Wherever your journey takes you, the richness of table manners is a gateway to understanding a culture. Whether you’re a guest in a friend’s home or a traveller exploring Vietnam, these essential table manners will help you make a lasting impression. Let’s delve into the intricacies of dining in Vietnam or a Vietnamese household. 

Understanding hierarchy 

My grandparents were strict about our upbringing to make sure we continued the culture and values of back home. While a lot of rules can be hard to remember, the hierarchy of Vietnamese culture is probably the most important. So, what is it? 

In a traditional Vietnamese family, there is a strong emphasis placed on respect for the family’s elders. Although it’s patriarchal in structure (with the eldest male in the family generally considered as the ‘head of the household’), respect is given to everyone older than you. This is even seen in our language, where we speak in a way that recognises this hierarchy and addresses people based on their level in the family tree. This also includes people added to the family – so the partner will be given the same ‘rank’ as the person they’re with. So you may find your best friend (if they’re older than you) being called ‘older brother’ or ‘older sister’. 

When dining in Vietnam or visiting a Vietnamese household, it’s important to understand the hierarchy. The eldest member of the family typically takes the lead, sitting at the head of the table. While the seating arrangement is usually from eldest to youngest, it’s not always the case. In such situations, the host’s guidance is crucial. By following their lead, you can navigate these customs with ease. 

Respecting the hierarchy in Vietnamese culture extends to the act of eating. Traditionally, the eldest is served first and begins eating before others join in. This is a sign of respect. To show respect and avoid offending your hosts, it’s best to follow their lead. By observing and emulating their actions, you can ensure a pleasant dining experience. For me, growing up, I couldn’t resist trying to sneak a delicious spring roll before everyone else, but I always got caught with a slap on the back of my hand! 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. So, what do you do when you first arrive?

When you arrive 

Be gracious and respectful, whether it’s a restaurant in Hanoi or a Vietnamese family home in London. There’s a few tips I’ve given out to friends travelling to Vietnam or coming to my grandparent’s house for dinner: 

  • Always be gracious and polite 
  • Don’t point to things. If you need to indicate something, use your whole hand 
  • If you’re visiting someone’s home, bring a small gift 
  • If you’re offered a gift, graciously accept it as it’s rude not to, even if you think you’re being polite – it won’t translate well! Also, don’t open it in front of your host as this can be seen as greedy. 
  • Avoid touching the head. It’s the most scared part of the body 
  • If you’re going into someone’s home, 
  • prepare to take your shoes off

What to do at the table 

As I said earlier, the eldest will sit and eat first – this isn’t usually a thing to worry about if you’re dining out in Vietnam, but if you’re sharing a table with other Vietnamese people that you know or have been introduced to, then follow the lead of everyone else always to show respect. 

When offered anything, such as a drink, a bowl, or food, always accept it with two hands. This is considered polite in Vietnamese culture.

Remember, Vietnamese cuisine focuses a lot on sharing. With your chopsticks, take the food you want from the serving plate or bowl to your own. Your bowl doesn’t have to stay firmly planted on the table. In Vietnamese culture, it isn’t considered rude to bring the bowl closer to your mouth. 

One of the more quirky rules for proper Vietnamese table manners is not leaving food on the plate. This is considered really rude. As a lot of meals are based on sharing platters, make sure you don’t take more than you can comfortably eat! I’ve often thought I was far hungrier than I was, and I ended up having to finish my bowl and be pretty uncomfortable for the rest of the evening! 

If you’re travelling in Vietnam, expect a lot of low sitting. Back home, we sit very low to the ground on small benches and stools. This is particularly true in smaller food establishments with few seats. This isn’t much of an issue in Vietnamese homes, particularly those outside of Vietnam. 

Generally speaking, in a Vietnamese household, no one can leave the table until everyone has finished, and then cleaning up is done as a group. Very old-fashioned and traditional families sometimes put the clearing-up task on the women while the men retire to a different room, but this is becoming increasingly uncommon. My grandmother certainly never allowed that, and we all chipped in! 

Dessert comes after cleaning up everything else; typically, we would have fruit or things brought over as gifts. Oh, and of course, the tea. 

Chopsticks 

Chopsticks are the utensil of choice for Vietnamese people. We use them for food preparation and eating. If you can’t use them, don’t worry. If you can, you should always follow some basic principles. I know when I didn’t, I got a stern look from my grandparents! 

Firstly, chopsticks should always be placed together and on the right-hand side. During the meal or at the end, you can place them on top of the bowl or plate. You can also rest them on the side of another dish or a chopstick rest, whatever is handy to you, and on the table. One thing to remember, though, is that chopsticks should only ever touch the food you plan to eat, so don’t leave them in a bowl or on top of food-sharing platters. 

Never use chopsticks to stab your food, as it’s considered rude; if you struggle to use them, just ask for cutlery. 

You should never leave chopsticks standing up vertically in a bowl, like a bowl of rice, as this represents the incense stick on the family shrine and represents death. 

Leave the Phil Collins impressions at home! Tapping, drum solos, pointing, sword fighting, or even waving it around like a Harry Potter wand are all signs of bad manners. In some areas, misuse of chopsticks can even represent bad luck and is said to bring poverty, which your hosts won’t appreciate! 

Never use your chopsticks to stir or dig into the sharing platters. Sharing dishes is such a common thing in Vietnam and in Vietnamese homes. Large bowls or plates of delicious items will fill the table; you can take what you want from them into your small bowl. In Vietnamese culture, sharing food is how we show we care for one another. Even though my grandparents now live in England, having fled Vietnam as Boat People, I still catch them in Western restaurants swapping plates halfway through their meal to keep that spirit alive. 

You should avoid taking food from someone else with your chopsticks. This isn’t very respectful. Instead, hold your bowl with both hands up to the person offering you food and accept it this way. 

Now you know the basics of chopstick etiquette, what type of conversation can you expect?

Table conversation 

There aren’t any typical rules for dinner table conversation that deviate from good manners in any other country. Keeping it light and friendly is the way to go! However, this is especially true if you join a family and elders are present. Be prepared for some questions that some might consider invasive! 

Drinking during mealtime 

I grew up with very few rules regarding drinks during mealtimes. The only one I really remember is that you serve your elders before pouring for yourself. Dinner consists of any drink you like, most likely alcohol or water. After a meal, it is very common to be served tea. My grandparents always drink herbal, green, or bitter melon tea after a meal. 

Summary of rules to remember to be the perfect guest 

  1. The oldest sits and eats first 
  2. Take your shoes off in a Vietnamese home
  3. Don’t play with your chopsticks – no drum solos, no waving them about and don’t hold them directly upright
  4. Don’t leave food (especially if no one else does!)
  5. Express gratitude
  6. Be prepared for some personal questions! 
  7. If you’re serving drinks, serve the eldest before yourself

Don’t panic!

Growing up I distinctly remember getting a light rap on the knuckles from my grandparents for getting these rules wrong – but don’t panic! That won’t happen to you in Vietnam or someone’s home. Showing respect goes a long way, though, and your host will be incredibly appreciative if you show yourself to at least be trying. No one will fault you for getting it muddled!