This is not ‘Nam. There are Rules. (A Vegan Vietnam Experience.)

The Halong Bay cruise was admittedly a low point. Of course, it being Southeast Asia, everyone from the ticket seller to the driver to the people loading luggage onto the boat, had assured us that vegan food as available as an option. “Oh yes, very tasty, very fresh.”

It being Southeast Asia, they were all lying. The rice was vegan, it’s true. And a huge plate of crunchy peanuts were free from animal products. The rest, side dishes and fried eggs and entire fish, were decidedly not. I mixed the peanuts into my rice. I’d had worse meals, some of them cooked by me.

Dinner was no different–big piles of rice were the only surely vegan options–there were a few veggies swimming in a sauce that smelled of fermented fish. Plain rice isn’t so tasty but I happened to have a small container of nutritional yeast and some dried seaweed flakes, so even though I missed veggies it was a bearable few days.

Halong bay is beautiful, absorbingly so, and between climbing to caves and kayaking through lagoons and hiking through jungles and moonlit swims, the lack of vegan food didn’t interfere that much.

It was a low point, but only relatively so. Vegan Vietnam is an incredible treasure trove of tasty treats.

55 million Vietnamese people, give or take, are Buddhist, and have a tradition of eating veggie foods twice a month. (Snack options during this time include vegan pig ears, vegan chicken feet, vegan dried squid meat, and vegan king mackerel fish in tomato sauce, all of which costs two dollars or less ). Vietnam is easier than other places in SE Asia to be vegan in another regard as well. The word “chay,” written in a westernized script, adorns every veggie restaurant and food cart. Vietnamese being a tonal language, it’s a harder word to pronounce than you’d expect, but at the least you can keep your eyes out for it in written form.

The big cities have many vegan options of course. There are the cultish but always dependable Loving Huts, which often offer buffets on certain days and affordable, tasty meals the others. Not many people use Happy Cow anymore, and many of the listed restaurants have since closed, but the numbers do provide some perspective. Happy Cow lists 28 veggie and vegan places in Hanoi, 94 in Ho Chi Minh city (which puts it roughly on par with Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur and not too far behind Bangkok, which clocks in at 130. Interestingly, it’s the tiny Singapore that sports an all mighty 287 listings!) But the little towns are where the fascinating vegan options–and experiences–are to be found.

North from Ha Long Bay is Sapa, the famed hill station nestled in a land of misty rice terraces and cheeky Hmong touts. The specialty here is Dau phu Ca chua or tofu fried in tomato sauce and sprinkled with green onions. If that doesn’t sound exciting, then you need to hit skyscanner right now; the tofu is that good.

Because it is high in the hills and quite chilly by Southeast Asia standards, the other ubiquitous vegan friendly option is hot pot. Like shabu shabu or steamboat, they bring to you a grill and large pot of veggie stock, along with a table full of veggies, mushrooms, tofu, and even some mock meats. It’s fun to cook your own food at the restaurant, and one hotpot is enough food for two or three people.

One good thing about the tourism in Sapa, and other popular destinations in Vietnam, is that everyone understand what you mean when you ask for no egg or no fish sauce. All of the dishes are quite cheap–think in the 2 USD range–but for even cheaper you can DIY.

That most tasty remnant of French colonialism–baguettes–is everywhere and always vegan. It usually costs about .15 cents USD (depending on your haggling prowess, of course.) The markets have fruit, and many of the little stores sell western sundries, so peanut butter and banana baguettes are very easily achievable as well. (Or in a pinch, you can swap pringles for bananas, but it’s not recommended unless the very real danger of hanger is about to happen.)

Excepting the Ha Long Bay cruise of course, the food in the north was excellent. But it wasn’t until the cities of Hue and Hoi An that I really got to talking to Vietnamese vegans. In a crowded lunchtime place in Hue, one woman–who has lived in the US for over 30 years now–asked me if I knew that I was in a vegetarian restaurant. This made me laugh, as I had walked 4 kilometers along a busy road to find this place, and that the small room was filled with grey-robed monks. We chatted for a bit and I assured her I loved veggie and vegan food and had for all my life. The woman remained politely dubious–Americans she knew loved meat and cheese and milk. She watched in fascination as I munched on a plate of mixed rice.

Unfortunately, it was then that I discovered a vegetable that is truly loathsome. We’re talking a Lovecraftian menace; some kind of ancient, fermented something with a clear grudge against humanity. I can’t really describe the taste–though words like “rotting old socks” or “slightly corpsey” suggest themselves–and though I tried I could not eat it. Even the other foods on the plate it had touched were tainted. The woman watched my struggle, saying nothing, but when I left with half the food on my plate uneaten she smiled sadly to herself, clearly thinking something like “that’s what I thought.”

Three hours south, in Hoi An, things got better. Like everywhere else in the touristy parts of Vietnam there are plenty of great places to get vegan meals here (including the deservedly famous Karma Waters). But my favorite place in town didn’t even have a name. Down a side street off a different side street, it was the kind of place you could stumble into once and never find it again. There were no menus, only a small buffet for lunch with some of the tastiest eggplant I’ve ever had.

On my fourth or fifth visit there, the woman in charge started talking with me. She was a new vegan, and in a case of no one as pious as the recently converted she talked to me of the powers of grains and veggies for quite some time. It was all quite interesting, but when I told her I had been a vegan since 1995 she stood up and grabbed my biceps. With a big smile, she then disappeared into the back. Moments later, she returned with a dilapidated Polaroid and took a photo of me, which she tacked up onto the wall. “Very strong,” she said, smiling at me.

I took the night bus that night and didn’t see her again, but for all I know there’s still a photo of me hanging on that wall. What I learned later is that many Vietnamese think that without the protein provided by meat, there won’t be enough nutrition and you’ll waste away, or even break in half. (Seriously.) Having seen (and photographed) me, a 6 foot 3 guy, who is not skinny, might have helped her win the next argument. At the very least, she got to tell me about how healthy beans were, and I think that meant a lot to her.

Further south, the Russian enclave Na Trang was the land of 50 cent vegan Bánh mì from a smiling lady with a cart close to the ocean. I bought four from her on the way out of town. Dalat, another hill station with horses painted to resemble donkeys, had more cheap vegan restaurants than I could even try in a week and all of them were more delicious than I can say. Think a big bowl of phở (or something like it), three enormous fresh spring rolls, and unlimited tea for around 1 dollar USD. As for Hanoi–well Happy Cow wasn’t lying. The number of restaurants were staggering and all of them were grubbin’, but a small place called Huong Sen earned repeated visits for its awesome set lunches.

The tradition of abstaining from animals and their products has existed culturally for long centuries, but veganism is still new, burgeoning even, and that makes for a rewarding place to travel. As part-time vegetarians, they understand the needs of full-time vegans surprisingly well. From the powerhouses of phở and Bánh mì, to the equally tasty rau mong (the tastiest river weed around), you’ll eat well in Vietnam. Just watch out for the fermented gym socks.

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4 responses to “This is not ‘Nam. There are Rules. (A Vegan Vietnam Experience.)

  1. I just left Vietnam and I’m sorry to hear about your vegan Halong Bay experience! I decided to take a trip out there from Cat Ba Island and was also fed some pretty uninspiring vegan food… there was tofu though so I’m calling it a win. Oh and I can only assume you’re talking about the same Banh Mi stand in Nha Trang that I fell for and bought far, far too many sandwiches from. They were ridiculously good, I’m just writing about them now and I’m wishing I was back there!

    • Yes! It sounds like the same lady in Nha Trang. So tasty. I really did stock up on 4 for the bus trip to Dalat. Sounds like you had a fantastic trip. I miss vietnamese food quite a lot! 🙂

  2. You’re definitely making me want to visit Vietnam.
    “…a Lovecraftian menace; some kind of ancient, fermented something with a clear grudge against humanity,” made me laugh, but also made me shudder. Ditto for vegan chicken feet.

    • Vietnam is definitely a great country to visit! The nature and the food are both top notch, and the cities are either beautiful or interesting. Glad to make you chuckle–we live in an age of hyperbole, but this stuff was truly dangerous. 🙂

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