Vietnam is a famous travel destination in Southeast Asia with diverse cuisine and delicious street foods. The Vietnamese are also known for their healthy diet with a lot of vegetables. One of the reasons for this diet is the popularity of Buddhism in Vietnam. Buddhism is the largest non-native religion in Vietnam, with more than 17,000 pagodas across the country. As a result, it is not difficult to find vegetarian and vegan dishes in Vietnam.
I’m delighted to introduce iTourVietnam, who have written this guide to vegan and vegetarian food around one of Southeast Asia’s favourite backpacker destinations. If you’re interested in other other Asian hot spots, check out my guide to going vegan in Bangkok.
Vegetarian and Vegan Diets in Vietnam
Generally, Buddhism in Vietnam encourages people not to harm animals in any way, but does so without any strict regulation for its followers (except for the Buddhist monks). Whichever diet one follows depends on their choice. The most encouraged diet is veganism, which is free of meat and animal by-products.
In Vietnamese, there are two terms to differentiate the diets. The meat dishes are called “do man”, and the vegan or vegetarian dishes are generally called “do chay”, without any specific separation.
Vegan and vegetarian dishes are mostly made of a variety of vegetables, beans, and nuts, all served with rice. Most people following “chay” diet are part-time vegetarian – who only eat vegetarian dishes on certain days of the month (the 15th and 1st of Lunar Calendar), or lacto-ovo vegetarians – who consume eggs and dairy. But the Vietnamese vegetarian dishes usually replace the eggs and dairy in their recipe with other vegan substitutes.
The most significant difference between vegan and vegetarian in Vietnamese dishes lies in the names of the dishes rather than the ingredients. Some dishes are inspired by meat dishes; their names are kept the same so that most people can relate to how the dish would taste like. These dishes are called “gia man” (meat dish mimic). For example, “vit quay” (roasted duck) is a meat dish but there is a vegetarian version of this dish looking just the same, but the duck meat is replaced by a mixture of seasoned flour.
Substitutions of Meat and Animal-by Products
Regarding protein, the Vietnamese will usually substitute with tofu, tofu skin, “mi can” (seitan or wheat gluten), mushroom, and flours. They mix these ingredients to mimic the texture and the look of meat in a non-vegetarian dish or simply use it to create a nutritious vegan dish. The texture of eggs is usually replaced by the soft tofu. Cows milk can be substituted with others such as almond milk, brown rice milk, and soy milk. There is also a recipe to replace the famous fish sauce in Vietnamese cuisine, which includes stir-fried pineapple, soy sauce, sugar, and salt.
Some Vegetarian and Vegan Dishes in Vietnam
1. King salad
Salad (“Goi” or “nom” in Vietnamese) is the starter of almost every event meal. Simply remove the meat and replace the fish sauce dressing with a mixture of lemon soy sauce, and you will have a healthy vegan dish. This king salad is a mixture of julienned carrot, cucumber, red cabbage, and tofu skin. A little sprinkled of roasted sesame seeds adds extra scent to the dish and the crunchy vegetarian prawn crackers and taro chips on the side will keep you craving for more.
2. Stir-fried “longevity” noodle
This is inspired by a Chinese dish. The long strands of noodle are supposed to be uncut and consumed on special occasions like the Lunar New Year and birthdays with the meaning of wishing good health and longevity for the people who eat it. In this vegan version, the noodle is made without eggs and stir-fried with tofu, bok choy, carrot, and shiitake. The noodle absorb all of the seasoning and natural sweetness of vegetables, making for a great taste.
3. Fried wheat gluten
This is a simple dish is salted and peppered seitan, to be eaten with rice. The seitan is cut into small size pieces, shaped into balls and deep-fried until it gets a golden brownish colour on the outside. From the first look, this dish looks very much like the fried fish sausage, a speciality of Nha Trang City.
4. Stir-fried vegetables
This is another easy to make recipe. The crunch of mustard green, carrot, and baby corn will accompany the soft and slightly chewy texture of the shiitake and seitan. You can add a little sesame oil, salt, and pepper to taste, a bit of cornstarch to make the sauce thicker. A hot dish of this simple stir-fried vegetables is perfect with a bowl of rice and soy sauce.
5.Tofu braised in a mushroom sauce
The tofu is seared to get a brownish colour and crispy outer skin, then covered with a thin layer of seaweed and braised in the sauce of beech mushroom and garlic. A little unusual combination makes a great dish. Like many other dishes in Vietnam, this dish goes well with a bowl of hot rice.
6. Vegan desserts
Most Vietnamese don’t use dairy in their desserts, instead, opting for fruits like mango, bananas, and watermelon to complete their meals. However, there are some sweet treats and snacks popular between meals, or desserts for important family get-togethers. Grilled banana (covered in glutinous rice, grilled over charcoal, and dressed in the creamy coconut milk) may be a hearty dessert. A simple sweet soup made from all kinds of fruits and cooked flour balls would be the perfect end course.
Where to Eat Vegan and Vegetarian Dishes in Vietnam
On special occasions of Buddhism (such as the Vesak and the 15th of each month of Lunar Calendar), some pagodas will cook free vegan and vegetarian meals for all pagodas’ visitors.
Besides this, there are some really famous restaurants with the locals, including Mani, Mandala, Vajra, Doa Sen Vang, Viet Chay in Ho Chi Minh City. In Hanoi, check out Bo De Tam, An Lac, and Uu Dam.
You can see more of Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City here
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Living in the states, I found this quote misleading and confusing veganism with vegetarianism. Can you give me some insight into this?
“Being vegetarian here also means that we do not consume dairy and egg products, because they are products of the meat industry. If we stop consuming, they will stop producing. Only collective awakening can create enough determination for action.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Hey Beth, I’m possibly the wrong person to ask as this was a guest post by a Vietnamese native and the answer is probably best provided by a Vietnamese person rather than a white girl who would simply be speculating. However, here’s my two cents based on my experiences from living in Thailand for a few years. We have to take into account that, whilst using the same words, some countries may have adopted different meanings – I know for sure that I wouldn’t be able to cite the different words for ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ in Thai and only know one word that tended to summarise it all to make comms easy for me. I had to Google the quote you provided, and found that it came from a famous monk who was born in 1926, so perhaps (as well as the language differences) the use of the word had adapted over time. 🙂
Thanks so very much for your response. I really appreciate you taking the time to help me get some clarification on it. I have enjoyed reading your adventures and appreciate all you do to share the availability and advantage of eating vegan during your travels!
Any time! 🙂
I’m so glad that it’s getting easier for us – funnily enough, I still find Spain to be one of the toughest!