Vietnam is a comparatively small country that encompasses significantly less land than the state of California. Yet Vietnam offers one of the world’s great cuisines. And its vegan options are tremendous.
I’ve spent six weeks in Vietnam, where I’ve dined out more than a hundred times at over twenty vegan restaurants. But I’ve only gotten started, and everything still feels new and unfamiliar. I’ve nevertheless fallen in love with Vietnamese cooking, even if my understanding of it remains superficial.
I’m publishing this guide half-finished because there’s too much good material here to withhold. I will try to return to Vietnam in 2024 and continue immersing myself into this cuisine until I can properly finish this guide.
Why is Vietnamese Cooking Often Challenging to Vegans?
Despite offering unsurpassed enjoyments, Vietnamese cooking is challenging to explore. There is only one English-language vegan Vietnamese cookbook, compared to most major cuisines that have several competing vegan titles. What’s more, only a handful of vegan Vietnamese restaurants exist outside of Vietnam.
As with other Asian cuisines, fish, poultry, or pork turns up in most Vietnamese restaurant dishes—often in undetectable amounts. Unless you’re fluent in Vietnamese or have an intimate knowledge of the cuisine, your chances of getting a reliably vegan meal at a typical Vietnamese restaurant are therefore bleak. So really, without traveling to Vietnam or having the supreme luck of living near a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant, it’s remarkably difficult to properly expose yourself to vegan Vietnamese food.
But if you can visit a vegan Vietnamese restaurant, the payoffs are extraordinary.
What’s Special About Vietnamese Cooking?
I adore Mexican and Italian cooking, in part because they are so accessible. One week is all it takes to get acquainted with the essentials of those cuisines. But you could never adequately familiarize yourself with Vietnamese cooking in only a week’s time. There’s just too much variety and too many dishes unlike anything cooked elsewhere.
As a largely Buddhist country, Vietnam offers plenty of vegetarian restaurants. They serve up a staggering variety of vegan dishes, many of which are remarkably healthy and loaded with veggies. Best of all, Vietnamese cooking deserves to be regarded as the ultimate fusion cuisine—nowhere else offers such a diversity of flavors and ingredients. Thanks to French colonialists occupying the country for 70 years, the nation’s cuisine morphed into a unique amalgam combining the most enticing flavors of Southeast Asia and France. As a necessary aside for the mid-2020s, if you think the preceding sentence was a defense of colonialism you are a pinhead, and please don’t @ me.
This French influence propelled Vietnamese cooking forward to incorporate a variety of spices and cooking techniques unknown elsewhere in Asia. I’m consistently blown away by the flavors of Vietnam, and if you give Vietnamese cooking a chance I think you will be too.
Not only are Vietnamese cooking methods distinct from other Asian nations, oftentimes the food is based on ingredients that are unfamiliar to Westerners. As a Southeast Asian country, Vietnam’s climate is decisively tropical. That means they enjoy an endless variety of fruits that are largely unknown in North America and Europe. Coconut (and coconut milk) likewise makes its way into countless dishes. And Vietnam grows various greens and herbs with distinctive flavors that are largely unknown outside of Asia.
Later in this piece, I’ll introduce you to five of the most popular vegan Vietnamese dishes. But before we get to that, let’s cover the basics of what you must know when dining out at a Vietnamese restaurant.
Eating Vegan at Vietnamese Restaurants
Language is yet another factor making Vietnamese cuisine difficult for most vegans to navigate. Like Indian food, classic Vietnamese dishes are usually listed on the menu in their native language. For Indian dishes written in Hindi, that’s simple enough for Westerners to overcome. It’s easy to commit the most popular Indian main dishes to memory: chana masala (chickpea curry), idli sambar (rice cakes with spicy soup), samosas (vegetable pastries), and so forth.
Vietnamese is one of the rare Asian languages that rejects brain-melting ideograph-based writing in favor of the Roman letters that Westerners know and love. The trouble is that nearly every Vietnamese word includes a variety of diacritics that no English speaker working outside a university linguistics department will know how to interpret. What’s more, while Hindi words are readily pronounceable by Westerners, properly pronouncing Vietnamese words requires practice and study (native Vietnamese speakers likewise struggle mightily with English pronunciation.)
If you’re lucky, the menu items at the Vietnamese restaurant you visit will be accompanied by English translations, or better still they’ll feature photos of each dish.
If you’re visiting Vietnam, you’ll miss out on discovering some excellent dining spots if you only search Google Maps for “vegan.” So be sure to also search for the word “Chay,” which is the Vietnamese word for vegetarian.
Restaurants that cater primarily to Vietnamese people often include “Chay” in their names and feature the word on their signage. These places are commonly vegan since dairy products rarely appear in Vietnamese cooking, and Asian Buddhist vegetarians tend to avoid eggs. Chay restaurants that do cook with animal products typically mark their vegan dishes.
Knives and Forks are Off-Limits
You’ll also have to confront the fact that if you’re accustomed to eating with a knife and fork, they’re a no-go for Vietnamese cooking and Asian cooking in general. Many Vietnamese restaurants don’t offer them at all, and the ones that do put them out begrudgingly for their Western clientele. Regardless, to eat Vietnamese food with a fork is to put your lack of sophistication on display. And knives aren’t needed because in Asian cooking, because the philosophy is that the task of cutting up your food into bite-sized pieces belongs to the chef, and that’s handled during cooking.
The utensils of choice throughout Asia are spoons and chopsticks. If you haven’t yet taken the time to get comfortable using chopsticks, they’re easy to master and your interest in Vietnamese food is reason enough to buy yourself a pair and practice. Chopsticks allow you to eat in a more refined manner than if you go around stabbing your food with a fork.
You can get comfortable using chopsticks in just a few meals, and they’re actually much better than forks for eating stir-fries and other dishes where the chef has already been cut up. Here’s a short video that demonstrates how to hold and use chopsticks. Give it a try!
Some Assembly Required
Another quality that makes Vietnamese food tricky for newcomers its requirement for the diner to take part in the food’s preparation. Put another way, Vietnamese cooking presents unparalleled opportunities for the uninitiated to come off as an oaf.
You will often find yourself perplexed about how you’re supposed to eat a given dish. One time I was waited on by the restaurant’s owner, and I ordered summer rolls. She asked me if I knew how to prepare them.
“No problem,” I responded, since I’ve made summer rolls at home innumerable times. The dish arrived with beautiful shredded vegetables, rice paper for wrapping, and spicy liquid for sealing each roll. She also included a nice helping of small deep-fried spring rolls, which was a welcome surprise.
I ate the deep-fried spring rolls first, and then began assembling the summer rolls. When the owner returned to my table a few minutes later, she looked at me with disdain for having wrecked the dish. It turned out I was supposed to put the deep fried spring rolls inside the summer rolls I was rolling up. A few minutes later, I habitually reached over and grabbed a fork, permanently dooming my reputation. It was that kind of afternoon.
Anyway, one great benefit to being required to roll your own spring rolls is that your food is maximally fresh. When you roll them yourself at your table, you know for sure that your spring rolls haven’t been sitting out in the kitchen for the past eight hours.
Non-Obvious Tips for Vietnamese Dining
Here are a few more non-intuitive things to know:
- Soups and noodles in broth are often accompanied by a small plate of lettuce. The first time this happened I thought this plate was the world’s most unimaginative side salad. But this is not a salad—you’re supposed to add these greens to your soup. Why doesn’t the chef add the greens to the soup? Because the greens wilt in moments, and are then immediately ready to eat. When you add the greens yourself, there’s less time for them to overcook before you start eating.
- You’ll usually receive a seasoning plate containing herbs of every kind, including “fish mint” that has a smell that’ll put anyone who ordered vegan into a panic. A Western diner is unlikely to be acquainted with any of these herbs. Here’s a phenomenal page with photos and write-ups of the seventeen most popular vegan herbs.
- Your dish will also be accompanied by a small plate of finger-sized raw hot chili peppers. You’re supposed to bite off a little pepper now and then and chew it as you eat your main dish. This seems super weird to me, but I’m sure you eventually get used to it. The plus here is that people intolerant to spice can ignore the peppers.
- Shredded vegetable salads are sometimes accompanied by a rice and sesame cracker the size of a small plate. You’re supposed to break this cracker into perhaps fifteen pieces, and then pinch two pieces of cracker together to pick up a bite-sized portion of salad. You then pop the entire thing into your mouth.
Essential Vegan Vietnamese Dishes
When I revise this guide, I will fully flesh this section out. But for now here are the two most famous dishes of Vietnamese cooking.
Bánh Mì: Essentially, the national sandwich of Vietnam. Remember what I said about Vietnamese food being a fusion of classic Vietnamese and French cooking elements? There’s no clearer example here, since this is a sandwich of sliced pork and Vietnamese-style condiments on French bread. Since it’s arguably Vietnam’s most famous dish, nearly every vegan Vietnamese restaurant will serve it with grilled tofu or some sort of vegan meat swapped in for the pork.
Pho: Vietnam’s most popular breakfast. Across Vietnam, roadside restaurants open early to serve steaming-hot bowls of soup before the weather heats up. The rice noodles come in a half-dozen varieties, all of which are vegan and some of which are hand-rolled. The broth is typically made from chicken or fish, and contains some sliced meat, but of course it’s a simple matter to instead use a vegetable base and some tofu.
Of course, there is so much more to Vietnamese food than just banh mi and pho. I’ll cover other popular vegan-friendly dishes when I revisit and expand this article in 2024.
For further reading: please see my guide to vegan-friendly cuisines and my vegan cooking guide.