There is no danger of going hungry if you’re a vegetarian in Vietnam, a country built largely on Buddhist roots. Vietnamese kitchens serve balanced, flavorful, healthy meals, and don’t hold back on the use of vegetables and herbs. Throughout the country, “do an chay” (vegetarian food), can be found served on nearly every street corner and often times you will also be able to find a meat-free version of your favorite, local dish.
Vegetarian eateries are everywhere
“Toi an chay” – this is how you say “I am a vegetarian.” “Chay,” pronounced “chai,” can be added to the end of the names of any dish, meaning you are requesting the vegetarian version. Alternatively, “khong thit” that literally translates to “no meat,” can also be used.
It’s really not difficult to find vegetarian restaurants and stalls that serve plant-based dishes. A quick online search will show you established restaurants, and popular street food vendors but the best thing to do is to just wander around the city streets and to keep an eye out for the right keywords. In the rural areas it may be a little more difficult to come across “chay”-focused restaurants, but you will find that generally, most Vietnamese restaurants offer either a limited or extensive selection of salads and cooked vegetables, and some have a dedicated section for vegetarian options.
A useful tip: Try wandering near pagodas and temples. Monks and nuns are often vegetarians, and lesser-known eateries surrounding religious sites serve vegetarian food. Vietnamese Buddhists also eat meat-free food on the 1st and 15th of each month, and during these days you will be able to find extensive vegetarian options in restaurants and many vegetarian dishes sold in the morning markets.
You may even be lucky enough to find a buffet to feast at – and often it will cost you just about a dollar or two for a wide array of delicious, healthy, and fresh dishes.
From balanced to spicy to sweet
Vietnamese cuisine varies from north to south. It is balanced in perfect harmony up in the north, but when you begin making your way from Hanoi to Da Nang, things get spicier. Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City, however, takes a sweeter turn. Each region has a dish it does exceptionally well, and trying the vegetarian versions of these dishes will give you a good introductory taste of Vietnam.
A staple of the northern region is a dish hailing from the Nam Dinh province: pho. Pronounced “fuh,” Pho is the de-facto national dish and is probably the most popular Vietnamese dish outside of the country. To make the regular version of this noodle soup, meat bones are boiled and simmered overnight with added veggies, herbs and spices. When ready to serve, thick rice noodles and chunks of meat, whether you like chicken, beef, pork or fish, are added. For the vegetarian version, mushroom, bok choy, and other vegetables are used, making a perfect alternative. To order the vegetarian version at a restaurant, simply ask for “pho chay.” A pho will cost you around 50,000 VND ($2.16 USD).
Another dish to try: banh mi. Traditionally, pate, meat and veggies make a banh mi filling. You won’t be missing out much if you get a banh mi chay. Instead of a meaty sandwich, you get a crusty baguette stuffed with a varied mix of fresh and pickled vegetables, herbs and other ingredients like cheese and egg, depending on what you prefer. When you order, you can customize your banh mi as you wish since the vendor carts display their various ingredients to tempt hungry onlookers. You’ll find a similar assortment of ingredients no matter where you are in Vietnam unless the cart is known for a specific version of the banh mi. So, just point and choose what you want in your stuffing and ask for extra if you want. A banh mi will cost you around 15,000 VND ($0.45 USD) depending on the ingredients chosen.
Goi cuon is a great dish to try in the south. These rolls are essentially made of rice paper wrapped around various leaves, pork, and shrimp, served with peanut sauce. The vegetarian version simply leaves out the shrimp and pork. In the north, these are called nem cuon. The ingredients typically remain similar however nem cuon could get more meaty than it’s southern counterpart. A roll could cost you around 10,000 VND ($0.43 USD) and around 5 of them will fill you up!
Goi dudu (or goi kho bo) is also a favorite and an absolute must in Vietnam. Similar to som tam in Thai cuisine, this is a salad made from fresh papaya strips, carrots, basil, coriander, sesame seeds and a lot of peanuts. Sometimes you may find added ingredients such as meat, shrimp and even fish sauce as dressing so remember to order “goi dudu chay.” For such a delicious salad, it will only set you back a mere 20,000 VND ($0.86USD).
There are so many other vegetarian dishes to try when you are exploring the country’s cuisine. Even if the restaurant doesn’t necessarily advertise the word “chay” on their sign, you can still go in and ask. Here are some other dishes to order:
Mi xao chay (35,000 VND, $1.50USD): stir-fried vegetarian noodles
Nom hoa chuoi (40,000 VND, $1.73USD): banana flower salad with lime
Rau muong xao toi (30,000 VND, $1.29USD): stir-fried morning glory with garlic
Banh xeo chay (50,000 VND, $2.16USD): savoury rice pancakes with bean sprouts, and mushrooms
Dau hu chien sa ot (20,000 VND, $0.86USD): Tofu fried with shredded lemongrass and chili
Ca tim xoi mo hanh (35,000 VND, $1.50USD): Eggplant simmered with green onion
These dishes go great with plain white sticky rice, so order family style and enjoy them all!
Pro tip: You will find these dishes served in both restaurants and street food stalls. It’s up to you whether you choose to dine in an enclosed space, or out on a sidewalk, sat atop almost child-sized plastic stools and tables that get taken away at the end of the day.
Oh! Watch out for the fish sauce…
Fish sauce in Vietnam is a condiment that is served with almost every dish, and sometimes even if you ask for “chay,” you may get served fish sauce that isn’t vegetarian. Sellers can often absentmindedly forget this, so please be wary. What you can say is “khong nuoc mam,” which means “no fish sauce,” or you can ask if the fish sauce itself is vegetarian by saying “nuoc mam chay?” Vegetarian fish sauce is generally made of mushroom, and is a worthy alternative.
Put all this to practice
There are many vegetarian restaurants that have over the years made a name for themselves for their delectable spreads of dishes. It’s difficult to choose just one. Again, just wander around, and you will find so many. However if we had to choose, here are three that you must try if you are in Vietnam. In Hanoi, head to Uu Dam Chay where the dishes are bursting with flavor that the absence of meat will not be felt. In Hoi An, we suggest Karma Waters to satisfy your diet, and in Ho Chi Minh City, you can’t go wrong with Hum Vegetarian.
Vegans just need to explain a little more…
If you are a vegan, feel free to enter any local veggie restaurant. You will be able to enjoy essentially most of the dishes vegetarians can. However, sometimes you will have to speak some extra words. “Toi khong an,” means “I don’t eat,” so just add a few words after that. “Sua” – milk, “bo” – butter, “trung” – eggs, “pho mai“ – cheese, and so on.
In the end, no matter where you choose to eat, a fancy restaurant or a pop-up street cart, there is a very high chance that your dish will be delicious. Happy eating.