Correct behaviour
For Vietnamese people, correct behaviour is defined by Confucian precepts. In the past, the rules were observed to the letter. For example, in an age when polygamy was the norm, a woman’s subjugation was absolute, first to her father, then to her husband, and finally (if she was widowed), to her son. A wife was also subject to her mother-in-law. Nowadays, the code is no longer mandatory, and is observed in the spirit, rather than the letter of the Confucian code.
Except in rural areas, many of the extreme demands of Confucianism are considered outdated. Nevertheless, female subservience and obedience are still taken for granted by a large proportion of men and women - even in the cities.
Behaviour in the family
Children are not regarded as having ‘rights’. Daughters are expected to assist with household chores from an early age, to defer to men, to protect their virginity, and to regard marriage as automatic. Boys are often indulged, and encouraged to pursue ‘manly’ activities. Children share rooms with their brothers and sisters, and in poor families, with their parents as well. Nakedness and family discussion of sexual matters are taboo.
A woman’s obligation to care for her husband is unqualified. As an extreme example, a wife whose husband had contracted HIV from extra-marital sex or drug use would be expected to comply with her spouse’s wishes were he to want to make love to her without protection. Both families would be likely to support the man’s attitude were she to resist. When AIDS began to develop, she would be obliged to care for him until his death regardless of any risk to her own health.
A new wife is expected to live in her husband’s family house, and take over the responsibility for household chores from her mother in law, who then supervises her. Even if the couple move elsewhere, the daughter will be expected to resume her domestic role when she returns for a visit. ‘Modern’ husbands will be more relaxed, and even help in the house – more traditional spouses will expect meals to be cooked on time, the house to be clean and the children supervised as a matter of course, and may forbid his wife to leave the house for social purposes without his permission.
Behaviour in the workplace
Traditional Vietnamese organisations operate strict hierarchies. Individuals have defined roles and report to an immediate superior who will direct his or her work. Information is on a strictly ‘need-to-know’ basis – if a senior manager is away from work, only his superiors will know where the person has gone and is going to return. Deference to superiors is essential at all times – in a meeting, for example, the most superior person present will hold the floor and give permission to inferiors to speak. Disagreeing with a superior’s view would be a serious breach of etiquette. Much time is taken up with social ceremonies – tea drinking and circuitous discussions take precedence over work output.
Behaviour in society
Correct deference must be paid to the representatives of authority. Police officers, bureaucrats, and public officials have to be approached with appropriate humility, and should be given an appropriate gratuity for services rendered (usually in advance). Such behaviour, often regarded as corruption in the West, is a hangover from the Confucian tradition of public service being an honourable activity performed without direct recompense, but rewarded by grateful supplicants. In the past, the ‘reward’ was usually by payment in kind, but is now nearly always money.
Arguing in public and losing one’s temper is definitely incorrect behaviour, and leads to a serious loss of face.
The rules only apply to the family
Confucianism’s chain of deference omits any obligations towards other members of society outside the family unless they are of higher social status and connected through work or some similar activity. In 'western' cultures, not helping someone in trouble is condemned. In Vietnam, this is not so. For example, if a stranger is involved in an accident and is injured, or is in obvious distress for some other reason, a large crowd will congregate immediately, but rarely will anyone intervene or do more than watch.
Vietnam’s class divisions
Despite Vietnam’s communist orientation, there are clear divisions of status. The term ‘nha que’ (‘peasant’, or ‘country person’) is highly pejorative.
It is far easier to distinguish members of the artisan class from middle class Vietnamese than it would be in any developed country, even those with a tradition of class division, such as the UK. Vietnamese female peasants wear distinctive shapeless clothes with baggy trousers, often with a conical straw hat, and often cover most of their face with a handkerchief. Male peasants also wear shapeless clothes, often with a green ‘pith helmet’.
People who consider themselves ‘middle class’ distance themselves both physically and in dress and appearance. For women, long fingernails and pale skin are de rigueur to proclaim their superior status. They wear more fashionable clothes and either expose their hair or wear a variety of hats. On sunny days, middle class women often wear elbow-length gloves and cover their faces to avoid the tanning effect of the sun. Men sometimes grow a single long nail, usually the little finger, to show that they are not manual workers. Social interaction between the working and middle classes is virtually non-existent.