Remember when I said I’d be catching up on Vietnam posts for weeks? I wasn’t kidding. Covering the country from top to (very nearly) toe left me with a lot to say, and unfortunately, local internet restrictions didn’t want me to say it. So, I’m still saying it now — slowly but surely.
And as eager as I am to move on to posts about Cambodia and New Zealand, I didn’t want to finish off Vietnam without getting to its vegetarian food options. I realize this won’t strike everyone as all that exciting, but trust me: it is.
See, when I visit a new country, I’m just as excited about eating my way through it as omnivores are. I don’t believe that being a vegetarian means you have to miss out on the unique culinary offerings of a foreign country. I refuse to think vegetarianism limits one to bland, ascetic, westernized meal choices. In fact, I’m a strong advocate of the idea that you can immerse yourself in local fare and enjoy what you’re eating, even if it happens to be missing the meat. Finding such vegetarian-friendly food, unfortunately, can sometimes be more difficult than enjoying it, and such was the problem I faced in Vietnam.
For many non-vegetarians, Vietnam represents the highlight of a culinary tour of Southeast Asia. Its streets are steaming with bowls of beef pho eaten at plastic tables on the sidewalk, little metal bowls of smoking coals with seafood skewers on top, shrimp dumplings and rice fried with any kind of animal you can imagine. And of all the countries I’d been to, it seemed, at first, as if Vietnam might actually be the hardest to navigate diet-wise. The tofu was braised in beef; brothy bowls of cabbage turned out, upon closer inspection, to have tiny bits of gristle floating in them. Let me put it this way: I spent my first few days in Vietnam eating a lot of Oreos.
Luckily, I soon discovered a few helpful tricks that had me eating about five veggie-friendly meals a day in no time.
1: Modify, modify, modify
Let’s start with the humble bahn mi. Found on every street corner and cafe menu, bahn mi is essentially just a sandwich on a warm baguette (in much the same way that Laos kept France’s crepes, Vietnam kept their baguettes — and thank God they did). If you stop to order a bahn mi at a little sidewalk cart, the woman preparing the sandwiches will inevitably point to different piles of meat, prompting you to indicate which kind you’d like. Truth be told, I have no idea what the different meats actually were: they looked to me like thin strips of Spam in varied colors. Fortunately, I could always get these women to understand some form of “none of the above,” ending up with greasy, hearty, spicy perfection: pickled carrots and cold rice noodles. Strips of cucumber and wedges of tomato carved off with a knife against the thumb while I watched. Cilantro and scallions torn by hand from little baggies delivered that morning by motorcycle. A softly scrambled egg that spent no more than 15 seconds in the little wok on the cart’s counter before being scooped directly into a finger-burning baguette. Drizzle with soy and sweet chili-garlic sauce. Wrap in newspaper. Serve for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack… any time you’ve got an appetite and $1 US to spare.
2: Read the signs
Here’s the word for “vegetarian” in Vietnamese: Chay. Try pronouncing it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
You’re wrong. And I don’t even need to hear how you tried saying it to tell you as much. Vietnamese is a tonal language, meaning words that sound exactly the same to the white, untrained ear can actually have completely different meanings depending on slight variances in pronunciation. I repeated the word “chay” approximately 25 times for Jolly the motorcycle driver/vegetarian food sherpa, only to have him scold me each time and tell me I’d just pronounced the word for “something really spicy.” But here’s what I figured out: while trying to pronounce “vegetarian” may be a recipe for disaster, looking for the word “chay” on signage is pretty fool-proof.
I found too many “com chay” restaurants in both Hanoi and Saigon to try them all. But the best – the one pictured above, in Hanoi – went far beyond bowls of vegetable broth and fresh spring rolls. Nang Tam operates on an old Buddhist principle of making vegetarian food look like meat so as to make carnivorous visitors feel welcome. This is not only an oddly sweet concept, but a surprisingly cheap and tasty one. For around $5 US, I got a 6-part meal of sweet and sour soup with pineapple, stuffed tomatoes, roast “chicken,” sautéed “chicken” with ginger, stir-fried mustard greens, and “snowballs” — crispy little starchy spheres that tasted like toasted gobs of thanksgiving stuffing.
3: Know your allies
I’ve met a lot of travelers who won’t set foot in a restaurant unless its only customers are locals. Being the only westerner in a place is often, in the world of backpacking, a badge of authenticity and adventurousness. But as a vegetarian, I learned it can be handy to take it one step further: If you see a restaurant where the only other diners are Buddhist monks swaddled in robes and slurping pho, you know this is your kind of place. You’re safe to waltz in, point to anything on the menu, and eat it without worry of hidden bits of meat or sneaky dashes of fish sauce popping up.
4: Peanut Sauce
If I were to go back and add a number 31 to that little list I made the other day, it would be this: peanut sauce makes everything taste better. Also: sweet chilli-garlic sauce. Dash them on veggies and broccoli becomes life-changing; stir them into a vegetable-noodle soup and suddenly a pair of chopsticks and a wide porcelain spoon used in conjunction can’t get the stuff into your mouth fast enough.
5: When in doubt: enlist help
There’s no shame in asking flat-out for assistance. Sometimes this means repeating the word “vegetarian” over and over while pointing to various meats and shaking your head vigorously; waving your hands over eggs and piles of veggies and then rubbing your belly in pantomimed satisfaction and smiling like a madwoman. If you’re lucky enough to have paid someone to show you around, though, it means entrusting your lunch to them.
This is where Jolly, everyone’s favorite motorcyclist, really proved his worth. Each time we’d pull up to a stand advertising its “com” (“food”), Jolly would go out of his way to get the proprietor to make that com “chay” for me. This always resulted in a steaming plate of rice dredged up out of a waiting pot. And when I was lucky, heaps of color slung on top of that: seasoned fried tofu, salty scrambled egg, fresh tomato, and crunchy greens, with a mound of crisp and bitter sprouts on the side and a dish of soy sauce specked with bits of fresh chili pepper.
Has anyone else discovered any vegetarian-friendly local specialties in their travels?