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In Vietnam, sharing meal bills a splitting headache for expats, locals

Sunday, April 19, 2015, 12:11 GMT+7

Not a few expats living and working in Vietnam and local people find sharing bills after meals a vexatious matter, as some Vietnamese people tend to insist they pay the bills but speak ill of those who are spared the payment behind their back, while others just shy away from picking up the checks.

Vietnam ranks first in Southeast Asia in terms of beer and wine consumption growth though its GDP just stands at number eight in the region, according to statistics by the Hanoi-based Health Strategy and Policy Institute.

Besides, the average consumption of beer and wine in the world has not increased in the last ten years, at around 6.2 liters (using wine as the unit) per capita per annum, the institute said.

Meanwhile, each Vietnamese person drank an average of 3.8 liters of wine a year in the 2003-05 period, and 6.6 liters in 2010.

During such beer drinking parties and get-togethers on different kinds of occasions, the fun is inevitably followed by a sensitive part: settling the bills.

Unlike in the U.S., Europe, and several other Asian countries, Vietnamese do not habitually share drinking party bills.

They either insist on footing the bill or purposefully turn away from the task. Michael S., 27, an American expat, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper his resentment against being spoken ill of.

“I don’t think this should be the way at all. Why do my Vietnamese friends or partners tend to insist on paying, but accusing me of being mean behind my back for not paying?” he pondered.

Before coming to Vietnam, S. had worked in several other countries.

“Nowhere else is bill paying such an annoying practice like in Vietnam. While friends generally pay their own bills or share them equally in other countries, Vietnamese males are more often than not insistent on paying,” he observed.   Some even say splitting bills would be an insult to them.

“They just keep saying that they will pay, but I think they’re not happy about that. If they are, they would not say such ill things about me,” S. noted.

“We expats are supposed to adapt to the customs and habits of Vietnamese people in their country. However, I’m fed up with the bill-paying hassle here, which I find the only minus about Vietnamese lifestyle,” Yasuhiro Kawamura, a 31-year-old woman, complained after five years living in Vietnam.

Nguyen Viet Cuong, head of the representative office in Vietnam of Esri, a major maker of geographic information systems, acknowledged the complicatedness of bill paying in Vietnam.  

He put the habit down to local males’ efforts to save face.

Cuong observed from his five-year study in Thailand that sharing bills is the norm in the country.

Meanwhile, My Linh, 30, told Tuoi Tre that she has a male friend who does not earn a good income but the man always makes it a point that paying is his obligation whenever he is with his female friends or colleagues.

Linh noticed that he gradually shies away from get-togethers if he knows several female friends will be coming.

He also spends frugally during the rest of the month to make up for his generous payment.

“We women really wish to be equal to our male colleagues or friends when it comes to paying the bills, but are reluctant to persuade them out of their inherent habit as many of them may take it as an offence,” Linh noted.


Groups of friends are seen at a restaurant in this photo illustration. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Turning away from paying

On the contrary, many people are vexed by their friends and colleagues who think they have nothing to do with the payment.

Vy Lam, 27, an overseas student in Texas, wrote a status on her Facebook page to voice her frustration during her recent homecoming journey.

“During my homecoming trip, I ate out with a couple of friends who are older than me and all have stable jobs. When it was time to pay, they all looked away as if the bill was mine just because I’m studying in the U.S.,” Vy said in exasperation.

“They probably did not know I have to work my way hard through university here,” she lamented.

Half a year ago, N. Hung, 30, head of an information technology department at a foreign-owned company, “vanished” without a trace from all parties and get-togethers for no reason at all, though it is untypical of him to do so.

“I had to refrain from such fun events, as I was too scared of being forced into treating my friends and colleagues to sumptuous meals for my newly-bought car,” he awkwardly explained.

Vietnamese people habitually ask their friends or colleagues to treat them to meals or drinks to celebrate their high-value new purchases, happy events or career promotion.

“‘Celebrating’ our newly-purchased apartment and my promotion cost me and my wife almost two months’ salaries,” Hung explained.

Nguyen Diep Quy Vy, an applied sociology lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, recounted a story during her university years.

Her class president back then invariably chose to indicate his gallantry by silently footing the bill after most get-togethers which were joined by her and other classmates.

“Surprisingly a number of my classmates considered the act a normal thing for males to do. We later found out that he comes from a poor family, which filled us with embarrassment,” she admitted.

Though not supportive of being rigidly distinct about bill payment all the time, Vy advised that checks be shared to avoid preventable misunderstandings and hassles among friends and colleagues.

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