Probably. Lettuce can get dirty, and reused straws washed in dirty dishwater isn’t exactly a gold-star promise of health, but by and large, eating veggie in Vietnam is pretty safe. It’s a cuisine the locals know how to do healthily and well, and they’ve been perfecting it for centuries. That burger, though? You may end up with a lot of time on your hands to contemplate why you just had to have a burger from a place named ‘OMG!’ while you shiver on your toilet, unmentionables coming out of both ends.
When Alexandre de Rhodes romanized the Vietnamese language in the 17th century, he must have had vegetarians in mind. The word for “vegetarian” in Vietnamese is the super simple “chay.” You just say it flat and evenly — no rising or falling intonation, no awkward glottal stops in the middle, no nothin’. Just say it like a robot might say it, point to yourself or your desired dish like the foreigner you are, and your job is done. If your waiter or waitress can’t understand that, then you’re complicating it.
(Side note: you could also say, “không thịt,” meaning no meat, but that’ll lead to two potential problems: saying “no meat” doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy things like fish sauce or chicken broth, and “không thịt” is way easier to butcher than “chay.”)
Whether you’re in Ho Chi Minh City or the 7-person village of Rang Rang, about every 100 yards you’ll find a short, middle-aged, sun-baked woman working hard at her food cart. She’ll be standing at a portable steel and plastic cart, where the counter is lined with frying pans and the plastic shelves lined with ingredients, all of which are baking in the sun as much as their keeper.
The front of this cart will more than likely say “Bánh Mi,” but don’t fall for it: this is not the banh mi you know, the one you pay $8 for at your favorite go-to fusion eatery. Tell her “bánh mi hai trứng,” (that’s a bánh mi with two eggs), and watch the pan to hear the egg sizzle and to make sure she doesn’t sneak in any ,pâté (in that case, tell her “không thịt,” or no meat).
If you’d like to feel your tongue burst into a salty, MSG-ridden high, add on “nhiều xì dầu” (lots of soy sauce) and if you’re feeling guilty, add on “nhiều rau.” That’ll get you strips of pickled carrots and cucumber, wedges of fresh tomato carved out of the fruit while you watch, and cilantro and scallions garnered by the bunch that morning from the nearest market. She’ll pile on the fixings into a fresh-baked, soft and airy baguette, wrap it in newspaper that soon gets hot and moist to the touch, and ask you for about 50 cents.
But the bánh mi isn’t the only example of vegetarian fare that would please a frugal, shoestring backpacker. A bowl of phở chay, a fresh watermelon, tofu spring rolls — none of these will cause you need to break out the $5 bill. For $1 or $2, you can sample the local vegetarian cuisine at its finest and freshest, and never have your palette grow weary.
If you haven’t graduated to talking to non-English speaking waiters about modifying dishes to meet your dietary restrictions, fear not: the word “chay” can be seen on signage all over the place. Vegetarian restaurants — from the aluminum pots of a hole-in-the-wall to the five-star-pinkies-up kind — are incredibly commonplace in Vietnam, mainly thanks to its large Buddhist population. You’ll see signs for chay restaurants, and traditional restaurants that have optional chay menus. Toto, you’re not in Texas anymore. This place is an animal-lover’s utopia.
The next time you stumble upon some blog by an angry vegetarian Westerner who had trouble meeting his or her culinary guidelines in Vietnam, just know that they were doing something wrong. Chay is everywhere.
Walk up to the aluminum pots of hole-in-the-wall Thuyền Viên, and you’d never guess what your taste buds were in for. At first, it seems like a battle of might and perseverance: there’s a throng of clamoring locals at the open-air counter all vying to get attention, flies buzzing between impatient heads all vying for disregard, and the clanking of pots and dirty dishes is the land’s cacophonous, wartime battle cry.
Eventually you throw enough elbows to work your way up to those mysterious silver pots. You don’t know what’s in them, but it doesn’t matter: this crowd makes it seem like the elixir of life. When you’re finally up at bat, you point to 5 or 6 of the dishes, recognizing nothing, and get ushered to your throne: a small, red plastic stool that you swear was once part of your younger sister’s dining room play set.
Minutes later, you’re brought your feast: claypot mushrooms, butternut squash curry, and several varieties of tofu that are wondrously transformed, flavored, and covered in tangy, sweet but savory sauces, all different shades of vermillion. This is a magical section of the food pyramid the government has been hiding from you to keep you eating farm-raised grains and vegetables. This is an epiphany. With a bowl of rice and a fresh baguette to top it off, the battle was well worth the effort.
The only downside? There’s no going back. The Boca burgers in your freezer will just start their trek to the freezer burn castle in the sky, and the tofurkey, well, your neighbor’s dog might eat it if you coat it in chunky peanut butter. It isn’t just that Thuyền Viên is some sort of Southeast Asian Brigadoon, either: it’s everywhere. The fried tofu, the peppered mushrooms, the curried pineapple, the egg bánh mis, the bánh xèo, even the fruit smoothies make you feel like some middle schooler who wasn’t in on the world’s biggest secret. Ignorance may have been mental bliss, but it was a travesty to your taste buds.
You know that feeling you get when you walk into a restaurant, and three steps inside the door the scent of sizzling bacon and the portraits of stoic-looking cowboys lining the walls makes you let out an accidentally audible sigh? That’s the one. The menu confirms your worst fears: meat, meat, and more meat. Eating, instead of fulfilling your primal urges and firing off your dopamine receptors, is about to be relegated to a chore. There are two things to choose from on the menu and both make you ponder just munching on yesterday’s protein bar you left in your bag.
Would such a scene ever happen in ‘Nam? Nope. You do not have to stick to the chay restaurants, because you can get phở chay, bánh xèo chay, hủ tiếu chay, cà ri chay pretty much anywhere. There’s also side dishes of morning glory, mushrooms, and tofu that line any standard menu. There’s fresh fruit and made-to-order smoothies at corner markets and street-side vendors, and baguettes that’ll make you feel like Parisian royalty. French fries are a surprising staple, too, only they’re served with butter and sugar. We won’t tell if you indulge.
Maybe you have that friend who always has to tout about saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m vegetarian. Do you have any vegetarian modifications you can make to the menu?” Or maybe you are that vegetarian friend. Your friends have to make you special dishes when they throw a dinner party and you have to make sure to cover your own ass at potlucks. And restaurants? A crap shoot in some parts, unless you’re happy with a green salad and a piece of carrot cake. But in ‘Nam, the world is your faux tofu oyster.
You and your omnivorous friends can dine at the same places, không sao (no problem), and they may even find that they wind up craving a few of the veggie restaurants you introduce them to. Heck, maybe you’re the type of vegetarian that’s only really vegetarian on weekdays and when you’re sober, but in ‘Nam it just so happens 24/7. There are just as many options and just as many people who eat the same way you do. It’s not pretentious nor is it an inconvenience. It’s…normal.