For the first time, you are invited to a Hanoi home for a co or feast and are not quite sure what to expect or how to behave. Here are some tips.
The more traditional way
Co meals are special and elaborate feasts different from banquets. Both feasts and banquets are held on special occasions such as Tet and weddings. But banquets are more Westernized. They are usually held on the merry occasions, sometimes having to do with government, business or professional life and tend to be preferred by the younger generation. At a banquet, people stand or sit around tables covered with white tablecloths, eating and toasting each other. Sometimes banquets include and award-giving ceremony and speeches.
Feast, on the other hand, are arranged according to Vietnamese traditions. Vietnamese organize feasts for important event such as Tet, weddings, birthdays, thoi noi (weaning a baby from the cradle), house warming, shop openings and death day anniversaries.
Feast often take place in someone’s home. The food is arranged on bronze or aluminum trays, which are then set on tables, beds or on mats on the floor. Usually four, five or six people sit around each tray. This number may differ in other localities, but according to general belief in Hanoi, an even number is not. The number of people enjoying one tray at a feast rarely reaches seven, except when someone brings along a child. The host at particularly sumptuous feast presents distinguished guests with extra food.
A hospitable host
The lost cordially welcomes guest when they arrive. Of course, guest will not have forgotten to bring a gift for their host. Since the host will be ridiculed if he offers a disappointing feast, he is very careful to make sure that everything is arranged properly. The worst face for a host is that the number of guests falls short of those invited-such an occurrence will affect the whole family’s reputation.
The host receives guests at the tea table both at the beginning and at the end of the feast. During the feast, the host’s family members help the guests with food, fish sauce, chili, lemon, pepper or toothpicks. In the past they offered guest could wash and dry their hands before and after the feast. More recently, paper towels steeped in perfume are prepared for the guest to wipe their dishes and dry their hands and mouths.
At the beginning of the feast, the host makes a short introductory speech and invites the guests to raise their glasses in toasts. Some families create new names for the traditional courses that will be served-for instance “shuttle in water” for fish. At another family’s feast, a big bowl covered with red paper may be set in the middle of the food tray: when the feast starts, the red paper will be cut of with a sharp knife.
Guests should arrive, nicely dressed and behave in an appropriate manner. Since feast are celebrations,, guests should bring a happy attitude and a radiant face to the meal. In the past, female guests wore along gauze dress and the men, a pleated turban. Nowadays, women wear a velvet or silk ao dai and men, a suit with tie and polished shoes. Guest should take off their hats and sometimes even their shoes when entering. Women should see that their hair is nicely set and their faces delicately made up.
Etiquette is of paramount importance. People never eat much at feast even though they might have to eat again at home. Legend has it that a girl who once lived on Hang Bac Street halved a bean sprout and slowly ate each half to show her politeness.
Guest traditionally foods help each other, serving foods to others sitting around the tray. Before a guest has finished once choice morsel, his neighbors around the tray will serve him another. A guest who finds this inconvenient can say “Let me enjoy the feast naturally,” or the host may say, “Eat naturally, and help yourself.” When enjoying a feast, take the smaller pieces of food first.
Hanoians helping others to food or taking sticky rice into their own bowls may use the top end of their chopsticks, although these days hosts often serve sticky rice with a spoon. Put down your chop-sticks before pouring soup in to your own bowl. Sucking chopsticks and chewing noisily are impolite. A polite person eats and drinks moderately so that he will not become drunk or so full that he belches in public. When using a toothpick, cover the mouth with one hand.
The standard menu
The eight traditional foods on a feast tray are bong: squid, soup of mushroom and shark’s fin: bamboo- shoot stew: steamed chicken: potato: gia cay and mien noodles. The eight traditional platters will include boiled chicken: fried chicken and potato and salad: cha que, cha mo: papaya salad: stir-fried garlic celery or cauliflower, roasted pork: fried spring rolls, and fish in clay pot. A dish of herbs usually accompanies these dishes. Steamed sticky rice, of course, is indispensable at a feast. The host usually prepares sticky rice with monadic or coconut and sesame, but not will back beans or cassava. Recently, compressed steamed sticky rice and banh chung have become popular at feasts. Various condiments-lemon, chili, black pepper, herbs, salt, fish sauce, fried peanuts, trimmed vegetable pickles-serve every guest’s preferences.
It’s difficult to imagine a feast without rice liquor. Vietnamese rarely drink champagne and red wine at feasts. In recent years, beer has become a popular drink for both feasts and banquets, and since 1975, the southern custom of dropping ice into beer has grown common even in traditional Hanoi.
A fully laden Hanoi feast tray is a harmonious combination of colors: the ivory white of pigskin: the dark brown of squid: the black of mushroom: the saffron yellow of chicken: the green of lemon leaves, herbs and salad: the red of monodrama-steamed sticky rice: the orange of carrot: and the dark yellow of bamboo shoots. These colors create a feast for the eyes just as the dishes themselves do for the stomach. Just imagine the diverse aromas, flavors and textures of mushrooms: the aromatic smell of fresh lemon and pepper: the softness of gio lua; the fragility of roasted meat: the crunchiness of almonds: the sourness of salad: and the softness of well-done bamboo shoots. The colors and fragrances rising from steaming bowls and platters appeal to all the senses and to the wish to share pleasure with others.
The occasion for mutual happiness
The host has further duties as the feast progresses. Guest sitting around a feast tray may be the host’s friends, yet strangers to each other. The host will introduce each one to the others. Thanks to the encouragement of rice liquor, modestly imbibed, everybody talks to each other, making the feast cheerful for the participants and successful for the host.
A traditional Vietnamese feast is a happy combination of the restrained and the proper: the host urges his guests to eat more while the guest are careful to eat and drink in a restrained manner. Emphasis is on the flavor of the food and the fellowship of the guests. The happiness of the host and the satisfaction of the guests are most important. All the customs surrounding a Vietnamese feast are designed to further this goal.