When I first visited Vietnam, I remember the first time I ate outside of a foreigner-friendly restaurant in the real Vietnam. It was late at night while a friend and I traveled on a bus between Ho Chi Minh and Dalat. We stopped at a large bus-stop with dozens of local-style restaurants and hundreds of people eating in a giant open-air mess-hall.
When our food arrived, we had to sneakily study the local Vietnamese around us as they ate: How were they touching their food? Which hand held their spoons? How were things shared? All of these things needed to be deduced before we could eat and not look stupid or rude.
That was at a super-casual canteen — had we been at a big social event or family-gathering, it would have been impossible for us not to be extremely rude according to Vietnamese customs.
Learn from our mistakes and wisdom: use these 24 tips to not embarrass yourself while eating in Vietnam, and to learn which home-country-habits you can try to unlearn so you don’t stare shockingly at Vietnamese people while they do things that are normal in Vietnam.
Don’t burp in public in Vietnam
Discrete, natural burps are okay in Vietnam among very close friends and family. But, unlike in some neighbouring Asian countries, Vietnamese culture does not condone public burping.
Don’t eat before old people
You should always eat after the most senior person has invited you to eat. If you don’t, you’ll be snickered as an “uneducated brat”.
This deference to the elderly is so important in Vietnam that it forces Vietnamese kids returning from school to wait until their parents return home from work before they can eat anything, except small snacks.
Learn more about the importance of age and politeness in Vietnamese society, especially through language.
Do serve the oldest person first
If you are reading this blog, chances are you will be on the receiving-end of Vietnamese hospitality, rather than hosting others. Nonetheless, if you are hosting others in Vietnam, be sure to serve the eldest person first, before dishing-out food to others.
Do wait for everyone to be present before eating
Most countries have this convention. This is especially important if you are hosting a gathering. But, even as a guest, be patient and don’t sneak little bits while everyone is waiting.
Do learn how to effectively use chopsticks
The Vietnamese consider it very impressive to see a Westerner effectively using chopsticks. You don’t have to be a master, but simply having child-like competencies to feed and serve yourself is considered amazing. People will be visibly impressed and you’ll earn their respect.
Don’t double-dip your spoon or chopsticks in the common dishes
You wouldn’t do this in the USA or Europe either, and neither should you do it in Vietnam. Usually, there is a serving-spoon for the common dishes used to serve everyone; so use those.
If there aren’t common utensils, and or things that you can’t spooned onto your dish (like noodles or rolls or large chunks of food) you should use the other end of your chopsticks to move food-items from the common-dish to your plate. If you are properly holding your chopsticks in the middle of the sticks, then the wide-ends should theoretically be clean and appropriate for touching common things. Vietnamese do this chopstick-rotation-manoeuvre deftly without awkwardly passing the sticks back-and-forth between their hands. So, practice this manoeuvre ahead of time.
The exception is for close families and old people: they can double-dip. Among acquaintances and colleagues, don’t double dip.
Do use the right-hand for chopsticks and the left-hand for the spoon
The Vietnamese use a spoon and chopsticks at the same time to manipulate their food. The best way I can describe it is as follows:
- the spoon is used as the foundation of a food-pile;
- the chopsticks are used to assemble ingredients together on the spoon.
For example, when eating bun nem, you ideally want to consume all four components (spring roll, noodle, sauce, and fresh-herbs) together at the same time in one bite. So, the spoon is used to hold some sauce/soup, and the chopsticks are used to build a small pile of other ingredients on the spoon, which is then lifted to your mouth to ingest them in one or two bites.
How is this different from the West? In the West, a spoon is used more or less independently, meant to take items directly from the plate/bowl to your face, whereas in Vietnam, the chopsticks are constantly adding items to the spoon, prior to eating from the spoon.
Don’t eat directly from common bowls
Always serve food to your plate fist, then eat from your plate. This should be a no-brainer for most Westerners.
Do chew your food with your mouth open in Vietnam
It must be my upbringing, but I can’t help think that it is funny to see an otherwise sharp-looking person chomping away with their mouth agape like a cow. In Vietnam, I’ve had to learn to suppress this feeling and instead focus on much more important manners, such as…
Don’t make loud slurping sounds while eating noodles
You wouldn’t do this in the West either, but it can be difficult for some Asian people from countries like Japan, where making slurping sounds is considered an earnest expression of how much you are enjoying your meal, and an implicit compliment to the host/chief.
In Vietnam, keep your chewing and chomping sounds to a minimum.
Do lean into your bowl while eating soup and noodles in Vietnam
It is considered proper to lean into your bowl of soup/noodles. If you don’t, you risk making a mess on the table. Part of the benefit of this is that you can have long strands of food dangling from your mouth into your bowl.
This is shocking for Anglo-world citizens who were raised according to Victorian stiff-backed mannerisms. Similarly, in some Asian countries, like Taiwan, they call leaning into your bowl “eating like a dog”.
But, it is normal and expected in Vietnam.
Don’t laugh at the toilet paper at the table
It is common in Vietnam and other East-Asian countries, such as South Korea, to use toilet paper for more than just toilet-things: they don’t make a fine distinction between tissues for one’s hands, nose, etc. Therefore, do not be shocked if there is toilet paper sitting at an eating table.
This is more common in cheap, local-style restaurants and family-tables, and not so much at finer establishments that may host a foreigner.
Do touch the following Vietnamese foods with your fingers
Like any food-culture, there are certain things that you can pick with your hands, and other things that are meant for forks or chopsticks. Use the following guide for things you can (and cannot) touch with your fingers:
- boiled chicken (and other bony things)
- most seafood (crabs, oysters)
- most banh food (e.g. sandwiches)
- large summer-rolls
- do not eat spring-rolls with you hands (use chopsticks)
Don’t “flagpole” your chopsticks in your food
If you are going to temporarily put-down your chopsticks, do not stick them into your food, like a spear into the ground. If this seems like a convenient way to prop them up, your guests have a different interpretation: it symbolizes a tomb! You are wishing death upon the host’s house. You will never be invited back again.
Learn more about common Vietnamese superstitions.
Instead, place put the chopsticks together and lay them down laterally on the plate or bowl.
Do put ketchup (or other intense sauces) on bland food
In the West, if someone goes through the effort of preparing a fancy meal, and a guest resorts to putting ketchup on it, it signifies that the food is bland and needs a cheap quick fix in order to make it palatable. For example, Donald Trump was famously excoriated for putting ketchup on his stake.
This is not the case in Vietnam. The Vietnamese love sauce-variety and will use any sauce they want (especially ketchup) in order to liven-up their meal. The host will not be insulted if you try and add a variety of sauces to your food.
Don’t “forage” for the best foods in common dishes
It is rude to pick through the common-dishes looking for the best cuts of meat or to exclude veggie-stems or whatever. Don’t do this. Just close your eyes and get a big anonymous serving and hope for the best. Treat it like a lottery, not a game to solve.
The exception, of course, is for old people. Which leads to our next point…
Don’t mimic the behaviour of old people
In the West, you may have the idea that the elderly have the most internal fortitude and strongest adherence to traditional manners. So, why not mimic old peoples’ behaviour in a foreign culture? Shouldn’t they have the best manners?
The opposite is true for Vietnam: there is such reverence and deference to old people that they are allowed to behave in ways that are otherwise considered rude. For example, most of the “Do Not”s in this list can be safely spurned by the elderly. So, don’t mimic what they do.
Do place your elbows on the table (maybe)
This seems to be a matter of small contention. But, at the very least, elbows on the table doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal. You can check with other people your own age or slightly younger to verify how they behave.
Don’t use your phone at the table
If you are sharing food with colleagues or friends’ families, don’t use your phone, unless somehow you are the oldest person at the table.
Do talk a lot at the table
Chit-chat is encouraged and expected during meals in Vietnam.
Do drink whenever the host drinks (for men)
According to Vietnamese drinking customs, all the men must drink together after a hearty Cheers! Don’t do a cheers! and then put down the glass without drinking: that is very disrespectful.
For men, the expectation is that you must drink with the host, and drink with gumption, even if the drinking has become too intense and you’re worried about embarrassing yourself. If you don’t, don’t expect to be invited to drink again.
A relatively new excuse is to call yourself the “designated driver”. Vietnam has just recently begun taking drunk driving very seriously and is promoting the (new) idea of designated drivers.
Don’t comment on the food being anything but good
Do not be honest. Do not say that certain items are too spicy for you or that you don’t like meat, etc. Just compliment the greatness of the food, period.
Do drink the remaining liquid from your bowl
I love this about Vietnam. It does look a little uncouth according to my Western sensibilities, but I nonetheless enjoy the efficiency of drinking the last ml of soup from my bowl, rather than painstakingly spooning it out, as is expected in Canada.
Don’t lick your plate or bowl or utensils to clean them
In some cultures, licking utensils and bowls is a polite sign of gratitude for how much you appreciated the food, like in northern India where one can literally scrap the inside of one’s bowls with one’s finger and suck it off as a sign of good manners. Behaviour like this is definitely not appropriate in Vietnam.
You can lick your utensils discretely, however. Just don’t show your tongue.
Do push your chair to the table
When you are finished eating and ready to leave, be sure to push your seat back under the table, but not when you are just pausing and going to the restroom.
The above rules pertain to guests. The following ettiquettes and norms are more for suited to hosts. They can help you understand what will happen at a large gathering, like a birthday party or Tet meal.
Vietnamese Norms at Large Meals & Gatherings
The Vietnamese love to dine on the floor
The Vietnamese typically have small tables that are used for everyday meals. For big occasions, like birthday parties and Tet, a Vietnamese household will clear the floor, lay out a special mat, and everyone will sit crossed-legged in a large circle with their shoes-off.
People love this, especially the men — somehow, the thought is that sitting on the floor is more comfortable and easier to relax and eat and drink for long periods of time.
Vietnamese formal meals have lots of dishes, big and small, all served together
For a big formal meal, with many guests, the standard is to have at least 4-5 dishes. If you only serve one or two dishes, it will be considered bad.
The standard meal is to have 1 main stable (rice or noodle), 1-2 types of veggie dishes, 1-2 main courses (meat, eggs, seafood, spring rolls) and then a few side dishes (pickles, peanuts, chutneys/sauces, kim-chi, fresh herbs). These are all set out on multiple plates and everyone takes a little food to their plate as they consume them, rather than loading-up their plates in big rounds, as in the West (i.e. no “go for seconds”).
One good thing (or bad thing, if you are waste-conscientious) about big Vietnamese meals is the pressure to serve way more food than necessary. You can see this excessiveness and gluttony in hot-pot restaurants. This mentality is a relic of periods of war and the socialist “Subsidy Era” of food shortages, where large formal gatherings were once the only time during the year when Vietnamese could eat a full meal and/or meat: a true feast in the fairy-tale sense of the word.
This feast-level-gluttony has carried-over to today’s capitalist Vietnam where food is plentiful, and big feast-level meals can happen anytime there are a few guests. The downside is that there is a lot of wasted food.
Set-out small plates for scraps and discards
For a proper meal, it is expected that there will be little plates beside guests where they can place their discards, such as bones and inedible stems. Vietnamese people will feel awkward and not know what to do with them if they aren’t provisioned with such plates, and the party will be deemed uncomfortable and the host bad.
Tables for men and women and children
For very large gatherings (>20 people) which logistically necessitate sitting guests at multiple tables, the Vietnamese convention is to let the men sit with the men, the women with the women, and the children with children.
Some Westerners may think this is sexist: it isn’t! Instead, it is a pragmatic arrangement reflecting the fact that Vietnamese women generally have more fun together and talk about different things than men, likewise Vietnamese men generally drink more and have more fun with men, and likewise with children.
If you cannot stomach this reality, and want to impose an “everyone must be the same” arrangement, then you’d better compensate via awesomeness in everything else in order to have an enjoyable party.
North vs South: the North tends to care more about etiquette
In general, Northern cities like Hanoi tend to be more strict and observant of traditional mannerisms as compared to the south, especially among progressive scrappy cities like Ho Chi Minh City (somewhat analogous to New England vs. California). Also, the former imperial capital of Hue is famous for its haute-culture mannerisms.
Therefore, you may need to dial-up or dial-down your etiquette if you are dining with a family in the north vs the south.
LEARN MORE about the cultural differences between North and South Vietnam