxes. Houses in Vietnamese cities are taxed by the amount of space they take up facing the street. This is because the area facing the street can be used to set up a store and can be used to earn money. Therefore, people in Vietnam tend to build tall narrow houses to avoid the taxes for having a wide building with lots of street level space.
The result is tube houses which can be seen everywhere in Vietnam.
Why don’t a lot of Vietnamese houses have many windows?
Well, tube houses in Vietnam are often built right up against one another. There is no point in putting in a window, even if there is enough space for one because odds are that at any moment someone could decide to build a giant apartment building next to your house and your windows will just get covered up.
There are caged birds everywhere in Hanoi. There seem to be more birds than any other type of pet or animal, and when I first moved here I wondered why?
The main reason for this is the idea of bringing nature into the city. Hanoi is a big, noisy city and people bring birds into the ruckus to add the sound of nature. And there is something soothing about a birds’ song in the midst of all the engines.
These birds are very well-cared for by their owners who give them baths, feed them fresh fruit, and even bring them to bird clubs where they can hear and learn the songs of other birds, so when they come home they’ll be even more musical.
Stools and little chairs are everywhere in Vietnam. I had never wondered why that was and had just accepted it as the norm until a friend of mine asked me why so many shops used little chairs instead of big.
This got me thinking and with a little asking around I’ve found two answers I’m satisfied with.
First, if you have little chairs, then you can always put out more. If there is a busy night at your café, then have people squish together and set out a few more chairs for diners. You couldn’t do this with big tables and chairs, but little chairs are easy to set out and take away as demand requires.
Second, they’re easy to hide from the cops. Technically a lot of street food places and the space they take up on the sidewalk are illegal. Occasionally cops will go on the hunt for a fine or a bribe and try to make these little vendors pay up. But if all you have is tiny plastic tables and chairs, you can quickly scoop up all the evidence of your street side selling before the cops have a chance to threaten you.
If you’re from a lot of Western countries, then the idea of no kissing or even hand-holding in public might seem really bizarre, but in Vietnam you’ll hardly ever see even a hint of public affection, even from married couples.
Vietnam is a conservative country where almost as soon as a couple has declared themselves boyfriend and girlfriend their expected to marry. PDA is pretty taboo and the only place you’ll see it is in very secluded areas, like quiet lakes or empty parks. Some visitors might not notice the lack of PDA, but as someone who is used to handholding and hugs, the sudden complete disappearance of public affection was a bit surprising to me.
Vietnamese women don’t tend to wear a lot of makeup. If you’re a Western woman who wears a lot, you might get some stares.
I believe part of the reason for this is the luxury tax. In Vietnam, imported items have a luxury tax. That means that a tube of mascara that might be a few bucks in the States, will be three times as much in Vietnam. Therefore, if you’re planning to move to Vietnam, bring your favorite brands with you. It’s not impossible to buy beauty items here, but it’s definitely more difficult than it is outside of Vietnam.
If you’ve been to Vietnam, then maybe you’ve seen the fake money that gets stuck in gutters and flutters about loose in the streets. And you might be wondering why there is so much of this bizarre money around.
The answer is simple.
It’s ghost money.
In Vietnam, fake money is burned so that it can be used by ancestors in the afterlife. Occasionally this money escapes the fires and that’s while you’ll see it fluttering about in the street.
There are lots of things that once seemed strange to me about Vietnam, but which I now understand (or at least I think I do). Is there anything about Vietnam that has confused you in the past? Or are there any more explanations that you can think of for these 10 weird things about Vietnam and Vietnamese culture? Let me know what’s surprised and delighted you about Vietnam.