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Focus study: family life in Vietnam

Peter Dean
Georges River College, Oatley Senior Campus

The Vietnamese family
Traditional roles and structure
Family relationships


H1 explains the interaction between persons, societies, cultures and environments across time

H3 accounts for cultural diversity and commonality within societies and cultures

H4 evaluates continuity and change, and assesses social futures and strategies for change and the implications for societies and cultures

H5 evaluates the influence of power, authority, gender and technology on decision-making and participation in society

H7 applies appropriate language and concepts associated with society and culture.

Extract from Society and Culture Stage 6 Syllabus, © Board of Studies NSW, 1999.

Focus: The focus of this study is the demonstration of continuity and change in the Vietnamese family unit.

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The Vietnamese family

Throughout its history the family has formed the corner stone of Vietnamese culture and society. The family unit has preserved its status through Chinese and French domination, the 30-year struggle for National Liberation, Communism and Doi Moi (the current policy of market reform and the trappings of westernisation and modernisation).

The institution of the family has come under intense pressure throughout Vietnamese civilisation. It is, however, regarded by many that the traditional role of the family in modern Vietnam is under more pressure than at any other stage in Vietnamese history. Doi Moi, the development of western style capitalism, government family planning policies, modernisation, individualism and westernisation seem to be assaulting the traditional family from all sides.

Despite this, the Vietnamese government recognises the importance of the role of the family in Vietnamese society and sees it as a major element in combating “social evils” such as drugs, prostitution, gambling, commercialism, that have developed as a result of the transition to a market economy.

The future for the traditional family structure remains unclear. What is certain is that Vietnam’s economic and cultural transformation shows no sign of abating and it is within this context that the traditional family structure must develop and change to meet the needs of the “new” Vietnamese way of life. Vietnam and its familyn structure currently stands at an important crossroad.

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Traditional roles and structure


The family is the basic social unit of Vietnamese society. Its development has been based on thousands of years of history. It has been influenced by Chinese, French and American culture as well Confucianism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism and the cult of Ancestors. The family cannot be understood nor separated from the culture, nation and country of Vietnam.

Collective identity

One of the basic premises that exist within the family structure is the idea of collective identity. The individual’s interests and destiny are rarely conceived outside of the framework of the immediate and extended family. The young are not taught to develop their individuality. The considerations of the family are always put before the individual. This collective nature is also closely linked to the individual’s strive to achieve harmony with oneself.

Principles and values

The Vietnamese culture is based on four fundamental principles or values:

Allegiance to the family is seen as the most important factor. The family is the centre of the individuals’ existence and the foundation of Vietnamese society.

The collective nature of society and the family has important ramifications for all of its members. The misbehaviour of an individual reflects badly on all of the family members. Likewise, the success of an individual will bring honour and pride to all family members. It is not uncommon for family members to “blur the lines” of who has actually achieved an important job or position. This is not done out of selfishness, but because the family as a whole is seen as a single unit. The individual has not achieved that honour, but the family has.

Filial piety

Traditionally the family has been the foremost institution for the education of children. The children are taught from a very young age that they are to forgo their interests for those of their family. Central to this theme is the concept of filial piety (hieu thao). This is considered to be the most essential virtue in Vietnamese society. Children are taught that they must be thankful to their parents for the debt of birth, their upbringing and education. They are to think of their parents and family first, to make sacrifices for them and to love and care for their parents in their old age. A Vietnamese person who neglects this responsibility is ostracised by both their family and the community.

This love and respect for the family also transcends to the village. The village is not only a place to grow up and live but where their ancestors are buried. In rural areas of Vietnam many people never leave the village where they were born.

Entwined in these ideas is the concept of respect for elders. Vietnamese are taught that at home they are to show respect to their parents, older siblings and older relatives. This concept also transcends into the broader community.


“The daughter-in-law is one of the family

The son-in-law is a stranger”

The structure of the basic Vietnamese family unit is much more complicated than the traditional western nuclear family. There is a clear distinction between the immediate and extended families in Vietnamese society, but their concepts of each of these are different to a western interpretation. The immediate family is not just the mother, father and children, but also includes the husband’s parents and the son’s wives and children. The extended family includes the close relatives who share the family name and the ancestors who live in the same community.

Roles and position

The role and position of each family member is reflected in the very complex forms of address associated with its different members. For example, sons are referred to by their relative birth position with the number one son holding the position of most power and prestige. However, this form of address can be further complicated by regional differences. Historically, the first son of Vietnamese families in the north was sent to settle the lands in the south. This means that the form of address for the sons of a family in the north is different to those present in the southern portion of the country.

Behaviour patterns are directed to family as opposed to personal wellbeing. Respect is granted to the head of the family and advice is often sought from older members of the family. The father is seen as the head and as the “pillar” of the family. Grandparents also traditionally wield large amounts of power, due the their age, wisdom and status. However, for siblings it is the eldest son that is deemed as the most important. This is a direct consequence of his role in carrying the duty of honouring the ancestors.

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Family relationships

“A wife without a husband is like a boat without a rudder”

Despite recent changes the family remains a patriarchal institution. Women are traditionally subservient to men and are taught that they have to obey three men in their life. Firstly their father, secondly their husband and finally their oldest son. However, events in Vietnamese history have meant that, on many occasions, women have been used to being alone and taking over the family. They are well regarded and traditional sayings reinforce their endurance, suffering and sacrifice.

“The father is to the child as the roof is to the house”

Parent and child relationship

Traditionally parents regard their most important responsibility as training their children. A disgrace brought by a child is borne by the parents. The family is the main socialising agent and children are taught, at a very young age, to follow the doctrine of filial piety. Talking back or disobeying parents is an unacceptable breach of this doctrine. The children’s obligation to their parents extends to their care in their old age. The responsibility even transcends death when the children are expected to carry on their obligation through ancestor worship and the maintenance of ancestral tombs.

Siblings and extended family

Relations between siblings are determined by gender and birth position. Members of the extended family are tied closely through the complex linguistic terminology, the cult of ancestor worship and the extension of filial piety. Ties with the extended family are generally very close. It can extend to aunts and uncles taking an active interest in their niece’s and nephew’s care. As the Vietnamese proverb goes:

“If the father or mother lacks or fails, children are always taken care for by an aunt or uncle”.

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  1. Draw up a table that compares your family to a traditional Vietnamese family in relation to the aspects discussed in this tutorial.
  2. Review the key concepts in the syllabus for the core. Identify the concepts that are relevant to Vietnamese family life. Construct a table to show this relationship.
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