Vietnam Week: The Nosiest Question

Walk along any street anywhere in Vietnam and you’re bound to see someone picking their nose.

When I first announced I was taking questions for Vietnam Week on my blog, I was inundated with emails about nose-picking. It was far and away the number one topic that people brought up.

Image from Dennis1901's Flickr album

“Why, oh, why, do people think it’s acceptable to pick their nose in public?????” Was the basic gist of most questions from horrified tourists and expats whose stomachs had been churned one too many times by the sight of a public excavation.

I have asked Darling Man this question in the past and he’d replied with a semi-evasive “I don’t do it” and “not everyone does it”.

But I thought I’d put it to him in a more formal manner and he replied with the simple and direct “it’s dirty in Vietnam, so people’s noses get dirty”. And this is very true. Even my nose gets dirty in Vietnam from all the exhaust fumes and dust.

So we know why noses need cleaning in Vietnam. The question still remains – why clean your nose in public?

I think part of the answer is that in Vietnam, there is so little personal privacy that there would not be much opportunity to pick your nose in private.

Many generations of a family typically share a house, often all sleeping in the same room. Everyone would share a small cramped bathroom, with only a small mirror. And the living room of most houses opens directly onto the street. And when I say open, I mean the room usually has three walls because the third “wall” is the door, which has to be wide enough to get your motorbikes into the house.

Another part of the answer is that most of Vietnam is still mired in poverty. There are so many many things that take priority before the “don’t pick your nose in public” rule, things like getting clean drinking water and earning enough to feed your family. Telling a child not to pick its nose in public is just not front-of-mind for many parents.

Think about this: if you developed a sudden itch on your arm, you’d scratch it without giving it much thought at all, even if you were at work or out with your friends. It’s just not that big a deal. If the itch was somewhere else, somewhere “private”, you would not automatically scratch it, you would use the conscious part of your brain to work out what to do about the itch.

In the same way, I don’t think the public nose pickers of Vietnam are even aware that they’re doing it. It’s just a subconscious reaction to having a dirty nose.

Darling Man is also correct when he says that not everyone does it. He says he thinks public nose picking is revolting and he doesn’t like to see it, and that’s what many of my Vietnamese friends and former colleagues told me in the past — it’s a dirty habit that makes them feel sick. Especially when a waiter or waitress does it in plain view.

After riding around on the back of a motorbike all morning, then spending so much time thinking about noses, mine is so terribly itchy. Thank goodness we are rich enough to have a bit of privacy! Excuse me while I step into the other room.

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12 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. Snap says:

    This may explain the long nails on some men, grown and shaped to a nice sharp point?
    Snap recently posted..So we came all the way back, just to go back – Cambodia

  2. Sophie says:

    Part of visiting – or living in – another country is to accept these kind of cultural differences, surely. In some Western countries, people put their feet on a table (with shoes on, even). I think that’s even more disgusting.
    Sophie recently posted..Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery: a memorial to a cruel past

  3. Dayna says:

    Interesting take on the situation! I’m sure every country has random things that gross other cultures out, but this one wouldn’t bother me unless it was possibly my waitress. I’d rather have someone’s shoes on my table (but not my plate)! =) Great article.
    Dayna recently posted..From Princes to Paupers – Meeting Counts and Vagabonds in Transylvania

  4. Since I’ve never been to Vietnam, I’ve never witnessed the public nose-picking — always interested in learning something new. I’ve always found it amusing that people in the U.S. (not me — really) pick their noses in their cars.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..A Quieter Side of Prague

  5. Laurel says:

    This made me laugh. in Thailand the men even keep the nail on the pinkie finger extra long for this purpose. Do they do that in Vietnam as well?
    Laurel recently posted..Germany’s Most Playful Piece of Architecture?

  6. Euan says:

    It’s not the nose picking that bothers me, it’s the spot-popping in Moped wing-mirrors! That really gets me squirming!

    • Barbara says:

      Well, the thing is, the only mirror they probably have access to is their motorbike mirrors. Just look away, that’s the only thing you can do if it bothers you.

  7. Andrea says:

    I don’t think I’m as tolerant as everyone else here, I’m afraid – waiters picking their noses is pretty offensive – the nose is where dangerous staph bacteria likes to hang out…guess I won’t be shaking any hands if we go to Vietnam… I realize there are differences in other cultures but it would be hard for me not to be grossed out in this case.
    Andrea recently posted..Losing Weight After a Year of Travel

  8. James Cook says:

    It can be horrible how dirty your nose can get. When on the London underground if I blow my nose it comes out black!

  9. Justin says:

    Young students in China used to have puddles of spit next to their desks after a 40 minute class. I learned quickly to get over it. No sense in driving myself nuts with wonder! To each his own.

    I’m just impressed you nabbed these images!
    Justin recently posted..How The Pros Store And Manage Their Travel Photos

    • Barbara says:

      Oh, spit on the floor is pretty gross. You really do need to get used to that kind of stuff though, otherwise you just end up miserable for no good reason.

  10. Love it! I have some good nose picking shots myself 😛
    Nomadic Samuel recently posted..Smiling Local | Norte Argentino | Travel Photo

  11. Laura says:

    LOL, interesting pick for a post.

  12. Revathy says:

    hahahaha! Great blog and very funny post.

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