My parents raised us with a moderately-high level of formality. Whenever there were guests in the house, we were paraded in front of them, made to stand in a row and bow. If we visited other people’s homes, we were expected to be quiet and polite, no matter how bored we got. When I misbehaved at the table, my mother would put a very very firm grip on my leg to convey her disapproval. With five children in our family, there was plenty of horsing around. However, we had to don our public faces when appropriate.
The photo above is of the grandson of a friend of my mother's. He enjoys his food with gusto and around his age (I venture that he was around 8 when I snapped the shot in Saigon), he eats with one hand on his hip!
Having lived in America for most of my life, the manners from my childhood have relaxed over the years. Nevertheless, certain behaviors endure at the table because we relive all the eating experiences of the past whenever we sit down to a meal. Here are some Vietnamese table manners and etiquette that I can’t quite shake:
Polishing chopsticks at a restaurant – When eating out at a Vietnamese restaurant, one of the first things I do is grab some chopsticks and rub them with a paper napkin to make sure that they’re clean. Then I set the chopsticks down on a clean paper napkin in front of each person. I do the same thing with a soup spoon. On the rare occasion that I’ve not polished the plastic utensils out of a sense of embarrassment, I found junk on the utensils.
The man is first – It’s not THE MAN but the man. My father always sits at the prominent spot at the table and served first. He still does this, but he also seats my husband and other males around him at one end of the table. Actually, Dad is in charge of the seating arrangement and when we’re dining with my parents, we always wait for him to inform us where to sit; there’s a fluctuating number of family members at the table since we all don’t live at home.
When eating at home, I often find myself serving my husband first and he’ll inevitably thank me and tell me, “Hey, you didn’t need to do that.” But I did and it’s hard to stop.
Both hands on the table – Western table etiquette says that you are not supposed to put both hands and elbows on the table. I learned that in elementary school and from watching lots of American television shows. So it was that I started eating with only one hand on the table. When my mother caught me, she told me that you have to have both hands on the table during a Vietnamese meal because otherwise, (1) you cannot pick up your rice bowl and use chopsticks at the same time, (2) you cannot use all your fingers to wrap up food in banh trang rice paper and lettuce, and (3) other people won’t know what your other hand is up to under the table.
Trying to remember to keep one or two hands on the table depending on the cultural situation and its rules of etiquette has been akin to learning to be ambidextrous. I’m not great at it. Forgive me if you see both of my hands on your table.
Setting a ‘proper’ Vietnamese table – Years ago, I was astounded to find out that other Vietnamese people ate their meals with just a rice bowl and chopsticks set out for each person. At my mother’s table, each place setting included a salad plate with a rice bowl centered on top. To the right, there was a perfectly aligned set of matching chopsticks and a soup spoon. That was proper Vietnamese table manners, even though our rice bowls were the cheap free ones we got from the Asian market and the chopsticks were plastic made to look like ivory. My mom’s practical argument is that you have to put the unwanted bits of food (bones, skin, etc.) somewhere – preferable not the table surface and the floor. She also wanted to maintain a certain dignity in the midst of our rather modest immigrant living conditions.
In Vietnam, food trash is often directly put on the table or dropped onto the floor and someone comes along to clean it up later. At casual eateries, you’re mostly given a rice bowl and chopsticks to eat with. I’ve never tried to throw or spit my bits out, but I have tried to set our table with just rice bowls and chopsticks. Rory, my non-Vietnamese husband, always complains that it doesn’t feel right and slides a salad plate underneath each bowl.
Personalize food before eating – Vietnamese cuisine is a highly personal one in that “you CAN have it your way,” as the Burger King motto goes. Before diving into a bowl of pho, I go through the ritual of adding bean sprouts, torn herb leaves, and chile slices. I love to mix up a little dipping sauce at the table or tweak one that’s been set out. With western foods such as a hamburger, I often take a good 5 minutes to arrange all the garnishes to get them just the way I like it. I love buffets because you can freely make your own food and flavors. It’s fun to personalize and tinker with your food, even if other people are nearly halfway done with theirs before you take your first bite.
When it comes to eating Vietnamese food, I don’t know if there are general rules as much as parameters. On the other hand, we each set up a little personal set of rules based upon childhood experiences and personal preferences. They’re hard to change but then, why?
Do you have quirky or not-so-quirky table manners/rituals to share?