Buddhism is generally considered the national religion in Vietnam with more than 60% of the population practicing some form of it. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that vegetarian cuisine is extremely popular here. This article will offer you a few glimpses of vegetarianism, what and where to eat to have a pleasant vegetarian experience.
Vegetarian eating habits of the Vietnamese
There is a great number of vegetarian followers in Vietnam for a couple of reasons. Traditionally, Vietnamese people go for vegetarian food due to their religious beliefs. In Buddhism, there are two common ways to practice vegetarianism.
- Confirmed vegetarianism: people abstain completely from the consumption of meat throughout their life.
- Periodical vegetarianism: people choose not to eat meat on certain days of the month (or certain months of the year). Normally, it falls in ten days (1st, 8th, 14th, 15th, 18th, 23rd, 24th, 28th, 29th, and 30th in the lunar calendar) regarding the enlightenment days of the major Buddhas in Buddhism. This is also the most popular way followed by Vietnamese.
However, the wonderful effects of plant-based or vegetarian food on our health have been increasingly recognized. More and more dishes are created which not only serve the religious purpose but also meet the healthy and nutrition-balanced requirements. You will have no problem finding a vegetarian restaurant while travelling in any part of Vietnam. Honestly (and personally), the home-cook chefs have brought vegetarian dishes to the next level with creative combinations between Asian and Western cooking methods and ingredients.
Unlike Indian or Western seasoning methods which make use of spices such as anise, cinnamon, cardamom, and so on. Vietnamese vegetarian cooking prefers root crops (garlic, onions, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, and so on).
Apart from those common condiments, a popular term widely known by Vietnamese vegetarians is “ăn chay giả mặn” (meat-looking veggie foods) which are 100% made from non-meat ingredients but formed in seafood or meat shape. They are mostly made from bread, tofu skin (or bean curd sheets), and seitan (vegan meat). This is a way to attract more people to move toward a non-meat diet and make it easier for beginner vegetarians.
Also, another favorite ingredient in Vietnamese veggie cuisine is fermented “tương” (fermented whole beans) – which has a brown, shiny color and sweetish taste; and “chao” (fermented tofu) – which is soybeans that are smashed and shaped in cubes before being fermented. “Chao” normally has an ivory color and slightly salty taste.
Popular Vietnamese vegetarian dishes and where to eat
The word “chay” in Vietnamese means “vegetarian” which is going to be mentioned a lot in the upcoming section. Interestingly, in Vietnam, every single dish has its own veggie version, from daily home-cooked meals to complicated dishes. While the former is plainly plant-based foods which are mainly cooked by stir-frying, steaming, or stewing and served with steamed rice, the latter requires more complex ingredients.
1. Banh Mi Chay
The most favored Vietnamese dish known by all the avid travellers in the world is Banh Mi. The vegetarian Banh Mi’s fillings are as varied as its counterpart. The most popular version is Banh Mi stuffed with vegan sausages, deep-fried tofu skin, pickled carrots, and some green herbs. The sweet and sour sauce is made of salt instead of fish sauce. Banh Mi Chay is simple but each element in it requires a great meticulous process. This is a perfect pick to eat on the way as it is portable, tasty, and filling.
- Banh Mi 362 (25 Tran Cao Van, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City): This Banh Mi restaurant does not solely sell vegetarian baguettes, however, its Banh Mi Nam Pho Mai (Banh Mi stuffed with different kinds of mushrooms and melted vegan cheese – 40,000 VND) is the real star. The baguette is freshly baked so it is aromatic and crispy; and the fillings come with a variety of mushrooms. This could never go wrong with a cup of Ca Phe Sua Da (condensed milk coffee).
- Le Hoi Vegan Banh Mi (Cam Chau Ward, Hoi An – 15,000 VND)
- Vegan Banh Mi (66B Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi – 20,000 VND)
2. Goi Cuon Chay
Goi Cuon (fresh spring rolls) was voted in the “Top 50 best dishes in the world” in 2011. This dish is locally known as a common street food which you can easily find at any corner on the streets in Vietnam. Although the original Goi Cuon mostly consists of green vegetables already, the vegan rolls come with boiled oyster mushrooms, fresh rice noodles, sliced cucumbers, green onions, pickled carrots (or sliced green mangoes), and green herbs wrapped in a thin rice paper sheet. To complete the taste, fresh spring rolls are dipped in sweet and sour sauce or fermented soybean sauce topped with ground peanuts. Here are some suggestions:
- Quan Chay Chi Cu (07 Tran Dinh Xu, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City – 5,000 VND/roll)
- Uu Dam Chay (34 Hang Bai, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi – 110,000 VND)
- Loving Hut Hoa Dang Vegetarian Restaurant (38 Huynh Khuong Ninh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City – 10,000 VND/roll)
3. Vegetarian noodle soups
All the Vietnamese noodle soups emphasize the light, natural sweetness of the broth steaming out from mushrooms, carrots, and corns. The main difference among them is the use of different types of noodles and side green veggies. At Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants, you can find almost all the Vietnamese noodle dishes in their vegetarian versions such as vegetarian crab noodle soup (Bun Rieu Chay), vegetarian Hue beef noodle soup (Bun Bo Hue), vegetarian curry noodle soup (Bun Ca Ri); however, Pho and Hu Tieu are among the most common and easy-going options.
For vegetarian Pho, we use soft flat-striped noodles. The broth is cooked from the vegetables overnight together with all the basic Pho spices such as grilled ginger and onions, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, and so on. The main protein in vegetarian Pho comes from deep-fried bean curd and shiitake mushrooms.
Hu Tieu Chay is another vegetarian dish and probably the most popular that you could find here. It is favored for its simplicity yet delicious taste with basic broth cooked from mentioned vegetables, thin squared noodles topped with deep-fried tofu, and wonton.
Pho and Hu Tieu are easily found at any veggie restaurant and here are some of our favorite picks.
- Pho Chay Nhu (54 Truong Quyen, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City): it has a big menu for vegetarian noodle soups, but the starred dish is definitely Pho (40,000 VND). They also offer you vegan wonton.
- Vegan noodles (168 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung District, Hanoi – 30,000 VND)
- Ngoc Chi Vegetarian Restaurant (202 Hoang Dieu, Hai Chau District, Da Nang – 40,000 VND)
4. Lau Chay
Hotpot or Lau is a gathering dish which is often chosen by a big group of people. Personally, I believe Lau Chay (vegan hotpot) is a perfect creation for vegetarian followers as it has all the green ingredients that we could think of (and of course way tastier than the original one). Lau Chay is served on a gas oven at the table with a variety of green vegetables on the side. The broth varies from Thai hot chili broth, soybean fermented broth, mushroom broth, etc. This is highly recommended if you go in a group and want to share food. Here are some places which you should absolutely give a try:
- Quan chay Tam Duc (Ho Chi Minh City): this restaurant has 3 locations across Saigon. It offers a wide menu of Lau and they are all good. The price ranges from 150,000 VND to 200,000 VND. Apart from Lau, they also have different dishes such as Com Chay and other noodle soup dishes at the same price of 25,000 VND only. But the combo of good food and reasonable price also means that it is always packed on vegetarian days. It is often seen with long lines of shippers waiting for take-away and people standing for their turn to get a table.
- Lau Nam Thien Nhien Ashima (Ho Chi Minh City/Hanoi): First notice, this is not a plainly vegetarian restaurant; however, you can customize your vegetarian hotpot. Here is a true paradise for mushroom lovers with more than 30 types of mushrooms including some rarely served types from Japan, Korea, and Shangri La. The easiest and probably the best go-to is the Set Menu Vegetarian Japanese Hotpot. This is a bit pricier than the mentioned restaurants, but the service, the decor and atmosphere definitely justify the bill.
- Vi Lai Restaurant (67 Ly Thuong Kiet, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi – 315,000 VND)
5. Banh Xeo Chay
Banh Xeo Chay is another game-changing creation of Vietnamese vegetarian cuisine. It remains the basic element of Banh Xeo but the thin batter holds a collection of delicious stuffings inside. It has shredded bean sprouts, carrot, and vegan shrimp (made of bean curd sheets and young tofu). The iconic turmeric yellow skin is crispy and has a touch of creamy coconut milk taste.
A more special version of Banh Xeo is the addition of Củ hủ dừa (young coconut shoots). This is extra because for each coconut tree, only when it is cut down and all the rough shells at the top of the tree are removed that reveals the coconut shoot. It means there is only one coconut shoot collected from one coconut tree when it is chopped down. It is distinctively sweet and juicy. Some qualified Banh Xeo places are below:
- Amitabha Restaurant (40 Nguyen Thai Hoc, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City): this underappreciated restaurant offers excellent Banh Xeo at a reasonable price of 65,000 VND only.
- Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant (50 Tran Cao Van, Minh An Ward, Hoi An – 35,000 VND)
- Quan Chay Thien Duyen (308/8 Hoang Dieu, Hai Chau District, Da Nang – 35,000 VND)
6. Com Chay
This is the most seen form of vegetarian food stop in Vietnam. At all the classic restaurants, they have a big glass cupboard with many different trays of food inside. Normally, they offer you a plate of steamed rice and you point at whatever food you like to go with it. In most places, the price is fixed at around 25,000 VND ($1). This is favorably chosen by the locals for daily meals because it is cheap and filling for a long working day. These restaurants often sell vegan snacks like crispy seaweeds and deep-fried bean curd pieces. This kind of vegetarian is everywhere, but you can start from these addresses:
- SEN Vegan Restaurant (171 Nguyen Thai Hoc, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City – 65,000 VND)
- An Lac Vegetarian Restaurant (109 Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi – 15,000 VND)
- Quan Chay Dieu Hoa (87/04 Nguyen Du, Hai Chau District, Da Nang – 30,000 VND)
7. Fusion vegetarian restaurant
There are certain events where you would like to look for more international vegetarian food and a well-decorated atmosphere (or simply just to freshen up your taste). Many places where you can find vegetarian dishes from other Western and Asian cuisines. Of course, the price is considerably higher, but we believe it is worth treating yourself once in a while or bringing your loved ones to a cozy dining experience. Here are some of our recommendations:
- Prem Bistro (District 3, Ho Chi Minh City): this restaurant has a big menu with all the delicious vegetarian dishes crossing from East to West. This is suitable for a dinner date as the vibe here is intimate and the food is absolutely awesome.
- Hum Vegetarian Restaurant: this is very famous among the “high-end” vegetarian eateries. It now has three locations across Ho Chi Minh City in districts 1, 2, and 3. The strongest impression of this chain is the elegant set up with the main theme of the lotus leaves and flowers, which are the symbol of Buddhism and recognized as the Vietnamese national flower. Although situated in the bustling districts of the town, Hum succeeds in creating a tranquil and peaceful atmosphere with open and airy surroundings of plants and trees. This is perfect for a dinner gathering under the night sky, in a modern yet cozy ambiance.
- Tinh Thuc Vegetarian Restaurant (10 Huynh Thuc Khang, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi). Vegetarian buffet: 100,000 VND/person