Happiness in Vietnam is more than just a pretty smile and making money.

While you’ll see no shortage of smiles on Saigon’s streets, the levels of happiness in Vietnam are up for debate. According to the latest World Happiness Report, Vietnam ranks 94th among 155 nations in terms of happiness. Yet they rank #7 in the Happy Planet Index. They have a high life expectancy, but the score of well-being is still moderate. Are the people moderately happy, yet old, in Vietnam?

How we entered Vietnam.

A country with a cuisine so good, definitely a natural remedy against any potential unhappiness, we’re curious to find out whether the Vietnamese put as much attention on their own wellbeing as they do on their noodle soups and spring rolls. So happiness in Vietnam at least is fun to explore!

We must admit upfront that we entered the country with some prejudices. According to eight out of ten people, we’ve spoken with, most of the Vietnamese ought to be rude and persistent to sell you something, anything. One of our favourite bloggers, Nomadic Matt, called it the worst country he’s ever been to. Less did we hear about the friendly faces, laughs and gestures we indulged only the first 24 hours of our stay.

We took a deep dive in Vietnamese happiness by starting our pursuit in the centre of pure Vietnamese living, the old quarter in the capital city Hanoi.

It all starts with a smile.

“I think many Vietnamese people are happy, but I don’t really know why. I think it’s because we always have a smile”. That’s the first thing Moon tells us about happiness. As a hotel hostess who lived in Japan for a while, she is incredibly proud to be a Vietnamese, to be part of a society that works very well.

When she moved to Japan she thought she was going to the country of her dreams. Despite it being a beautiful destination, she believes “the people in Japan are robotic and they have a lot of rules. They are a bit cold”. She quickly realized the benefits of living in Hanoi and, because of her experience in Japan, is even more proud to be Vietnamese then before.

vietnamese girls smiling at camera - happiness in vietnam
the beautiful smile of Huan

Besides her, many Vietnamese believe in the power of a smile. They believe it brings them good luck. And according to Moon, the second reason for all these smiles is that “we think that if you smile and be happy, you make other people happy and that makes you happy”.

Every day when she wakes up, she explicitly decides that today will be a good day. According to her, happiness is trying to enjoy the day. Each day.

Mind the gap.

Besides the clear uniformity in smiles across Vietnam, it appears to be a country with many (subtle) differences too.

It seems like there is still a division over war, even though it already ended over 40 years ago. Many southern Vietnamese seem to inherit some of the long-lasting American dream, whereas Northern inhabitants seem to be more focused on traditions, relations, and conformity.

And it’s not just a geographical gap. There is also a true generation gap present that influences the definition of happiness in Vietnam.

Money for your Honey(s).

Many of the older generation are focused on security and safety. They place great importance on assuring that the family is OK. This is opposite to the tendency of most Vietnamese millennials, who are mainly focused on freedom. Yet almost everyone seems to have a focus on making money, and that’s visible everywhere: most jobs seem to be six or seven days a week, and at least 10 hours a day. If not, Vietnamese will look for a second job to fill their days.

The relation between money and happiness is however different for the two groups. The older generation sees work as mean to assure kids have everything, can grab every opportunity their parents couldn’t. It’s the future of the children and the existence of a family that makes them grateful and proud. Their motivation to work long hours.

another vietnamese girl smiling at camera - happiness in vietnamFor the younger generation, it’s not exactly the same.
According to Sky, a twenty-year-old who works in tourism, her generation is more focused on freedom. She says that her family thinks it’s weird she doesn’t have a boyfriend yet. Because that used to be one of the main things a twenty-year-old would be busy with, hooking up.

But now, according to Sky, the first motivation is to be independent and have some autonomy. Not just follow the rules of the parents. Her very practical three-step approach to happiness illustrates this. One: have a job with an income. Two: have a sense of personal fulfillment. Three: be with the family.

Yet some of the parental rules are ruling the lives of the younger generation because it’s about creating a safe and secure future through education.

Personal development is high on the agenda.

Education is considered very important in Vietnam. School enrolments in Vietnam are considered around 98 percent and are among the highest in the world. The ambition and desire for education are transferred from the older generation to the younger ones. It’s the parents of many young adults that spend all their money on the education of their children, and are even willing to pay an “entrée-ticket” for their children’s jobs.

“Every parent wants their kid to be a genius or a superman”.

This parental support provides many opportunities to the younger generation, something most of them are very grateful for. Yet, like most things in life, it comes at a certain cost. A lot of the young talents we’ve met express their worries about not letting their parents down. They feel a high pressure to succeed and see “making their parents proud” as one of life’s key goals.

vietnamese boy smiling at camera - happiness in vietnamVien explains to us that as a boy, parents ask you to become a man as soon as you’re out of school. “You need to be a man. A real man. To take care of the whole family”. It’s part of the tradition he says, that parents will always have a word. “First you can maybe deny them, but they keep repeating it and eventually you must follow…”.

Maybe even a bit similar to situations in which Tjerk tries to make a nice dinner for us and I politely give him some unasked advice and am more than willing to put it on repeat too … until he follows my advice just to get it over with … Hmmm..

The point, however, is, that for Vietnamese it’s important to stick with the family. Even though it sometimes feels like a burden, all agree that it is very important.

“Sometimes you have to do what you have to do before you can do what you want to do”.

So Tjerk, maybe should just listen to me for now and stop putting so much red pepper in the curry…. ;-).

Talk the talk.

We encountered many, many enthusiastic young Vietnamese who are keen to chat with us. Sure, we reckon we’re fun people to talk to, but in order to not let our ego grow too big, we found another motivation for their genuine interest in us.

smiling vietnames girls giving the piece sign - happiness in vietnamOne important way of Vietnamese personal development is the exposure to different cultures. Ti, who lives in Hoi An, explains that it’s the main reason why she left the rural in-lands of Vietnam. “I love to be with tourists. I like to better understand their culture, exchange knowledge and make friends from all over the world”. And she’s not the only one.

“Many of the people who work in the tourism industry told us that their job doesn’t pay enough to easily travel the world, but it’s their way to let the world travel to them”.

And because of all these nice talks we’ve had, we of course also want to walk the walk, so we tried to sum up happiness in Vietnam for you!

So how should we define the secret to happiness in Vietnam?

If we have a look at the numbers, it’s an interesting position Vietnam is in. Vietnam ranks fifth in the Happy Planet Index results and second in the Asia. One of the important numbers is that school enrolment is among the highest in the world at 98% in 2012.

If we look at the measurement of well-being, so how people view their quality of life, Vietnam scores high. If you then look at the inequality of this metric, so how unequal the distribution of life expectancy and experienced wellbeing results were within a country, it’s surprising to see that Vietnam’s score in the latter category was actually better than Costa Rica’s. This is attributed in large part to the strong provision of public services such as education.

On the World Happiness Index, however, Vietnam is ranked #94 out of 155, not even near to the top 10, amongst others because of the life expectancy and perceived freedom to make life choices. The latter being confirmed during our talks.

traditional house in tra que with women in door - happiness in vietnam

Despite the difference in the rankings, we got a pretty good idea of happiness in Vietnam. And we strongly believe many people consider themselves happy. Happiness to them is being able to do what you want to, to explore and to learn. Sure, you need some money for this, something the Vietnamese don’t mind working hard for, but what fascinates us most is the way they see tourism. It’s more than just an income. It’s a way of education and exposure to the rest of the world.

The advice from a tour guide in Sapa we received is very straightforward and one we can all apply easily: “Get out of your home and meet other people, be with them and learn from them!”

And to wrap up and assure your daily portion of happiness, Belief in the power of a smile! Just go out and smile. To yourself and to strangers. It won’t cost you anything…

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