Vietnamese Perception of Time

Day and Night

I. Introduction

Along with the history of Vietnam, it was ruled by a lot of countries from the Asian neighbors like China and the Empire of Japan to the Western countries like the French Colonial Empire and the United States of America. Not only the people but also the Vietnamese culture was much influenced by these countries. So was the Vietnamese perception of time. It has been changing a lot and created diversity in itself. In this paper, the Vietnamese conception of time will be compared with other different cultures and examined from agricultural views. By these differences, perception of time will also be reviewed as one essential element in multicultural communication.  

II. Conceptions of Time

Chronos/Kronos - God of Time
For a long time, the West and China have been looking at ‘time’ from different perspectives. In the book Chu Thoi of Dinh Kim (2017), to Western people, God Chronos or Kronos carrying a scythe and an hourglass is the representative of time. As Kim illustrated, depending on the sand quantity, people could determine specified moments. The sand flowing also describes the time for the West as a straight line, and moments can be pointed out in this line. About the scythe, it is to represent the one-way character of time where things once have gone, never come back. Opposite to this, Chinese people see time as a cycle. According to Achim Mittag (2007), one of the most important and oldest ways of counting time in China is the sexagenary cycle or the Stems-and-Branches system. There are 12 Earthly Branches and 10 Heavenly Stems in this system. Regulated combinations of these branches and stems would create dates and years. Consequently, 12 years make a 12-year cycle, including all 12 Chinese zodiac signs and 60 years make a full cycle of all 12 branches and 10 stems. After every 60-year cycle, time would repeat again and again.

The Stems-and-Branches System
Along the same line with China, Vietnamese people also use the Stems-and-Branches system to measure time. For that reason, the Vietnamese see time as a cyclic periodic movement as well. However, by looking at the Vietnamese language itself, time in Vietnam has not only been seen as a cycle but also as a straight line like in the West. In the research Tri nhan thoi gian trong tieng Viet [Time-related 
Time as A Straight Line
words in Vietnamese language] (Nguyen, 2009), there is a close connection between space and time in Vietnamese. According to this study, words used to point at a place or space were created earlier than words using to point at a time. Then, there has been a transfer of meaning from space- to time-related words in Vietnamese. Moreover, in one-dimensional space or straight line, characteristic relationships of space would be close and far. Therefore, by using these words when talking about time, time will have the character of a straight line. To illustrate, here is an example of three essential space-related words in Vietnamese. They are đây (here), kia (there) and đấy (over there). When using these words in developing adverbs of time, those three words become elements in time terms with the same meaning. For example, ‘đây’ becomes a feature locating a situation or event in or around the present time. ‘Kia’ is mostly used to point at a time of the past and ‘đấy’ is used to indicate a distant past.
One-dimensional space
From the case of three basic space-related words, Vietnamese could be seen as tending to look back on the past. Nevertheless, not all the time Vietnamese would likely dig into the past. As reported in Nguyen’s paper (2009), at the end of a year, Vietnamese people have a habit of recalling what happened to them in that whole year. This is when they ngoái nhìn lại (‘ngoái’ is to turn one’s head around, ‘nhìn lại’ is to look back) the past year. That is why in Vietnamese only the word ‘last year’ is năm ngoái (‘năm’ means year). This is a compound word of the year and turning one’s head to look back. With other words like yesterday, last week or last month, they are just a combo of a word meaning ‘past’ and another word meaning day, week or month. 
Catholicism
Another explanation for this is because the year is considered the only unit of Kalpa or a lifetime in Buddhism not other units like week or month. Related to this, before the French came with Catholicism, there was no concept of a week in Vietnam (Nguyen, 2009). As people saw Catholics going to the church after every 7 days, the term ‘week’ or tuần lễ (‘tuần’ is cyclic and ‘lễ’ is church attendance) was invented. Somehow, through the study of the national language, it can be seen that religions also have shaped the Vietnamese perception of time.    

III. Time from Agriculture View 

4 Gods Worship - These Gods were also considered to be Agriculture Gods in Vietnam in the past due to Nature Worship, the very first existed type of worship in Vietnam (Thờ Tứ Pháp) [To read more about this, you may want to read the book called Hội Hè Lễ Tết Của Người Việt by Nguyễn Văn Huyên]
European Commission noted that "agriculture is the heart in our daily life" (n.d.) and it is not only now but also since hundreds of years ago. In that event, looking at time from the agriculture view is a must. In the book Du "temps": elements dune philosophie du vivre (Time: element of a philosophy of living), Francois Jullien (2016) brought the term ‘time’ of China back in ancient times. In China, following the nature rules, when each season passed, a new rule of eating, wearing and working was applied to all Chinese people, especially the Emperor himself. These kinds of regulations even affected much in Chinese rituals and politics later on. We could say that China had brought up the adjustment to seasons into principles and limited themselves in those orders. At this time, Vietnam was still affected much by Chinese culture. Like China, Vietnam also had agricultural works and products adjusting to seasons. However, not so severe as the Chinese, Vietnamese people just collected and put these adjustments into word-of-mouth songs. One of the most famous ones was ‘Farmworks all year round’ (Dao, 2005):
“January is the month of feast
February grow beans, grow sweet potatoes, grow eggplant  
March the beans got old
I go and pick them home to dry
April to buy cattle
To make preparations for the May rice crop…"

Tháng giêng là tháng ăn chơi
Tháng hai trồng đậu trồng khoai trồng cà
Tháng ba thì đậu đã già
Ta đi ta hái về nhà phơi khô.
Tháng tư đi tậu trâu bò                                                                  Để ta sắp sửa làm mùa tháng năm...

Autumn? Time to eat green rice then :)
These more flexible thoughts gave the Vietnamese a more carefree feeling than the Chinese one about time with the enjoyment of working and appreciating the products they had. As an illustration, when August comes, there would be some exceptional food that only appears this month. The Vietnamese would not notice that it is already August until they see this food showing on the street. At the same time, Chinese people might think that August coming already, it is time to eat that food. Besides this song about agriculture works and time of a year, Vietnamese also had a folk song about the time of a month and farming related elements (Nguyen, 2009):
“First day blade
Second day rice leaf
Third day crescent
Fourth day sickle…”

Mồng một lưỡi trai,
Mồng hai lá lúa,
Mồng ba lưỡi liềm,
Mồng bốn câu liêm

Time - Moon Shape
Because in the past, Vietnamese used the lunar calendar like Chinese people, time in the song was compared and measured in the moon shape. However, with normal vision and the above similar images, it was hard to tell which day was the first, second or third. According to Nguyen (2009), this has shown the incorrect in measuring the time of Vietnamese. Most of the time, people just estimate rather than determine the exact time. This one more time shows the carelessness about the time of Vietnamese people.  

IV. Time in Multicultural Communication

When dealing with multicultural communication, time is one important feature to pay attention to. To improve this, Nhung Pham (2012) did research named Differences in perception of time and psychological conflict in multicultural communication. In this research, she tried to test that even when speaking the same language, the variation in the perception of time and its relevant values would bring people with diverse backgrounds into conflicts. Therefore, she conducted a study in an NGO office in Vietnam with all people speaking English. In the research, 17 Westerners (Australia, UK, USA) and 24 Vietnamese participants were examined to see how they would react and have conflicted thoughts about the same issue. In the end, it turned out that in native-English-speaking countries, time is seen as unidimensional (the one-way character of time in part II). As a result, in these countries, time is money and more quantitative than qualitative. In contrast, time in Vietnam is seen as a cyclic time and more qualitative than quantitative.
Quantitative or Qualitative?
            An illustration of this result is a situation in the research. When the project in the office needed extra works, Westerner boss D asked the Vietnamese officer C to work overtime. Because of C’s health, at first, she did not want to accept this. However, because of the passion for the job, she did this extra work. At the end of the project, D asked C if she wanted extra money or a vacation to compensate for the time she did the extra work. C indicated that even though this action was fair, it did not have any warmth as C only did this for her passion. For that, firstly, C would want D to appreciate what spiritual values that she gave to the job. At this point, the Vietnamese officer was evaluating the qualitative higher than the quantitative of time. On the other hand, looking from the Westerner view, he was trying to express his gratitude by the action of giving C some benefits. Here, the benefits were not just the thank you message but money and holiday, which seemed equal to the time from his culture. Repeatedly, the Western officer was evaluating the quantitative higher than the qualitative of time.
Punctuality!!!
            Not only to the West, even in Asian countries, but the concepts of time are also different. This has led to unalike reactions towards the partner in multicultural communication. In this direction, one comparison should be mentioned here is between Japan and Vietnam. One study of Edward Hall (as cited in Huynh, 2015) has shown that both Japan and Vietnam tend to do many works at one time. Also, punctuality for both countries is not so important but rather keeping close relationships when dealing with people from the same country. However, when dealing with foreigners, the Japanese highly follow the deadlines and always try to keep everything on schedule. On the other side, Vietnamese still value the long preserving relations with others no matter races. For instance, following one situation in Nhung Pham’s research (2012), if a group of Japanese and Vietnamese friends agrees to meet at 5 o’clock. No matter what happens, Japanese people will try to be there on time. However, for Vietnamese, if on the way coming there, they meet their old teacher and talk to him or her for a moment, it is totally fine to come late for a while. Still, this different thinking in time could affect everyone’s work progress. Therefore, when communicate and work in a multicultural environment, it is better to know people’s background and their concept of time not to break the general business.  

V. Conclusion

MY VIETNAM <3
To conclude, each culture has its own concept of time. So does Vietnam. The perception of time in Vietnam could be similar to others in this part, but in another part, it also has its idea. Further, the perception of time has much influence on working styles and the environment at the workplace. Being aware of this difference, not only Vietnam but also other countries might avoid conflicts, understand other’s behaviors and adjust their own actions accordingly.

*P/s: Just accidentally found this in those papers I've written so kinda wanna post it here. Hope it helps anyone interested.
*P/ss: Is anyone patient enough to read this? :)))

Reference:
Dao, H. (2005). Doc Francois Jullien – nghi ve thoi gian trong tam thuc nguoi Viet [Read Francois Jullien – think about time in Vietnamese mind]. Tap Chi Song Huong, 23(6). 
European Commission (n.d.). Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy. European Commission Agriculture and Rural Development. 
Huynh, V. (2015). Intercultural Communication Between Japanese and Vietnamese Employees in International Companies in Japan.  Fujisawa: Keio Research Institute.
Jullien, F. (2016). Du "temps": elements dune philosophie du vivre [Time: element of a    philosophy of living, Kim, C. & Dao, H., Trans]. Da Nang: Da Nang Publisher.
Kim, D. (2017). Chu Thoi [Time]. Ha Noi: Vietnam Writers’ Association Publisher. (Original work published 1967)
Mittag, A. (2007). Time Concepts in China. In Rusen J. (Ed.), Time and History: The Variety of Cultures (pp. 44-64). Berghahn Books.
Nguyen, D. (2009). Tri nhan thoi gian trong tieng Viet [Time related words in Vietnamese language]. Tap Chi Ngon Ngu, 30(12). 
Pham, N. (2012). Differences in perception of time and psychological conflict in multicultural communication. Tap Chi Tam Ly Hoc, 0(3), 20-29. 
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