Friday, 30 September 2011

Vegetarian-friendly street food in Hanoi

The reason this post is not called "Vegetarian street food in Hanoi", is because such a thing pretty much doesn't exist. And I know it's not very "friendly" to eat the fishies fermenting in your fish sauce, but you're hard pressed to get any fish sauce-free Vietnamese food, and it's damn near impossible if you want to try street food in particular.

So these suggestions come from my "best efforts" approach to being vegetarian in Hanoi, and will hopefully prove useful to any fellow vegetarians who don't want to be permanently relegated to the city's (still excellent) vegetarian Buddhist restaurants.

Handy hint: Much more successful than trying to say you’re “ăn chay” (vegetarian) is the phrase “không thịt” which means “no meat”. If you can’t pronounce it, then write it on a piece of paper and flash it around with wild abandon.

Another important piece of veggie vocab is “xì dầu” which is “soy sauce”, which you can ask for as an alternative to the ubiquitous fish dipping sauce. Many places don’t have it though, so if you’re super dedicated you could always carry in your bag a few of those little plastic soy sauce fish you get with sushi. You can try asking for no fish sauce (“không nước mắm”) in the cooking, but good luck with the results!

Phở không thịt: Pho noodle soup with no meat

Without the meat, Hanoian pho is just a bowl of broth with noodles, and the broth is – of course – made almost entirely from chicken or beef stock. But if your ethics aren't as strong as your desire to eat phở in Hanoi, then ordering "phở không thịt" at any phở stand won’t raise any eyebrows. At some places you can get an egg (“trứng”) thrown in too.
Where: Practically everywhere at breakfast time. 49 Bat Dan has a well-earned reputation.

Phở xào không thịt: Fried pho noodles with no meat

At any place which has an enormous blackened wok out the front you can get phở noodles stir-fried with morning glory and sometimes a few tomatoes (and margarine and cheap oil and MSG and sugar). Just ask for "phở xào không thịt".
Where: Look for a flaming wok, or try Nui Truc street, near Giang Vo.

Phở cuốn trứng: Noodle rolls with egg

"Phở cuốn" are rolls made from sheets of phở noodles. They usually contain beef, but you can also get them with fried egg, and some lettuce and herbs inside. At the phở cuốn joints you can also get “phở chiên phồng không thịt”, which is deep fried pillows of phở noodle squares, served with fried greens. And also, as featured in this photo, fried corn ("ngô chiên"), which counts towards your daily vegetable quota, right?
Where: Anywhere on Ngu Xa street, or around the corner at 7 Mac Dinh Chi.

Bánh mỳ trứng: Fried egg sandwich

It’s kind of strange living in Vietnam and fantasising about the Vietnamese salad rolls I used to get from the bakery next to Newtown station, but I do. You can’t get those here, but you can get "bánh mỳ trứng", which is egg fried with MSG and served in a roll with cucumber and spring onion and drizzled with fish sauce or soy sauce. It’s amazingly delicious.
Where: Any stall with bread rolls on display and a little frying pan on a charcoal burner. There’s usually a lady at lunchtime standing on the corner of Ly Quoc Su and Ngo Huyen streets.

Bún bò Nam Bộ không thịt: Noodle salad in broth with no meat

A southern dish usually served with beef, without the meat it’s still a tasty and satisfying lunch of rice vermicelli noodles, herbs and broth topped with bean sprouts and peanuts. Pretty sure the broth is made with some kind of meat stock or fish sauce though.
Where: 67 Hang Dieu street or 49 Xuan Dieu street

Bún đậu: Tofu with herbs and noodles

Fried tofu cubes served with squares of cold rice vermicelli noodles and herbs. It’s usually sold with fermented shrimp paste as a dipping sauce, so if you don’t want this you can ask for “nước mắm” (fish sauce), or “xì dầu” (soy sauce) if they have it, or you can forego dipping sauces all together (which would be a bit crap, since it's a dish designed around dipping).
Where: Anywhere you see someone deep-frying tofu cubes. There’s a regular lunchtime stall near the Chau Long market, on Nguyen Truong To on the corner with Tran Vu.

Nộm đu đủ không thịt: Papaya salad with no meat

Image from Bếp Rùa 
This is papaya salad, drenched in a sweet, spicy fish sauce and served with crushed peanuts. It usually comes with dried pork on top, so you need to specify “không thịt”.
Where: Hoan Kiem Street, often unmarked on maps, which runs between Cau Go and Dinh Tien Hoang, near the Water Puppets.

Quẩy: Fried bread sticks
Image from VCTV

These are nothing more than deep fried sticks of dough, served with a sweet fish dipping sauce. A delicious and unhealthy snack. You can also order quẩy when you get phở for dipping in the broth.
Where: In the evenings on Hang Bong street, near corner of Phu Doan

Bánh chuối, bánh khoai and bánh ngô: Fritters

Image from Saigon Toserco

Deep fried banana (chuối), sweet potato (khoai) or corn (ngô) fritters that are sold more commonly in winter, it seems. These sound more delicious than they are, in my opinion, tasting mostly like deep-friedness and not much else.
Where: Pho Yen Phu, near the turn off for the Intercontinental Hotel

Xôi: Sticky rice

Xôi is served with a few different meaty type things, but you can also get it just with peanuts, mung bean paste or egg. You can even get it with ice-cream ("kem xôi"). It seems too good to be true that this could be a truly vegetarian dish, so I suspect the rice is probably made with lard.
Where: Xôi Yến at 35B Nguyen Huu Huan, where you can conveniently point to the toppings you want

Cơm Bình Dân: Vietnam’s smorgasbord
Image from Cappu's

Cơm Bình Dân stalls are cheap workers’ lunchtime spots with a glass display cases of several types of food (usually gone cold after sitting there for a while) served with rice. You’ll always be guaranteed a vegetable side dish of some description at these places, and cabbage pickles, and sometimes a tofu or egg dish. Just check the tofu isn’t hiding little parcels of pork. Sneaky buggers.
Where: All over the joint at lunchtime. The food is always displayed out the front, like in a food court display.

Kem caramen: Crème caramel

Thankfully vegetarians can go gangbusters at dessert-time and eat all the same sweet street food as everyone else. To celebrate, you should eat as many street-side crème caramels as possible.
Where: 29 Hang Than street

Sưã chua nếp cẩm: Fermented sticky rice

Available from the same place as the crème caramel, "sưã chua nếp cẩm" is fermented black sticky rice served in a cup with yoghurt. Tastes kind of like someone spilled a glass of red wine in your rice pudding. Delicious.
Where: 29 Hang Than street

Hoa quả dầm: Fruit cup
Image from Người Hà Nội

A summer time favourite, this is simply diced fruit served with condensed milk and crushed ice in a glass.
Where: All along To Tich street

Chè: Sweet bean drink

Pick ‘n’ mix desserts of sweet beans and strange gelatinous things and coconut milk. I would eat this every day if it wasn’t guaranteed to cause diabetes. In winter, you should also try “bánh trôi tàu nong”, which is black sesame-filled dumplings in a hot ginger broth and “chè chuối nướng” which is grilled banana with tapioca in hot coconut milk.
Where: 72-76 Hang Dieu street


  1. Tabithaaaaa
    your blog always makes me laugh out aloud, no matter where I read it, which makes people think I'm crazy and then makes my heart ache cause I miss Hanoi so much! Thank you so much for your great blog, keep up the great work!!!
    PS: I'm waiting on an entry on Mr. L and his rants?

  2. Hi Tabitha

    Such a yummy post, even for an unrepentant meat lover.

    The bakery next to Newtown station has gone! They are renovating the station and it's all closed up. It's moved into new digs in the mall nearby, but it's not the same.


  3. Saskia: Thanks! But don't blame my blog for people thinking you're crazy, please. Also, "Mr. L" as you mysteriously call him, was saying the other day how much he misses you!

    Alison: This is devastating news! Their salad roll, smothered in mayo, was my favourite hangover food. Such memories. Sigh.

  4. Oh dear. That all just looks so dreary and bland. It's the hungriest looking food I ever saw.

  5. Katrina: Yeah it's a pretty sad state of affairs, isn't it? And these are the best options! There are so many kinds of street food that are just completely ruled out for the vegetarian.

    It has made realise (and appreciate) how Vietnamese food in Australia has been completely adapted to meet the vegetarian market demand.

  6. Thank you so much!
    I miss Hanoi a lot, and I miss the Bun Dau hugely. I usually eat it with xe dau.
    And, I am a vegan and lived a rather long time in Hanoi and survived!!
    And I will return...
    Helena Röhr twitter: helenahurra

  7. Hello Tabitha,

    I discovered your blog through a facebook friend, and I'm totally hooked. Reading your posts always make me feel good, you've really got a gift there.
    Kind regards from Singapore..

  8. Helena: I agree that bun dau is definitely the pick of the bunch. I'm impressed that you maintained your veganism in Hanoi... Don't know what I'd do if egg was ruled out too!

    Anonymous Singaporean: What a lovely comment! Thank you so much and I'm glad you're enjoying it.

  9. hey tabs,
    we are alas back home in sydney now, but if you ever head to phnom penh, there is an awesome vegan restaurant we found there called k'nyay which i think you'd like :)

  10. "Tastes kind of like someone spilled a glass of red wine in your rice pudding"

    I had all kind of lol and =)) upon reading this =)) However, "sữa chua nếp cẩm" 29 Hàng Than stall is not the best. The nếp cẩm is too fermented, and they should add some condensed milk in it. That's how to make it sweet heaven ^^

    In fact, those destinations you listed above are not truly "street food" in Hanoi. By that, you have to sit on the pavement, served by a woman with some baskets and a carrying pole. That's is where you can find the genuine taste of Hanoi's street cuisine. And of course, the super-high probability of diabetes lol. Anw I think perhaps you know and have tried many of it, but cannot list those "stalls" in here because they're quite difficult to spot :D

  11. Thanks Soumali, I'm going to Phnom Penh at New Year, so I will definitely check it out.

    Duck: Where do you recommend for the best Sua Chua Nep Cam? I'd love to try it. And yes, I think the travelling street food vendors might be a bit too tricky for a visitor to Hanoi!

  12. Tbh I don't think you will like this address, because it's not specialized in dessert like the one on Hang Than. Instead, it normally serves lunch with various dishes of bún, miến or bánh đa. It's No 77 Chua Lang Str., and if possible, you should check it out :D And the caramel of this stall is worth trying too, because they serves it with some strong coffee or coconut cream, making it taste like heaven XD~ There are minus points, however, because the hygiene is not so good, and the waiters are not too friendly =.=

  13. Creme caramel with coffee.... whaat?! I will definitely be checking this place out. And poor hygiene and grumpy service have never stopped me before! :)

  14. This post is making me SO HUNGRY. I used to live next to a 24-hour Phở place in Saigon where the Phở không thịt cost only 3,000 đong. Ah, the good old days.

  15. Good work putting the post together T, although it does emphasis just how few options there are on the street.

    My favourite street food place is on the corner of Hang Bong and Đửơng Thàng in Hoan Kiem (only for dinner). Very good array of vegetarian choices, the only problem is, it's Chinese not Vietnamese. But if you can get over that, the BBQ skewers of veggies and tofu are excellent.

  16. so cool when read this entry :D I was born in Ha Noi and now studying in Taiwan :D you made me miss my city so much :D anw thanks becoz I see u understand more than many people who was born and live in Ha Noi such a long time :d

  17. Man, this is SO true. As a vegetarian traveling in Vietnam for the first time, I have been eating nothing but pho rau and omelets and fried street food, and my body is SO UNHAPPY with all the fried. How do Vietnamese people stay so teeny eating all this (MSG-soaked, margarine-addled) fried stuff?

  18. Oh Claire, I feel your pain. Try and pick up some intestinal worms on your travels and then you'll be feeling a lot better.

  19. Helpful tips about street food, but a pho noodle soup w/o meat? Do you ever ask if they contain meat broth in Vietnamese? I would not eat a noodle soup with meat broth (usually at vegetarian restaurants, I would because they use vegetarian-based broth).

    1. Thanks for your comment. As I mention in the post, pho broth is always made with meat. You can get vegan pho with fake meat at Com Chay Ha Thanh and Loving Hut:

    2. I don't see the point in ordering noodles with meat broth, you may as well eat the meat rather than drink it.

  20. Thank you so much for this post!

    I'm a wild-meats/home-raised-only vegetarian going to Vietnam november-january in a months time. It seems like I'l have to compromise a bit with my ideals. But have you got any idea where the meat they serve in the street kitchens come from?

    Is it industrially produced all of it or is there local farmers old school style producing the foods?

    I'll definetly track down all the places mentioned in you post and the comment thread, but I will most likely only stay in saigon a coupple of days before getting into the wild, maybe even the sea.

    All the best

    1. Knowing how produce is sourced in Vietnam is very difficult for the locals, let alone tourists. You will see chickens wandering around, and certainly in the countryside you see a few small-scale farms, which give a good impression, but my understanding is that most meat comes factory farms in Vietnam or in China. The biggest problem is that there's not a huge amount of regulation in food production, and where there is, it's not well-policed.

      My advice is just make your decisions on a meal-by-meal basis, according to how much you really want to try something and how hard it might be to find an alternative.

      Good luck!


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