Enjoying cultural differences ~ Hoi An, Viet Nam

Cultural differences have the potential to delight and entertain, and occasionally to frustrate.

Usually, there is an arc where cultural differences initially appeal and, as one lives longer in one country, and the initial novelty wears off, frustrations may arise. When that happens, it may be time to move on…

Fortunately, we are nowhere near the latter in Hoi An, Viet Nam but rather, we are amused and occasionally baffled. We enjoy, even revel in cultural differences.  They add richness as well as humor to our global trek.   Of course, we understand that, no matter where we travel, people are more similar than they are different, at the core.

The more we travel the more we are aware that stereotyping has negative effects and trying to make generalizations about populations is neither smart, nor helpful in understanding. So our observations are not about the whole country’s population.  They are about our personal encounters and conversations with locals, in Hoi An.

Here are a few of our current favorite “cultural differences” in (Hoi An), Viet Nam.


                                                   The sun is not a friend

Even if the days of lathering oil in order to bake under a hot sun for hours are pretty much gone or at least, the danger is now recognized in the West, the Vietnamese aversion to exposure to sun is taken to quite a different level. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Hoi An’s motorbike traffic.

The residents of Hoi An are not unique in their use of face masks to protect their faces, but they take the concept of protection from the sun very seriously. It is not only about protecting from the dangers of the sun, it is also about preserving a lighter complexion, which is valued, whereas having a sun tan is deemed as unhealthy and unattractive.

In full heat, one sees motorbike riders (especially women) covered from head to toe, with head cover, sun glasses, masks, zipped sweaters, gloves and socks. A successful sun protection outfit will leave not a sliver of skin exposed.



A fashionable young woman has parked her bike and is walking to work. No skin showing from head to toe ~ which goes to show that one does NOT need to show skin in order to be sexy!


This woman on her very modern motorbike, initially looks  “alien”-like to us. Helmet, sunglasses and face mask merge into one. But these visuals quickly become our “new normal”.


A common practice is to cover ones clothes with another full body length garment, or a wrap around type of skirt, (fabric and velcro), that is used just to commute on one’s bike and then removed.


Mother and son protected from the sun. Starting “good habits” at an early age.


It’s always fun visuals when our scooter stops at a red light. Seems that nearly 90% of the riders have face masks on.


A display of a variety of colorful face masks at the fruit market.  Everyone wears ’em, everyone has a variety of colors and designs. More than anywhere else in Asia, Hoi An corners the market on colorful face masks. Note the toe-socks, with a division for the big toe.


Face mask, printed sweatshirt, printed pants and a huge bright yellow and red shopping basket ~ all in front of the brightly colored Chinese temple, lanterns and all.  It is easy to trace Hoi An women’s proclivity for bright and colorful clothing when one considers the equally bright and colorful ancestral architecture.


It is really hot midday this time of the year in Hoi An. The hotter it is, the stronger the sun, the more the need to be vigilant about covering up. Toe socks and gloves finish off the environmentally friendly look!


Ahhh, finally it is sundown and the locals can safely flock to the beach to cool off. During the day, the beach is empty save for a few (crazy) foreigners like ourselves.


It’s a full moon as the day draws to a close. There is NO beach in the world we have ever been to, that is full of people in the evening enjoying the sun free time. Makes total sense, but not something one sees in many places.


It is quite a beautiful scene at night with the moon shining on the ocean and the glow of little lanterns set out on woven mats.  Night time picnics under the moonlight.


                                The tables and chairs are manufactured in Lilliput

To be sure, the average Vietnamese man or woman is  smaller in stature than the average westerner. Most Vietnamese people are also on the slender side, due to their healthy diet which does not include any dairy and is packed with greens and herbs.

But as well, there is a cultural proclivity for small, very low to the ground, Kindergarten style seating. Makes for some interesting visuals when a foreign diner comes along…And yes, Vietnamese people have a great sense of humor and do not fail to see the humor in an oversize person squeezing onto an obviously too small seat.


Lunch time sees locals huddled, low to the ground, over pho…



A little beer, served in a bowl, certainly helps Ben get comfy on his Lilliput seating.  Channeling his inner Gulliver.


Peta waiting for her breakfast Cua Lua ~ on the prototypical red plastic stools.


                                      One’s sense of hygiene is entirely cultural

Much as every nation thinks its definition of hygiene is THE definition of hygiene, our Green Global Trek has taught us  that this is simply not the case.

The most obvious illustration of this is with regards to the Asian custom of removing one’s shoes upon entering a home. This differs from most westerners’ comfort, walking in from the street’s and its inherent dirt, and bringing it into one’s home.

Or, a westerner’s notion that, to take a bath one just gets undressed and plops in an awaiting warm bath. This is a horrific concept to a Japanese, who consider soaking in one’s own dirt to be a repulsive concept, and who take showers to get clean, before getting in a bath to soak.


So how does this cultural difference about hygiene manifest itself in Hoi An? To a Vietnamese, having one’s inner ear canal cleaned is an obvious and regular hygienic requirement. To them, it is surprising that westerners simply let ear wax accumulate for years.

And so, when in Hoi An… Ben has his ears cleaned, which is a natural service of most barber shops. Haircut, beard trim, and ear cleaning… Out come the long metallic micro-scrapers that will go inside the ear canal, scrub the outer walls, before the ear cleaner expertly goes in to remove the residue, capturing his catch on the customer’s chest, so as to prove just how badly needed this treatment was (and no, it does not hurt (but rather feels a tad invasive, for the uninitiated).


Not the kind of sign one sees in western countries outside a barber shop: Haircut, shave, clean ear.


First the shave and the haircut….

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And then the deep internal ear canal cleaning. All part of the basic grooming regimen. Note the several instruments held in his left hand.


                                                     Risk tolerance is cultural

It seems that one’s definition of risk is very much a cultural one. Nicaragua had already taught us a thing or two about the potential for a bicycle to transform into a family transport system, but in Viet Nam, the culture of “carry one, carry all, carry anything” extends to the ubiquitous motorcycle.


Look carefully…. This is a family of five people. There is a little girl in front and two more kids behind the driver. A whole family transport system.


Here a mom and her two children wait on their motor scooter to pick up street food at the curb. Notice the little boy in the front sitting on his own small chair.


This photo is pretty typical of the large loads that get carried on motor scooters.

One sees many motorcycles carrying two adults and two children. One sees children literally sleeping, leaned over the driver ~ how they don’t fall off is amazing!  Babies are balanced precariously to our western eye… And there are all sorts of lethal combinations of goods and people on the roads.


A young dad and his baby stop to make a purchase at a market vendor.  Safety seats? nah…

The photograph below takes the cake ~ a motorcycle, speeding at a good 50 km per hour, with the back passenger balancing a large glass sheet between the two riders.  We shudder at the thought of the glass debris, should a bump in the road catch the rider off guard…


We were traveling behind these guys with their pane of glass and were careful to keep quite a distance, until they slowed down at their destination.

                                                  Can’t account for taste (in any culture)

                                     Or… what Hoi An tailors think appeals to westerners.

It is always enlightening to see what merchants think that their clientele may want.

In Hoi An, one of the world’s best places for tailor-made clothing, one can walk in a shop in the morning, and leave in the evening with a full ward-robe, custom tailored, including however many visits may be required to get the item to fit just right.

The Hoi An tailor culture goes far back ~ maybe 200-300 years… As far back as written records go, in the form of early travelers’ reports, there seems to have been a vibrant cloth-making cottage industry in Hoi An.  To this date, Hoi An tailors are efficient, low cost and  (mostly), high quality. They can typically copy just about any item of clothing, be it from a photograph or from a customer bringing a specific favorite outfit to be duplicated.

Perhaps the suits below are “tongue in cheek”… or perhaps they think that these suits would appeal to western tourists… and who knows, maybe they do?! In any case, nice threads there!


Modern pop art on a suit…


Gold and black suit, anyone?


Our personal favorite is this vintage style floral suit.

         What are some of YOUR favorite cultural differences, encountered during your travels?

               We love hearing from you. ~ Do share your thoughts and comments with us.


36 thoughts on “Enjoying cultural differences ~ Hoi An, Viet Nam

  1. Stephanae V. McCoy

    “People are more similar than they are different, at the core”–I love this!! I agree with the philosophy on sun protection although I’d struggle with being covered head to toe in the heat, especially if a hot flash were to happen. While I find this aspect very interesting I think the ear cleaning at a barber shop is fascinating.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      The differences are interesting and fun, but the similarities are what bind us. It never ceases to amaze us how the hotter it is, the more clothes are piled on. I asked quite a few Vietnamese women “Aren’t you hot in all those clothes?” and they looked back at me in surprise at the question and affirmed that no, they were not hot!

      I tried the ear cleaning last time we were there and while it was a strange sensation at the time of cleaning, it really did feel great afterwards.


  2. Chris Cone

    Wonderful post Peta!. I always enjoy reveling in cultural differences. You are lucky to have Ben, accomplished model that he is , along, to accompany your photographs. Love the ear cleaning!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Chris. So glad you enjoyed this post on cultural differences.
      Ah yes I feel very lucky indeed!


  3. Johnny Oh

    Toe-socks at the street market. Begs the question: Why wear socks at all, in a climate warm enough for flip-flops? But of course….sun protection. As for the little tables and chairs, it must feel like those precious times when you’re invited by a youngster for make-believe tea. Always great to express your Inner Child….and your Inner Gulliver.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Hi John,

      The mini seats and tables are definitely reminiscent of days lng gone…ie being a kid. But one quickly adjusts and gets used to the new reality size and it becomes the norm.


    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Lex.

      I love just standing on the sidewalk and watching thr motorcycle traffic go by, just because it is all so “different” to what we are used to as westerners. And still, even after seeing it so many times, I marvel at the families stacked or balanced together on a scooter!


  4. Bun Karyudo

    I was very interested to read about those different aspects of life in Vietnam. The families balanced on motor scooters and the ear cleaning service at barber shops might raise a few tourist eyebrows, but the only truly terrifying thing was that flowery suit.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Ha ha Bun, I love you!

      I sent a photo of that flowery suit to one of my sons while we were in Hoi An, suggesting that he might like that suit to wear that to work (in Chicago)??


    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Hi Tina,
      The great thing about Hoi An is its “the gift that keeps giving.” For instance, we started discovering a richly colorful region immediately outside of Hoi An, reachable by motorbike plus boat. Have you been to Thsn Ha for instance? The nearby fish market and ceramic center? Or “My Son”, the Theravadic Buddhist archaeological site? Both fascinating and easily reached from Hoi An.


  5. carolinehelbig

    What a fun post…I didn’t know about the ear hygiene. Is the “Asian Squat” common in Hoi An? I was amazed throughout Indonesia how people can sit in squats for hours to socialize, eat, sell things…I can do it in yoga class, for a few minutes, but that’s it!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      The “Asian squat” is ubiquitous. Our friend and one time host, the organic farmer in Tra Que, squats for hours on end, while working in the vegetable garden whilst singing melodic folkloric songs. The market sellers are often perched in a squat to sell their produce.

      I think the more often Westerners do it, the easier it becomes although yoga is probably the most common place where westerners might discover the squat.


    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it… I waited to try it once I saw how Ben fared. He lived to tell the story, so I went for it as well!


  6. Anita and Richard @ No Particular Place To Go

    Your post had me laughing, Peta, especially the ear cleaning regime as my doctor just told me I needed to use a bit of olive oil for my own. I especially like the idea that you can visually inspect what a good ear cleaner can produce! 🙂 Like you we spent a lot of time in Nicaragua and were constantly amazed at the “family sedan” and travel “Nica” style. The cultural differences sometimes can be baffling but these are the things that make travel interesting, educational and fun and show us that we are more alike than different! Anita

  7. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

    From B2:

    “In a certain sense I still live vicariously through your blogs. I love the complete zest for live on this beautiful planet that you two explore and reap! Stay open to the wonderment that surrounds us.”

  8. forkwardthinkingfoodinista

    Hi, Fab blog! I am still in the very early stages – 4 months old. Just making efforts to link in with fellow bloggers to improve our followers and get the word out there for us both. I would appreciate you having a peek at my blog, as I have published several posts. Feel free to like, comment, follow or just take a peek. Thank you 🙂

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Hi Melanie,
      Thanks for stopping by our blog. I will most certainly stop by yours and see what you are up to.

  9. Liesbet

    Great in-depth look into Hoi An, Peta. The main thing I remember of the city from many years ago is the amount of motorcycle traffic and how one had to just trust “the system” and jump into the chaos to cross the road, counting on everyone else to go around you. And, they do. It is amazing there are not more accidents. I remember the small furniture as well.

    A cultural difference I have been thinking about lately, is the mandi in India. Every toilet and shower stall has a corner “water reservoir” with a plastic container, used to shower, flush and clean…

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Liesbet.

      Yes, crossing the street in cities in Viet Nam is very much like inserting oneself into the flow of a river. We have never seen an accident. The simple rule that the person who is ahead always has right of way, is extremely effective. You never have to worry as a motorcycle driver about anything that happens behind you. Rather, focus is on being alert to the fluid movements of traffic right in front of you.

      Thats a good cultural difference to remember…the “shower system” …and then of course theres the “gun bum” nozzle instead of toilet paper.



  10. Sue Slaght

    Peta what a fascinating post! I think I am sweating just watching all the covering of skin in the blazing heat! The beach scene is remarkable. Understandable but remarkable for our normal.
    I must add that in Canada the custom is to take one’s shoes off before entering a home. I realize it is different in the US. I think perhaps from our changeable weather patterns perhaps?
    How about that ear wax removal. The nurse in me had a little shudder at the sight of steel objects being inserted in the barbershop. Just another normal in their culture.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Sue. I never knew that Canada also has the shoes off inside the house cultural norm. It certainly makes a lot of sense.

      The question for you is, would you TRY the process? ( Knowing that it is based on an ancient Chinese practice.


  11. Danny

    What an interesting list of cultural differences! I think the first one you mentioned is particularly interesting – so many people in the West want to be out in the sun and get a tan, while the mindset in other regions of the world is completely opposite!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Danny, so glad you enjoyed reading our compendium of cultural differences.
      The sun issue is such a big difference ~ and the interesting oart is that it relates more to beUty than to health, for Vietnamese women.


  12. estelea

    What an awesome post! Love your pictures, and yes, this is Asia. I adore the costumes, can you believe that people can wear that without being ridiculous? it is all a question of mindset and attitude, right?
    How was the ear cleaning? I saw that in India but never dared trying..
    And the pic of you in this resto reminded me of our holidays in Nepal. My husband is super tall too, he was feeling exactly like a Gulliver as well. For a petite like me, I just felt like a model 😉 Great tour, thanks a lot! Will definitely be back for more

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Estelea!

      If you like this commentary on cultural differences you will enjoy the most recent two entries on culture bending fashion habits.

      The ear cleaning feels a bit invasive at first but it does a great job. Definitely recommend a try.

      A bien tot!

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