Tired of eating the same vegan food every day when traveling? Coming to Vietnam, you may have read through numerous articles saying that Vietnam is a country of meat lovers, where people consider fish sauce their religion and meat-based broth the secret to every tasty noodle soup. Beyond that, there is a lot more to discover in this mostly Buddhism country. This article will guide you on how to order vegetarian food and traditional vegetarian Vietnamese dishes, as well as those specially made for vegetarian/vegan like you. Many of them are very tasty indeed. Let’s get to the guide!
Vegetarian in Vietnamese language & culture
Good news to vegetarians to Vietnam – our kitchens are known not only for the balanced taste of sweet, sour, spicy and salty but for their use of fresh vegetables and herbs in every meal. In other words, Vietnamese cuisine can be easily modified into a vegetarian-friendly version while still maintaining their fulfilling fresh taste.
Secondly, Vietnamese people also have a positive view of vegetarian cuisine, partly due to their belief in Buddhism values. However, Vietnam is not quite updated on vegan. We have the language for vegetarian food only. The word “vegetarian” in Vietnamese is just “chay”, pronounced /chai:/ with flat and even intonation. You can add the word ‘chay’ to request meat-free versions of local dishes.
If you are vegan, say “không thịt” to ask for no meat in your food or “không nước mắm” — no fish sauce when placing orders. Or make something like this board:
Thirdly, it is better to choose the restaurants specialized in several dishes rather than just jumping into any other vegetarian roadside diners. These restaurants go quite heavy on mock meat and stir-fried dishes, and above all, have quite similar tastes to the others.
Vietnamese traditional vegan/vegetarian dishes
These are meat-free local dishes that you can find almost anywhere in Vietnam. Yet, you still should say the magic phrases: “Toi an chay” & “Khong nuoc mam”.
Young green rice (cốm)
When the Vietnamese think about Hanoi autumn, they think about cốm. This young green rice is freshly harvested rice that has been toasted to bring out its delicate flavor.
How to eat cốm: chewing just a pinch at a time to savor its natural sweetness, eat individually or with a banana to balance out the taste.
Tofu with tomato sauce (đậu sốt cà chua)
Dau sot ca chua is a Vietnamese classic for vegetarians. It is super simple, yet Vietnamese chefs make it into such a comforting and tasty dish. Take a bite, you can feel the crisp chewy edges and tender, juicy flesh inside. Cooked through in fresh ripe tomato crush, you will have a dish of yum.
However, remember to double-check as this dish is usually seasoned with fish sauce.
Traditional sweet dessert (chè)
“Chè” is a general Vietnamese word to describe any traditional Vietnamese sweet beverage, usually available in the form of pudding or soup. It can contain a wide range of traditional dessert ingredients, various types of peas, beans, tubers, or fruits, sweetened with sugar and topped with coconut milk.
Even though “chè” is mildly sweet and does not always have the most appealing look, most people are addicted to this kind of sweet treat.
Sugar cane wrap (bò bía)
In bò bía, the base is a corn flour wrap, thin and stretchy, like rice paper. Next comes a layer of crunchy sugar cane, a healthy portion of freshly grated coconut, and a sprinkling of black sesame. Wrap it all up and you have a light bite of yum. You can find them on the little white counter of bike vendors throughout Vietnam for 5,000 VND a roll.
Mixed fruit salad (hoa quả dầm)
Living in a tropical land, Vietnam put numerous kinds of fruits to this dessert. The people here elevate this humble fruit salad to a new level – banana, watermelon, papaya, melon, jackfruit, longan, and avocado, all topped with a generous mixture of coconut milk and condensed milk, creating a sweet creamy sauce.
It is served with a separate container of crushed ice, where you scoop out and mix into the bowl of fruit, chilling everything.
Vietnamese sticky rice with nuts (xôi)
Wandering around Vietnam street in the early morning, you can easily catch sight of women sitting on a stool behind a steaming basket, continuously serving some food onto the banana leaf for the crowd around. That is where you can buy “Xoi”- one of the most popular Vietnamese “fast food”. This glutinous sticky rice has various variations like steamed together with seeds like mung beans, corn, peanut topped with salty sesame & crunchy deep-fried shallots.
Gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan Vietnamese food & beverages
This part, I will introduce the vegetarian-, vegan-friendly versions of Vietnamese food and drinks and where to find them.
If there is one thing that people associate with Vietnamese food, it is definitely ‘pho’. This noodle soup is eaten everywhere throughout the country. However, please beware that ‘pho with vegetables’ in most cases is not vegan or even vegetarian, due to the stock from meat and bones.
Therefore, eating in a vegetarian or vegan restaurant is much preferable. What sets the pho chay here apart from other versions is its spot-on broth. The essence of star anise and onions thoroughly permeates the soup, bringing a very accurate and familiar pho flavor.
Where to eat vegan pho:
- Hanoi: Minh Chay Vegan Restaurant, 30 Ma May Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
- Saigon: Pho Chay Nhu, 54 Truong Quyen Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
- Hoi An: Pho Xua, 35 Phan Chau Trinh Street, Hoi An
Type: Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free
Vegan banh mi
The king of sandwiches brings together several cultural traditions all in one crispy bun, namely a golden French baguette, pork, Chinese char siu (barbecued pork), American hamburger meat, mayonnaise and a mix of Vietnamese herbs and chili sauces.
When it comes to vegan banh mi, the crispy crust, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs are still there, while main ingredients witches to earthy mushroom pâté and pan-roasted tofu. The final touch of mayonnaise and home-made sauces all binds everything together.
Due to increasing demand, you can easily find banh mi chay in almost any big city. For the yummiest vegetarian banh mi, here are our suggestions:
- Hanoi: Banh Mi 25, 25 Hang Ca Street | Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
- Saigon: Banh Mi Thien Van, 71C Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
- Da Nang: 11 Tran Tong Street, Da Nang City
Type: Vegan, vegetarian
Vegan fried spring rolls – Nem chay
This deep-fried spring rolls of crispy perfection, loaded with delicious filling has never stopped to amaze customers.
Fried spring roll is a popular dish in Vietnamese cuisine with several names Nem rán, Chả giò or Chả ram, all refer to this dish. The vegan fillings, usually mushrooms, and diced vegetables such as carrots, bean sprouts, jicama, rice vermicelli are rolled up in a sheet of moist rice paper then deep-fried to golden crispiness.
The best way to eat them like a real Vietnamese requires lots of lettuce and fresh herbs. Wrapping a roll in lettuce and herbs like mint leaves, then dip it in the sauces will sure to surprise you by the contrast between the hot roll and the cool fresh greenery. A perfect blend of sweet, sour and salty of dipping sauce completes them all. The result is utterly delicious.
The most interesting part of the spring rolls recipe is that it varies among regions of Vietnam, so it’s fun to try all. Look no further than these addresses:
- Bun Cha Ta 21, Nguyen Huu Huan Street, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi City
- Noodle and Roll 39c Ly Quoc Su Street, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi City
- Bong Sung Restaurant, 86 Nguyen Du street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
- Veggie Saigon, 42 De Tham St, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Type: Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free (as the rice paper is made from rice only)
Vegetarian Vietnamese crepe (bánh xèo)
Banh xeo has its name translated as sizzling Vietnamese crepe – from the sound of its making. There’s hardly anything to dislike about a crispy golden crepe, stuffed with veggies and mushroom fillings, all wrapped into a hand-roll of herbs and leaves, and dipped into sweet chili sauce. The dipping sauce is no secret at all for its mixture of fish sauce, vinegar, chili and carrot strands. Ask the seller to leave out the fish sauce if you cannot eat that.
Where to eat vegetarian banh xeo:
- Banh Xeo Muoi Xiem
Address 1: 204 Nguyen Trai S.t, District 1, HCMC
Address 2: 213 Bis Nam Ky Khoi Nghia S.t, District 1, HCMC
- Banh Xeo 46A, 46 Dinh Cong Trang, Tan Dinh, 1, Ho Chi Minh
Type: Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free (please check if the seller add some flour into the crepe)
Vegan, dairy-free Vietnamese coffee
Vietnam is coffee mania, where people use robusta – four times stronger than the normal Western arabica. The locals here often drink the black coffee dripped slowly through a “phin” filter, while chatting and watching the world go by.
Better, a sweet, smooth and creamy Vietnamese coffee drink is just as vegan as you want. Imagine the robust flavor of Vietnamese mixed with a sweet coconut ice cream and you’ve got the genius invention of coconut coffee. Often served as a smoothie, coconut coffee includes Vietnamese coffee and coconut milk blended to absolute perfection. Yet, please note to leave out the condense milk when ordering this drink.
Where to have the best coconut milk:
- Hanoi, HCMC, Da Nang: Cong Caphe — a popular chain cafe that exists in all the major Vietnamese cities has one of the best coconut coffees!
- Hoi An: The Espresso Station, 28/2 Tran Hung Dao, Hoi An
Type: gluten-free, vegan (note to leave out the condense milk when ordering this drink)
Vegan hotpot (lẩu chay)
Tourists coming to Vietnam often miss out on this amazing feast. This hot pot is a communal dining experience – where you and your family/friends cook an array of ingredients – tofu, numerous types of veggies and mushrooms, fresh noodles in a single heated pot of simmering broth.
For this dish, you do not have to worry about under or overcooked food. It is up to you how you eat the food. You can also have a quality conversation with those around, and for me, cooking is all part of the fun.
Most vegan restaurants offer this hot pot, here are our recommendations.
- Hanoi: Uu Dam Chay, 34 Hang Bai Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
- Saigon: Hum Vegetarian, 2 Thi Sach Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
- Da Nang: Madame Hanh, 79 Luong Huu Khanh Street, Son Tra, Tho Quang, Da Nang