Great news for vegan travellers – it is possible to stay vegan in Vietnam. The bad news is that finding vegan food in Vietnam is not always easy. This guide will help you find delicious food that you can be sure is meat-free and animal-friendly.
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If you ask most Vietnamese people, they won’t believe that you can be vegan in Vietnam. Many think of being vegan as something you do only on Buddhist holy days; they don’t see it as an everyday thing.
This is slowly changing as young middle-class Vietnamese people are embracing a vegan diet for health and environmental reasons.
It is true that it can be very hard to avoid fish sauce, milk, eggs, and sometimes actual chunks of meat in your food in Vietnam. I’ve accidentally eaten a little bit of everything there. But over the years, I’ve learned how to stay (at least) 98% vegan in Vietnam.
Read on to discover the…
15 Things You Need to Know to Survive as a Vegan in Vietnam
1. Vietnamese is a Very Hard Language
Before our first trip to Vietnam, we read that we just needed to learn the phrases ‘toi an chay’ and ‘khong thit’ and then we would easily find vegan food in Vietnam.
What nobody mentioned is that Vietnamese is a freaking hard language, especially if you grew up speaking a non-tonal language like we did.
Why does this matter?
Because the letters chay in this order have several meanings in Vietnamese, depending which tone you use.
If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see that fire extinguishers say cháy on them. That’s because cháy with an upward tone means fire.
As Westerners, we tend to say things in foreign languages like they’re a question. “Toi an cháy?” means, roughly, “I am fire”.
Well, that explains some of the weird looks we’ve gotten!
Once, we went into a restaurant with the word chay in its name only to discover that it was all meat. We later figured out that it was a restaurant for spicy (fire) food!
And if you think people will make the logical leap and know what you mean even if your pronunciation is bad, think again. If someone came up to you and said “I am fire”, would you know they really meant “I am vegan”? Nope. Me neither.
It’s better to have the phrase written out so people can read it. At least then, when they laugh at you and shake their head, you know it’s because they don’t serve anything vegan!
2. Fish Sauce is in Everything
In Vietnam, people who cook are obsessed with fish sauce. You really can’t find a “typical” Vietnamese dish that doesn’t include a few drops of this fishy stinkbomb.
So, if you’re trying to eat vegan by asking for “no meat/không thịt” you’ll almost surely be subjected to fish sauce in your dish, or as part of the dipping sauce.
Photo by Von Stefan from Dresden, Germany, CC BY 2.0
Even if you’re careful, you’ll probably eat some fish sauce in Vietnam. Just chill and deal with it. In the grand scheme of things, a few drops of sauce made by fermenting anchovies is not something to get upset over.
3. Com Chay or Quán Chay
These are two Vietnamese phrases you do need to learn.
Loosely translated, they both mean “vegan food place”. Hooray!
Usually, these places are a little too humble to be called restaurants, but a little more substantial than a food stall. They often have a buffet-style setup, where the food is already prepared and you just point at what you want. The food is almost always made of tofu- or seitan-based mock meats.
Depending on the restaurant, it can be way too oily and salty and it’s usually cold. But sometimes it’s delicious! It is always cheap cheap cheap!
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4. Try the Com Dia
You may see signs on some food stalls that say com chay. That translates loosely to rice vegan but it’s a much better than it sounds.
Com chay places will serve you a big plate of rice with a selection of vegan dishes. If you see com dia on the menu, this is the same thing. You’ll get four or five daily dishes with rice – and it will likely be the least expensive thing on the menu.
Order com dia is a great way to get to try a selection of vegan Vietnamese dishes!
5. Upscale Vegan in Vietnam
Good news, vegans… you don’t just have to eat street noodles and cold buffet food in Vietnam.
There is a luxury class of vegan restaurants that serve the upper-middle-class Bhuddists and people who are on a health kick. These can almost always be found on Google Maps, Trip Advisor, or Happy Cow.
It’s not unusual to find yourself dining alone in the more upscale vegan restaurants in Vietnam, since some of them are only really popular on the Buddhist holy days. Even if there is nobody there, the food is usually high quality and delicious. I’m really not sure how they do it.
6. Buddhist Holy Days
Many Vietnamese Buddhists eat vegan a couple of times a month. This takes place during the full moon in some areas or, to simplify, sometimes on the 30th/31st/1st of the month and then again on the 15th/16th.
On those days, vegan restaurants are often packed with locals. So don’t be shocked if you eat one night in an empty restaurant and then come back a few days later and have to wait for a table.
Some restaurants also have special menus for the holy days, when you can try dishes that they wouldn’t normally make.
7. Buddhist Temples are Your New Best Friend
Unlike in China, it’s not that common for Buddhist temples to have vegan restaurants inside them in Vietnam. But that’s OK because you can usually find one or two right nearby. There’s a temple in Hoi An where they serve vegan soups right on the doorstep and there are another two vegan eateries just around the corner.
This excellent tip come from Vegan Vietnam:
“An (almost) fool-proof way of finding vegan eateries in Vietnam: Open Google Maps, find a pagoda (you can look for the wheel-like icon), zoom in, and scan the streets nearby. You are then bound to find one or more vegan eateries, which will be listed as nha hang chay, quan chay, or com chay. We found that this works pretty much everywhere, even in small towns.”
8. Watch Out for Dairy
Even if you go to a vegan restaurant you might see some suspiciously milky looking items on the menu. While some of these places are completely vegan, others see milk and honey as vegan food too, and will add them into drinks and sometimes desserts. If it looks or sounds milky, it probably is, so either ask or just avoid.
9. You’d Better Like Tomato Tofu
When all else fails, tomato tofu comes to the rescue. If you’re eating vegan in Vietnam, you will eat tomato tofu. Chances are, you will also get extremely sick of it.
Depending on the chef, tomato tofu can have lots of variations, so make a sport of noticing the small (and large differences) between the tomato sauces.
Oh yeah, and be aware that classic tomato tofu contains (you guessed it!) fish sauce – so you might want to ask a few questions before you order!
10. Tourist Restaurants
If you’re in a city that attracts a lot of Western tourists, you’ll have no trouble finding vegan food at many of the tourist-oriented restaurants. The aforementioned tomato tofu is a mainstay on most tourist menus. Most do lemongrass tofu too, which can be excellent.
You should also be able to get fried spring rolls (but if they serve you a pinkish dipping sauce, it almost surely has fish sauce in it).
A big bowl of noodles with fresh veggies on top, called bun chay, is often available. Again, depending on the restaurant, the sauce may include fish sauce, so ask first.
Finally, vegan banh mi is usually available in the major tourist destinations. Always a good way to fill that hole in your belly.
11. Street Food is Gonna be Tough
Sadly, the one place vegans in Vietnam can’t be sure of a good meal is on the street.
I mean, if you speak perfect Vietnamese, you’re probably gonna be fine, but for the rest of us, our chances are 50/50 of coming away with a delicious veganish plate of food/noodles drowned in beef broth with a few spoonfuls of pork on top.
Even when I think I’ve explained perfectly and the person running the stall understands completely, I have often been served meat. My sad solution has been to stay away from street food.
If you do get served meat, especially at a food stall, please don’t get mad and ask for a refund or a replacement. When travelling in a country where you don’t speak the language or completely understand the culture, you’ll need to accept that you caused the problem, not them!
We have been in situations where we had to push the meat aside and eat the rest of the food while the proud chef watched our every bite!! Not pleasant, but I think being gracious is part of being a responsible vegan traveller.
12. Try a Food Tour
If you really want to explore the street food, you can always get yourself on a food tour and specify that you are vegan. The food tours I did in Vietnam, even after having been there for months, were amazing!
Not only did I get to try great food I wouldn’t have found on my own but I learned so much about Vietnamese culture. Before you go, make sure you explain to the tour guide exactly what you will and won’t eat. They might not understand that eggs, fish sauce, and milk don’t count as vegan.
I’ve found that most food tour companies in Vietnam are happy to accommodate you if you want to eat only vegetarian food. You might end up with a little fish sauce in your dips or a bowl of soup cooked in the presence of large globs of meat though, so you’ll need to be a little adventurous to risk it.
As a vegan in Vietnam, it’s going to be harder to find a food tour that will accommodate you – but give it a try! There are plenty of accidentally vegan foods in Vietnamese cuisine!
Start by checking out these tours and asking the operators if they can provide enough vegan options:
Hanoi Special Street Food Tour
Learn how to spot the hygienic street food stalls and discover the best places to eat 10 Vietnamese dishes!
Ho Chi Minh City Food by Night
On this tour, you get to experience the culinary delights of Ho Chi Minh City and ride around the city on the back of a motorbike!
Hoi An Small Group Food Tasting Tour
Get shown around Hoi An’s busy central market and explore the charming streets of the old town, while tasting some of Hoi An’s speciality dishes!
13. Breakfast Can be the Worst Meal of the Day
Surprisingly, one of the most difficult meals for vegans in Vietnam is breakfast.
Breakfast is almost always included in the price of your accommodation and it is almost always either banana pancakes or egg banh mi. In nice places, you’ll have a bigger buffet that will also include fresh fruit.
Because of this, we almost always carry a jar of peanut butter when travelling in Vietnam. You might want to bring it from home, as the peanut butter in Vietnam is usually full of palm oil, sugar and salt.
Known as sinh to in Vietnamese, smoothie stalls are on almost every street corner. Unfortunately, a typical sinh to stall will add a shitload of sugar and condensed milk to your drink, turning your healthy smoothie into a non-vegan sugar coma attack.
But, especially in the more touristy areas, it is totally possible to order a fruit-only sinh to. Just say “no sugar, no milk” and then watch like a hawk as they make your drink. If the stall-holder reaches for the sugar or condensed milk, just point and wave the items away.
In touristy areas, smoothie-makers are used to the odd tastes of foreigners and will understand what you want.
15. Hooray for Vegan Desserts
There is one street food you can safely eat as a vegan in Vietnam – that’s chè. In the evening, you can spot a chè stall by the array of bowls containing all sorts of beans, grains, taro, colourful jellies (don’t worry, they’re tapioca) and other odd-looking items. Just point to a few items you want in your bowl and enjoy the coconut cream sauce they drizzle on top.
I have been told that some chè is served with milk but have never seen it myself. Still, it’s something to be aware of when you’re ordering!
I hope this guide to being vegan in Vietnam has put your mind at ease. No, you will not starve when you go to Vietnam. Just remember to bring a sense of humour and be prepared to relax if things don’t always go exactly according to plan.
♥ Happy mindful adventures, Jane & Stephen
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