. . . the Issacharites, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do . . . . 1 Chronicles 12:32 (HCSB)
Understanding the people, geography and especially the culture of the Vietnamese people is a critical component as we seek to effectively share the love of Jesus Christ. In the short space here, it is not possible to give a completely thorough description of Vietnamese culture – but here are a few key aspects of the culture that we feel are particularly important. You are also encouraged to view other resources as highlighted on this site or do some searches and find more information elsewhere.
1) Not Mono-Cultural
There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to reaching the peoples of Vietnam, but the message and need remains the same across all. With significant populations of fifty-four distinct people groups physically residing within the country, some variations in culture, norms, customs and social interaction is assured. There are also regional variations (north, south, central, coastal, delta) that can come into play as well as typical socio-economic differences. One of the most prevalent influences on Vietnamese culture historically has been Chinese culture.
The website for the Vietnam Embassy in the U.S.A. addresses this mixed cultural aspect in this way:
It can be said that there were three layers of culture overlapping each other during the history of Vietnam: local culture, the culture that mixed with those of China and other countries in the region, and the culture that interacted with Western culture. The most prominent feature of the Vietnamese culture is that it was not assimilated by foreign cultures thanks to the strong local cultural foundations. On the contrary, it was able to utilize and localize those from abroad to enrich the national culture.
2) Confucian Culture
With the impact of Chinese culture comes hand in hand the impact of Confucianism on Vietnamese society. Confucianism is a philosophy or set of behaviors and ethics that define the position of the individual in society. The emphasis is on the ‘obligations’ of the individual toward others which is based upon the relationship between them. On the positive side, Confucianism stresses duty, loyalty, honor, filial piety, respect for elders and seniority, integrity and sincerity. From a negative aspect, Confucian culture can hinder love and compassion for others regardless of their station in life and promote only reciprocal relationships. Exaggerated filial piety and an unwillingness to ‘step out of the norm’ can also provide a greater barrier for an individual to be their first in their family or network of relationships to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
3) Face, Family and Group
Similar to other Asian cultures, the concept of face – a mixture of reputation, prestige, responsibility and acting according to the norms appropriate to one’s place in society – is very important for understanding Vietnamese culture. This type of responsibility also closely correlates with the focus on family and group in the culture. Strong, close knit nuclear and extended families are common and making decisions based on the expectations of family and group is prevalent.
4) Effects of War, Tragedy, Struggle and Conflict
Many foreigners and likely all Americans will refer to it as “The Vietnam War”. For the Vietnamese it is “The American War”. Any visit to Vietnam today will bring many visual reminders of the war from the 60’s and 70’s. Other less visual negative effects remain to be sure but by and large much of the population seems to have tried to put that major conflict behind them. This is evidenced at least in part by the rapidly growing relationship between Vietnam and the U.S. – politically, economically and even militarily. The American/Vietnamese War however is only one of many times of war, tragedy and conflict for this country. In 1944-45, when the population of Vietnam was only around 20-25 million, close to 10% of the population – over 2 million people – died as a result of famine. Foreign powers occupying Vietnam also include France, Japan and the Chinese who ruled over the country as one of their own provinces for 1,000 years. More recently, the Chinese again attacked the country of Vietnam in 1979. Internal conflict has also been common including civil war as well as the Vietnamese overthrow of the Cham peoples from the center part of the country, the Khmer peoples from the south and other military advances into Laos and Cambodia. Even just the struggle for existence, especially within or along the mountainous central region, has left it’s mark on the collective culture of Vietnam. Through all of these, a perseverance and pragmatism has emerged that is evident in the personality and attitude of most all Vietnamese.
4) Effects of Development and Modernization
The economic policy of “Doi Moi” or “Rennovation” was implemented by the government of Vietnam in 1986, ushering in a new era with a more open focus on a market economy. Current day Vietnam continues on a rapid rise of economic growth as well as commercial and infrastructure development. From the year 2000 to 2010, the basic economy tripled with Vietnam’s overall economy going from USD $27 billion to $79 billion and the GDP per person went from USD $351 to $902. With this development and growth there is an accompanying shifting of values and much growth in excessive materialism. A recent survey of Vietnamese between 15 and 64 found that 7 in 10 believe that success is defined by their job and do not view the ‘showing off’ of wealth as a negative. Nearly 50% of respondents to the survey said that money was the most important thing in their life.
5) Culture of Youth
Over half of the current population of Vietnam is under the age of 35. That is 45 million people who were born after reunification at the ending of the American-Vietnam War in 1975. This young demographic has many implications. Recent surveys shows this younger population to be characteristically optimistic which impacts the country as a whole. This youthful demographic has not gone unnoticed by the commercial sector and drives much of the multinational corporate attention on Vietnam. The youth of Vietnam are being heavily courted to develop brand loyalty (and the younger generation is in turn translating consumer awareness to their parents). The younger demographic of Vietnam further brings a greater focus on health and fitness (physical, mental and relational); technology; education and entertainment.