A Vegan’s Guide to Saigon

Vegetarian/Vegan in Vietnam

On the surface, Vietnam – famous for her pork and beef dishes – doesn’t seem like the friendliest of destinations for vegan travelers. However, one might be surprised to learn that Vietnam is actually one of the more vegan-friendly destinations in Southeast Asia.  Though infrequently marketed to tourists, Vietnam has a long and rich diversity of vegetarian cuisine. Vegetarianism in Vietnam has its roots in the country’s Buddhist history.  While a majority of Vietnamese in the present day are irreligious, at least 16.4% of the country’s population is Buddhists. This is reflected in the diversity and availability of vegetarian and vegan food in Vietnam.

Vegetarian, or vegan cuisine in Vietnam often coasts by under the label of “Buddhist Cuisine”. Many of these establishments are therefore, also religious or spiritual in nature. Buddhist Cuisine in Vietnam is based off of the spiritual concept of ahimsa, meaning non-violence against any living being. Some vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Saigon observe this so strictly that staff goes to great lengths to ensure that even the utensils used to serve and eat vegan food will not ever come into contact with meat.

Vegan Tourism

While most local Vietnamese practice an omnivorous diet, many who are Buddhists or spiritual often observe multiple days of vegetarianism. As a result, many famous Vietnamese meat-dishes often have vegan or vegetarian equivalents. The Vietnamese word for vegetarian/vegan is “chay”. However, because these places are typically religious traditional-style restaurants, many of them may not have traveler-friendly signage or names.

This means that tourists who are not familiar with Saigon might still have some trouble locating them.  Not to worry, though, as many tour companies in Saigon can easily make these experiences happen. All a traveler needs to do is express interest in vegan dining. And they will be brought to the best vegan delicacies and street-food Saigon has to offer. These, are the four vegan-friendly establishments that must not be missed by the Vegan exploring Vietnam!

1. The “Quan Chay Chi Cu” Southern Restaurant

Of all the vegan establishments in Saigon, “Quan Chay Chi Cu” is probably the most renowned among the locals.  Having been in business for generations, it is absolutely a must visit for the intrepid Vegan in Vietnam. A humble establishment located within District 1 of Saigon, “Quan Chay Chi Cu” is famous for its vegan variants of several popular dishes. Among some of the recommended “must-try’s” at this restaurant are;

  • Vegan “Bun Bo Hue” – a popular Vietnamese dish served with rice noodles and an artfully flavored soup. The soup, a delicate blend of traditional herbs and spices, is admired for achieving the perfect balance of taste. It captures elements of spiciness, sourness, saltiness, and sweetness that are held together by the aroma of fresh lemon grass. The method of cooking “Bun Bo Hue” dates back to the days of the ancient Vietnamese Dynasties. “Hue”, the former capital of Vietnam, was said to be the pioneers in perfecting this balance of flavors. The dish retains its name in commemoration of this fact.

Bun Bo Chay – Vegan Bun Bo

  • Vegan “Goi Cuon” – In 2011, they were voted by viewers of CNN Go, as one of the top 50 most delicious foods in the world! Similar in appearance as the Chinese Spring roll, “goi cuon” is a dish made up of various edible fillings held together with a rice paper wrap. The rice paper, known as “banh trang” is a popular ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine. Unlike the Chinese spring roll, “goi cuon” is typically served raw with a mixture of fresh greens and vegetables used as filling. Because of the crisp and fresh flavors, they are a very popular appetizer and are often used as a palate cleanser when moving on from one dish to the next.

Vegan Spring Rolls

2. The “Tiem Chay Tuong Vien” Vegan Restaurant

Tourists can then head over to “Tiem Chay Tuong Vien”, a vegetarian restaurant located in District 5.  This is one restaurant that is not easy to miss. The establishment consists of two neighboring shop lots that is highlighted by a large, yellow sign. “Tiem Chay Tuong Vien” serves a wide range of vegan and vegetarian dishes. Most of these can be considered meat-free alternatives to typical Vietnamese cuisine. If you are staying in Saigon for more than a few days, you might even choose to make this establishment your regular go-to place. However, if time is of the essence, locals advise that their vegetarian pan-cake, is absolutely not to be missed.

“Banh xeo” – is a savory Vietnamese pan-cake literally known among locals as “sizzling cake” for the sound that it makes when cooking on the frying pan. The dish is a mouthwatering mesh of flavors and textures; made out of rice flour spiced with turmeric and stuffed with bean sprouts, spring onions, chili, mushrooms and diced tofu. In appearance, it is not unlike the Japanese Okonomiyaki or French Crepe. But the flavors infused into “banh xeo” are distinctively Vietnamese.  Like “pho”,  “banh xeo” is one of the more iconic of Vietnamese dishes and have made it all over the world where they are commonly known as “Vietnamese hotcakes” or “Happy pancakes” in the US.

Banh Xeo Chay

3. Quan Chay So 7

Another local haunt, “Quan Chay So 7” (or Com Chay So 7) is a modest roadside establishment that largely caters to the Vietnamese vegetarian and vegan Buddhist community. In the style of Southeast Asian “big fry” restaurants, “Quan Chay So 7” serves up a variety of traditional meat dishes prepared in different sauces and gravies. The twist, however, is that the meat being served at this restaurant is not really meat, but a soy and tofu protein base, carefully molded into a meat-like appearance and texture. Local testimony describes the taste and flavor of these mock meats as being as “good as the real thing” and for that reason, the establishment is popular among Buddhist Vietnamese who only observe a vegan or vegetarian diet during important days of the year. When at this establishment, be sure to order a rich, steaming crock of traditional Vietnamese stew.

Vegan “kho” refers to a method of cooking, whereby a protein source is braised in a delicately sweet and savory stew. Though most commonly served with beef (Bo Kho), the vegan version of this dish “Chay kho” substitutes meat with fried tofu as a protein base. “Kho” has been lauded by some as the “ultimate Vietnamese comfort food” and can be eaten with anything from rice-noodles, to “Banh mi” (Vietnamese French Bread).

Tofu Stew

4. D11 Vietnamese Street Vendor

The seasoned backpacker knows that sometimes, the best the city has to offer can be found in the most unlikely of places. The vegetarian street vendor, tucked away on a street in the 11th District of Saigon definitely qualifies as one of these well-kept secrets. The restaurant itself is almost impossible to locate without the aid of a local. It consists of nothing more than a makeshift awning with a smattering of tables and chairs for their, largely local, clientele.  Day-tour agencies, such as Saigon on Bikes, are one of the best ways to discover these truly authentic but inconspicuous local favorites. Based on local recommendation, the specialty of this particular establishment is their vegan stir-friend noodles.

Also known as “hu tieu”, Vegan stir-fried noodles, a mouthwatering dish composed of dry vermicelli and stir-fried vegetables, mushrooms and tofu. Although considered a palette cleansing dish by most because of its neutrally savory flavors, noodle stir-fries are one of the mainstays of a typical Vietnamese meal. As with any simplistic dish, the quality of the ingredients is invaluable. And don’t let the modest appearance of this establishment fool you: this street vendor uses nothing but the best.

Vegan Fried Pho

Saigon on Bikes