Being polite in Vietnam

After years of social exchanges with Vietnamese, Walter Pearson has figured out the niceties that separate polite from rude.

The Vietnamese for “please”, as we all know, is “xin”. My Vietnamese wife never uses the word with me. It is “Let me have a glass of water,” or “Cho em ly nöôùc, anh.” And “thank you” — “caùm ôn” — hardly ever passes her lips. “I don’t need to say thank you,” she says. “Khoâng caàn caùm ôn.”

A friend complained that his lover never thanked either. “I don’t ask for much,” he said, “But a ‘Thank you’ now and then would be nice.” He put this to his partner, who considered it quite deeply. I can see why she had trouble with the idea.

Please and thank you in Vietnamese carry implications that do not exist in English.

Xin implies asking for something that one may only be granted out of beneficence or where permission is needed. We generally don’t “xin” something to be provided by right or out of necessity — like a glass of water.

Caùm ôn is easily overdone. Caùm ôn, also written “caœm ôn”, could be translated as “I feel obliged.” Hence one is saying one has a sense of being in the other person’s debt. My friend’s lover did not expect to have to say thank you when she agreed to his invitation to dine or go away for trips because she did not feel she was indebted to him. In his mind “thank you” was a simple and somewhat ritual courtesy. To her it had a different meaning.

In restaurants, I do not hear people say caùm ôn to servers bringing food. Nor do we say xin when they bring a drink or get the bill. When leaving, it is not necessary to thank the staff. Quite correctly, a server might say caùm ôn to us. But we can relieve him of that sense of obligation by saying “Khoâng coù gì (or chi)” which is literally saying there’s nothing that requires thanking.

But if you want to be friendly — something Vietnamese greatly appreciate — you may say after paying the bill, if the server is someone you deal with regularly, “I’m going home now.” Not that we’d think where we are going is of any interest to, or business of, the server. It is just what Vietnamese do.

My friends at tennis often say, “I’ll go home first,” or “Toâi veàtröôùc.” People visiting my wife come and tell me they are going home. Younger people clasp their right hand over the left hand at the waist and bow slightly as they say it. Folded arms are a sign of respect.

I was once at a pre-school opening with some senior diplomats who were trying to be friendly with the kids and wanted to shake hands. The little ones were confused. I told the diplomats younger people do not shake hands with their elders. They “daï”. That is, they fold their hands across their waist, bow and say “Daï”. So I said to the little preschoolers, “Do you know how to daï?” And they did.

Another time, I was at home when a nephew came by. He said, “So you’re not doing a tour today, uncle?” Strange question, I thought. I was watching CNN and clearly not leading a tour group around some historical vestige. I replied frivolously, “No, or else I wouldn’t be here.” Later, my wife gently advised me I was being a bit rude. I explained I thought it was pretty obvious I was not taking a tour and found the question a bit odd. But she told me it was not meant to be a real question just a way of being polite.

So when people you might know slightly greet you on the street or in a restaurant or in the office by asking where you are going or what you are doing, do not think they are being intrusive. They are just being friendly.


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