Good news, animal lovers: it’s really, really easy to be a pescatarian or vegetarian in Vietnam!
Before heading to Vietnam, I heard mixed reviews about the ease with which a tourist could maintain any special diets. A mix of poor (or no) translations, unknown ingredients, and a general lack of understanding towards WHY a person wouldn’t eat meat, I was told, could make it very difficult to stick to your diet. However, in spending three weeks in Vietnam, I found it super easy. Here’s a city-by-city breakdown, as well as some recommendations on common dishes and how to order them meat-free.
One note about the entire country: almost EVERY restaurant (like, 98% of them) have a section or page in the menu dedicated to tofu and/or vegetable dishes. Just flip to that page and boom, it’s a custom menu just for you! I found that I had more menu variety as a vegetarian in Vietnam than I do at a lot of restaurants in the U.S.
Okay, a second note: the word for vegetarian is “Chay” and it’s well understood throughout the country, as many Buddhists eat vegetarian for some or all of the month. It’s pronounced “jai” with a little “ch” sound in front of it, so more like “chjai.” or “jh-eye,” pronounced as in “eyeball.” Just say it and gesture towards yourself and they’ll figure it out.
Vegetarian in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh/Saigon:
Just say “Banh Mi Chay” and you’ll get a tasty and cheap spicy egg/veggie sandwich, like this one in HanoiBy far, this was THE easiest place to stick to be a vegetarian in Vietnam. Dishes here tend to be a little lighter than food further north. Some favorites I found were tofu with eggplant, veggie spring rolls and veggie-crab spicy soup. Banh Mi (a spicy meat and veggie sandwich) is also an extremely popular street food, and fortunately, it’s easily customized. Just order banh mi trung (banh mi with egg) or banh mi chay (banh mi with egg.) I also found that nearly every street vendor understood the english words “egg” and “cheese.” Or, just point. You’ll be watching them make your sandwich so you can always just object if they try to put on the weird, meat-paste type spread that comes standard. It costs anywhere between $.50 and $1.50 USD. Cha-ching.
Vegetarian in Vietnam?: Hue/DaNang/Hoi An:
No surprise, the coastline of Vietnam offers plenty of options for pescatarians – it’s a little harder to go vegetarian, given the inclination towards cooking with fish, but it’s not impossible. Suggestions here for great restaurants in Hoi An include Karma Waters (no alcohol, totally veg) Rosie’s Cafe (western, offers veg dishes) and Morning Glory (super popular with tourists, carnivores, and vegetarians alike.) My favorite was Vy’s Market, which offers a bunch of food stalls in one central area, with table service – a jackpot for vegetarians in Vietnam. They had tons of traditional Vietnamese dishes, served with tofu instead, like Cao Lao and Pho Bo. This is another region where vegetarian street food is easy to come by- just make sure to say “chay,” meaning vegetarian, when you order. Alternatively, you could say “Buddhist,” which they’ll understand, as many Buddhists stick to a vegan diet. In Hue, hit up Lien Hoa, but expect to wait for a table.
Vegetarian in Vietnam: Phong Nha:
If you’re headed inland, this will be the hardest place to find vegetarian food. You’ll probably end up eating a lot of the same dishes as your carnivore friends, only with egg instead of meet. I found simple tofu dishes to be the best bets, as many people here don’t speak English, and so it’s a bit harder to ask what’s in a dish. We stayed at Phong Nha Lake House, which has an affordable on-site restaurant, and they were really helpful when it came to modifying dishes to be vegetarian. Phong Nha is the only place in the country where we found restaurants that were ONLY for carnivores (i.e. BBQ places,) so just check the menus before you’re seated anywhere. If you do a cave tour, like we did, just tell the organizer of any dietary restrictions in advance, and they’ll make you a veggie spread like the one on the left.
Vegetarian in Vietnam: Hanoi:
Vegetarians and pescaterians rejoice; this is another city where finding veg food is so easy that I have no idea why anyone ever complains – it’s much easier than in the U.S. All restaurants have vegetarian pages on their menus, and most people seem to speak English well enough to explain that you’re looking for meat-free dishes. Ban Xeo (a sort of meat-filled crispy pancake thing) was my fav dish – I just ordered it with tofu everywhere and it was no problem. Also in Hanoi, I found pretty tasty and cheap street food late night and early in the morning. My favorite were the homemade donuts in various flavors like banana, brown sugar, mango and more.
One thing to watch out for: in Hanoi, it seemed popular to have dishes with tofu and pork. Make sure to read the description closely or you may end up with something you can’t eat.
Vegetarian in Vietnam: Sapa:
Ah, Sapa. Home of amazing vistas, rugged terrain, remote villages and….gourmet vegetarian food?
You wouldn’t expect it, given the remoteness of the villages here and limits to what can be cultivated, but Sapa was actually the only place where I found not only vegetarian pages on menus, but full vegetarian and vegan set menus (menus with multiple courses chosen in advance.) I liked a place called Antique Sapa, where a vegetarian set menu was only $4 and came with four courses, including a very tasty pumpkin soup. Nature View Sapa is another good choice with lovely views of the countryside, but make sure you go when it’s daylight out to take advantage of the views. Tons of veg and pescatarian offers, and I was able to change non-vegetarian dishes to include tofu instead. I thought the food was pretty good, but I’ve heard from others that it’s hit or miss. Go for the views.
Vegetarian in Vietnam: Halong Bay:
Halong Bay is a great place for pescatarians. In fact, standard fare is seafood; you’ll have to actually go out of your way to request chicken or red meat. Many of the cruises buy fresh seafood along the way, supplemented with fresh vegetables and spices. The food is healthy and fresh, though you could say that about most of Vietnam. From mussels to prawns and fish, the food here was perfect for me.
However, if you’re keeping vegetarian in Vietnam, it could be harder, as seafood is what’s readily available. If you’re going out on a cruise or day trip with a tour operator, just make sure to tell them at least a few days in advance of any dietary restrictions, and they can always accommodate. Otherwise, you’ll find tofu and egg dishes available, but they’ll probably be basic – sautéed tofu with rice and omelet-type replacements for meat. Every dish here seems to be served with rice and veggies, so you can always fill up on that too. Vegetarians going on multi-day boat tours may want to check with the operator in advance to see what kind of veg cuisine they provide, as it may behoove you to bring some of your own snacks if you think you may not like the limited options they have.
For the record, the company we sailed with in Halong Bay (the Treasure Junk) had amazing veg options and provided probably the best food we had on the whole trip.
Vegetarian in Vietnam: Dishes to order
Here are a few veg and fish-based dishes to try that you should be able to find anywhere in the country (more or less.) The ones that are totally veg have an *
- Banh Mi Trung: Traditional Vietnamese sandwich with egg*
- Lemongrass Tofu*
- Sauteed tofu with eggplant*
- Banh Bot Chien: Rice flour cake (with veggies, sometimes)*
- Banh Cam: Deep fried bean paste*
- Ca Kho To: Fish sauteed in a clay pot with spices
- Ban Xeo Chay*: Rice pancake with vegetables and tofu (sometimes served as spring roll filling)
- Rau Muong: Morning glory sauteed with spices (kind of like spinach)
Recommended reading: The Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam has a HUGE section on food and does a really good job of highlighting popular dishes, as well as their ingredients.
Been to Vietnam? Let me know what dishes or restaurants I missed in the comments!