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Eating in Vietnam: Food Guide for Vegetarians & Vegans
Eating vegetarian in Vietnam is not that easy, because fried frogs in chilli or pork hearts with onions are unfortunately not uncommon on Vietnamese menus. Snakes, eels, rats and even dogs come on the table from time to time. They are traded as very special delicacies.
But don't worry, vegetarians and vegans don't have to starve to death in Vietnam. In my food guide you will get an insight into the diverse cuisine of the country. I will also give you eight valuable tips for vegan / vegetarian food, introduce you to eleven dishes that you should try and tell you my five favorite restaurants.
You can find fresh vegetables from the market on every corner
The diverse cuisine of Vietnam
Vietnam's culinary heart beats in the street food stalls. Everywhere there is sizzling, boiling, grilling and deep-frying. Eating takes place on the sidewalks, which are transformed into restaurants in seconds with the help of tiny plastic stools. What goes on the plate (or rather in the bowl) is varied, healthy and tasty.
Rice is the staple food and is offered in all variations: cooked or fried, as rice paper, rice noodles, rice porridge, sticky rice or puffed rice. The food is always fresh, thanks to the fertile Mekong Delta, which supplies the country in abundance with vegetables, fruits and herbs.
Lemongrass, Vietnamese mint, coriander and basil are used to season the dishes. Most of the time, these are served on an extra plate so that you can refine your dish yourself as you wish.
A typical street restaurant in Vietnam
The horror for vegetarians & vegans
Now let's get to the part that vegetarians and vegans don't like to hear: besides rice and rice noodles, Vietnamese dishes mainly consist of pork, beef, chicken, fish and seafood. Unfortunately, it gets worse because all parts of an animal's body are used, that is, chicken feet and fish heads, beef blood, liver and lungs also end up in the saucepan. Dogs, rats, frogs and small birds are also eaten.
This makes eating in Vietnam not particularly easy for vegetarians and vegans. Unless you want to eat exclusively in air-conditioned tourist restaurants, which often offer completely overpriced and laxly seasoned dishes. However, if you prefer to eat like the locals, i.e. at the tempting smelling food stalls on the roadside, there are a few things to consider.
It is not always easy for vegetarians in Vietnam
Eating in Vietnam: 8 tips for vegetarians
# 1 chicken okay?
Not infrequently, as a vegetarian or vegan, you will encounter incomprehension among locals. This is simply because a meatless or cruelty-free diet is completely unknown to most Vietnamese. As soon as you ask about vegetarian food in Vietnam, you will get a counter-question: "Vegetarian yes, but chicken okay?"
For reasons inexplicable to me, chicken is not considered meat in many countries around the world. Vegetarian often just means that you don't eat pork or beef, fish and chicken are okay. I have already experienced the same in Sri Lanka, Costa Rica and Colombia. That is why you should always make it clear when ordering: No meat, no chicken, no fish!
# 2 Meatless on request
Even if most restaurants do not have vegetarian or vegan dishes on the menu, it is worth asking about them, as many also conjure up meat-free dishes on request. Unfortunately, this does not apply to the mobile food stalls on the roadside, as they often only have one dish in their pot. Either it is vegetarian or not, a variation is usually not possible.
# 3 be careful, fish sauce!
Traditional Vietnamese cuisine is based on fish sauce (nuoc mam). It is not only produced here, but used in almost every dish. Since most Vietnamese are unfamiliar with a strictly vegetarian diet, it is possible that your (vegetarian) food will still be seasoned with a dash of fish sauce.
If you want to be absolutely on the safe side and can't put up with the possibility of a sip of fish sauce in your meal, you should only visit vegetarian or vegan restaurants. In my opinion, however, you are missing out on the entire spectrum of the authentic life of the locals, especially since the cuisine on the street always tastes better than that in air-conditioned tourist restaurants.
# 4 Meatless on a slip of paper
Since many Vietnamese do not understand English, you should learn the most important terms by heart. "Com chay" means, for example, a vegetarian dish, fried vegetables are called "ran xao". If you (understandably) have problems with pronunciation, you should write down a sentence on a piece of paper right at the beginning of your trip and present it when you order. Most people know what to do with that.
Tôi ăn chay = I eat vegetarian
Tôi ăn thuần chay = I eat vegan
# 5 order side dishes
If you don't find any vegetarian or vegan dishes on the menu, you can easily order different components and put together your own dish. The classic: a bowl of cooked rice, a bowl of fried vegetables and a little soy sauce. Tofu is also often fried or grilled as a side dish, but it is not for everyone. I do not like it.
# 6 Vegetarian is mostly vegan too
Since the food in Vietnam hardly knows any dairy products, vegetarian dishes are often vegan too. Soy or coconut milk is usually used instead of cow's milk. Vegans only have to be careful with eggs, because they are not only offered as omelets, but are often mixed with fried rice or used as a soup.
# 7 Fruits galore
If there are no vegetarian dishes on the street or in the many food markets and you are on the verge of despair, then there is still the huge selection of exotic fruits. Pineapple, coconut, mango, jackfruit, passion fruit, pomelo, rambutan, papaya, dragonfruit, watermelon, banana and mangosteen are available in abundance thanks to the fertile Mekong Delta and at an absolute spot price.
# 8 pizza and pasta? No thanks!
Anyone who is fed up with Vietnamese food or simply reaches for pizza, pasta and Co. out of desperation will mostly be disappointed, because most restaurants really don't have that. Even if the offer in the backpacker district in Ho Chi Minh City, in Hanoi and in the tourist town of Hoi An is huge, better leave it alone. The pizzas usually taste like frozen cardboard, the pasta limp and cooked through.
Those looking for western food in Vietnam should visit the many great cafes that offer croissants, muffins and cakes, as well as smoothie bowls and avocado toast.
11 dishes you should try
During my three-week trip to Vietnam, it was not always easy for me to find something vegetarian right away. Despite some communication difficulties, 11 dishes have come together that you as a vegetarian can eat without hesitation. Most of them are even vegan.
# 1 Pho (vegan)
Anyone who has read anything about food in Vietnam will most certainly have come across pho, as it is the Vietnamese national dish. It is a well-seasoned soup with rice noodles, vegetables and plenty of meat. It is eaten and sold at any time of the day. However, it is actually considered a classic breakfast.
Since traditional pho is based on beef broth, it is extremely difficult for vegetarians and vegans to get an authentic noodle soup. Fortunately, there are a few shops that offer vegan pho based on vegetable broth and without the addition of fish sauce. Keep your eyes open!
# 2 veggie spring rolls (vegan)
Vegetarian spring rolls are made from rice paper and are usually filled with glass noodles, mushrooms, carrots, kohlrabi and sometimes tofu. They are fried in a wok and served with soy or slightly spicy peanut sauce.
# 3 summer rolls (vegan)
Summer rolls look like un-fried spring rolls and are usually found on the menu in Vietnam as fresh spring rolls or nem an chay. A mixture of vegetables, bean sprouts, mint and herbs is wrapped in the fresh rice paper. Since the rice paper is almost transparent, you can even keep an eye on the filling. Summer rolls are also dipped in soy or peanut chili sauce.
# 4 Banh Xeo Nam (vegan or vegetarian)
Banh Xeo Nam is a hearty pancake that can be filled with any ingredient. I mostly found it on the menu with mushrooms and sprouts. The batter of the pancake can be made with or without an egg.
# 5 Morning Glory (vegan)
Morning Glory is a classic that can be found on almost every menu in Vietnam. It is water spinach that is fried with stalks in plenty of garlic and served with boiled rice. If you like, you can drown the whole thing in soy sauce. General fried vegetables can be found under the name ran xao.
# 6 Vietnamese curry (vegan)
Unfortunately, Vietnamese curry cannot be compared with the incredibly delicious curry variants from Thailand, nor does it have any similarity to the divine curries from Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, some restaurants in Vietnam offer different versions of curries. These mostly include a vegan variant based on coconut milk and containing a lot of vegetables (or tofu if desired).
# 7 Bánh mi chay (vegetarian)
Bánh mi (sometimes spelled bánh my) is a legacy from the French colonial era. The French brought the delicious baguette to Vietnam back then and it has remained to this day. On every street corner you will find small mobile carts that sell bánh mi. Unfortunately, the baguette here is filled with sausage, pate and grilled pork and refined with fish sauce.
If you keep your eyes open, you will find some shops that also sell vegetarian bánh mi (bánh mi chay). In this case, the crispy baguette is topped with shredded mushrooms, lettuce, onions, cheese spread and herbs and seasoned with a hot sauce. I would have liked a real slice of cheese to go with it, but unfortunately there is no such thing in Vietnam. Nevertheless, bánh mi chay is a real cult dish that you should definitely try.
# 8 fried vegetable rice (vegan or vegetarian)
A very simple but tasty dish is fried rice with various vegetables. Vegetarians can order the variant with egg, vegans may prefer tofu with it.
# 9 omelette (vegetarian)
A really good omelette is always possible. You don't have to search long in Vietnam because it is prepared in every street kitchen. The vegetarian variant is often made with spring onions, basil and coriander and is well seasoned. Either soy or a hot chili sauce is served with it.
# 10 Che ba ba (vegan)
Che ba ba is an incredibly delicious Vietnamese dessert that you should definitely try. A type of pudding or porridge made mainly from sweet potatoes, coconut milk, and peanuts, served warm. Other varieties also include bananas, mung beans, and vanilla.
# 11 rice noodles with vegetables (vegan or vegetarian)
You can find rice noodles in Vietnam in all possible varieties. I like them best fried in a wok and served with lots of fresh vegetables and soy sauce. Vegans simply leave out the egg.
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