Eating Vegetarian or Vegan in Vietnam

A sign for vegetarian food 'cơm chay' at a small restaurant in the central city of Huế.

A sign for vegetarian food at a small restaurant in the central city of Huế.

If you’re planning a trip (or even a move) to Vietnam don’t let anyone convince you that you’ll have a hard time finding good vegetarian food to eat. Almost all of the vegetarian dishes are vegan friendly, so if you eat vegan you’re also really well covered for food. There are plenty of options but it’s not always apparent to a traveller or non-Vietnamese speaker where to find a vegetarian meal. Early on during my time living and travelling in Vietnam (I lived in Hanoi from 2012-15) I encountered some hurdles finding vegetarian dishes. Initially I was looking in the wrong locations, on the incorrect days or times, or lacked the language skills. I wanted to put together a post, to offer you some guidance in knowing when, where and what signs to look for when searching for Vietnamese vegetarian food and to make the process much easier and tastier on your travels in Vietnam. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my recommendations on vegetarian restaurants and street foods worth sampling in several cities throughout Vietnam.

Before I share that information with you I want to give you a brief background into how I came about looking into the vegetarian food culture of Vietnam. When I’m living in Canada, I’m part of the kitchen team that cooks for the Governor General, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second’s representative in Canada. Like the White House kitchen, we’re required to prepare a variety of foods from daily family meals to creative State dinners that represent Canada’s culinary landscape, tied with the flavors of the visiting nation. During these events one of my roles has been to prepare meals for guests with dietary restrictions, be it vegetarian, gluten-free or serious allergic reactions. With each meal or event, I’ve refined my skills in vegetarian global cuisines, drawing upon the dishes and flavors I’ve encountered while living overseas. When I was living in Hanoi my family started to increasingly eat in a more vegetarian manner, by choice and because our young son decided he no longer wanted to eat meat or seafood (and it’s always great to have more menu options to choose from).

In order to satisfy my culinary curiosities I decided to look more closely into the vegetarian category of Vietnamese cuisine. I was particularly interested in the ingredients Vietnamese cooks use to replace proteins and umami flavors from meat and fish sauce and which cooking techniques they employ to successfully transform an everyday non-vegetarian dish into a delicious vegetarian version. Before learning how to successfully prepare vegetarian versions of Vietnamese classics I first needed to find restaurants, street food vendors, home cooks and monks and nuns to taste their food and to hopefully learn from. This is the first of a series of posts about finding vegetarian/ vegan food in Vietnam. In future posts I’ll share how to find vegetarian street food and some of my favorite restaurants around the country that serve delicious Vietnamese vegetarian dishes.

How to Spot a Vegetarian Restaurant

Vegetarian and vegan restaurants are easier to find in larger cities and communities. The name of the restaurant will end with the word ‘chay’, (meaning vegetarian and pronounced ‘chai’) or ‘cơm chay’ (meaning vegetarian food) such as Nhà Hàng Cơm Chay (vegetarian restaurant). Vegetarian restaurants and street food options are very common in the southern cities of Sài Gòn and Tây Ninh, the centre of the Cao Đài religion, and throughout the Mekong delta in Cần Thơ and Mỹ Tho. The central cities of Huế and Da Nang also have plenty of choices while Hà Nội is slowly experiencing an increase in vegetarian restaurants. As you move north from Hà Nội into the countryside and hills near the Chinese border, the options are more limited.

Photo of Hum Vegetarian restaurant in Saigon

‘Nhà Hàng Chay’ means vegetarian restaurant. This is a great restaurant, Hum, in Saigon.

A sign for a vegetarian restaurant in Vietnam. 'Quán Ăn' is also another name for restaurant or diner in Vietnamese. It's more commonly used in the south and center of the country.

‘Quán Ăn’ is also another name for restaurant or diner in Vietnamese. It’s more commonly used in the south and center of the country.

Monks and nuns eat their main meal of the day around 10:30 to 11:00am. If you find yourself at a pagoda around this time, you may receive an invitation to dine with other lay Buddhists.

How to Order in Restaurants

Restaurants that cater to tourists are usually aware of that foreign vegetarians do not eat meat and seafood but are open to eating dishes prepared with eggs and dairy. (If you follow a vegan diet try to explain to the server what ingredients you do not eat). They will have several vegetarian choices on their menu. When dining in a general restaurant that doesn’t have an English menu look for a section of vegetarian dishes called ‘món chay’.

The first couple of times you leaf through a menu in a vegetarian restaurant you may think you’ve been given an incorrect menu based on the names, translated from Vietnamese to English, of some of the dishes. It is common that the English menu is translated literally. Don’t worry. Vegetarian dishes in Vietnam are generally replicas of meat and seafood dishes and are often called by their traditional name in Vietnamese but with the word ‘chay’ added to the end of it.

If at lunchtime, and sometimes dinner, you see a handful of people crowded around a glass display case filled with platters, buffet style, of freshly prepared dishes you’ve happened upon a Vietnamese style diner. These basic restaurants, roughly translated as commoner’s rice (cơm bính dân) or broken rice (cơm tấm), have no menu. I’ve nicknamed them ‘point and eat’ restaurants since you indicate by pointing, particularly if you are not familiar with the names of the dishes or with the Vietnamese language, to the cook or, server as to which dishes you would like to order. They scoop some rice on the center of a plate and surround it with spoonfuls of the dishes you selected. You then find an empty seat at a communal table to consume your meal. These types of restaurants are popular with blue collar and office workers as it provides them a cheap full meal of homestyle comfort dishes. Alongside the meat and seafood dishes common vegetarian dishes routinely prepared are tofu in tomato sauce, stir-fried water spinach or chayote tendrils with garlic, sautéed seasonal vegetables, grilled eggplant and a light vegetable broth again with seasonal vegetables. Depending on the cooks or clientele, some of these dishes may contain a splash of fish sauce, while some cooks may use soy sauce. Although empty platters are regularly refilled I like to go, around 11 am, when the food is fresher and still warm.

Sign for a casual Vietnamese eatery called Com Binh Dan

Sign for a ‘cơm bính dân’, a Vietnamese style diner. Also look for signs that read ‘cơm tấm’ (meaning commoner’s rice or broken rice). If the world ‘chay’ follows these words on these signs the restaurant is fully vegetarian.

Vegetarian 'broken rice' restaurant sign in Saigon.

Vegetarian ‘broken rice’ restaurant sign in Saigon.

Don’t be alarmed when you happen upon a vegetarian version (called cơm bính dân chay) where the dishes look remarkably like meat and seafood. Vegetarian cooks pride themselves in preparing food that looks and tastes like the non-vegetarian versions, so you’ll be fine.

These mock meat and seafood dishes are made with tofu and tofu skin, but sometimes are prepared using gluten, seitan (mì căn), or textured vegetable protein (TVP). The use of these non-tofu based meat substitutes is fairly frequent, particularly as you move to the northern part of the country. Inventive vegetarian cooks in the center and south will also transform produce such as young jackfruit, banana flowers, and taro root into delightful dishes.

When, Where and What to Buy from Street Vendors

Fabulously flavored dishes are sold on the streets or in markets in several ways. No matter what form the food stall is typically each vendor specializes in cooking and selling one dish. A common site is that of vendor, bamboo pole slung over her shoulder with a bamboo basket balanced on either end of the pole, called đòn gánh tre, each containing her ingredients and cooking tools. Each day she sets up at the same sidewalk location or continuously roams around a neighborhood only stopping to finish the assembly of her dish when hailed by a hungry passerby. There’s another type of street food vendor who serves from a basic outdoor kitchen consisting of just a burner or two or from a small cart, located on the sidewalk in front of their home. They set up a few knee high plastic tables and basic stools, just a foot from the ground making it feel like you’re clumsily sitting on children’s furniture at a make believe tea party, around their rudimentary kitchen. The seating provides just enough comfort for the time needed for you to consume your meal and to prevent any long term lingering.

Vegetarian mobile food vendor's ingredients for fresh noodle bowl with spring rolls and thin rice crepes (bánh cuốn).

Vegetarian mobile food vendor’s ingredients for fresh noodle bowl with spring rolls and thin rice crepes (bánh cuốn) (batter is in the blue pitchers).

Many of these makeshift roadside vendors, selling either regional noodle soups or bánh mì sandwiches, operate in the mornings starting as early as 5:30 am and closing up around 10 am. Stalls in the rustic market food courts often remain open for lunch as well. Vegetarian dishes at street food vendors or in stalls in market food courts are more commonly found in the south and center of the country. Often there may be a permanent vegetarian stall or two in a market food court, or a street food vendor, around a pagoda. In the north, such as in Hanoi, it is a rarity.

Look at the Moon

If you’re in town on the 1st or 15th of each lunar month, you’re in luck. Apart from full-time vegetarians or vegans, most people who seriously practice Buddhism follow a periodic vegetarian diet on those days. Some believers may eat vegetarian two more days, on the 14th and 30th. On these auspicious days, around the new and full moon, street food vendors and some of the cơm bính dân restaurants serve vegetarian versions of popular dishes. At food courts of fresh food markets, scour the signs of the prepared food vendors or those of the street food vendors surrounding the larger pagodas. Vendors offering a vegetarian version of a dish like phở or bánh mì will display a temporary sign ending with the word chay, such as phở chay or bánh mì chay.

Vegetarian Bánh Mì Sandwich vendor stall

Vegetarian Bánh Mì Sandwich vendor stall. Normally she sells meat versions but on this day she is selling vegetarian versions. You can tell by the Bánh Mì Chay sign that she’s taped up on the top left corner. Many other street food vendors will add these temporary signs on half or full moon days.

It’s worth paying attention to the lunar calendar. Several times I’ve returned the day after the full moon for a second tasting of a memorable vegetarian dish, only to discover the street vendor is back to preparing a full-fledged meat or seafood version. Similarly, some regular vegetarian restaurants close the day following a half or full moon to give their staff a break from the previous few days hard work of preparing for a busy onslaught of hungry, temporary vegetarian, diners. On the auspicious lunar calendar days an enterprising prepared food market vendor may offer a dish or two in the early evenings to catch people in search of a vegetarian dish for dinner.


If You Have Gluten or Gluten Insensitivities

Although the vast majority of the Vietnamese dishes are gluten free if you are sensitive to gluten you’ll still need to watch out for the inclusion of several products used in the Vietnamese vegetarian pantry. Dishes where one of the main ingredients is wheat tend to have the word bột mì or mỳ in the name. Other off-limits foods are gluten or seitan (mì căn) used in preparing mock meat dishes, wheat noodles such as Chinese egg noodles (mì/ mỳ trứng), macaroni noodles (nui) and bread (bánh mì). Unlike the US, the majority of soy sauce used on the streets, in cheaper restaurants, and in homes is not made with wheat. However, it’s always best to double check, as restaurants and hotels that cater to tourists may use imported soy sauce that contains wheat. I highly recommend you check out my friend Jodi’s Gluten Free Travel Guides that include her experiences eating her way around Vietnam.

Handy Vietnamese Phrases

When you don’t see any vegetarian options and want to ask the kitchen to prepare menu items in a modified manner, these Vietnamese phrases are extremely useful:

I am/ eat vegetarian                 Tôi ăn chay.

I don’t eat meat, fish or seafood         Tôi không ăn thịt/cá/ hải sản.

I eat egg.                      Tôi ăn trưng.


Does this dish contain ______________?

Món ăn này có (insert ingredient name) không?


Can you cook this dish using (soy sauce)? (Instead of fish sauce)

Bạn có thế nấu món ăn này vui (Nước tương/ xì dầu)đước không?


Can you cook this dish without …

Bạn có thế nấu món ăn này không (insert word from below)…?

Meat               Thịt

Chicken           Thịt gà

Beef                 Thịt bò

Pork                Thịt heo

Seafood           Hải sản

Fish                 Cá

Fish sauce       Nước mắm

Soy sauce        Nước tương/ xì dầu

Wheat flour     Bột mì             


Talking Tea With The Chaiwallahs of India

Chaiwallah vendor at INA Market in New Delhi, India

A chaiwallah at INA market in New Delhi

At first I resisted joining and partaking in social media. I did not fully appreciate and understand how great it could be to connect people, especially those with common interests. But this is how I first learned about The Chaiwallahs of India, a website run by Resham Gellatly and Zach Marks. Jeff Koehler, who is writing a book about the world’s greatest tea that is found in Darjeeling, mentioned them in a tweet. I started to follow their informative tweets as they travelled India researching the culture that surrounds the warming spiced tea, known as chai and the tea stall and tea brewers/ sellers, known as chaiwallahs. I was able to connect with them in Mumbai on my recent trip to India. Click here to see our video conversation and to learn more about their very interesting research.

Early Fall Harvest Meal of Grilled Chaat Masala Corn, Goan Green Coriander and Coconut Chutney and Kachumber Salad

My weekly basket from Teamwork CSA has been overflowing with fantastic organic produce; cobs of corn, cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes, onions, radishes, and the most perfect bright green coriander.  Throughout the summer the following three recipes have made their way onto my plate at various separate meals. However, this past week they all finally met, introduced themselves to each other, mingled on my thali and in my mouth resulting in a flavourful, light and immediately satisfying meal. In an effort to try and keep summer from leaving us I plan to make this meal at least a couple more times in the following weeks. Grilled Corn Cobs Indian Style or Indian Corn Chaat

Grilled Chaat Masala Corn
Serves: 4
The great thing about walking the streets of Delhi is happening upon a random roadside food stall. Typically it is either someone selling some variation of chaat , chai or cooking something over coals. There was one vendor I would occasionally visit who would change his simple menu with the seasons. Most memorable was his winter dish of boiled sweet potato which caramelized as it was reheated over the coals. A close second was his monsoon special of aromatic bhuna bhutta (roasted corn). He would take fresh cobs of corn and slowly roast them until the outside was a deep brown. He would then dip a wedge of lemon into a chilli/salt mixture and liberally spread it all over the cob. I loved getting the heat from the spices and the smokiness from the grilling. I always anticipated the juicy tender kernels of the sweet corn that my family would buy from the Mennonite farms in our area (when in Ontario) but would find the kernels from the street vendor slightly chewier than I would prefer (due to the variety of corn grown around Delhi).
  • 1 or 2 cobs of corn per person, shucked and well cleaned
  • 3 tbsp chaat masala
  • ¼ wedge of lime per cob of corn
  • finely chopped coriander
  • salt, and pepper if desired
  • dental floss for afterwards!!
Preheat grill/ barbeque until very hot. Place cobs of corn over medium high heat and grill for 10-15 minutes. The corn needs to be periodically rotated so that it all cooks evenly. The kernels should be nicely browned or even just lightly blackened. As the corn cooks, mix cayenne, cumin and smoky paprika in a shallow bowl. Cut limes into quarters. Remove the corn from grill and set aside. Take a lime wedge and lightly press each cut side into the spice mixture.

Quick Homemade Chaat Masala
If you do not have chaat masala you can simply make a quick spice mixture with the following spices:

Tbsp cayenne (reduce cayenne if you prefer less ‘heat’)
Tbsp ground cumin
Tbsp ground paprika
If you prefer, you can pre boil the corn and then grill, if desired. But the grilling times will be reduced to about 5-8 minutes.

Goan green coriander and coconut chutney
Goan Green Coriander and Coconut Chutney
Serves: (makes 1 ¼ cup)
The best version of this recipe that I tasted was shared with me by Aggi, the owner of The Cozy Nook Resort on Palolem beach in South Goa. I’m not sure if it was the slow burning sunset, the bottles of beer or the conversation of remaining longer on this paradise beach but the balance of flavours of Aggi’s chutney were well balanced and fantastic. The chutney is typically served with Portuguese inspired bread rolls, pau, a buttermilk-like soft roll. On occasion, I reduce the amount of coconut and increase the amount of coriander to make a somewhat looser chutney. I then spread it in the opening of a small fish, like red snapper, then broil or grill it for a simple meal.
  • 2 cups coriander leaves
  • ½ cup grated coconut, fresh or frozen (unsweetened desiccated can be used in a pinch)
  • 2 green cayenne chillies
  • 1 tbsp garlic
  • 1 tbsp ginger
  • 4 tbsp tamarind liquid or chutney
  • 1 tsp jaggery or sugar
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Salt, to taste
Roughly chop the coriander. Place all ingredients in a blender. Puree for a minute. Scrape down the sides of the blender bowl with a spatula to incorporate all of the ingredients. Puree again. If you find that the mixture is not becoming a fine paste, add some water, a tablespoon each time, to get the ingredients to blend well. You may need to add up to 3-4 tbsp of water depending on your blender. The texture of the chutney should be similar to a pesto. Refrigerate for 2 days.

Tomato, cucumber, radish and herb salad. Also known as kachumber or Indian chopped salad
Kachumber Salad
Serves: 4
Kachumber (or kachoomber) salad is typically a small dice of cucumber, tomato and onion accented with some chile and ground cumin, occasionally mixed with yogurt raita style, and served as a side dish to a meal- whether a simple paratha, dal, biryani or curry. There are many regional variations all over India. I love eating salads, but slightly chunkier and perhaps more ‘Western’ in style.
  • 1 cup tomatoes (preferably heirloom), cut into bite sized pieces
  • 1 cup cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cut into bite sized pieces
  • ¾ cup red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup bell pepper (preferably yellow, red or a mixture), cored, seeded and cut into bite sized pieces
  • 5 radishes, thinly sliced
  • 1 green cayenne chile, finely chopped
  • 1tsp cumin seeds, toasted, finely ground
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • juice of 1 lime (2-3 tbsp)
  • ¼ cup coriander leaves, roughly torn or chopped
  • 2 tbsp cup mint, roughly torn or chopped
Place cut vegetables, chile and herbs in a large bowl and season with ground cumin (to your taste), salt and pepper. Sprinkle with lime juice and toss well and serve immediately.

NOTE: This was originally posted on my blog India On My Plate September 21, 2011

Tamarind Chutney

Also known as tamarind chutney or saunth this tart, spicy and slightly sweet sauce is an essential ingredient to spoon over various street chaats or to serve as a dipping sauce for pakoras or samosas. The tamarind sauce will keep refrigerated for several weeks in a well sealed glass jar.

Tamarind Chutney
Serves: makes about 2 cups
  • 7 oz tamarind block
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 5 tablespoons jaggery (or brown sugar)
  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cumin, roasted then ground
  • ½ teaspoon fennel seeds, roasted then ground
  • ¾ teaspoon cayenne powder
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 ½ teaspoon salt
Making Tamarind Water/Puree
Carefully cut the tamarind block into eight equal pieces. Place the tamarind into a deep medium-sized bowl and cover with the hot water. Let soften for five minutes and then use a potato masher, back of the spoon or even your hands to break and mash the pulp pieces. The tamarind pulp will begin to dissolve into the water and separate from the fibrous husk and seeds. Soak the tamarind for 20 more minutes. Strain the pulpy water through a fine meshed strainer, using the back of a spoon (or your hands) to extract as much pulp as possible. Discard the fibrous husk remaining in the strainer.

Finishing the Tamariand Chutney
Place the strained tamarind pulp, jaggery, roasted and ground spices, and salt into a saucepan. !Bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and cook for another 5 minutes. The mixture should be slightly thickened and shiny. If the mixture becomes too thick, add water as necessary. If it's too thin, bring the mixture back to a boil for a couple of minutes to let some of the water evaporate.
Jaggery is dehyrdated sugar cane juice primarily made by small cultivators in rural villages. It has a smoky caramel flavour which is hard to substitute, although brown or dermera sugar is the closest equivalent.

NOTE: This was originally posted on my blog India On My Plate on August 12, 2011

Green Coriander and Mint Chutney

Green Coriander and Mint Chutney
Serves: makes about 1½ cup
Variations of this refreshing chutney are ubiquitous among street food vendors in all corners of India. Although its bright colour and flavour are best when freshly made it can be refrigerated for up to a day.
  • 2 cups coriander leaves
  • 1 cup mint leaves
  • ½ cup medium onion, diced
  • ½ cup tomatoes or 1 Roma tomato, diced
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3 green chillies, seeded chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • 4-6 tablespoons water
  • ½-1 teaspoon chaat masala (optional)
Pick the mint and coriander leaves from the stems. Roughly chop the leaves to make the blending process easier.
Place the tomatoes, onions, chillies, lemon juice, salt, sugar, and chopped herbs into a blender. !Blend and add the water gradually until the ingredients start to puree. You may need to turn the blender off and scrape the sides down with a spatula a couple of times to ensure all of the ingredients are pureed.
In order to get a well pureed chutney I prefer using a blender. If you do not have one you could use a small food processor but the result may be slightly more coarse and chunky. Make sure that you finely chop the onions and chillies before placing into the food processor so as to minimize having large pieces in the finished chutney.

NOTE: This was originally posted on my blog India On My Plate on August 12, 2011