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Going vegetarian in Vietnam

As a vegetarian I’m always thrilled when a Vietnamese restaurant is that 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 when heading on a holiday to 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

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

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 & 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

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.