When a foreign friend asked me recently, ‘What is the dining etiquette at a Vietnamese family meal?’, I had to admit that I’d never really thought about it. I wondered whether the idea of ‘table manners’ could ever have existed in our culture, given that we mostly eat while sitting on a bamboo mat and use chopsticks rather than differing cutlery. So I replied: ‘Just enjoy being yourself!’
With Tet on the horizon you’re sure to be invited by friends to gatherings at their home, where every effort will be made to indulge you, the guest of honour, in eating and drinking. If you already know that you won’t be able to get through a huge portion of sticky rice cake (banh chung), it’s best to let your friend know beforehand, otherwise once you’ve sat down it’s almost impossible to say ‘no’ to an insistent host.
So keep calm and enjoy the feast!
Only recently, when Sarah, one of my best friends, came to visit me from Sweden, did the idea of what Vietnamese dining customs might be really strike me.
Instead of suggesting she stay in an Old Quarter hotel, I took Sarah to my parents’ home in a typical northern village 40 km from Hanoi, so she could experience ‘real country life’. I’d forgotten, though, to tell my family that the only meat Sarah touches is fish, so at the very first meal to welcome her my mother had prepared a feast of meat dishes. ‘Eat. Please eat. There’s no meat inside, just a tiny bit of pork,’ my mum urged her, putting a spring roll in her bowl. I laughed and watched Sarah’s reaction while mum insisted the guest of honour sample almost every dish she had prepared. The chopsticks in Sarah’s hand clattered and she looked at me, uncertain how to decline without causing offence.
Over the next few days there were also other awkward moments when Sarah could not decide if she should accept another refill of rice wine from my dad, where she should put the chopsticks when she was done, whether she could take the last piece of food on the dish, or if she could refuse another bowl of rice. Every day during her stay she asked me tons of questions about dining Vietnamese style, most of which I had always taken for granted as a part of my upbringing.
I began thinking about my mother’s and even my grandmother’s lessons in etiquette. Though Vietnam’s dining culture is quite informal, without too many dos and don’ts, there are always a few rules of thumb to stay on the right side of your hosts. The basic principles during meals were thankfully passed down to me by my mum and grandmother during my childhood, not by boring, written-in-stone rules but through a collection of folk tales and old sayings.
Firstly, when visiting a Vietnamese family for a meal, especially in the countryside, be prepared to sit on a bamboo mat on the floor. The saying ‘watch the pot when eating, watch the direction when sitting’ reminds one that you should always check when and where it is appropriate to sit down and pick up the chopsticks. Eating will generally not start until everyone is present, especially the older people.
Traditionally, the head of the family sits next to the guest of honour in the most prominent place, while the mother or eldest daughter will be in charge of serving rice, the staple which, in my mother’s words, everyone should have at least two servings of per meal.
Dining in a Vietnamese home is always a communal experience and, even more than that, an important family ritual, as the saying has it that ‘even a lightning strike avoids meals’. Normally, the whole family will sit in a circle surrounding a banquet of dishes. As a general rule, the best food is reserved for guests and placed into their bowl. If there is no serving spoon, the host should always use the other end of their chopsticks.
Even if you are not so skilled when it comes to using chopsticks, they should be held from the mid-point upwards. Tapping the bowl on the side with your chopsticks, putting an empty bowl upside down, or sticking your chopsticks vertically into the middle of a bowl of rice are definite no-no’s, as they’re associated with death or funerals. It is superstitiously believed that the sound of tapping chopsticks will summon up the dead, while an upside down bowl resembles the image of a grave, and putting chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice is a custom only practiced at funerals.
Eating in the Vietnamese way is all about keeping a balance between ying and yang; a combination of fresh herbs, sweet, sour and savoury, cool and hot, and fresh and fermented, with the all-powerful fish sauce ever present. The national condiment is always presented at the centre of the food tray and often diluted slightly with a splash of lime juice, sugar, bird’s eye chilli and sometimes garlic, blending five fundamental taste elements. A willingness to try the rich-flavoured fish sauce is a sign that you absolutely appreciate Vietnam’s food culture and will be very much welcomed by your host. It is best to keep in mind that one should not pour any dipping sauce directly into the rice bowl, instead dipping the food into the sauce. Taking a piece of food from the plate and putting it directly in your mouth is also considered bad form. Place it in your bowl first, mix it with some steamed rice or vegetables, and the taste will be even better. ‘Chewing while eating, thinking when speaking’ recommends you eat slowly with small pieces and it is customary for Vietnamese to hold their rice bowl in one hand and the chopsticks in the other, and while eating it is better to keep the rice bowl close to your mouth.
Though few expectations are placed on foreigners, being equipped with a little Vietnamese etiquette can make your dining experiences in the country much more pleasant. As with any other culture in the world, it is universally a good thing to complement the host’s cooking talent. Keeping the conversation going, asking questions about recipes for a specific dish, their origin, their ingredients, how the food is prepared, and showing excitement when sampling a new dish are all great tips. And, of course, practice makes perfect.