How to Be Culturally Sensitive While Interning in Vietnam

Posted by SE Vietnam - Student Exchange Vietnam

When it comes to travelling abroad, people often delve into the enjoyable sides of fun activities to do, unique local hot spots to check out, this is totally understandable since travelling is, for the most part, about having fun and make the most out of your time in a new place. That being said, as an intern, you are spending a bit more time in Vietnam, you might want to be less of an average tourist and more of an avid explorer of new cultures. Vietnam, like most other countries in Asia, is a culture rich with local traditions and norms, ones that might feel very strange or sometimes even go agaisnt what you, as a visitor from a different culture, might view as appropriate. At some points, you may feel like giving your opinion about how flawed a tradition in the country is and this is when a lesson about how to be culturally sensitive becomes very essential for you to survive thrive in the country during your internship.

Culturally Sensitive

Our student Jennifer Ho, getting along great with local kids during her internship in Vietnam

So what does it really mean to be culturally sensitive?

To make it simple, being a culturally sensitive traveler is being polite according to the rules of the country you’re visiting so that you don’t offend people. Cultural sensitivity is important because by doing that, you choose to leave your prejudice behind and come to learn about the culture rather than showing superiority over it. 

Being culturally sensitive will also almost guarantee you respect, warm treatment from Vietnamese and if you are really lucky, a kind invitation into our culture, these are things that not all tourists find themselves surrounding with when they go abroad. How rewarding is that!

Here are six easy ways to become a more culturally sensitive traveler next time you intern in Vietnam:

Make Effort to Learn Basic Polite Expressions in Vietnamese

Anywhere you go, you will see that nothing makes locals happier and shows basic politeness better than being able to speak a few words of the language in the country you will be staying. Let’s face it, Vietnamese is hard to master the pronunciation and even we locals know that, that is why any attempt to take up this challenging language is appreciated by most Vietnamese. Learning simple phrases like “hello – xin chào,” “please – làm ơn,” “excuse me/sorry – xin lỗi” and “thank you – cảm ơn” not only can it be a great conversation starter, it also shows that you are respectful and are courteous enough to learn.

Even if you’ve only mastered a few key words, it can make all the difference in terms of establishing rapport with the locals you encounter. Pack your phrase book, learn the key words you’ll need to get by, and start chatting!

Learn Basic Table Manners

Vietnamese are very proud of their food culture and you may sooner or later get invited to a family meal by your co-workers or friends during your internship here. Therefore it is necessary to prepare yourself with these basic Vietnamese table manners:
internship in Vietnam
Our intern – Nick Parmeter having dinner with his local host family
  • The oldest person in the table always eat first and the younger follows, as a courtesy, the oldest one will invite you – the guest to start eating first. 
  • Never use your hands to pick up toothpicks (unless it is covered in paper or plastic), instead when someone asks for a toothpick, just give them the whole container.
  • For some families, meals are still eaten on the floor, but this doesn’t mean that it is any less sanitary than with a table, the eating area is often cleaned and people arrange a mat to put dishes on.
  • Most Vietnamese use chopstick during their meal and share foods, not being able to use a chopstick can cause quite a mess since it can be hard to take food from the shared dishes. You can ask a family member to show you how to use chopstick (which they will be more than happy to do).

Learn what you can ahead of time, but if you find yourself confused, ask questions. People are generally happy to explain how things work if you ask nicely. You might even find that sharing a meal is one of the easiest and best ways of getting to know people and the culture better.

Clean Up After Yourself

This one should go without saying, but don’t leave a mess behind you when you travel. When you drink a bottle of water or eat a snack while you’re out and about, make sure that you dispose properly of any trash that you generate.

This is doubly true if you’re visiting a natural area or monument. The expression “leave no trace” is common for travelers who enjoy the outdoors, and you should travel with this mantra in mind. If you’ve traveled hundreds of miles to see something, do your best to keep it nice for yourself and fellow future travelers.

Be Mindful Where You Take Pictures and Ask for Permission if You can

When you come to a foreign country, everything seems like new to you, the way people dress, the traffic, the street vendors. We understand that you don’t want to miss taking these pictures to show the folks at home. However, be mindful when you do, for your own safety and for locals’ convenience. For example, standing on the streets during rush hours taking pictures and videos while people try to maneuver around you to get home is not recommended. Or taking photos of random people without asking because they look ‘local’ or ‘ethnic’ or because they are wearing traditional clothes can be frowned upon.
internship in vietnam 2
You might wanna take pictures with locals in their traditional costumes, but make sure to have their permission first

People don’t necessarily want to be photographed while riding on a motorbike, working, cooking, shopping for produce, or otherwise engaging in their normal day-to-day activities. If someone does let you take their photo, the most polite thing to do is to then show them the photo you just took. This is a great way to bond with the subject of your photo, and often works wonders to convince them to let you take more photos.

Dress According to Local Norms

If you are living in Vietnam’s major cities like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, you would not have to worry too much about dressing when you go out (say if you are wondering if your clothes are too revealing). However, it is a totally different story when it comes to dress code at work or if you happen to visit a home of a friend or co-worker. Usually, the company/organization you work for will give out dress code and you just have to follow that. If you are visiting a local home, however, make sure you wear appropriate clothing that is not too short or too revealing. See-through, short shorts for example are considered inappropriate.  

Dressing appropriately is especially important when it comes to visiting religious places like temples, pagodas. The majority of Vietnamese worship their ancesters and go to a pagoda or temple and these are often the places that you most want to see as a traveler, make sure to wear long pants or dresses that cover the knees and shirts that cover your shoulders and belly.


Now, put all our tips into use and have an amazing time in Vietnam!

Eventhough you might feel a bit overwhelmed because there are so many things to pay attention to, however, remember that they’ll go a long way to helping you enjoy your time and thrive in Vietnam or other countries that you will be working or traveling to in the future. And the more culturally sensitive a traveler you are, the more you’ll be paving the way for other travelers to explore the world and enjoy the same destinations.


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