A Cross-cultural Glimpse of the Vietnamese People in Canada

Nguyen Vinh Thuong

The article A Cross-Culture Glimpse of the Vietnamese People in Canada” was originally written by TNVT in 1992. It was published by Ban Viet (Friends of Viet Nam) in November 1994, issue No. 23, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Ban Viet was published monthly by “Vietnamese Association – Toronto”, Toronto, CanadaThis article was revised on October 15th. 2013.


Under the terms, of the Geneva Accord, signed in 1954 in Switzerland, Vietnam was divided into two parts, after being a French colony for almost 100 years. The Northern half of the country, from the 17th Parallel, was placed under the control of the Communist regime that belonged to the Third International Communist Movement. The Southern half of country, from the I7th Parallel, was placed under the control of the Non-Communist Nationalists.

However, the civil war was not yet over. On April 30th, 1975 the Sài Gòn Government of South Vietnam fell, and the Hà Nội government of Northern Vietnam took over the South. Once again, Vietnam was one unit under the control of the Communist regime.

Since 1975 the South Vietnamese people have not been able to adapt politically to the new Communist regime. As a result, many hundreds of thousands escaped from Vietnam to go to some of the neighboring third world countries. There were also many North Vietnamese who escaped from the Country.

Many Vietnamese people who lived in the refugee camps in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines were approved to immigrate to Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The major reason for the Vietnamese wanting to immigrate to Canada was that they considered Canada to be a land of honey and freedom.

One of the main problems that the original Vietnamese immigrants faced when in Canada, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was their inability to understand the English language. The “culture shock”, the difference between the Vietnamese culture and value system as compared to the Canadian cultural value system, was hard for the Vietnamese settling in Canada. Fortunately, the Canadian government helped them in terms of settling in Canada.


1. Vietnamese Main Characters:

a) Industriousness, combined with thrift, patience, determination, and endurance:

This allows a Vietnamese farmer to plow his field all day under the hot sun, walking slowly behind his water-buffalo, ankles deep in the mud of the rice patties. It‟s also, the Vietnamese insist, recalling the recent Vietnam War, the trail that allowed a whole army to be supplied bit by bit, like ants, by provisions carried on the backs of men and women who had to travel on foot for hundreds of miles over perilous jungle trails. These characteristics mean the quiet willingness to do things the hard way when the hard way is the only way possible52.

b) Love of Learning:

Vietnam is a small country where the literacy rate is a hundred percent. Many great scholars and scientists devoted their entire lives to the pursuit of knowledge and the investigation of matters. The love of learning, which Vietnamese talk about, is actually a traditional, deep, and almost subconscious respect for wisdom and learning. The meaning of the love of learning is to strive to seek and never yield in the pursuit of knowledge. This characteristic has influenced the Vietnamese way of life53.

c) Respect for Teachers:

All Vietnamese students respect their teachers. They consider their teachers as faultless people; and they are taught to obey their teachers. Parents are also to respect their children‟s teachers. Teachers in Vietnam are not rich, but they hold a high moral role in society54.

There is a Vietnamese saying: “If you learn one word from one person, he is your teacher. Even if you learn half of the word from one person, he is also your teacher.” (Một chữ cũng là thầy, nửa chữ cũng là thầy.)

d) Love of Country:

Most Vietnamese love their native country. They tend to sacrifice their individual interests and their different sects for the common good of their country. They also tend to sacrifice their lives for the independence and freedom of their country when the boundaries of their country are threatened by invaders55.

Now, millions of Vietnamese live in other countries, but they cannot forget their own nationality. They feel homesick “because there is no place like home.” The more they live abroad, the more they love their country. The more they remember their country, the more they wish to return to visit or to be resident. As an English poet, William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), wrote:

“I travelled among unknown men, 

In lands beyond the sea;

Nor, England! Did I know till then 

What love I bore to thee.”…

(W. Wordsworth, I travelled among unknown men.)

2. Child Rearing Practices:

The family is the only group that really matter for the Vietnamese. In the family, the father is responsible for rearing the children. The father works to provide food, shelter and education for the whole family. The father is a role model for the children. Parents want their children to be educated, as well as to become a good person in society. Parents expect their children to do something good for the family. When the father dies, the mother becomes the head of the family by virtue of her age and authority. Her greatest concerns and responsibilities are in helping family members to develop a closeness and sense of responsibility for one another. She is expected to be strong and to be in finding resources to help others in need56.

3. Social Role in Vietnamese Culture:

a) Males versus Females:

In families and in society, males are respected more than females. People prefer boys to girls. The husband has the most power in the family. However, when the husband dies the wife takes over as a head of the family. Since the French and the Americans have influenced Vietnam in the 20th century, males and females are almost equal57.

b) Elders:

In the Vietnamese culture, society respects the Elderly people. They feel the Elder has many life experiences, knows the tradition of the nation, and knows the custom and the culture. At a social event people place Senior at a respected place. When they want to do something, they always ask Seniors for advice, especially when the country is threatened by a foreign enemy58.

c) Children:

In the family, the children are to absolutely respect their parents, especially their father. The father has power over the children. The parents often make the decision on the child‟s marriage. When the parents are older the children are expected to take care of them59.

d) Marriage:

The goal of marriage is to maintain the tradition of the family. So the parents make the decision for their child‟s marriage. A man should marry a woman so that she gives him children. If in the marriage a couple doesn‟t have a child, the man can get married to another woman in order to have child or children for the family. This act is now unacceptable in modern times60.

4Family roles:

The family is a fundamental unit of society. The family has a lot of duties towards society. The head of the family has a responsibility toward his children‟s behavior. The families are there to educate its members to be good in society.

The family has an important role in society, whereas individuals have lower roles in society. The family is the group that really counts for the Vietnamese: the “face” should be protected by the members61.

5. Religion:

The three philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism spread south from China to Vietnam early in Vietnamese cultural history. These three philosophies play an important role in the Vietnamese system of values and religious beliefs and the pluralistic approach to lifemanship62.

In getting to understand the Vietnamese based on these systems of values, we can observe this story:

A Vietnamese refugee family, clearly identified as Buddhist, was visited at their home by a voluntary agency worker around Christmas time last year. The worker reported that right in the middle of the sparsely furnished living room was a huge Christmas tree with all the trimmings. She later asked a Vietnamese friend, obviously confused, “Are they really Buddhist?” She was even more confused when the friend saw nothing unusual about a Christmas tree in a Buddhist home.

That common element is an observable ability on the part of the Vietnamese to hold more than one religious belief. A Vietnamese Catholic also worships his ancestors, exposes more than one ideal, accepts more than one solution to a problem, attempts more than one course of action (i.e. the legal course), and generally tolerates more than one absolute standard for anything.

“While North Americans use a “monistic” approach to life, adopting only one in every type, class and category, the Vietnamese use a pluralistic approach and are comfortable with a combination and/or an assortment of ideologies. North Americans seek out the one and only, and give it respect, loyalty and devotion. The Vietnamese search for the alternatives and the other possibilities that will prove workable or satisfactory for their needs”63


I would like to quote the English translations of excerpts from a Vietnamese book so that we can get to know the Vietnamese people through the eyes of a Vietnamese culture historian:

“(…..) Vietnamese are an intelligent people. They possess a keen sense of observation which gives them the ability to grasp things quickly; it also gives them a tendency to imitate others. Short on a sense of innovation, they tend to hang on to the old and established ways. They are skilful with their hands and love to outsmart each other in petty matters, an inclination which often leads to craftiness. They have a mocking sense of humor which can sometimes degenerate into disparagement.

Vietnamese have a high regard for mortality and uphold the five Confucian virtues of humanity, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and faithfulness as guides for their daily conduct. They love book study and have avid minds.

Ordinarily giving an appearance of being shy and afraid, they value peace and harmony in all relations. However, when they are laced with danger, or are on the battlefield, they display great bravely and know how to maintain discipline, giving death itself as much weight as an airborne thistledown. Often motivated by compassion for others, they have a sense of gratitude.

Vietnamese also have several serious flaws in their character. They are shallow people who are also boastful. They lack patience and attach great importance to surface appearance. They yearn for status, fame and fortune, love fun and the gay life, and like to game for money. They believe in ghosts and spirits, and worship Gods and deities. They are arrogant and love to brag.

A most admirable trait in the Vietnamese, however, is the love they have for their country. It is this strong attachment to their native land that has helped them, several times in the course of history, to liberate their country from domination by their northern neighbor, China; in the last hundred years, it has enable them to keep up a relentless struggle against French colonists…”64 .

In the last 15 years, the Vietnamese ethnic group has contributed to Canada in many different fields such as business, society, and science. However, a few young Vietnamese are in gangs causing trouble in big cities like Toronto and Vancouver. I think it will take more time in order to evaluate the contribution of Vietnamese ethnic groups to Canada.

The Vietnamese refugees now live in a Canadian society which is quite different from their own society. Therefore, cross-cultural misunderstanding and conflict may occur. So, in order to understand the Vietnamese more, we can pay attention to the Vietnamese saying:

“Just as the length of a road is known only by actually traveling on it. The qualities of a man are known only by living with him for a while”.

(Đi lâu mi biếđường dài,

Ở lâu mới biết con người phải chăng)


  • Cuu Long & Toan anh, Nguoi Viet, Dat Viet (Vietnamese People, Vietnamese Land), Sài Gòn: Nam Chi Tung Thu, 1967.
  • Dao, Duy Anh, Viet Nam Van Hoa Su Cuong (A short History of Vietnamese culture), Ha noi: Quan Hai Tung Thu, 1937.
  • Green, James W., Cultural Awareness In The Human Services, New York: Prentice Hall, 1982.
  • Le, Van Sieu, Van Minh Viet Nam (Vietnamese Civilization), Sài Gòn: Nam Chi Tung Thu, 1964.
  • Nguyen, Vinh Thuong, Vai Net Dac Trung Cua Van Hoa Viet Nam (Some Special Characters of Vietnamese Culture), Toronto: Chanh Giac quarterly Magazine, Quy Dau Spring Issue, 1993
  • Nguyen, Vinh Thuong, Y chi Doc Lap Cua Dan Toc Viet Nam (The Will to Independence of The Vietnamese), Toronto: Pho Thong Monthly Magazine, 1985
  • Phan, Ke Binh, Viet Nam Phong Tuc (Vietnamese Custom), Ha Noi: Dong Duong Magazine, 1914-1915.
  • Toan Anh, Phong Tuc Viet Nam (Vietnamese Custom), Sài Gòn: Khai Tri, 1968.
  • Vuong, Gia Thuy, Getting to know the Vietnamese and their Culture, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1976.

52 Le, Van Sieu, Van Minh Viet Nam (Vietnamese Civilization), Saigon: Nam Chi Tung Thu, 1964, p.31 

53 Ibid., p.203 

54 Ibid. p.203

55 Nguyen, Vinh Thuong, Y Chi Doc Lap Cua Dan Toc Viet Nam: Toronto: Pho Thong Magazine, 1985. pp. 83-96 

56 Dao, Duy Anh, Viet Nam Van Hoa Su Cuong (A Short History of Vietnamese Culture), Ha Noi: Quan Hai Tung Thu, 1937, p.107

57 Dao, Duy Anh, Viet Nam Van Hoa Su Cuong (A Short History of Vietnamese Culture), Ha Noi: Quan Hai Tung Thu, 1937, p.109 

58 Ibid., p. 107 

59 Ibid., p. 112 

60 Ibid., p. 114 

61 Ibid., p. 120

62 Le, Van Sieu, Van Minh Viet Nam (Vietnamese Civilization), Sài Gòn: Nam Chi Tung Thu, 1964, p. 73 

63 A Manual for Indochinese Refugee Education, pp. 17-18

64 Cuu Long & Toan Anh, Vietnamese People, Vietnamese Land, New York: Centre for Applied Linguistics, 1976, p. 328