After 16 months on the road, Vietnam was the last stop of my vegetarian food journey. Luckily it was also one of the best. While nothing beats Bali as the ultimate vegetarian destination, the veggie food in Vietnam is amazing. The local cuisine is packed with fresh vegetables, just-picked herbs, succulent tofu and a subtle colonial French influence, and the prices are staggeringly low. Here’s how to eat veggie in Vietnam.
Historic Hoi An is Vietnam’s most popular tourist destination, and for good reason. This elegant, atmospheric town boasts grand architecture, boutique hotels and some of the best tailor shops in the world, all perched alongside a beautiful riverside setting. But Hoi An is increasingly drawing tourists for its food, especially its famous local delicacies like ‘white rose’ dumplings, pork cao lau noodles and chicken rice. But what about vegetarian food? Thankfully, Hoi An delivers on that front too.
One of the most popular Vietnamese meals is banh mi — basically baguettes stuffed with a variety of fillings, usually meat, sometimes egg or tofu, and always packed with sauces, herbs and salad. Vietnamese baguettes are different from French baguettes: lighter, softer, fluffier. These light-as-a-feather baguettes are addictive and so mouthwatering it’s dangerously easy to eat three on the trot.
The best place in Hoi An to eat banh mi is Banh Mi Phuong, a tiny restaurant made famous by Anthony Bourdain, who branded their banh mi the best in Vietnam. The long line outside is testament to this, and when I finally get to the counter, five women are speedily throwing banh mis together. In front of them are piles of soft, golden baguettes, meats, trays of chili, cilantro, daikon, carrot and a whole array of sauces, and behind them eggs and tofu are cooking. The vegetarian option on the menu is with scrambled eggs, but I’d heard that the tofu banh mi is best (it’s not featured on the menu, but order it anyway).
Bourdain compared the banh mi to “a symphony in a sandwich” and it’s no exaggeration. The crust of the baguettes shatters as you bite into it, and inside the soft dough there’s hot tofu, crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, doused in a thick, spicy sauce. Beneath that are pickled vegetables, sliced tomato and onions, cucumber, salad and herbs like Vietnamese basil. It’s the perfect marriage of tastes and textures — salty vegetables, fresh tomato, chewy tofu, crunchy cucumber, with kick of chilies. The thick sauce trickles out as you eat it, and a new standard is set for just how good a sandwich can be.
One of the dishes I was looking forward to eating most in Vietnam was pho, a rice noodle soup that traditionally comes with beef or chicken and is served with herbs in a meat broth. While veggie pho is relatively easy to find in the west, finding a meat-free version in Vietnam proved more difficult than I thought; even the tofu phos are often cooked in beef broth. But truly vegetarian pho can be found in a few places in Hoi An, and the best is served up at Karma Waters, a 100% vegan and organic restaurant.
The pho here is exceptional — light and fragrant and served with tofu, bean sprouts, onions, basil, mushrooms and soybean protein. With no sugar or MSG in any of the food and only trace amounts of salt, it tastes incredibly fresh and healthy. Another standout dish on the menu is the cåm gaì chay — turmeric rice with mint, soybean protein, onion, chili, lime juice, peanuts, tomato and cucumber, and the zingy mango salad with chili and basil. After so many baguettes, the cåm gaì chay felt like a welcome purification; gotta love that curcumin.
HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh City — or Saigon, as everyone still calls it — is frenetic, energetic, vibrant and totally bonkers. More than any other place, however, Ho Chi Minh City seems to divide travelers and tourists: they either really love it, or really don’t. For what it’s worth, I loved Saigon, and the abundance of fresh, diverse and often-veggie friendly street food certainly didn’t hurt. Whereas Hoi An is more known for its excellent restaurants and cafes, Saigon is the street food city, so I made it my duty to explore the best street treats it had to offer.
The first dish I tried was goi du du, or green papaya salad. The best place to eat this is from the street cart in Le Van Tam Park, which has occupied the same spot for over 30 years. I’d had green papaya salad in Thailand and enjoyed it, but definitely prefer the Vietnamese version, which is fresher and zestier thanks to the mint and fresh herbs. The salad usually comes with beef jerky, but the owner speaks English and is happy to knock up veggie versions if you ask.
Another street food delicacy in Ho Chi Minh City is banh xeo, crispy rice flour pancakes cooked on a hot flame and stuffed with a variety of ingredients like egg and bean sprouts (and usually shrimp and pork if you eat meat).
The way to eat the pancakes is by wrapping them in rice paper, stuffing in lots of fresh herbs, and then rolling them up like a burrito. If it weren’t for the addition of all the greens it might have felt too greasy, but with the freshness of mint, Thai basil and wasabi leaves, it was a satisfying bite: crunchy, squidgy, crispy… a lot goes on in these little parcels, and together it’s delicious.
Sadly, Vietnam marks the conclusion of my vegetarian round-the-world odyssey. In my first Food Republic article from Mexico last year, I wrote: “I hope this trip, which encompasses four continents and 23 countries, will prove that even in meat-centric countries, a vegetarian diet won’t be bland or repetitive.” I’m happy to report that from South America to Southeast Asia, vegetarians really won’t struggle on the road: there’ll always be something to eat, and more often than not, it tastes pretty good.
I set out to taste the best meat-free foods in the world, and the quality was so good that somehow, along the way, I turned vegan. While this wasn’t the conclusion I expected from this trip, it was a welcome one all the same… and perhaps an excuse to set off again, this time in search of the best vegan food around the world. Well, why not??
Selene Nelson is a U.K.-based journalist who
is was traveling the world and reporting on her search for vegetarian food in each of the locales she visits.