Family is the most important aspect of life in Vietnam. It is much more interdependent and tight-knit than what many Western cultures are familiar with. The cohesiveness and health of the family unit is often a main imperative. The “family unit” itself generally includes a larger nexus of relationships. Aunts, uncles, grandparents and other extended relatives often have very close relationships and provide a central support system. Three generations normally live under the same roof. Therefore, to live alone can be an intimidating experience for Vietnamese people.The Vietnamese often feel a heightened sense of belonging and loyalty to their family. This may surpass just the present generation and see them feel an affinity towards ancestors of the past and those relatives yet to come in the future. Individuals are expected to serve their family’s interests before their own and show preferential treatment to fellow family members.
Families are recognised as having a collective face whereby the act of a single individual may impact the perception of the family name by others. In this sense, it is acknowledged that one must respect and protect the family reputation. In some cases, relatives may ostracise a family member who deeply dishonours them.
Within the household hierarchy, the patriarch and family provider is usually the father or eldest son. Traditional families uphold him as the ultimate decision-maker, whereas modern families include the mother and consult elders. The hierarchy of roles is quite obediently followed. Parenting styles are very disciplined and parents’ opinions can determine many of their children’s choices. However, generally as long as children do not break the ground rules, they have a lot of freedom in other aspects of their lives.
Traditionally, children do not keep any secrets from their parents as most information is shared within the family. However, children whose moral or ideological opinions differ from those of their parents will generally keep their views to themselves. Problems usually get addressed to the point that their resolution keeps the family together, but difficulty within the family is normally kept private from the public.
Age is the overriding factor that determines the level of respect and responsibility a person has within the family system.There is a strong cultural preference towards firstborns with an ensuing hierarchy observed among siblings. In the south of Vietnam (particularly along the Mekong Delta), siblings address each other by the pronoun that describes their age and relationship within the family – for example, “anh hai” (older brother two) or “chị ba” (older sister three). However, they would refer to each other’s personal name when speaking in English. The responsibility usually falls on the eldest child to help parents raise and mind younger siblings. Inheritance practices also see the firstborn get everything (including the family home); the firstborn child may then distribute possessions among other siblings as they see fit.
The cultural respect of age also requires that family members defer to elders. When arguments occur, this can mean defaulting arguments so that the older family members’ views prevail. Vietnamese children almost never reprimand or talk back to their parents without consequence. There are no retirement homes in Vietnam or sufficient government subsidies to support the elderly population. Therefore, families need to stay close-knit as parents depend on their children for aged care, usually the eldest son. This expectation remains for those Vietnamese families living in Australia.
The common cultural expectation is that the mother will fulfil domestic duties and care for the children. As many men in Vietnam have very labour-intensive jobs, husbands and sons are rarely expected to do chores around the home. This is not always the exact household dynamic; expatriate Vietnamese women are particularly involved in the workforce. The husband may also share more of the household work in educated and progressive families.
Nonetheless, Vietnamese women generally have a dual identity as mother and wife. Mothers have a lot of authority in their households and are highly respected by their children. They are often characterised as the strict ‘tiger mum’. On the other hand, as a wife, a woman is expected to be a subservient, doting partner to her husband.
Though gender roles are changing in the younger generations, men are still more dominant than women in the public sphere. It is not uncommon for a man to answer a question directed at his wife by someone outside the family. Male children are also often shown preference. For example, it is widely considered to be a misfortune not to have a son. Couples have been known to divorce over this; some men leave their wife and remarry a different woman who can give him a son that bears his own name and lineage.
Dating and Marriage
Dating practices in Vietnam vary depending on regions, education and family attitudes. Parents may not allow their children to date until they have finished their tertiary studies, but many begin dating in their late teens. In urban areas, this usually involves visits to coffee houses or movies as a couple. People in rural areas tend to socialise in groups rather than one-on-one dates.
Most people choose their partner as they would in Australia. However, remaining single as a lifestyle choice is less common. Men are usually married between ages 25 to 30, while the average ages for women are 23 to 26. To remain single or unmarried past these ages is unusual.
Marriage ceremonies are generally similar to what Westerners are familiar with. The traditional arrangement of marriages still prevails in rural Vietnam but has become less common. There are a few cultural beliefs that may influence the timing of marriage in some families. Certain years are considered luckier than others (see ‘Superstitions’ in Other Considerations), and if a family member dies, it is considered customary not to marry until at least one to three years after the death (depending on whom the person was).
After marriage, the wife usually moves into the husband’s home. Often, in rural areas, this will mean the couple moves into the household of the husband’s parents. In this case, the wife will come under the supervision of her mother-in-law and complete domestic duties for her. Divorce is common, but some traditional Vietnamese still consider it to bring shame upon the woman.
Sexuality is often a difficult topic for many traditional and older Vietnamese to discuss. Some Vietnamese families may avoid any discussion of sexual matters altogether and forbid nakedness around one’s family home. Brothers and sisters also rarely touch each other. While homosexual relationships are no longer criminalised, same-sex marriage is still not permitted and a strong stigma remains regarding homosexuality.