For much of the Western world it is customary to include a gratuity as a demonstration of one’s appreciation of good service. While it is ultimately up to your discretion, the general rule of thumb is 10-15% of the total bill. Although this leaves your wallet feeling a bit lighter, the waiters and service providers, who normally make minimum wage, are very appreciative. Many actually rely on tips as their main source of income.
Unfortunately for individuals working in the service industry here in Vietnam, tipping is generally non-existent. In fact, a gratuity is not a universal concept, particularly so in most Asian countries, where it is frowned upon. In some countries like Japan it may even be viewed as rude or insulting, while elsewhere tipping is actually against the law. So what about Vietnam?
While things are gradually progressing, the idea of a gratuity has not permeated Vietnam. However, just because it is not customary doesn’t mean you should refrain from it. In my personal opinion, the lack of tipping in Vietnam deprives many deserving people of having a higher potential income. In a country where the average per capita income just passed the $2,000 mark, every dollar counts.
As someone who has worked in the service industry in the US, I understand the importance of tipping. However, after five years of living in Vietnam and assimilating myself, I must admit that I rarely tip. Sure, I always let the taxi driver or the waitress keep the change, but my customary 15% gratuity has fallen by the wayside. Fortunately for me, on a recent trip with my family through Vietnam I was reminded of its importance.
Forty years after leaving Vietnam my grandma, mum, and uncle finally returned to their birthplace. Grateful for the fortunes the US had brought them and ultimately empathetic to the plight of the relatives they left behind, they were inclined to be generous. But their generosity wasn’t exclusive but rather showered upon everyone they met. Simply put, it was excessive and I was afraid the local people might perceive it as pretentious ‘Viet Kieu’ (overseas Vietnamese) flaunting their wealth.
‘You don’t have to tip everyone and you don’t have to tip so much,’ I said bluntly. ‘We don’t tip here, this isn’t America,’ I added, thus sparking a rather heated debate in which I accused them of a superiority complex and doing it to feel good about themselves.
‘It’s just a few extra bucks for us but it makes a big difference for them. John, I’m not giving them money, they work hard and I’m simply showing my appreciation,’ my mum said, using my first name, which was a clear indication she would have the last word. But her words made sense, rendering my argument rhetorical.
Weeks after my family had returned to the US I received a phone call from the driver who had driven us around. He wanted me to send another thank you to my family. A bit perplexed by his emphatic gratitude, I questioned him. With emotion in his voice, he told me how the generous tip my family had given him was able to help his sick daughter. In that instant my mind changed and I felt compelled to share my brief story.
The moral of the story: leave a tip. Just because it is not customary or normal here in Vietnam shouldn’t stop you. If you do it in your country, why not in Vietnam? Especially if you receive good customer service, adding a little extra makes everyone happy. You don’t have to feel obliged to give 15%, but be sure to give it directly to the person helping you. Finally, be content knowing that everything you tip really can make a significant difference here.