You’ll likely see more foreigners using the wai (the Thai traditional greeting where the palms are clasped in front of the body) than Vietnamese! Either they’re arriving from neighboring Thailand or have read the wrong guidebooks. What’s even funnier is when you see the Vietnamese wai-ing back out of politeness, imitating the foreigners who are themselves thinking they are conforming to local custom.
Wai-ing is simply not Vietnamese. True, in days of old, Vietnamese used the Chinese hand-over-closed-fist gesture, but the only place you’ll still see this is in Chinese films depicting the long gone days of Emperors and mandarin courts. Having said that, the Thai wai will be found in the following limited circumstances: a) In a Buddhist religious context when praying at the pagoda or greetings monks. b) In several ethnic minority communities more closely linked to Thai or Khmer groups. c) In a somewhat transformed gesture when VIPs or guests are applauded by a crowd. Everywhere else, it’s either a handshake or a simple nod of the head. The rule is quite straightforward: a) With Vietnamese men, you always use a handshake, be you male or female. b) With Vietnamese women, you wait for them to initiate either a handshake (this is the more modern way of greeting) or you acknowledge their head nod with the same (this is the more traditional way). In case of doubt, opt for the head nod; you won’t embarrass anyone with that.
However formal or cold a handshake (or the absence of one) might seem, you’ll find the Vietnamese to be quite physical in their contacts even among strangers or with foreigners. But remember: this is between men or between women… not between the sexes. A warm greeting can start with an interminable handshake, followed by a hug of the shoulders and about of hand holding that can last the whole discussion. Hands on thighs when men sit discussing or arms over shoulders for women are also common. You’ll see soldiers holding hands – or sometimes just two fingers – in the street. Your interpreter, on her first visit to a village, might end up taking her siesta curled up to a first-time acquaintance. None of these gestures have any sexual overtones. But, especially for Western men, it does take a bit of getting used to.