Food is one of the top highlights of travelling to Vietnam, with a vibrant range of dishes and flavours that varies as you travel from north to south. Happily, for those who go meat-free, vegetarian and vegan food is easy to find throughout the country, and there’s no need to compromise on taste - Vietnam’s rich flavours have plenty of diverse vegetarian alternatives to tempt the taste buds.
Selective Asia’s Louise has recently tasted her way around the country’s vegetarian cuisine and got the lowdown on where and how to find the best vegetarian, vegan and meat-free meals in Vietnam.
Finding vegetarian and vegan food in Vietnam isn’t as difficult as you might imagine. This is partly due to the influence of Buddhism, but the general popularity of meat-free dining in Vietnam has gone through the roof over the last 10 years, following the world-wide trend. Although most of the population do eat meat, vegetarianism is widespread and viewed in a really positive light. During my recent trip, vegetarian and vegan food was everywhere, both in the hotels I was staying at and in local restaurants and cafes, as well as in the street food markets, and there are more vegetarian and vegan restaurants popping up all the time.
Chatting with locals, it became clear that many people in Vietnam are taking healthy eating more seriously than ever before and adopting meat-free meals as part of a more health-focused way of living. For two days of each month, the 1st and 15th, many Vietnamese Buddhists eat only vegetarian food, and the vegetarian and vegan options in all restaurants are even more plentiful on these dates.
The word ‘chay’ (pronounced ‘chai’) means either vegan or vegetarian, historically prepared to be suitable for a Buddhist diet, so look out for that on menus to guide your choices. As the word is used interchangeably for vegetarian and vegan food, vegans should keep an extra careful eye out for non-vegan ingredients. If you’re unsure, it’s always a good idea to ask, or ask your guide to help you translate, but here are a few useful phrases to have to hand:
"Tôi ăn chay” - I am vegetarian
“không thịt” - no meat
“Không nước mắm” - no fish sauce
“Không có trứng” - no eggs
“Không có sữa” - no milk
Vietnamese phở is famous the world over and, while the traditional broth is meat based, if you ask for phở chay you’ll discover some equally tasty vegetarian versions. These are made with richly-flavoured vegetable stock and tofu, with all the taste, depth and extras you’d expect, which you can slurp at the roadside in true Hanoi style. There are plenty of regional noodle dishes for vegetarians and vegans to try throughout the rest of the, too, packed with vegetables and bean curd-based meat alternatives.
Pancakes are a quick and tasty veggie option when out and about in Vietnam, with banh xeo being the most well-known iteration. This is a large pancake which you tear off in pieces, roll up in lettuce and herb leaves and dip into various sauces - so, so delicious, and an ideal snack to refuel with while exploring the cities. Traditionally made from a rice and coconut milk batter, most banh xeo are suitable for vegans, although a couple we had in the south tasted like they might have been egg based, so it’s worth double checking before you order.
Banh mi are the lovely, light and crusty bread rolls, stuffed with a rainbow of fillings, that are available all over Vietnam - a remnant of the country’s French-influenced past given a distinctly local twist. Although usually found at breakfast, they’re now getting popular as a lunch time snack and can come filled with veggie options such as tofu, bean shoots and eggs. Just ask for a banh mi chay and, if you’re vegan, specify ‘không có trứng’ - no eggs.
Another big love of mine are the various raw fruit and vegetable salads that seem to be available almost everywhere. You’ll find papaya and mango, julienned with carrots and dressed with peanuts, sesame seeds, coconut, basil and coriander, usually with a tangy sour, sweet and sharp taste - utterly addictive and healthy too. If you’re craving some cooked greenery, stir-fried morning glory (also known as sea spinach) is very nutritious and usually served with oodles of garlic, oil and chilli. It's rather like kale in texture and taste, and I highly recommend it - I had it with almost everything!
Stir fried rice and veg loaded with chilli and garlic, known as com xao, is fantastic veggie comfort food any time of day - just grab a bowl and tuck in.
If comfort food is your craving, there are plenty of pulses, casseroles, curries and rich sauces to feast on. Don’t be afraid to try something new; I had a delicious banana blossom dish one evening that was unlike anything I’ve tasted before. There are also plenty of crispy spring rolls, delicious soups, and mushrooms served every which way, offering something for every palate.
Vietnam is a dessert-lover's dream, and you can find yourself in sweet pancake heaven whenever the hankering arises. There are endless varieties of sweet rice dishes and bananas served in every shape and form, as well as tapioca pudding, to name but a few. And, of course, there’s always a huge variety of outstanding fresh fruit - there are so many different fruits to try in Vietnam.
Dessert is often just a plate of freshly sliced pineapple or mango with a side of chilli salt. This combination is so moreish on hot nights that I found myself craving it daily! Dragon fruit is another big favourite, and the really red ones taste even better.
If you’re faced with a menu in Vietnamese and aren’t sure what to try, or what’s suitable, here are a few more vegetarian-friendly Vietnamese dishes to look out for…
mì xào chay - vegetarian noodles
nộm hoa chuối - banana flower salad
cao lầu chay - noodles in soy sauce with green vegetables
rau muống xào tỏi - morning glory with garlic
gỏi cuốn chay - vegetarian spring rolls
cà tím mỡ hành - aubergine cooked with green onion
dậu sốt cà chua - grilled tofu in tomato sauce
dậu hũ chiên sả ớt - tofu with chilli and lemongrass
I relied on local knowledge for a lot of my choices - there’s nothing better than getting the inside line on which places serve the best eats, and which ones are veggie-friendly. The Happy Cow app is also really useful to help locate local vegetarian and vegan restaurants and cafes, and gives you links to updated websites and menus.
All in all, it's very easy to navigate your way around an array of veggie gems in Vietnam. I was so inspired I bought a Vietnamese vegetarian cookbook when I got home so I could try my hand at a few of these now familiar dishes. I’ll let you know how my home-cooked versions turn out; keep your eyes peeled for some recipe-filled posts in the future…
To start planning your future Vietnam adventure, get in touch with our Vietnam Specialists online, or give us a call on +44 (0) 1273670 001