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Going vegetarian in Vietnam

| Words by Zoe Crane |

Your guide to going vegetrian in vietnam

As a vegetarian I’m always thrilled when a Vietnamese restaurant is the evening’s venue of choice. Vietnamese food is fresh, flavoursome and exceptionally healthy. With little milk or cheese used in traditional cooking and with many sauces having a fish base, Vegan’s and pescetarians will be well catered for!

One problem vegetarians and vegans often face in Vietnam, and most countries where English is not the first language, is explaining that they don’t eat meat when ordering. A common question from local will be "why?" As one local in Asia put it, “the people here think the meat is the best part of the dish, so they don’t understand why you wouldn’t want it.”

Being Buddhist

Vegetarian Vietnamese: as good as it gets

Kate from 30 traveler is a vegan and has some great tips from her trip to Vietnam. She suggests using the phrase “I only eat Buddhist food” as a good way to explain being vegan. She says “Vietnam has dedicated ‘Buddhist restaurants’ in the major cities. Research where these are online before your trip. “Janessa from Epicurious Vegan agrees, “If you know where to look, eating vegan in Vietnam is surprisingly easy and quite delicious. You’ll have no trouble finding one of the omnipresent Buddhist vegetarian (chay) stalls or cafes in any city. Vietnamese is a tonal language, so pronouncing “chay” may prove to be more difficult than looking for the word “chay” on signage, or simply find where the Buddhist monks eat their lunch.” Buddhist vegetarian restaurants tend to be heavy on mock meat and fish dishes. They exclude all root vegetables, so no onion or garlic will be used.

Ask and you shall receive, probably

Most places that don't list vegetarian options will make a vegetarian version of their dishes if you ask for it. Janessa says “If dining at a traditional restaurant, an order of vegetarian spring rolls or a plate of spaghetti neopolitan (tomato sauce) with no cheese is a safe bet.” To tell someone you're vegetarian you can try saying "Toi an chay" - but you'll probably want to have it written down. You can avoid meat by saying "khong thit”, but that doesn't mean it's strictly vegetarian. A lot of dishes in Vietnam contain fish sauce or a meat based broth. These can be especially difficult to avoid if you want to try the street food.

Best Vegetarian street food in Vietnam

On the street: try a delectably fresh Banh Mi roll!

One exception to this is the ‘Banh Mi’, French-style baguettes with a Vietnamese twist. Order egg (trung) or tofu, or some stalls have soft cheese triangles. The egg will be scrambled in a small frying pan. The roll is usually filled with some coriander, cucumber, chilli and some pickled carrot and daikon.

David from That Gay Backpacker says “To experience some of that authentically bustling pavement culture that is so unique to Hanoi, order Bun dau at a street-side eatery. This is chunks of deep fried tofu and rice noodles that are stuck together in clumps - just remember to tell your waiter to hold the fish sauce.

What to Eat

Just as good, vegetarian spring rolls,

Kate suggests “Get some Vietnamese cookbooks out from the library before your trip so you can more easily identify the dishes on offer and the different flavours you're experiencing.”She says “I could've happily lived on tofu fresh spring rolls and the big handfuls of herbs that they're served with.”

David from That Gay Backpacker says one of his favourites is the aubergine claypot. “This is often served with minced pork in the dish, but I sometimes spotted pure vegetarian versions on menus and you can always ask for it without the pork. “

In country areas your options will be much more limited than in the cities. One of our local guides in Central Vietnam, Vinh, suggests trying the Hoi An specialty noodles Cao Lau or Mi Quang done vegetarian, but be careful of meat stock. He also suggests vegetarian Ban Xeo, a Vietnamese style savoury pancake filled with tofu and crunchy mung beans. The sauce usually contains fish sauce, so you may want to try soy sauce instead.

Don’t miss the Pho

Vietnam’s most famous dish is Pho and it would be a real shame to come to Vietnam without trying it, so make the effort to get to either Pho 24 or Pho 2000, both of which serve a genuinely vegetarian Pho, called Pho chay, with no meat broth.

Where to eat

The easiest way to ensure your meal is vegetarian is to eat at a vegetarian restaurant, so here are some of our favourites. The first and fifteenth of the month are ‘fasting’ days for Buddhists when many people eat vegetarian for the day, so restaurants can be very busy on those days.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Saigon and Hanoi are the perfect cities to enjoy local Vietnamese street food!

  • Sen Restaurant – While the menu may read like a standard restaurant, all the meat/ seafood dishes are actually meat substitutes at this purely vegetarian restaurant with lots of Vegan options. They have an English menu, but most staff speak only Vietnamese.

Nguyen Thai Hoc street between Pham Ngu Lao and Tran Hung Dao, District 1

  • Hoa Dang – More upscale than many vegetarian option and the interiors have even been described as elegant. The menu is large and the food is tasty, with pictures of famous vegetarians (Richard Gere, Billy Idol and Charles Darwin to name a few).

38 Huynh Khuong Ninh, District 1

  • …Hum Restaurant – This tranquil restaurant is an oasis in bustling Saigon. The elegant interiors are matched with equally inspiring dishes. The menu focuses on the health benefits of each food and mentions these in English on the menu. The menu includes a variety of raw food dishes also.

32 Vo Van Tan, District 3

  • The Organic – Using only fresh, organic ingredients, this charming vegetarian restaurant has a large menu with a mixture of Vietnamese and Western dishes.

54 Ly Van Phuc, District 1

Hoi An

Minh Hien Quan Chay – Sit in this charming courtyard amidst walls covered in books and order a vegetarian version of some Hoi An specialties, which cannot be found elsewhere. Dishes are mainly “fake” versions of meat dishes which can be very similar to the real thing.

  • 50 Tran Cao Van, Hoi An

Hanoi

  • Zenith Yoga Café - Cafe attached to the yoga studio. Serves healthy food and beverages using organic, fresh ingredients. Produce is washed with ozone as disinfectant.
  • Com Chay Nang Tam – Cosy Buddhist café serving all vegan food with mock meats as well as tofu and veggie dishes.

Our small group tours to Vietnam do not include most lunches and dinners so that you get an opportunity to eat in some of Vietnam’s best local restaurants. Our local guides have the low down on the best places to eat, and will recommend where you should eat and can make a reservation for you. They could also help explain you are vegetarian.