For foreigners who wish to travel to Vietnam or even move to Vietnam, the dress code is a topic that is always been a controversial one. However, a year passes by, Vietnamese folks are being exposed more and more to the western world which affects and change the dress code in Vietnam.
Today, Vietnamese women dress depends on where they are from or how Westernized the city or town is. In the north, like the mountains of Sa Pa, women are dressed according to their tribe, while women in Hanoi down to central Vietnam dress modestly compared to the south folks but not everyone.
Almost every Vietnamese men wear casual jeans and a shirt unless they are in their work that requires specific clothing or uniform.
There is no law for a dress code in Vietnam per se, but there are things you need to consider before taking off your shirt in the public just because the weather is too hot for you or that’s what you do when you’re on a holiday.
In this article, we will discuss the traditional Vietnamese clothing, what to wear during your visit, when to wear them, and most specifically, what not to wear in Vietnam.
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VIETNAM PACKING LIST
If you are looking for the ultimate packing list for Vietnam, either backpacking, travelling with kids or motorbiking, check this Vietnam packing list post. While here is our motorbiking in Vietnam guide.
TRADITIONAL VIETNAMESE CLOTHING
Traditional Vietnamese dresses for women are called Ao Dai, which is a long dress (tiny turtleneck, long sleeves, and is floor-length. It also has a slit on both sides for women to be able to move comfortably. It is also designed to be tight around the waist. With matching long high-waist trousers, which is floor-length as well. Ao Dai is made of silk and comes in different colours and designs, most of the time, you will see them with beads embedded as a flower design.
Nowadays, Ao Dai is being worn as a school uniform, wedding dress, birthday dress, graduation dress or for special occasions only. In the businesses that are engaged in tourism, government offices, or banks, Ao Dai can also be seen regularly.
NORTH VS SOUTH
As I mentioned before, the dress code in Vietnam differs in each location. The north is more modest than the south, this is mostly because the north was highly influenced by China which practised Buddhism mostly and is still more religious than the south until today. While after the Vietnam war and the north won over the south, the culture and dress code didn’t strongly follow like the major changes in the country.
The south of Vietnam was also practising Buddhism widely, however, since the south was supported by the USA, a western country, after the war, the name of the south was changed. A lot of Vietnamese folks from the south who flee didn’t come back. This resulted in the Vietnamese all over the country started relocating and occupying the south.
The name from Saigon was changed to Ho Chi Minh city (named after the leader of the north Ho Chi Minh), the district of Ho Chi Minh city grew bigger in land size. Eventually, Ho Chi Minh City became the business city of Vietnam. More foreigners and international companies opened their businesses which results in having more westerners living in the south compared to the north.
This affects the dress code of the south, Ao Dai started to be seen only as a traditional dress. It became common to wear modern dresses, jeans, or shorts.
WHAT NOT TO WEAR OR DO
A lot of foreigners who are coming to Vietnam are mostly tourists, which means they are on holiday. A lot of the most of the time forget that their holiday destination is far from home and have a different culture. It is very important for a foreigner; expat or tourist to understand how to properly dress in Vietnam, both to show respect and to stay out of trouble. Here are the things you should remember NOT to do or wear while in Vietnam:
- Walk around half-naked in other parts of the country apart from the beach – Ho Chi Minh City can be very very hot during the summer or even any time of the year. However, this is not an acceptable excuse to remove your t-shirt and walk around the city. This shows disrespect to Vietnamese culture and the locals.
- Not wearing a bra on a thin fabric in other parts of the country apart from the beach – I do agree that wearing a bra can be very uncomfortable and painful for most women, however, not wearing a bra when you are wearing a thin/light/white fabric can be offensive and bring a lot of attention to you. If you really hate to use the regular bra, try to find a different way such as wear a sports bra, use nipple covers, or wear a thicker fabric and darker colours.
- Wear offensive clothing that insults Vietnam or the government – If you have a t-shirt or any accessories that insult Vietnam or the government, it’s best not to wear it. Remember that you are a guest in this country, if you find some things that you are not agreeing on, it’s best to keep it to yourself. Imagine if you have someone said something openly how bad your house is while eating the dinner you cooked, it doesn’t seem that pleasant is it? You should also keep in mind that Vietnam is a communist country which means the government is pretty much in charge and any public comment or insult against it can be punishable by law.
- Not covering up when you should – make sure to cover your body when you must to show respect. You also can be denied entry if you are not dressed properly. For example, when visiting a Pagoda or other prayer building, you must cover-up.
- Get half or fully naked on the beach – Vietnamese are not used to seeing naked people on the beach unless you know for sure that it is a private beach, do not get half-naked (women must cover their breast) or fully naked. This is to simply show respect and not make anyone uncomfortable.
- Not taking off your shoes when you should – when visiting a prayer building it is a must to remove your footwear, the same rules go for when entering a Vietnamese house.
- Too revealing – unless you are comfortable to be stared at, wearing clothing that is too revealing will attract a lot of attention or even unwanted touches in some cases. Sadly, the rights of women to wear what they want in Vietnam is still a struggle and looks like a steep hill to climb in the next years or even decade to come.
WHEN TO COVER UP
Here are the situations and times that you MUST be covered up, which means, cover up from shoulders down to below your knee (about 3 inches below the knee is great):
- When entering a temple, church, mosque, and other prayer building
- Visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
- Visiting small villages
WHAT TO WEAR IN VIETNAM
Basically, you can wear regular shirts and shorts that are showing your shoulders or knees everywhere in Vietnam apart from entering a prayer building or other specific places.
Vietnamese today basically wear a casual t-shirt, dress, jeans, or shorts – just like everyone. Although it does make some of them uncomfortable to see someone who is wearing very revealing clothing especially in the smaller villages. It is undeniable that the clothing fashion in Vietnam is getting more and more westernised mostly because of the number of foreign expats and how Vietnamese culture is being more open to the western world.
CLOTHING TIPS FOR VIETNAM
Here are some clothing tips for you while visiting or living in Vietnam:
- Pack long sleeve blouse – make sure they are lightweight unless you are going to the north during the winter season
- Bring long but lightweight skirt – this is useful when visiting prayer buildings
- Pack a big scarf that can be used as a skirt or a small scarf that can cover your shoulders
- Bring a set of flip-flops – when you are visiting a temple, it is easier to take off and put on your flip-flops than shoes. It also avoids making your socks too dirty.
To be honest, this is very simple, show respect to a culture that is different from you. It’s simply like when visiting or staying at someone else’s house, we don’t make ourselves too comfortable to the point that we are offending our host. It is a frustrating fact that women are still struggling to gain equal rights in Vietnam and that we are the ones who need to adjust.
If you find yourself in a situation where you can have an intelligent conversation with a Vietnamese person regarding this topic, try to explain your side without being too arrogant. Remember that it is better to educate than winning an argument that cannot change anything.
If you are unsure about the clothes that you are going to wear, reach out to other travellers who have been to Vietnam, a local friend, or your hotel/hostel receptionist.
We hope that you find this article about what to wear in Vietnam useful for your upcoming visit to Vietnam. If you have any questions, let us know in the comment section below. Check out our other articles below: