Last updated on August 15, 2021
There is very little comprehensive information online about eating vegetarian in Vietnam. Other vegetarian and vegan guides left out pivotal information. Even worse, some online guides are wildly optimistic and will lead you astray if you travel off of the banana pancake trail. In fact, these guides did lead me astray during my three months backpacking south to north across Vietnam.
With that in mind, know that while this guide isn’t comprehensive, it provides the details I found glossed over in other places. This is what I wish I had read before backpacking both through the tourist hubs and the country’s rural, local communities.
How to Communicate Vegetarianism
Understand the history of vegetarianism in Vietnam.
The word “chay” means vegetarian and you will find restaurants in every city with this word in the title. Each city has at least one “chay” restaurant to accommodate the Buddhists who go vegetarian for two days each month. There are dozens of options in Saigon and Hanoi, and far, far fewer in smaller cities (like around the Mekong Delta and such). For this reason, vegetarian is understood throughout Vietnam. But of note is that only a small portion of the Buddhists eat vegetarian throughout the month — instead, the regular street food stalls and restaurants are usually primed to serve vegetarian fare just two days every month.
Learn how to communicate your food preferences.
To pronounce chay, think of the Indian drink chai tea. The word “chay” is pronounced like “chai” without any tone. Or to think of it another way, add the “ch” sound to the beginning of the word “high” so that it rhymes with “thigh.” To communicate, say the word chai, but make sure that you don’t use upspeak — don’t say it like you would say a question; upspeak changes the word in the Vietnamese language. Instead, say it like a statement. Chai. That should be widely understood, although I was sometimes forced to scribble the word on my hand in a pinch and show it to them.
Vietnam uses a modification of the roman alphabet, so you can also write down this phrase:
tôi ăn chay
and show it to the vendors and restaurant staff.
Bonus: Create a cheat-sheet of common vegetarian foods.
My guesthouse in Can Tho went the extra mile and made me a point-and-go cheat sheet. It says “I am vegetarian” at the top in Vietnamese, and then she also wrote a map of things I could order. So I could point to the words for either rice or noodle. Then vegetable or soup. She also wrote down fresh or fried spring rolls. When I was in rural areas without any English language menus and without a chay restaurant in site, this cheat sheet proved invaluable.
Strategy & Unique Challenges for Vegetarians and Vegans
One of the things I find overlooked in online information about Vietnamese food for vegetarians is the fact that the sole strategy offered is to find a chay or Western restaurant. But outside of the cities, neither of these are guaranteed. And sometimes, the only chay vegetarian restaurant is far from your accommodation.
If you’re motorbiking across the country, you will surely struggle at times. And when you do find it, you won’t have the variety of dishes at your beck and call. Vietnamese food is not inherently vegetarian, nor is it easy to substitute an ingredient and make it vegetarian. For that reason, when I was in rural areas the restaurants often served me rice with stir-fried or boiled veggies. Tasty, but wearisome to eat every day when the local foods are so much more flavorful.
In comparison, if you’re backpacked other parts of Southeast Asia, it’s just not the same. In Thailand, the curries and noodle dishes are easily prepared vegetarian. Sit down at a restaurant or street stall in Thailand, and they can serve any red or green curry with tofu/vegetables instead of meat. Or most restaurants in the country can prepare simple egg salad dishes like yum kai dao. But in Vietnam, with so many of the signature dishes being soup, vegetarians cannot just plop down at a street stall and find food. Those soups have meat broths and the local restaurants and street stalls will not have a vegetarian soup base.
If you’re on a quick tour of Vietnam and hitting the main tourist spots like Hanoi, Hoi An, and Saigon, you won’t struggle much. In fact, visiting the backpacker areas is a solid eating strategy in the touristy cities. Although I avoided staying in the backpacker sections of big cities (Phạm Ngũ Lão in Saigon, in Hanoi), I would often walk to that side of town for dinner if I needed a change of pace from the veg-and-rice or vegetable soup meals served at most chay restaurants.
If you’re travels take you into smaller towns, you need a strategy for finding food. Here are a few thoughts:
- Happy Cow is your friend; research each town ahead of time and bookmark the recommendations on Google Maps.
- Once you’re in a new spot, open your Google map and just search for the word “chay” — Google will then show all of the restaurants in the area with chay in the title. Most vegetarian restaurants include the words “com chay” or “quan chay.” Save these ones and download the offline map for that area. Then, they will appear with a star when you are out and about around town and looking at your map.
- Stock snacks. When I was in the Mekong Delta, the vegetarian restaurants are fewer and further between than in more touristy areas like Hoi An. For that reason, don’t count on easy access to food. Either pack a banh mi, or ensure you are well stocked on nuts and fruit. I also carried a tiny jar of peanut butter for instances when even a banh mi vendor was scarce.
Foods to Eat & Potential Obstacles
If you’re eating outside of the chay restaurants then you need to be vigilant about watching them prepare your food unless it’s an inherently vegetarian street food snack, and there are a couple of them.
Although even vegan blogs mention banh mi as an easy street food snack, the vendors were fast and sneaky about adding liver pâté or a scoop of meat, even when I had double confirmed that they would make it “chay.” The pâté is just a light smear of brown on the bread, so keep watch to ensure it’s not added to your sandwich—if they add chili and hot sauce then it’s hard to identify the pâté flavor (true story).
In some shops, they serve a vegetarian banh mi made with fake meat. Otherwise, nearly every vendor offers bánh mì ốp la, which is two eggs fried or served slightly omelette-style. It’s prepared on a pan right there in the street stall or shop. Sometimes the eggs are very runny, so pay attention and ask for well-done if you don’t like gooey eggs. It’s delicious and well-seasoned and I ate eggs many times a week throughout my entire trip (although it’s more popular in the south). It’s an easy breakfast or lunch, and packs away well if you have a bus ride or train journey.
This is a tasty fried egg and potato dish that is served from street stalls in Saigon (and to a lesser extent other cities). The dish comes with shredded papaya and it’s very tasty. Some non-veg restaurants across the country offer bột chiên on the menu too, making it an easy dish to order if the chay restaurants are scarce.