A Vegetarian Guide to Vietnam

A gorgeous bowl of nộm hoa chuối by Aaron Joel Santos

Vietnam proves to be a paradise for herbivores, standing out with plant-based gastronomy in a region where meat is the most common fixture at the dinner table.

Vegetarians will delight in a cuisine that appraises a good meal based on the number of herbs by which it’s perfumed, i.e., five minimum. But more importantly, there is a vegetarian iteration for every major dish. Fear not -- dietary restrictions will never prevent you from sampling the country’s quintessential delights like phở, bánh mì, and gỏi cuốn. What distinguishes Vietnamese cuisine from all other Southeast Asian culinary practices is its respect for fresh vegetables and herbs. And for those who adhere to a vegan diet, you’re in luck. Hardly any dairy is used in the preparation of Vietnamese food. Just steer clear of fish sauce, the country’s most profusely used flavouring agent. Unless you’re pescetarian, vegans should always specify (the phrase you’re looking for is “không nước mắm” -- no fish sauce).

So what does Vietnam’s food scene entail for the wandering plant-eater? For starters, it won’t be an all-out mission to track down dinner as vegetarian eateries, as restaurants marked as ‘Quan Chay,’ are plentiful. Although the abundance of vegetarian-friendly restaurants is mostly widespread, vegetarianism seems to be more commonly observed down in Southern Vietnam because of its access to the Mekong Delta, the largest export market for fruits and vegetables in the country. Earlier this year, Ho Chi Minh City made it on Matador Network’s 13 of the World’s Best Cities for Vegetarians at #4.

As you travel north, the numbers start to dwindle but vegetarian presence still remains strong. In the past eight years, Hanoi has seen a growing demand for vegetarian-friendly restaurants and cafes due to an influx of westerners to the capital. Statistics reveal that while 55 percent of Vietnamese claim to be Buddhists, only 12 percent of Vietnam’s population abides by its strictures. Because vegetarian habits are somewhat rooted in religious principles, you see that it is readily available near the likes of pagodas and temples.

Vegetarian Hu Tieu

The diverse selection of vegetarian-friendly options goes beyond the standard characterless vegetable fried rice offered by neighbouring countries like Thailand and Cambodia. You’ll find some reprieve from white rice in Vietnam because unlike the rest of Asia, carbs are not restricted to this type of processed grain. The tradition of baking baguettes à la the French promises an escape from the monotonous pairing of rice with “insert vegetarian entree here,” thanks to Vietnam’s colonial past. One of the best ways to start your day is a bánh mì ốp la, the ultimate breakfast sandwich, consisting of a fried egg, soy sauce, black pepper, and fresh cilantro. Just opt out of the pâté spread, a meat paste commonly eaten in Vietnam (không thịt = no meat).

From avant-garde eateries to hole-in-the-wall cafes down unassuming alleyways, you’ll find meals that run a wide range. And unlike other countries where vegetarianism is more of a fad and therefore more costly, eating a fantastic meal won’t compromise your funds. Just the other day, I turned the corner to find a bustling quan chay canteen that served up some hefty bowls of bún noodle soups, all vegan-friendly, for the very affordable cost of 20,000 VND per bowl (about $1 USD). Only in Vietnam.

Bong Sung Vegetarian Restaurant

Tips For Starters

To notify any vendor of your dietary habits, use the phrase:

“Tôi ăn chay.” I eat vegetarian food.

As mentioned above, nearly any item on a menu has a vegetarian counterpart The magic word that will allow you to do so is “chay.” So, for example, when you want to order a vegetarian phở, all you have to do is attach “chay” to the end.

For example:

  • Phở chay = vegetarian pho

  • Bánh mì chay = vegetarian sandwich

  • Gỏi cuốn chay = vegetarian fresh spring roll

  • Cơm chay = vegetarian rice

Mock meat substitutes have found their way into kitchens and stores, so if you’re craving some textural variety and aren’t wary of manipulated tofu, consider yourself set.


Best Vietnamese Vegetarian Dishes

Vietnamese cuisine proves that vegetarian food is anything but boring. (For the Top 21 Vietnamese Dishes, click here.)

  • Bột chiên: fried square rice flour cakes with whipped eggs and green onion that has the consistency of seasoned potatoes

  • Nộm hoa chuối: refreshing banana flower salad flavored with a squeeze of lime and a handful of chili

  • Đậu sốt cà chua: fried golden tofu, bathed in rich tomato paste, and garnished with green onion

  • Rau muống xào tỏi: stir-fried morning glory (also known as water spinach), flavored with diced garlic

  • Bánh xèo chay: fried savory pancakes made of rice flour and coconut milk, stuffed with diced green onion, bean sprouts, and mushrooms

  • Xôi Bắp: commonly eaten for breakfast - sweet sticky rice mixed with boiled corn and topped with green mung beans, sugar, and fried onions

  • Bún chả giò chay: rice vermicelli lightly marinated and served with fried vegetable spring rolls

  • Gỏi đu đủ chay: green papaya salad dressed in a vinegary, soy sauce combo and garnished with crushed peanuts, bird eye chilies, and tofu

  • Cao lầu chay: noodles tossed in sweet soy dressing and garnished with a fluffy pile of greens and fried rice crackers found only in Hoi An

Vegetarian Bun Rieu

Where To Eat Vegetarian in HCMC

  • Kay Vegan Bistro, International, 84A Nguyen Dinh Chieu, District 1, $$$ (vegan)

  • Hum Vegetarian, Asian, 32 Vo Van Tan, District 3, $$$ (vegetarian, vegan-friendly)

  • Prem Bistro & Cafe, International, 129/4 Vo Van Tan, District 3, $$$ (vegetarian, vegan-friendly)

  • Saigon Vegan, Asian, 378/3 Võ Văn Tần, District 3, $$ (vegan)

  • Am Thuc Chay Man, Vietnamese, 291/2 Vo Van Tan St, District 3, $ (vegetarian)

  • Phap Hoa, Vietnamese, 204 Nguyen Trai, District 1, $ (vegan)

  • Bong Sung, Asian, 86 Nguyen Du, District 1, $ (vegetarian)

  • The Yellow House, Desserts, 15a/41 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, $$ (vegan, gluten-free)

Where To Eat Vegetarian in Hanoi

Looking for more options? Try Happycow.net.

by Izzy Pulido

A Bostonian by way of the Philippines, Izzy Pulido is an avid collector of first-time experiences. She regularly contributes to Vietcetera, a creative consortium based in Ho Chi Minh City. Find her musings on wayfaring over at thenextsomewhere.com.