What Not To Do – Taboos in Vietnamese Everyday Life (Part 1)


Normality is relative, especially when it comes to cultures. In previous episodes of Survive in Vietnam, we have discussed scary food that Vietnamese people eat day in, day out. How about reversing the roles a little bit? What do foreigners do that can make Vietnamese cringe?

  1. Taking photos of three

VN taboos1 intext 1Scenario no.1: You made friends with a local or two and really hit it off. “Photo time!!!” Your camera is ready to snap, but how come they are shaking their heads and backing away?

You probably didn’t do anything wrong. Unless you intended to take photos of three people, which is a big no-no. This taboo is popular in several Asian countries, Vietnam included. It is said to date back to even before the dawn of photography, when painting and drawing were the only ways to be.

Why is it a taboo? In Eastern cultures, the number 03 is a sacred number present in the conceptions, teachings, and practices of many religions, beliefs and philosophical schools. In Buddhism, there are terms such as “Tam Thế Phật” – three Buddhas of the past, present, and future, and “Tam Bảo” – the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. It is also familiar to the Vietnamese spiritual life. For example, we honor three Kitchen Gods, and we usually burn three incense sticks when performing worship rituals. In a culture that respects ranks and statuses like Vietnam, of course what is associated with the higher powers is not to be touched by the mortals. Therefore, we should avoid the number 03. In fact, if you don’t, you can be punished for your insolence. The Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes) preaches, “Tam nhân đồng hành tất tổn nhất nhân” (Three men traveling will unavoidably lose one). We apply this in photography, hence the Vietnamese saying “Chụp ba ma bắt một” (Taking photos of three, and the devil will take one away).


VN taboos1 intext 2A set of three suits – offerings to the three Kitchen Gods

Believe it or not, scenario no. 1 could be worse. If you put your Vietnamese pal in the center of the three people, don’t be surprised if he/she flees the scene. It is the one in the middle who we believe will bear the holy rage and suffer from great misfortune or even death.

Good news is the reality isn’t so bad. While some people are strict about this, many others do not mind at all (as shown in the first photo). My tip to you: ask your Vietnamese friend to see how they feel about it. If it is an issue and you feel like toying with destiny *evil laugh*, put yourself in the middle. Otherwise grab more people for the shoot. The more the merrier. Maybe safer, too.

*Next time on Survive in Vietnam – What not to do Part 2: food and eating taboos in Vietnam. How to handle chopsticks? Which food to eat on which days? Find out soon on Lexiophiles!*

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