While Vietnamese food may you may think of heaping bowls of beef bone soup, grilled meats and plenty of fish, the vegetarian options in this culinary-obsessed nation are some of the best you’ll find in the world. Explore the plant-based side of this beloved cuisine and learn what it’s like to be vegetarian in Vietnam from a book that opened our eyes.

Reprinted with permission from Vegetarian Vietnam

Buddhist monks and nuns fully abstain from eating meat and seafood, but some do consume dairy products such as milk and yogurt; they don’t believe animals suffer during the production of these ingredients. Lay Buddhists adopt “temporary” vegetarianism on preassigned dates as a rite of abstinence or purification. They eat vegetarian as a reminder to avoid doing or saying bad things and to increase good luck for themselves, their families, and their ancestors for the new month. Typically the period of abstinence falls on the first and fifteenth day of each lunar month, although for some observers it can be up to ten times or even a month-long abstinence period, depending on individual devoutness. Vegetarian meals may also be served on the first day of the Lunar New Year (Tết) to bring luck, happiness and health for the coming year.

Followers of a unique homegrown religion called Cao Đài—an amalgamation of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism—practice vegetarianism on certain sacred days. They start with six days each lunar month, increasing to ten days with the hope that they will practice vegetarianism full-time.

Both Mahayana Buddhists and Cao Đài followers practice vegetarianism for similar reasons: to cultivate compassion, to live a life of higher consciousness, and because they believe that one living creature should not be killed for the survival of another.

Throughout my travels I spoke with young and old and found that an increasing number of Vietnamese follow a vegetarian diet. Many seniors have recently begun to reduce the frequency of their meat consumption as they feel it improves their health. The majority of diners eating in vegetarian restaurants, though, are part of the younger generation—largely university students and recent graduates. Since vegetarian meals tend to be cheaper, some students eat this way regularly to save money. Others, as lay Buddhists, continue to eat vegetarian, maintaining the practice introduced by their parents and grandparents. Still others have adopted a vegetarian lifestyle for ecological and moral reasons, similar to many vegetarians in the West.

There’s also been a recent increase in the number of followers of Vietnamese Zen Buddhism (Trúc Lâm/ Thiền), which focuses on the practice of meditation and of being present in the moment. This uptick may be due to the popularity and writings of monks such as Thích Nhất Hạnh, who resides in Plum Village in the South of France, and Thích Thanh Từ, who is based in Đà Lạt. Both monks enjoy international followings.

How to Find Vegetarian Offerings in Việt Nam

You may assume that eating vegetarian in Việt Nam would be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact many restaurants, private homes, and temple kitchens throughout the country regularly offer meat-free options. Periodically, Buddhist monks and nuns, with the assistance of followers, prepare vegetarian meals for the public at the pagoda for celebrations such as Buddha’s birthday, a senior monk or nun’s birthday, to mark funerals or death anniversaries, or to feed needy citizens.

Greater numbers of vegetarian restaurants are found in the center or South of the country, where there is a higher concentration of devout followers of vegetarian Buddhist practices. On days of the new and full moon street food vendors in central and southern Việt Nam switch to vegetarian versions of their meat- or seafood-based dishes.

At food markets in Việt Nam, vegetarian ingredients and vendors are organized near each other to facilitate shopping. This is echoed, with vegetarian ingredients stocked together, at Vietnamese and Chinese grocers in North America.

Monks and nuns eat two meals a day: a simple breakfast following their early morning (4:30 a.m.) meditations and the day’s main meal, which they take in the late morning. Operating in large, often dimly lit kitchens on a rotating work schedule, designated monks and nuns prepare simple, nourishing dishes using seasonal produce harvested from their own gardens (or from donations from lay followers) and using basic kitchen equipment like vegetable peelers, knives, graters, and mortars and pestles. In small monasteries with fewer than 20 monks, dishes are cooked in standard-size woks, pots and pans. In larger monasteries, much larger cookware and industrial-size steamers allow them to cook at scale.

Using wood, branches and leaves they collect from the surrounding forests, monastery cooks do most of their cooking over wood-fueled burners. Cooking over wood saves money, of course, but they also believe the wood adds an elusive flavor that makes food and rice taste better. Meals are taken family-style.

Meals are simple and austere. The main meal in smaller monasteries may include a fresh or pickled vegetable dish, a tofu or gluten dish, and a simple soup consisting of one or two vegetables and steamed rice. In larger monasteries with more resources, meals remain basic yet ingredients are higher quality thanks to donations of money or provisions. Large groups may eat meals “hot pot” style, with up to ten diners per table eating from a shared communal pot. Dessert consists of a piece of seasonal fruit or a sweet treat donated by lay followers. When there’s a celebration—for the abbot’s birthday, for example—meals tend to be more extravagant.

Eating and Mindfulness

For monks and nuns eating is an act of mindfulness. Before a meal, the entire monastic community, called a sangha, and any lay believers who happen to be dining with them scoop some rice into their own eating bowl in preparation for the ritual of prayer. Out of respect for Buddha, they symbolically hold the bowl at eye level as a headmaster leads the sangha through a recitation of chants honoring nature’s bounty and the farmers and cooks responsible for producing the food. They offer appreciation and gratitude for being worthy of receiving a nourishing offering that strengthens and medicates their bodies. Diners eat in complete silence, freeing the mind of all distractions. To immerse themselves fully in the experience of eating, they chew each small mouthful of food slowly, savoring it. They believe that eating in this manner will improve digestion and help them be less greedy.

When I dined with a small group of nuns in their pagoda on the outskirts of Huế, following these rituals was a challenge. Our simple lunch consisted of stir-fried leafy greens, sautéed matchsticks of preserved daikon, a clear soup, and rice. Following prayers I added some greens and daikon to my rice, then popped three pieces of daikon into my mouth, perhaps more greedily than I’d intended. I closed my eyes to focus on the flavors. When I started to chew the daikon, I made loud successive crunches, like those you make automatically when biting into a cool, crisp pickle. Nervous, I opened my eyes, hoping I wasn’t as loud as I’d feared. The entire table of nuns stared at me, quietly giggling at my maiden but enthusiastic attempt at mindful eating.

Because monks and nuns eat their main meal of the day around 10:30 or 11:00 a.m., if you ever find yourself at a pagoda around this time, you may receive an invitation to dine with them and other lay Buddhists. Do yourself a favor and accept.