Beside many beauties Vietnam offers, one of the important reasons to travel Vietnam is Vietnamese people’s friendliness. For years so far Vietnamese have been famed all over the world for our hospitality, politeness, generosity and grace.
Traveling to Vietnam, the locals are so friendly that you can rest assured that we will make every possible effort to make your time in Vietnam enjoyable and unforgettable. Either travelers who just visit the country for a few days or expats who work and live for months or years, you will not be too surprised to be invited to visit and have meal with local families. That’s one of the nice traditions of Vietnamese people.
Many of my expat friends ask me what to do when they are invited to have dinner with a Vietnamese family for the first time. Same as other countries, we should know some basic rules of how to best behave when being invited to dinner. So what should we note when going to dine dinner with a Vietnamese family, at their home?
Have dinner with a Vietnamese family: the 10 things to note:
1. When you are invited to have dinner with a Vietnamese family. The first thing to consider is “is that a true invitation”. Yes you read it right! Vietnamese people are so friendly and hospitable. Too hospitable that sometimes they invite you to have a meal with them as a sign of saying hello. For example when you suddenly appear at their place without prior notice, and they are having a meal, they will definitely invite you to eat with them.
But in that case the invitation here should be understood as a sign of friendliness, a saying hello rather than a real invitation. A true dining invitation should be given long enough before you visit, so they can prepare food accordingly. And be well prepared, there will be more food than you would imagine. Vietnamese people treasure their guests so much that they always worry there won’t be enough food for dinner.
2. Going to have dinner with a Vietnamese family you don’t have to bring anything. They will prepare more than enough food and drinks. But in case you feel a must to bring something to express your appreciation, a basket of fruits, a bottle of wine or some pines of beer should work well. The host will open the wine to show his thanks and fruits will be served for after dinner. Never bring food or your host will think you don’t value the food they prepare for you. And flowers are not working in this case too. Unless you know for sure you hosts cannot live without flowers.
3. When it’s time to sit for dinner. Guest always sit after the oldest person in the family. And everyone waits until he/she eats the first bite. That is a sign of respect! A well-practiced habit during Vietnamese meal. Also, youngers should say: “Have a good meal” to the elders before eating. Men who drink always drink some wine or beer first before they eat. And it is recommended to eat some vegetable first before the meat, although everything is already placed on the table.
4. During meal the elders or your host will now and then pick up food and place to your bowl. Don’t reject that food as it is a sign their kind heart and hospitality. Hosts always save up the best bites for their guests. And they will keep doing that as they worry you are shy and don’t know how to eat things. In case there is too much food in your bowl already and you want to try something else, just gently cover your bowl with your palm in a polite way and hope that they will stop. NO they won’t. Haha. Your bowl will still be filled with food anyway.
5. If you are a vegetarian of have some allergies or there are some types of food that you don’t like to eat, you should tell your hosts before coming to dinner, not on the spot of dinner. Being a vegan, a vegetarian or especially having allergies is something totally unfamiliar to Vietnamese people. It will be extremely difficult to explain to some elder Vietnamese that you don’t eat some kind of food. They won’t understand. Unless you are a monk. Once you sit at the table they will default that you’ll eat everything.
Disaster for vegans I guess! Always save yourself and your diet by informing them before you have dinner with a Vietnamese family. So your host will have preparation accordingly.
6. Traditionally Vietnamese people always have shared meals, meaning everyone shares everything on the table. It is totally acceptable to pick food with chopsticks from a shared dish or bowl. Sharing one small bowl of dipping sauce is not unhygienic. It is a sign of a mutual habit of Vietnamese people. So no matter how civilized you are, don’t ask for a private dipping sauce bowl or anything like that. Believe me Vietnamese people have been doing that for over 4000 years and we are still alive: D
7. I know in western culture it is not nice to leave food. That’s a waste. But eating with a Vietnamese family you should always leave some food on the dishes. Why? If you clean up everything your hosts will think that you are still hungry and there’s not enough food. They will prepare some more even you are too full. But if you leave too much food that will be an obvious sign of “the food is not good”. And guess what? Your hosts will go prepare some other food for you! Face palm!
8. Now this is the funny part when it comes to drinking. Eating dinner with a Vietnamese family you are supposed to drink some alcohol if you are a man. Even you never touch a single drop of wine in your life. Well I know it’s next to impossible to find one like that but hey, anything can happen right?! Your host will prepare more than enough alcohol drink, normally rice wine or what they call moonshines. Moonshines will be served in shots and you are supposed to bottom up the shot every time they cheer.
And never drink alone! I mean take your shot and drink it without anyone joining you. In Vietnam we all drink at the same time. Cheer by clinking the shots altogether and bottom up. And make sure you lower you moonshine shot when clinking it with an elderly, and do it with both hands. That’s to show respect. A woman drinking? That’s something rare in Vietnam! And if you ladies like to drink, surprise your host and the whole family by drink together with the men.
The eating atmosphere will be very more cheerful then! But don’t go too far! It is totally a norm when men get drunk. But not REALLY acceptable for women to do the same don’t ask me why
9. It is not nice if you finish eating too quickly or too slowly. Be moderate! Try to figure out how everyone around you eat and try to finish the meal at the same time with them. Normally women and children will finish first and leave the table for the men for “extra wine and talk”. If you are a man still joining the drinking you don’t have to worry about that. But if you are a lady and want to finish your meal, that’s a good chance to do it. Join the women to prepare desert or remain at the table talking.
Sometimes you’ll see youngers cross their arms and slightly bow to the elderly. That’s a sign of “I’m full now”. Can you do it? No! You are a guest and you’re supposed to eat more haha.
10. Vietnam culture was influenced by Chinese Confucianism for a thousand years. As a result occasionally you can still see women and children eat separately from the men, especially in some countryside of Vietnam. Respect that tradition and don’t try to get them eat altogether! Differences in cultures are unique and you are not there trying to change it.
Those are the brief 10 things to remember when you are invited to have dinner with a Vietnamese family. Of course there are more to note and I will mention them in one of my entry soon in the near future. And if you are going to dine with my family in my house, the only rule you have to remember is: No matter what the questions are, beer is always the answer! Drink on my friends!
By Pham Tuyen