Friday, 30 September 2011

Being a vegetarian in Vietnam

A version of this post was first published in Dan Tri International.

The first time I ate meat after having been vegetarian for over ten years was at the Vietnamese Embassy in Canberra when we volunteers were taken there for a visit before being sent to Hanoi.

We had just eaten an enormous lunch, and the afternoon embassy visit was supposed to be a courtesy call, where we’d shake hands with the Ambassador and maybe drink some tea. Instead we were led to a large dining table in a room dominated by a display of the embassy’s ping pong trophies, where a many, many course meal was immediately laid on us by His Excellency’s private chef.

As I chowed down on those pork spring rolls and beef pho, I remember thinking to myself “Hmm, I wonder if this might be a taste of my Vietnam experience to come”.

BWHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHA HA HA HA. HA.

It was.
Not suitable for vegetarians.

While it might be easy to be vegetarian at a Vietnamese restaurant in Australia, it is not easy being vegetarian in Vietnam. Most guidebooks to Vietnam make reference to the country’s “great tradition of vegetarianism”, and well may that be the case, but if you’re a vegetarian, and you’re coming to Vietnam, you will experience the great tradition of eating omelette and morning glory for dinner.

I have met one Vietnamese vegetarian. She was dining at the table next to us at a vegetarian restaurant. You might assume that most diners at a vegetarian restaurant would be vegetarians, but you know what they say about assumptions (that’s right, that assumptions actually contain pork). The “great tradition of vegetarianism” for most people in Vietnam is to abstain from real meat in favour of glutinous fake meat on only two days of each lunar month. They’re part-time vegetarians.

These are some of the appetizing take-home items you can pick up from a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant.

Vietnamese people are firm believers in the strength-giving qualities of meat. Having spent most of my life answering the question “Why are you vegetarian?” I was surprised to find that it’s not the first question on the meat-chomping lips of the Vietnamese. Instead, since arriving here, the question has been “Aren’t you hungry?” Then there is a one-beat pause as they size me up. And then the inevitable follow-up question: “But how can you be vegetarian and be so fat?”

Even the beer is fake at the Buddhist-run restaurants. A can of 0.0% Bavaria goes nicely with your vegan gizzards.

In Vietnam, meat is the source of most of the population’s nutritional needs. So, the thinking goes, if you take out the meat then… what?  A friend told us the story of a six-foot-something, strapping, English, vegetarian man who was repeatedly told by his Vietnamese colleagues that it was dangerous for him to ride his motorbike. Not because he was liable to get run over by a bus, no. But because, being vegetarian, he would be so enfeebled and malnourished that he could topple right over at any time. They probably kept a wide berth from him in the office too, just in case he keeled over and trapped them against the photocopier.

Even though the sign says some of these steamed buns are "vegetarian", what they mean to say is they're filled with nothing. That's right. Vegetarian steamed buns are just buns. Don't fall for it.

When we went to visit a friend’s family over the Tet holiday, she pre-warned her relatives that this crazy Tay would prefer not to eat meat. Very kindly, they prepared an omelette for me. And then her Aunt added pork to it.

“But the crazy Tay is eating the omelette because she doesn’t want to eat the meat”, our friend explained.
“I know”, her Aunt said. “But without the pork she will be too hungry!”

Almost every Friday lunch time, I meet friends for this vegetarian bun cha. It's been a tradition for two years now. None of us has starved to death during that time, that I know of.

And so we’re back to where we began: the omelette. The omelette is to the vegetarian in Vietnam what the mushroom risotto is to the vegetarian in Australia. When Nathan and I did a four-day Mekong Delta cycling trip with all food included, Nathan ate all kinds of pork and fish-shaped things in the meal breaks between the long rides. I ate omelette. At every single meal. For four days.

On that trip, this is how they served the rice at one place, so they were forgiven.

The omelettes would have been made with fish sauce anyway. Everything is. A friend of ours who visited a coffee-roasting business reported that they even add fish sauce to the coffee beans. So if you don’t want to eat fish sauce, then you’ll have to eat only at the aforementioned Buddhist-run vegetarian restaurants (where they have fake, vegetarian fish sauce), or at Western restaurants.

For those vegetarians like me who have found their rock-solid ethics have crumbled in the face of fish sauceversity, and who’d like to know what Vietnamese street food in Hanoi is kind of the most vegetarian friendly, I've tried to come up with some suggestions based on my own experience. This is pretty much the most useful thing I think I've ever done - and probably ever will do - with this blog, so it merits being in its very own separate post:

26 comments:

  1. You are stronger than me - Vietnam cured me of vegetarianism after 5 years of it, and I keep making pathetic attempts at returning to my veggie-eating ways. I end up making too many exceptions like: can eat meat during shared meals (i.e., any time I eat with a Vietnamese person); fish sauce obviously acceptable...so is nem...and street food; can eat meat that comes with veggies ordered (as it will just be thrown away); etc. Hence, I'm a part-time vegetarian. Or more accurately, an omnivore. Sigh.

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  2. Well, I actually used to be a vegan before coming to Vietnam, so I've fallen from great, self-righteous heights to now being pretty much a vegequarian. And I've always looked down on vegequarians for their completely illogical ethical choices. Sigh. (Please note: I am yet again blaming Vietnam for my personal failures. I graduate with honours from the School of Whinging Expats!)

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  3. I drink Bavaria! I discovered its alcohol free goodness comes also in apple, peach and hybiscus malt flavours. Can't wait for the real stuff come January.

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  4. For a meat-loving carnivore like me, Vietnam was not really that hard to deal with (of course) but I did find that one of my FAVOURITE Vietnamese dishes was in fact vegetarian - namely the Dau phu Ca chua - or tomato tofu. Add it to your repertoire of omelette, and you may find yourself a far happier woman for it while travelling!

    Side-note: Bavaria is a province in Germany. Holland are in fact two provinces (North and South Holland) in the Netherlands... I don't understand the marketing of Bavaria Holland Beer.

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  5. Kshyva: My god, why would anyone voluntarily drink that stuff?! It tastes like... brown. I can't imagine how your good your first post-pregnancy beer will taste by comparison.

    Uggclogs: Oh yes, the old tomato tofu. This is pretty much what I eat for every single meal at every single Vietnamese restaurant I go to - when they have it. But sadly, they often don't. Tofu seems to be one of those classic "finished" menu items. But I agree - it's my favourite Northern Vietnamese dish too.

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  6. HI- saw your blog randomly and was just wondering where you got the non-alcholic beer. I have a friend in Hanoi who drinks it but can't find it here. Would love any help you could give, thanks!

    -Lia
    liakristina at gmail dot com

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  7. Hi , I'm a Vietnamese student an I must say that I felt embarrassed when I read the comment on the Vietnamese news site. The reasons they were saying that vegetarian is this and that are because they have too much ego and they have too little knowledge. In my opinion this post have nothing to criticized against. It's funny to see how both people that don't know anything about nutrition and people understand nutrition feel angry for no reason :lol:.
    Your posts are nice too read btw, really opening things up for me :).

    Btw. there are much more vegetarians restaurant in thebmiddle and South of Vietnam than in Hanoi.

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  8. Hi Lia. The beer (and all the other vegan products in the photos) is from Com Chay Ha Thanh, a great veggie restaurant off Kim Ma:

    http://newhanoian.xemzi.com/en/spot/2582/com-chay-ha-thanh-hanoi

    Anonymous Vietnamese student - thanks for posting! I thought the comments on the original Dan Tri article were really interesting, but yes I agree that there was some people didn't seem to know very much about the vegetarian perspective. Thanks again for writing, I really appreciate it.

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  9. sorry girl but us Vietnamese are meatetarians for sure, we eat, well, practically anything can move lol.

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  10. Brian: Too true. There was a wikileaks cable about Vietnam entitled "We eat anything with four legs except the table". Great photos of Australia btw: made me homesick!

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  11. Hi Tabitha,
    Your post is really interesting, looking our life from foreign perspective. I did feel embarrassed when reading excessively aggressive Vietnamese comments. Some Vietnamese is too conservative to tolerate something that is different from their points of view. Turning to vegetarian restaurants, I think their prospective customers are people curious about vegetarian dishes, not the "actual" vegetarians. But I can understand why someone values the nutrional needs of meats. During 1970s that period my parents, born in 1960, get used to suffering, the government strictly regulated commercial, each person just received about 1.5kg of meat / month. Thus, meat is always precious for them.
    All in all, u have done a good job. I am looking forward to reading your other posts. Btw, I have been living in Melbourne for 9 months.

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  12. Ps: I dont believe in google translate, sometimes its really ridiculous (:

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  13. Minh: Thanks for your comment and your perspective - really interesting. And yes, I agree that I shouldn't be relying on Google Translate too much! I hope you're enjoying Melbourne? Do you keep a blog about it?

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  14. Absolutely different living environment :) Melbourne is so peaceful, comparing to the bustle and hustle of Ha Noi. What really surprised me is that on weekdays, most of shopping centrals close around 6 pm. And I can enjoy a wide diversity of typical foods of many countries: Italian, Indian, Chinese... Thats fantastic :))
    I am not using blog because my writing skill is terrible, both Vietnamese and English as well :))

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  15. Reading the part about the Aunt, I kind of find my mother in there lol. She's a semi-vegetarian, who only practises it on special occasions such as each full moon and the first of lunar month because she follows Buddhism, but she always insists that my brother and I eat meat for the meal, and each meal must have at least one course made of meat. Like many traditional Vietnamese, she believes that without meat, one may get exhausted and unable to perform anything. Although she has admitted that after practising vegetarianism for a few years now, she has experienced no exhaustion at all, and in the past she did not have much access to meat while remaining totally healthy, she still refuses to let her children going along without it.

    Regarding the "great tradition of vegetarianism", it is true, just like the guy above has said. In fact we Vietnamese used to consider meat a luxury food that can be consumed on only special occasions like Tet. Other than that, most of the meals go along without any sign of it. Now that the living standard has been raised dramatically, people are trying the quench their prolonged thirst, thinking that meat can be a miraculous tonic without which no child can grow up healthily. In fact in rural areas of Vietnam, people also thirst for meat, having with their meals all kind of veggies possible. That's why they throw all-meat parties and feasts for weddings, funerals, death anniversaries (đám giỗ) and so on in there. And btw, this is only true in Northern Vietnam. I'm not sure if it's the same for the other regions :D

    Also, as a veggie lover, I prefer having vegetables for my meal, and can't understand why people have to make vegetarian food by imitating meat-based ones like that =.= They even make it for Buddhists, who have to practise vegetarianism "with their mind", not just in theory. And for the record, most of the vegetarian food in Vietnam originate from China, which is considered "unsafe" by the Vietnamese in general.

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  16. Thanks for your comment, Duck. There definitely seems to be a bit of doublethink with vegetarianism here! And I love your point that all the processed fake meat products actually come from Vietnam's food enemy, China. Hadn't thought of that little addition to the vegetarian debate before!

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  17. Hi Tabitha, as you may have already noticed, Vietnamese people are not familiar with the concept of being a vegetarian because of morality or concerns for animal, as Westerners are. Vietnamese people if they are vegetarian or vegan (mostly vegan), are because of religious reason (Buddhism). Many are semi-vegan (like Duck-the-Airhead's mother above). For those vegan and semi-vegan, whenever they need to eat, they wont go to normal restaurant because their food is not supposed to be cooked together with other meat-included food (at least not sharing the same pots etc without washing). Also, Vietnamese vegetarian or vegan food are not supposed to include certain herbs or spices (e.g. garlic, onion, etc. That is why there is specialized vegetarian restaurant in Vietnam.

    For those who just dont eat meat like you, it is actually quite easy to get food anywhere. Go to a restaurant, even if they dont have vegetarian dishes, just ask them to cook any other dishes WITHOUT the meat. They will be happily do that. Some Vietnamese language would help though. My friends have no problem to find vegetarian food in Vietnam. All the best.

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  18. Hi Tabitha,

    Vegetarian bun cha! Where can I find such delights?! I've actually been trawling the Internet for a hot tip on bun cha chay as I'll be visiting Hanoi again soon and would love to finally try the Northern specialty. I'll also be abandoning seven years of eschewing seafood to sample cha ca and other seafood delights.

    In my experience, being vegetarian while travelling in Vietnam is possible, but there is a definite feeling of deprivation - especially when the smell of fragrant pho broth is wafting through the Old Quarter. My first Halong Bay tour they served all the tofu onboard in the first meal for everyone including the carnivores and then it was greasy fried eggs from there on in for the vegetarians. I also had to remind the guide of my dietary preferences at every meal (vegetarianism can often make you feel like a demanding doofus). My second experience of the bay with Handspan saw us chowing down on bowls of salted peanuts and corn and again - eggs, while our companions dined on a seafood banquet. We thought it was funny and we didn't starve, but it was enough to make me consider sneaking a prawn!

    Your tips on requesting 'khong thit' will also be taken onboard. Unfortunately, requesting vegetarian food can be mistaken for ordering burnt rice and in the North I found people found my butchering of the tonal language more perplexing than Southerners did.

    I've really enjoyed reading your blog posts (I've just stumbled across this from Travelfish). Thanks for taking the time to post some great info!

    Alyssa

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  19. Vi: Thanks for your comment. I think there's no problem in finding vegetarian Vietnamese food in Vietnam, but it is difficult to find a wide variety of dishes. This makes Vietnam no different to many other places I've visited, like China and Poland. BTW, you might be interested in this post, where I outline the kind of dishes you can get by asking for "không thịt" as you suggested:

    http://www.thecitythatneversleepsin.com/2011/09/vegetarian-friendly-street-food-in.html

    Alyssa: Glad that this post has proved useful to you! I completely agree about the propensity for a vegetarian's eye to wander in Vietnam. This is particularly difficult when your regular dining companion is an omnivore, like mine. I have given a few omelettes death stares in my time, while gazing longingly at the spring rolls across the table. Oh, and you shouldn't feel embarrassed about writing "không thịt" on a piece of paper. It won't make you stand out any more than you already do. :)

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  20. I am actually visiting family in Vietnam right now and I have found that being a vegetarian is a great excuse not to eat out. I am not a fan of eating out even when I was at home in the U.S. I remedy this by buying fresh rice noodles, ingredients, and vegetables. I am not a thin person also and people are puzzled as to how I can look like this when I don't eat meat, fish, or eggs(though the body shapes here are much different than at home).

    My family stays in Long An, Tan An. There are multiple places that sell fake meats, soy flakes, and many other goodies that makes me mighty happy. All the fresh vegetables and fruits are awesome here. Buy half a kg of vegetables, boil them with a pinch of salt, dip it in soy sauce, have a bowl of rice at hand, and voila! A delicious, vegetarian meal! =)

    Thank you for continuing to be a vegetarian in Vietnam.

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  21. Hi Hien, you're making me hungry! It's so true that when you cook at home in Vietnam you can make some amazing vegetarian meals from the ingredients available. I'm trying to master a few Vietnamese vegetarian dishes to show off with when I go back home.

    And also, Alyssa, I forgot to mention that you can get the veggie bun cha from Com Chay Ha Thanh: http://newhanoian.xemzi.com/en/spot/2582/com-chay-ha-thanh-hanoi

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  22. Hi Tabitha, there are loads of vegetarian restaurants in Saigon, not to sound like bragging but I practically visit one restaurant a day just to taste it out. As for Hanoi, well vegetarian restaurant is like a dime in a dozen. However last time I heard from friend there are few new one popping up. Like the Loving Hut vegan international chain restaurant.

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  23. Interesting post! There are plenty of veganized & soy-based meats in other countries such as Malaysia or Taiwan, etc. except for Thailand that uses fresh ingredients available (not too much soy meats at all).

    Can you suggest any vegan restaurants/eateries in Hanoi? I'm planning to visit there for a month.

    Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. As far as I know, all the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants are actually vegan. If they're not all strictly vegan, they at least have plenty of vegan options. They are very heavy on the gluten fake meats. There's a comprehensive list of them here:

      http://tnhvietnam.xemzi.com/en/c/1/cat/159/vegetarian-hanoi?cid=1

      Good luck!

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  24. Guess satisfying one's own greed for taste is more important than other creature's lives.

    Self righteous vegetarians turning into self righteous ex vegetarians turning meater again justifying one's choices in diet?

    There is actually NO REQUIREMENT in Buddhism for someone to be a vegetarian, one do it out of their own compassion.

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  25. Are you all too lazy to cook for yourselves? Lazy crackahz know wat im sayin?

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