Guest article by Andrew Miles.
Vegan Vietnam Travel Tips
I’ve just spent a little under 2 years travelling and living as a vegan in Vietnam. The country is well known for its cuisine and has become a popular foodie destination in recent years. Cities like Hoi An and Hue, in particular, are famous for their local specialty dishes.
It’s true that most of the well-known Vietnamese dishes aren’t vegan, but don’t worry! Vietnam has a long Buddhist tradition that has deeply influenced the national cuisine. Because of these religious traditions, many people eat a vegan diet on certain days of the religious calendar, if not year-round.
This means that it’s pretty easy to find veganized versions of many local favorites, at least in larger towns and cities, as long as you know where to look. Once you learn a bit about the local religion and culture, you’ll find many more vegan options than you ever thought existed.
In this vegan Vietnam travel guide, I’ll share my most important tips for eating vegan in Vietnam.
Learn Some Basic Vietnamese Phrases
This is key. If you want to eat out regularly whilst on your travels, knowing some of the basic keywords and phrases will help you out big time. Note that Vietnamese is a tonal language with six different tones, so it’s difficult for most Westerners to pronounce Vietnamese words correctly.
I suggest studying up a bit with one of these language learning apps that are recommended for travelers. You can also use Google Translate to practice the pronunciation of the useful words and phrases listed below.
But don’t be surprised if people still don’t understand you. Just have some patience, and you will get there in the end.
The good news is that Vietnamese is written using the Latin alphabet, just like English and many other Western languages. Compared with the Japanese and Chinese languages, the written language of Vietnam is much easier for Westerners to decipher.
Just learning some basic Vietnamese words goes a long way in your experience as a customer in Vietnam. If you learn the greetings, numbers and basic items, you will find people far more receptive and willing to help you out. You may even pay less than other tourists for your efforts!
Here are the basic terms you will need for ordering food. And if you’re having a hard time explaining what you do and don’t eat, I recommend downloading the Vegan Passport or another vegan translation app.
Vietnamese Food Phrases for Vegans
How to Say Vegan in Vietnamese?
Tôi Ăn Chay – I am vegetarian/vegan
The word “chay” can be variously understood as either vegan or vegetarian. This phrase basically means that you eat the same diet that a Buddhist monk eats, which is often vegan. You’ll need to pull out a few more phrases to make it really clear that you don’t eat dairy or eggs, though.
Tôi Không Ăn… - I don’t eat …
When you want to specify which ingredients you don’t eat, preface each one with this phrase. Then follow it up with:
Thịt - meat
Cá - fish
Sữa – milk
Quả trứng - eggs
Sản Phẩm Có Sữa - dairy products
Phô Mai - cheese
Mật Ong – honey
Không thịt - No meat
You can reaffirm your desire for no meat with this one.
Không nước mắm - No fish sauce
This one is very important. Assume that everything has fish sauce in it when ordering anything soupy or noodly.
Không mắm ruốc – No shrimp paste
Shrimp paste is an ingredient in certain soups, and it’s also sometimes diluted with lime juice to make a dipping sauce.
Không có trứng - No egg
When ordering dishes such as veggie rice or veggie noodles, if you don’t use this phrase it may arrive with egg, even if there was no mention of egg on the menu.
Không có sữa - No milk
When ordering coffee (make sure it’s vegan coffee, details in next section), make sure you order without milk. Also, the Vietnamese have a habit of putting milk in fruit juices too. Every time you order a juice, say this phrase, just in case.
Không có sữa đặc - No condensed milk
Again, when ordering coffee, juice or smoothies make sure you ask for no condensed milk. It appears in everything even if not stated on the menu.
And if you also follow a gluten free diet, here are a couple more phrases you’ll find useful:
Không lúa mì – no wheat
Không nước tương – no soy sauce
Eating gluten free in Vietnam can be challenging, but the good news is that many dishes are made with rice flour rather than wheat flour. Spring rolls, rice dishes and rice noodle dishes can usually be made gluten free.
If you want to learn lots more useful words and phrases in Vietnamese, I highly recommend the uTalk app! It's a great resource for learning some survival Vietnamese before your trip.
And you can also use it as an electronic phrasebook to quickly look up the phrase you need at any given moment. Click on the image below to get a 20% discount on Vietnamese or any other language pack!
Foods You’d Expect to Be Vegan that Aren’t
I only discovered this sneaky minor detail after I had already been in Vietnam for a year. The basic Vietnamese coffee, which is very famous and popular, is in fact NOT vegan.
How is coffee not vegan, you ask? The coffee beans are soaked in butter and/or fish sauce prior to distribution to help take some of the bitterness out.
The locals refer to this as ‘dirty coffee’ or even ‘fake coffee’. If you want ‘real’ coffee, I suggest finding a chain like Highlands Coffee, which is the Vietnamese equivalent of Starbucks, or settle with no coffee at all outside of the big cities.
Stir Fry Vegetables/Rice
You will see these two options in most Vietnamese restaurants. Most likely they contain fish sauce, shrimp paste and/or egg. If you order, make sure you ask to remove these items using the phrases above.
The Vietnamese love tofu, and you will find it on menus throughout the country. Be wary though, as these dishes usually contain fish sauce. And in places, the dish may even come with chunks of pork, even though pork won’t be listed on the menu.
There is often confusion in Vietnam about the difference between a juice and a milkshake. Many times, I have ordered a mango juice only to be served a mango milkshake/lassie type beverage. Make sure when you order to ask for no milk and no condensed milk.
One very healthy green juice option that you'll see everywhere in Vietnam is pennywort juice (rau má). Read more here about pennywort juice and other healthy Vietnamese foods and drinks that will keep you energized.
Crisps (Potato Chips)
If you go into a local supermarket or convenience store to buy a bag of crisps (or “potato chips” in American English), be warned that, unless they are fancy imported crisps, they are likely to contain milk or milk solids. Look out for the Lays crisps imported from Thailand, as they are certified vegan!
Many Vietnamese Buddhists follow a vegan diet either on a permanent basis, which is known as "trường chay" in Vietnamese, or on particular dates, which is known as "kỳ chay".
Those who are kỳ chay eat vegan on specific days of the lunar calendar. You can think of this as a Vietnamese version of meatless Mondays.
Some people who follow this practice view it as a transition to a fully vegan lifestyle, while others do it to earn merit but don't intend to become fully vegan.
Buddhists who follow the kỳ chay schedule will, at a minimum, eat vegan on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar calendar. In addition, some will also eat vegan on the 8th, 14th, 23rd, 29th, and 30th days of the lunar calendar.
This type of vegan Buddhist diet is sometimes translated into English as “strict vegetarian”. In Vietnam, this means you eat like the monks. This is a vegan diet but it also excludes onion and garlic, as both are seen as stimulants.
Using the phrase “chay” or “strict vegetarian” can help you a lot when travelling in Vietnam, as you may discover some small buffet type restaurants that cater for “strict vegetarians”.
Veganising Traditional Foods
In more off-the-beaten-path parts of Vietnam, it’s useful to know how to veganise some of the common traditional foods. I found that, if I was struggling to find something to eat, I could always count on certain traditional dishes, as long as the restaurant staff would allow me to change it around a bit.
Đậu sốt cà Chua or Tofu in tomato sauce
This dish can be found in most places throughout Vietnam. The tofu in tomato sauce dish varies. Sometimes it has no meat, while other times it has pork.
Make sure you ask for no meat and no fish sauce using the phrases in the language section above. Once those pesky ingredients are out of the way, it’s a fantastic and wholesome dish served with rice. Also look out for tofu in green onion sauce (Đậu phụ rán tẩm hành), which is also very tasty!
Vegetable spring rolls
This is another great choice. I’ve travelled in deep rural Vietnam and still managed to get vegan vegetable fried spring rolls simply by asking for no meat and no egg. They are usually delicious in most places that serve them.
This a traditional Vietnamese sandwich made with French baguette-style bread filled with veggies, pork or chicken, cheese and sauce. If you can request one of these famous sandwiches without the meat and cheese, you have a very tasty vegetable sandwich. Find out more about bánh mì and other vegan Southeast Asian dishes here.
Vegetable noodles, or pho xao, is essentially traditional pho without the broth. This is good news for vegans, because the broth is made from a chicken’s carcass. Pho Xao, on the other hand, is just flat rice noodles with fried veggies and soy sauce. Again, just make sure you ask for no fish sauce!
Vegetable rice, or com xao, is a staple for Vietnamese people. It’s simply fried rice with a few chopped veggies, and you will find it from street vendors all over Vietnam for around $1 a plate. Again, ask for no fish sauce!
Non-Vegan Ingredients to Watch Out For
When buying packaged foods in a shop or supermarket, be sure to look out for these items in the ingredients list.
Sữa and Sữa đặc
Sữa is milk and Sữa đặc is milk solids. I quickly learnt that these two milk ingredients are added to seemingly every packaged food available in Vietnam, except for those that are imported from neighbouring countries.
Any time you buy a drink, crisps, candy, biscuits (cookies), dried fruit, canned food or anything in a packet at a store, check for these ingredients.
Mắm ruốc is shrimp paste, and it always appears in noodle products and other fast foods from stores such as Circle K or VinMart. Even if you find a vegetable noodle cup, it is likely to have shrimp paste in it.
This is the most popular type of fermented shrimp paste in Vietnam, but there are others that go by different names, depending on the type of shrimp used.
Whereas mắm ruốc is most commonly found in central Vietnam, mắm tép and mắm tôm are two other types that are more popular in the north.
Pro Tip: Most Vietnamese supermarkets have a dedicated vegan aisle in order to cater to the many vegan and part-time vegan Buddhists in the country. The aisle may or may not be labelled, but if it is, it should say something like "Thuc Pham Chay". Most chay aisles feature a mix of vegan ramen, different types of TVP, sauces, and sometimes canned mock meats.
There are a number of Vietnamese dipping sauces made from various aquatic animals. The fish sauce and shrimp paste listed below are two of the most common, but there are plenty of others.
Unless you are eating in a vegetarian restaurant, you can assume that any dipping sauce provided is not vegan. Ask for soy sauce instead. Alternatively, you could buy a small bottle of vegan fish sauce (nước mắm chay) and bring it with you when you’re eating out.
Be Prepared for the Language Barrier
During my stay in Vietnam, I spent a lot of time trying to explain my food requirements to people. Whilst I encourage you to always remain polite when talking to people, you should also remember to be firm.
The Vietnamese sometimes have a habit of not really listening to you and not understanding you but trying to help you anyway. This can lead to mass confusion. For example, you may ask for no egg and they bring you nothing but eggs.
It’s part of the culture to want to save face, so rather than saying ‘I don’t understand’ they will just say ‘OK’ then run off, leaving you very confused.
You’re in their country, so it’s on you to help them understand. Use a combination of the phrases given above, body language, Google translate or another translation app and pictures. The picture page of the Vegan Passport comes in handy at times like this.
You may find that, despite doing all of these things, they still bring you the egg you didn’t want. But it’s fine. Be patient.
When my partner and I travel, we try to book accommodation with a shared or private kitchen. This allows us to shop at local markets and cook great vegan food for ourselves.
Markets in Vietnam are an experience in themselves, especially if you get there around 6 am. It’s complete madness! However, getting there early and surviving the madness is rewarded with the best and freshest produce.
When living in Vietnam, my weekly food shopping would cost me around $20 for about four bags full of fruit, vegetables, grains and nuts. So, if you are traveling on a budget and don’t fancy the hassle of trying to find a place to eat vegan, shopping at local markets and cooking for yourself is a great option.
As I mentioned earlier, there are vegetarian restaurants in Vietnam that cater for “strict vegetarians”.
In Vietnam, these Buddhist eateries are known as chay restaurants. These are then further categorized into different types of chay restaurants, but we'll get to that in a minute.
They serve veganized versions of all the most famous national Vietnamese dishes, as well as many unique regional and local specialties. From "white rose" dumplings in Hoi An to the spicy noodle soup called "bún bò" that the city of Huế is famous for, you will be able to sample vegan renditions of just about any local dish you can imagine.
Unfortunately, most foreign visitors to the country don't know about these restaurants, which is a real shame. By eating at these chay restaurants, you will have a very authentic local experience in Vietnam.
So, how do you find these vegan havens? Some of them are listed on HappyCow, but here's a handy shortcut:
On Google maps, look for pagodas (temples), which are marked with an icon in the shape of a wheel. Then look at the eateries nearby.
You are bound to find some with names that begin with "nhà hàng chay", "quán chay" or "cơm chay". All of these are vegetarian/vegan eateries. You can also just do a direct search for these phrases followed by the name of the city you're in.
On the days of the lunar calendar mentioned in the “Veganism in Vietnamese Buddhism” section above, Buddhist restaurants are particularly busy, so it's a good idea to arrive early.
In fact, chay restaurants get so packed with customers at these times that many of them close the following day to give their staff a much-needed break. So, on the 2nd and 16th days of the lunar calendar, you may need to look elsewhere for your meals.
This is not a problem, as plenty of mainstream restaurants also have vegan dishes, or even an entire vegan/vegetarian section of the menu, and there are also many Vietnamese street food snacks that are naturally vegan.
You just might want to ask a few questions about hidden ingredients like fish sauce, shrimp paste, and meat broth.
Tourist-Friendly Vegan Buffets
Recently in Hanoi, there has been a sudden boom in vegan buffets catering for the expat community. Vast numbers of expat teachers dine at these buffets, looking for a cheap but healthy(ish) meal.
One of the most famous buffets is Peace Vegan, situated in the expat area of Tay Ho, about 7 km outside of the craziness of Hanoi’s old town. Here you will find around 10 to 12 vegan dishes including tofu in tomato sauce, pumpkin stew, alternative meats, water spinach and simple vegetable dishes.
Since Peace Vegan’s quick success amongst the expats, a number of buffets have popped up elsewhere in the city looking for a piece of the action. La Grace is another popular option just off Au Co road behind the famous flower market. To find it, just type ‘The 100 Garden’ into Google maps, as this is where the buffet is now hosted.
Be warned, whilst these buffets are great for vegans looking for a quick lunch, they aren’t that healthy. If you are vegan for health reasons, then the copious amounts of processed plant-based meats, oil, salt and MSG might throw you off a little.
Vegan Restaurants in Vietnam
Yes, believe it or not, Vietnam does actually cater quite well for vegans in the big cities. Here are the best options for the three biggest cities that you should definitely check out on your travels:
Vegan Restaurants in Hanoi
(Address: Nhà Hàng Minh Chay Vegan 45 Xuan Dieu)
Slightly expensive when compared to the average food prices in Vietnam, but well worth it if you are looking for really good vegan food.
There are actually two Minh Chay restaurants in Hanoi, but I recommend the one in the expat area of Tay Ho. I’ve found that the one located in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is always missing items from the menu.
Must Try: Vegan Pho, Mushroom Pastry Parcels, Pumpkin Soup
(Address: 80 Từ Hoa Công Chúa, Quảng An, Tây Hồ)
Situated on the famous Westlake in Tay Ho, this cute little cafe offers both vegan and non-vegan options. The vegan options, however, are fantastic, and the prices are also very affordable. The ingredients are very fresh too.
Be warned, it gets busy around lunchtime, so go in the early morning or late afternoon.
Must Try: Vegan Meatballs, Veggie Noodle Bowl, Stuffed Tofu
(Address: 46 Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
This is not my favourite place to eat vegan food in Hanoi, but it does have good options. And if you have a lot of time in the Old Quarter, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Must Try: Vegan Lasagne, Vegan Burger, Vegan Banana Loaf
Vegan Restaurants in Da Nang
Vegan Restaurant (No name)
(Address: An Hai Bac, Son Tra, Da Nang)
Cheap and tasty vegan food at a small but well-decorated restaurant. The name of this place is unknown.
Must Try: Thai Vegan Noodles, Mushroom Vermicelli, Vegan Sushi
(Address: 2 Phạm Cự Lượng, An Hải Đông, Sơn Trà, Đà Nẵng)
Very simple but tasty vegan food. No menu. Just point to what you want. There are lots of good choices, and it’s all fresh and healthy!
Must Try: Whatever the lovely woman gives you.
Ho Chi Minh City
(Address: 378/3 Võ Văn Tần, Phường 5, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh)
Fresh, healthy and bountiful Vietnamese vegan food. Perfect if you are on a budget and a hungry vegan wandering around Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Must Try: Seaweed Claypot, Fresh Spring Rolls and Vegan Bun Cha (famous Vietnamese noodle broth dish)
(Address: 2 Võ Văn Tần, Phường 6, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh)
Hum is often the most recommended restaurant for vegetarian and vegan food. However, there are mixed feelings amongst people as to whether this place lives up to its reputation. Personally, I think the food is a great take on local cuisine but obviously ‘veganised’ and definitely worth the visit.
Must Try: Spicy Tofu, Vegan Green Curry
Vegan Food Tours in Vietnam
If the idea of navigating the street food scene as a vegan in Vietnam seems too daunting, you can join a food tour and let a local expert pick out the vegan dishes for you.
Several different companies in the big cities have started offering vegan food tours in recent years, which is a testament to how much the vegan Vietnam food scene is growing.
Vegan Food Tours in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Vegan Food Tours in Hanoi
Or, if you prefer to hand over all the logistics and organizing to someone else for your whole trip rather than just for an afternoon, check out this fully vegan tour of Vietnam with World Vegan Travel.
Vegan in Rural Vietnam
This is where finding vegan food in Vietnam becomes a bit trickier. First, always check Google or HappyCow in case they have some options. Oftentimes, though, the vegetarian places I’ve found this way haven’t been that good.
My advice is to talk to people. Talk to people at your hostel or homestay, including both other travellers and local people (if they speak English). Often, you will find that they know a place where you can find vegetarian food or a place where you can veganise the menu items.
No matter how deep I ventured into rural Vietnam, there was always the possibility of eating tofu, rice, water spinach (also called “morning glory”) and peanuts. The tofu in Vietnam is great, so this isn’t a bad deal, really. If there is no tofu, then you may have to settle for just veggies, rice and peanuts or French fries.
The Importance of Vegan Snacks
One great way to ensure you always have food is to prepare your own snacks just in case. Bring along some peanut butter, bread, nuts, plant milk of your choice and fruits. Maybe even some dark chocolate.
If you are exploring rural Vietnam, you may have days when you cannot find much vegan food in local restaurants. Knowing that you have a bag full of vegan snacks gives you peace of mind when exploring the countryside. So, pack smart!
Patience is a Virtue
The vast majority of people in Vietnam were willing to help me out with my vegan needs. However, depending on where you are in the country, you may not get the help you are looking for. Be patient.
Remember, you are in their country, and it is you who has the special requirements. Using phrases in the local language will help you a lot, but be prepared for people to not understand you even if you think you are pronouncing the words correctly.
With six tones in Vietnamese, it is sometimes very difficult for a Vietnamese person to make sense of what you are trying to say. If this happens, try showing them the words or phrases written out instead.
Also, be prepared for the person to get your order wrong even when you think they’ve understood you. Outside of the big cities, this happens a lot. You may ask for no milk and get lots of milk.
Ask for no meat but get a plate of meat, just on the side. Ask for no fish sauce and still get fish sauce. In Vietnam, you cannot let this get you frustrated. Accept that it may happen, be patient and try again.
Vietnam is an awesome place to travel and is well worth the trip. Don’t let your veganism stop you from enjoying the local cuisine. As discussed above, you can thrive as a vegan in Vietnam!