Vegetarian in Vietnam: A Crash Course

on August 27, 2021

When I visited Vietnam for the first time as a vegetarian I was naturally curious and slightly nervous about enjoying the incredible culture and food with dietary restrictions. I think I can speak for the masses when I say – being a vegetarian in Vietnam is amazing. 

The wide variety of vegetarian/vegan restaurants and options at street food stalls is attributable to the Buddhist population in Vietnam who lead a vegetarian lifestyle.

 Throughout my time in Ho Chi Minh City and beyond I led myself on an incredible food tour daily as I explored all of the options from breakfast to dinner and everything in between. 

There are incredible, fresh fruit and vegetable markets at every turn in Vietnam

Some helpful phrases for eating vegetarian in Vietnam

One of the most helpful things, while I adjusted to life as a vegetarian in Vietnam, was having my lovely TESOL Instructor, Lan Anh, write down some useful phrases for me. I wrote these phrases and words in my Notes app on my phone so they were easily accessible when I was out and about ordering food! 

Here are some of the phrases I found myself using most that you can save on your phone:

  1. Tôi ăn chay – I eat vegetarian.
    • You’ll see “chay” plastered on many street food stalls, restaurant signs etc. This lets you know they are a vegetarian spot or have vegetarian options! For example you may see a restaurant that says Phở Chay – this means they have vegetarian phở
  2. với đậu phụ – with tofu
  1. Không – without.  For example, when you are ordering coffee, you can say Không có sữa which means “without milk” . When you are ordering a dish that usually includes meat you can also say không thịt which means “without meat”.
  1.  If you are vegan or have specific restrictions you would like to indicate you can also say “Không –  (without):
    • Bo – butter
    • Bò – beef
    • Gà – chicken
    • Mam tom – shrimp paste
    • Nuoc mam – fish sauce
    • Phô mai – cheese
    • Sua – milk
    • Thịt heo – pork
    • Trung – eggs

Because intonation is so important and changes the meaning of words in Vietnamese, it’s also really helpful to download a great translator app at first (I used Google Translate and Translate Now) where you can type phrases and have the app speak out loud for the person taking your order to ensure that pronunciation is correct and accurate. But you’ll get the hang of speaking the phrases on your own in no time!

A peaceful and healthy lunch at one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants, Chay Garden, which is located just a couple of blocks away from our TESOL Course classroom in Ho Chi Minh City.

A few staple dishes for eating vegetarian in Vietnam

Phở

As one of my all-time favorite dishes even prior to living in Vietnam – I was dedicated to enjoying as much Phở as possible while in-country. I had phở for breakfast more times than I can count and sitting on my little plastic stool on the street made it taste that much better.

 As I mentioned above – you’ll see “chay” on many signs which lets you know this is a vegetarian spot or that they have vegetarian options! Again keep an eye out for “Phở Chay” – this means they have vegetarian phở. It’s usually great to also say “không thịt “ to kindly reiterate that you would like your dish without meat.

In the way of transparency – unless you are at a fully vegan restaurant or ordering from a vegan menu it is not always guaranteed that the broth in your vegetarian pho will be vegetable-based. I do think a few times I was given meat-based broth even after ordering vegetarian. This of course is no fault of anyone as vegetable broth is really not common in Vietnam. Again – try not to get frustrated and just remember that it’s all part of the learning experience and cultural exchange!

Fresh phở on a warm afternoon in Hanoi. It’s so invigorating to wander around new neighborhoods, stop at street food stalls and try their dishes.

Bánh mì

An absolute staple in Vietnam is the delectable, savory bánh mì. A baguette with a flakey texture filled with fresh ingredients and served any time of day – particularly for breakfast. The standard combination of ingredients are cucumbers, pickled veggies, cilantro, hot peppers, mayo, fried egg, and pate (meat spread). If a fried egg is okay for you – you can order a bánh mì ốp la! If not, you can always ask for tofu (đậu hũ) instead and let them know you do not want egg by saying “Không trứng” which means “without egg”. It’s important to note that most bánh mì also have a pate (meat) spread on them so be sure to ask to leave that off, as well.

Spring Rolls

Fresh spring rolls are one of the lightest, freshest things you can enjoy while living in hot and sunny Vietnam. Again, when ordering your spring rolls you can say “ăn chay” and it is usually understood that you would like no meat and in return, you will get spring rolls with tofu or sometimes shrimp. The fresh peanut sauce that usually accompanies your order is arguably the best part!

Fresh spring rolls that we made in our cooking class during orientation week. We picked all of the ingredients ourselves from the farm and gardens outside.

Bún Chay

Fresh, bright, and filled with an amazing variety of texture and flavor- one of my favorite lunch go-to’s was Bún Chay which is a vegetarian noodle salad. This dish is made up of a base of rice noodles is topped with mint, coriander, basil, fresh lime, sweet chili sauce, and more.

Chuối nướng

If you’re craving a sweet pick-me-up you can find a street food stall in almost every neighborhood-serving chuối nướng.  This mouthwatering snack is made of bananas, wrapped in sticky rice and banana leaves, grilled over hot coal, and then drizzled in a sticky-sweet coconut milk sauce.

Coffee

Coffee in Vietnam is strong and bold to say the absolute least. It can be enjoyed hot or iced, as well.  Although the traditional “ Vietnamese coffee” usually comes with condensed milk – when in a cafe or on the street you can order coffee black or with soy milk (my go-to) by ordering “ cà phê sữa đậu nành”. If you want it iced just add “đá”!

Smoothies and Juices

I could live off of fresh fruit and vegetable smoothies forever and in Vietnam, I could not get enough. Something I learned early on is that many smoothie street stalls will add milk into your drinks. If you would like to ask for your drink without milk remember you can just say “Không có sữa”. You will also see a lot of signs for “Nước mía” which is fresh sugar cane juice and “Nước cam” which is fresh-squeezed orange juice!

One of my all-time favorite combinations: a passionfruit, banana, and watermelon smoothie

Order your smoothie like a pro!

It’s always great to try your best to learn how to order in the local language. Locals in Vietnam are always willing to help and they will appreciate your efforts so much! You will learn tons of helpful, basic fruit and vegetable vocab and have lessons on how to order using grammatically correct sentences with proper pronunciation in your TESOL Course in Vietnam  – I even carried my vocab sheets from class around with me to help me order. 

Here is a list of some helpful smoothie and juice vocab to keep handy while you order:

sinh tố – smoothie

nước ép – juice

không đường –  without sugar

không có sữa – without milk

dưa hấu – watermelon

chuối – banana 

cam – orange

dứa – pineapple

xoài – mango

đu đủ – papaya

ổi -guava

táo – apple

When ordering, just say the word for smoothie or juice first followed by the ingredients you would like. For example: to order a banana, mango smoothie you would order “sinh tố chuối xoài”.

A sweet, vibrant mango smoothie in Ho Chi Minh City

Don’t be afraid to give it a shot!

Remember – of course, no one will be a pro at pronunciation and vocab from the start. So don’t be afraid to go for it and do your best, use a translator app to speak proper pronunciation out loud and to keep these phrases typed out and handy on your phone so you can show the person taking your order! You can even screenshot this blog post to help. Vietnam is one of the warmest and welcoming places in the world and someone will be sure to give you a hand if they see you struggling to order to read a menu or order in any way. 

A valuable note to always keep in mind is that you are in a new place to immerse yourself in a beautiful new culture and experience daily life in a different way. Sometimes you may find yourself in an area where you are struggling to convey your order, find options you can eat, etc. In these moments of frustration remember that the joy of travel is to soak up all you can about other cultures, cuisines, and ways of life. If you run into a restaurant, cafe, or street food car that cant accommodate your preferences there is no need to feel defeated. It is almost certain that you will find the perfect spot simply a block away!

You might also want to read:

About Aubrey Van Allen

Filed under  Vietnam • Inside TravelBud • Teacher Diaries 

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