Vietnamese cuisine is famous for its fresh ingredients, delicious bánh mì, and soul-warming phở. And while it’s not particularly known for being vegetarian-friendly, you shouldn’t sleep on Vietnam’s traditional meat-free meals. Two things to guarantee your meal is vegetarian: Make sure you know how to say “I am vegetarian” in Vietnamese (tôi là người ăn chay), and look for the word cháy, which means vegetarian, on the menu. Don’t worry though, this is one country you don’t have to worry about being deprived on flavor no matter what you order.
1. Gỏi cuốn cháy
These chilled spring rolls are most often seen with shrimp or pork, but a vegetarian option with tofu is not too uncommon. The dish is typically served fresh, not fried, and consists of vegetables wrapped in thin rice paper. This healthy appetizer is believed to have come from China, and can be found at many different restaurants. What elevates gỏi cuốn cháy is nước chấm (dipping sauce). There are generally two sauce options. The most common combines lime juice, fish sauce, water, sugar, and chili. Another popular option is a peanut sauce made with hoisin, soy, garlic, spices, and, of course, peanuts. Both sauces work so wonderfully well, you may find yourself becoming addicted (though the first is restricted to pescatarians).
2. Quả mít om
Jackfruit has been used in Vietnam and India as a meat alternative for centuries, but the fleshy fruit is only now catching on in the West. It’s sure to soon start rivaling tofu as every clued-in vegetarian’s go-to meat substitute. Jackfruit has an uncannily similar texture to pork when braised in a dish called quả mít om. A typical way to cook it is in a clay pot, which ensures that heat and moisture are spread evenly and the final product is tender.
3. Phở cháy
Easily Vietnam’s most popular culinary export, phở is wolfed down everywhere — at home, in restaurants, and on plastic stools on sidewalks next to street vendors (and you should always, always, know how to order phở the right way if you’re particular about what’s inside the bowl). The cháy version replaces beef with tofu without compromising on taste. The savory broth is loaded with spices, ginger, and herbs like fresh basil. Inside the broth, you’ll find tofu and flat rice noodles. Garnish with extra lime and vegan fish sauce made with seaweed and miso as you wish. It’s the ultimate ethical comfort food.
4. Gỏi củ hủ dừa
Coconut is cheap and ubiquitous in Vietnam, and the flesh is widely used in Vietnamese cooking. It’s never more judiciously used than in this light salad. Gỏi củ hủ dừa is often served at wedding parties, but it’s available at most restaurants and is easy to make. It’s comprised of a lively, tangy dressing (made from vegan fish sauce), a dash of lime, and a sprinkling of sugar.
5. Bánh mì cháy
A legacy of the French colonial period, the baguette sandwich known as bánh mì always comes bursting at the seams with your chosen filling. Inside the bread are carefully layered vegetables, protein, and sauce that’s assembled in a way that somehow keeps it from falling apart. Cháy is a vegetarian bánh mì, and vegetarians can up the protein content with ốp la (fried eggs). The sandwiches normally come with two eggs when you order from a street stall. Vegans can pack theirs with nutritious veggies (pickled cucumber, onion, tomato, lettuce, and cilantro) smeared with soy sauce.
6. Mì Quảng cháy
Hailing from Quảng Nam province in central Vietnam, mì Quảng cháy is a noodle soup that’s commonly served at informal occasions like lunch and at special occasions like weddings and anniversaries. The broth is both balanced and robust, with shiitake mushrooms, gourd, pumpkin, and taro alongside chunks of tofu and rice noodles. What’s inside typically is restricted by what’s available. No matter where you get it, turmeric is the non-negotiable spice required. Finely chopped cilantro provides the finishing touch. The end result is a rich noodle soup that’s enthusiastically slurped down by locals and foreigners alike.
7. Dậu hũ chiên sả ớt
This lemongrass and fried tofu dish is one of the most popular tofu dishes in Vietnam, and even meat-focused restaurants usually have it on the menu. Vietnamese chefs always succeed in getting the tofu to a perfect balance of crispy and charred on the outside and silky soft on the inside. Fried citrusy lemongrass and a smidge of chili add an extra frisson to this hearty meat substitute. Pair it with stir-fried jasmine flower, bitter lemon, or water spinach — all sautéed in garlic, of course.