With its curious blend of communist ideology and Confucianism, Vietnam can be a confusing place for first-time visitors. However, an important element of the society is its tolerance, which means you are likely to be forgiven if you show ignorance of Vietnamese ways. Nevertheless, most visitors like to avoid upsetting locals, so it pays to keep a few points of Vietnamese culture in mind while in Saigon in order to make your stay a smooth one.
Few visitors from Western countries, where communism is demonised, will need to be warned to avoid conflicts with the police or soldiers. In fact, such conflicts are unlikely as the presence of such state representatives on the streets of Saigon is minimal.
Still, you need to remember that places like military installations are sensitive subjects and if you start taking pictures of such things, you could get yourself in trouble. This does not include places like the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum, where you are free to photograph war relics that relate to the Vietnamese victory over its oppressors.
One aspect of Confucianism is that it is very conservative, and while the local people may appear to be casually dressed, there are certain places such as temples where visitors are expected to be respectfully attired. This means covering your shoulders and legs (no sleeveless shirts or shorts) and removing your shoes before entering the main building. As with every country, when you find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, it pays to watch carefully how the locals behave and imitate their behaviour to avoid causing offence.
The conservative element in Vietnamese culture also means that it is very uncomfortable with open gay behaviour by men and women. The tolerant element of the culture means that gays are not persecuted, but there are few gay-friendly bars in Saigon and the majority of the city’s inhabitants still consider homosexuals to be as undesirable as prostitutes or drug dealers.
While you may occasionally witness Vietnamese arguing with each other, as with many Southeast Asian countries Vietnam puts a premium on controlling your temper. So if you find yourself getting angry, say with a tour agent for not providing services as advertised, take a deep breath and state your case in a calm, reasonable manner. This is much more likely to bring a satisfactory response than raising your voice and threatening the person concerned.
Though most visitors have no difficulty adapting to Vietnamese culture, one area where many feel uneasy is eating in local restaurants. Don’t be surprised if you see customers discarding bones and tissues on the floor, as this is accepted practice and you’ll probably get a smile if they see you doing the same.
In the same way, don’t be shy about lifting your bowl of rice or noodles to your mouth and shovelling it in with your chopsticks or slurping loudly. Such behaviour is a sign of someone enjoying their food and will probably please the cook.
As for tipping, it’s unheard of in basic hole-in-the-wall places, though staff in restaurants that cater to tourists will appreciate it if you leave a few thousand dong. Likewise, if you are happy with the service given you by a tour guide or driver, any tip you offer will supplement their meagre salary.