Vegetarian Journal

VRG Home | About VRG | Vegetarian Journal | Books | Vegetarian Nutrition
Subscribe to Journal | Vegetarian Game | Vegetarian Family | Nutshell | VRG-News
Vegetarian Recipes | Travel | What's New | Bulletin Board | Search | Links

Vegetarian Journal Mar/Apr 2000

Vegetarian Vietnam

by Sally Bernstein

Check out the recipes!

"Without nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce), it's not real Vietnamese food," said the owner of Cyclo, a New York-based Vietnamese restaurant, explaining why his restaurant does not offer any vegetarian dishes. This warning echoed in my mind as I prepared for a vacation in Vietnam.

Like many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has a cuisine that features meat and fish not only as main dishes but also as condiments and seasonings. Non-vegetarian admirers of the area's cuisine note its abundance of fresh vegetables, but vegetable and even tofu dishes are almost invariably prepared with meat broth, pork, or fish--and sometimes all three. I had read that Craig Claiborne called Vietnamese cuisine "among the most outstanding on earth," and friends who had visited Vietnam cited the food as among the best reasons to visit the country. But as a vegetarian, my goal was far more modest: would I be able to find anything there to eat?

I'm pleased to report that experiencing a vegetarian Vietnam is possible. Armed with a tourist phrasebook, a healthy appreciation of local markets, and a willingness to be considered highly eccentric by the Viet-namese, I enjoyed such delicacies as a vegetarian version of pho, the fabled Vietnamese noodle and meat soup, at a Pho-Com (noodle-rice) shack on the road to Bat Trang, a village renowned for its pottery in the North; vegetable soup and sweet-and-sour cauliflower at a restaurant overlooking Hanoi's peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake; and stir-fried noodles and vegetables by the swimming pool of the state-owned hotel in Hoi An. Above all, I relied upon the markets--home not only to some of the best fruit I have ever tasted, but also to housewares and tailor shops, live chickens, and for the natives, the local gossip.

Travel for the Adventuresome

One of the attractions of visiting Vietnam is the fact that tourism is still relatively new. Local landscapes are not clogged with tourists and many native traditions are largely unaffected by the outside. As a vegetarian, however, you may occasionally wish that the country had the tourist infrastructure of Thailand or Bali. Vietnam is a poor country that, to its great credit, has managed to feed its people. These people, in turn, may be unused to the spectacle of anyone, even a wealthy tourist, refusing to eat "good" food. The Vietnamese also may be surprised by a Westerner voluntarily eating only humble greens. The Vietnamese practice of Buddhism has historically included vegetarianism, but nowadays only monks are expected to continue eschewing meat. For someone unfamiliar with Vietnamese cookery, the practice of vegetarianism may be additionally cumbersome. Even more importantly, fluent English is not widely spoken outside of tourist enclaves. With the assistance of a native guide, it may be possible to join the millions of Vietnamese enjoying freshly prepared meals on the street. But for those traveling independently, or accompanied by a guide who doesn't understand vegetarianism, some extra guidance may be useful.

The Country and the Food

Vietnam today offers a warm welcome to Americans. The country says it's eager to put the war behind, and indeed much of the population is too young to remember the war years. I was continually struck by the friendliness of the Vietnamese, and the frequent attempts many Vietnamese people made to practice English with me, even if they only knew how to say "Hello."

I, in turn, tried to perfect my Vietnamese. In addition to "chao" (hello), "cam on" (thank you), and "ve sinh" (toilet), the words I said most frequently were "Toi la nguoi an chay." (I am a vegetarian). Perhaps it is more accurate to say this was my most frequently pointed-at phrase: Vietnamese is a tonal language, so attempts to pronounce even simple Vietnamese words can provoke more mirth than understanding. I once reduced a group of schoolchildren to nearly hysterical laughter with my imperfect command of the language. Duly chastened, I learned to point at words in my phrasebook, or when possible, to ask a native speaker to write out my request in Vietnamese beforehand.

The rewards of this system were obvious. It's possible in Vietnam, especially in Ho Chi Minh City or the tourist-friendly areas of Central Vietnam like Hoi An, to get banana pancakes and pizza at Western-style travelers' cafes. To restrict yourself in this way, however, means missing out on some wonderful flavors and experiences.

On a tour of artisan villages, for example, Chung, our tour guide, stopped the car in front of a shack on the highway, got out, and exchanged a few words with the cook. "They won't make anything for you," he said, getting back into the car. A few minutes later he repeated his actions at a different roadside shack, this time giving us the high sign after conversing with the chef. My friend and I joined the diners already squatting on the low stools outside. On the table in front of us were dishes of artfully arranged red chili peppers, salt, and tiny sour orange slices. After studying the cup holding a motley collection of chopsticks and toothpicks, Chung selected a set of chopsticks, carefully wiped them on his shirt, and smiled at the steaming bowls headed toward us. We did the same. Everyone else at the table enjoyed pho bo, a beef and noodle soup garnished with bean sprouts, chili peppers, and a handful of mint, basil, and cilantro leaves. My vegetarian version was made up on the spot, with a vegetarian stock of plain water, soy sauce, garlic, and pungent sea salt. In lieu of beef, the cook had supplemented the broth with steamed greens.

Like the traditional version the others were eating, my pho had layer upon layer of flavor: Vietnamese food is rightly celebrated for its crystalline flavors. In most dishes, individual flavors remain distinct even as they contribute to a cohesive dish. Despite quick cooking time, Vietnamese dishes are full of flavor because of the bright taste of the local ingredients, including lots of seasonal produce.

Another quickly cooked but savory dish I enjoyed was bong cai tron dau dam, or steamed vegetables with sweet and sour sauce. With little time for dining before a performance of Hanoi's famed Water Puppet Theater, I resigned myself to what I assumed would be second-rate tourist fare at Dinh Lang, a restaurant popular with large Japanese and European tourist groups. Indeed, the restaurant seemed dubious about seating a party of two and appeared eager to see us depart when a throng of French tourists descended. But in the interim we enjoyed the peaceful view of Hoan Kiem Lake, the lilting sounds of traditional musicians performing in the restaurant, and best of all, wonderful food. Toi la nguoi an chay, I pointed. Much to my surprise, the waiter returned with a separate menu emblazoned with the words com chay (vegetarian food). From this I selected a flavorful vegetable soup with mushrooms (canh cai nau nam)--a big hit with me because it didn't have the gelatinous consistency of many Chinese and Vietnamese soups--and the sweet and sour vegetables. These "vegetables" included only cauliflower, but the vegetable was cooked perfectly. The sweet and sour sauce was also a bit of a misnomer; it was more of a vinaigrette. The cauliflower was surrounded by an attractive array of deep fried tofu crisps (dau phu, in Vietnamese). These I left untouched, for despite being a vegetarian, I have a real aversion to tofu.

Tofu lovers can rejoice in Vietnam, however. Dau phu is listed on almost every decent-sized menu and the word is pronounced almost the same way it is in Maine. The preparation of tofu, however, offers the same pitfalls as vegetable dishes--assume pork and fish sauce will accompany the dish unless you clearly request otherwise.

Some chefs may be willing to accommodate tourists with dietary preferences or restrictions, but may still be baffled by vegetarianism. In the old imperial capital city of Hue, for example, a chef who happily grilled beef kabobs with onion and tomatoes could not understand my request for a kabob composed entirely of vegetables. First he placed a whole tomato--stem intact--on the grill. When I indicated I wanted smaller pieces, he complied, then sliced the lettuce and cucumber he planned to grill for me into smaller pieces too. I could only conclude he thought I favored warm salad for health reasons, or that as a foreigner, I was simply inscrutable.

The Glorious Markets

Fortunately, restaurants were not my only source of sustenance. Of all the food I enjoyed in Vietnam, I enjoyed the fruit most. Vietnam is a produce-lover's paradise. Ripe local fruits and vegetables are available year round. Fruit sellers squat on the sidewalk with baskets of beautifully arranged fruit to sell their wares to those who are too busy to shop at the markets. I saw and tasted luscious fruit I had never even heard of: custardy star-apples (trai vu sua); refreshing dragon fruit (trai thanh long); ripe green bananas (trai chuoi); creamy sapodillas (trai xapoche), and my personal favorite, sweet mangosteens (trai mang cut). These I would devour by the kilo, to the stunned amusement of the sellers, who would marvel at seeing us back at their stalls so soon after making a large purchase. Observing the public health dictates against eating unpeeled fruit, I also bought inexpensive but excellent fruit knives, correctly surmising that in a country where so much fruit was peeled, the knives would be of good quality. I admired but did not duplicate the craft of the pineapple sellers, who deftly carved their fruit into attractive and easy-to-eat towers. Instead, I paid homage to their craft by doing as I did to most of the fruit I en-countered: I quickly made it disappear.

Much of the fruit had unusual attributes: the star- apple, for example, had juice like mucilage, and excessive indulgence could epoxy your lips together. I never acquired a taste for the notorious durian, which had an armadillo-like outer layer, creamy beige flesh, and a scent like an open sewer. Many hotels ban the fruit because of its telltale stench. But even familiar fruits were extraordinary in Vietnam. Deep green bananas were ripe enough for immediate snacking. Plums came in scarcely recognizable colors and shapes. Some fruit, like pomelos, longans, and fuyu persimmons, were old friends. Then I remembered that a few years ago these fruits seemed exotic.

The NextTrip

In addition to a few fruits like rambutan (trai chom chom) that weren't in season when I visited, I have a few prom-ised vegetarian dishes to look forward to on a return trip to Vietnam: rice ravioli with mushrooms, crispy shallots and fresh herbs (banh uot), grilled eggplant with ginger-lime sauce (ca tim nuong), and tamarind soup (canh chua nam bo). Before arriving in Vietnam, I had read that on the holy days of the lunar month--the 15th and last days--vegetarianism still is widely practiced, even to the point of market stalls adapting their everyday recipes to make them vegetarian. This time around I didn't actually find any vendors doing so. But I can't wait to find out next time.

Resources--Restaurants and Markets

The restaurants listed below can serve vegetarian food or are entirely vegetarian. In addition, "travelers' cafes," located in the centers of large cities, offer inexpensive Vietnamese and Western-style vegetarian options along with tourist information and the opportunity to use the Internet. Markets (called cho in Vietnamese) sell wonderful produce as well as bread, tea, household goods, etc. Bargaining is expected. Supermarkets sell food and household items, including imported goods. Prices are posted, with no bargaining.



Vegetarian Pho Bo (Vietnamese Noodle Soup)
(Serves 6)

8 cups Vietnamese style broth (see recipe that follows)
1 pound rice noodles
One 8-ounce package seitan, drained
1/4 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup shredded cabbage (such as Napa cabbage)
1/2 cup tender greens, torn into bite-sized piecescup basil leaves
1/2 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
3 scallions, thinly sliced (both green and white parts)
3 Tablespoons chopped, roasted, unsalted peanuts (optional)
1 lime, cut into wedges
3 fresh red or green chili peppers, seeded and cut into fine rounds
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Make the broth as directed. When broth has been simmering for about 10 minutes, soak the noodles as follows. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Remove from heat, add noodles, and let soak around 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until noodles are pliable and easily separated.

Drain the noodles and divide them among six bowls. Simmer the seitan in the broth until heated through, about 4 minutes. Remove the seitan with a slotted spoon and slice thinly into six portions. Add to noodles.

Assemble the soup by placing the bean sprouts, cabbage, greens, basil, cilantro, scallions, and optional peanuts on top of the noodles and seitan. Ladle the hot broth onto the noodle mixture.

Serve with a plate of lime wedges, chili rounds, and salt and pepper for individual seasoning.

Total calories per serving: 166
Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 32 grams
Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 726 milligrams
Fiber: 1 gram

Vegetarian Vietnamese-Style Broth
(Makes 8 cups)

8 cups clear vegetable stock
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
8 medium garlic cloves, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 small onion, diced
One 1-inch piece of ginger
Two 3-inch cinnamon sticks
2 pods of star anise
2 large bay leaves

Put stock, soy sauce, garlic, and onion in a large stockpot and bring to a boil over medium heat.

Meanwhile, char ginger on all sides over an open gas flame or in a small skillet. Add to the stock.

Add the cinnamon sticks, star anise, and bay leaves to the broth. Reduce the heat to low. Simmer, partially covered, for 20-25 minutes.

Remove solids with a slotted spoon or strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Return to pot and keep hot until ready to use in soup.

Total calories per 1 cup serving: 25
Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 4 grams
Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 386 milligrams
Fiber: <1 gram

Tofu with Eggplant and Peppers
(Serves 4)

Cooking Spray
1 pound extra-firm tofu, drained
1 medium onion, chopped
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 large tomatoes, peeled and cut into eighths
2 large red peppers, chopped
1/2 jalapeño or other hot pepper, seeded and minced
1 medium eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound mushrooms
1 summer squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 bunch of scallions, coarsely chopped (white and green parts)
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup cilantro, for garnish

Spray a wok or skillet with cooking spray and sauté tofu until brown on both sides. Cut into 1-inch cubes and set aside.

In same pan, sauté onion for one minute. Add soy sauce and one tablespoon of water if necessary. Add tomatoes, red peppers, hot peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, squash, scallions, and tomato paste and reduce heat. Simmer for about 10 minutes, or until vegetables are soft.

Add tofu and continue cooking until tofu is heated through. Place on platter, garnishing with cilantro. Serve with rice or rice noodles.

Total calories per serving: 231
Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 24 grams
Protein: 19 grams
Sodium: 537 milligrams
Fiber: 4 grams
High in calcium and iron

Fresh Spring Rolls
(Makes 36 rolls)

4 ounces thin rice stick or cellophane noodles
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup grated carrot
1/2 cup grated daikon or jicama
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, reserving a
few sprigs for garnish
1/2 cup coarsely chopped dill or mint leaves, or a mixture
3 Tablespoons roasted, unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
12 sheets of rice paper
1 head of soft lettuce, such as Boston lettuce, leaves washed, dried and cut in half
Chili dipping sauce (see recipe that follows)

Soak noodles in boiling water for 5 minutes or until soft and pliable. Drain, immerse in cold water and drain again. Cut noodles into 2-inch lengths.

In a large bowl, mix noodles with bean sprouts, carrot, daikon or jicama, garlic, and soy sauce.

Working with no more than 2 rice paper sheets at a time, immerse the rice paper in a shallow bowl of warm water and quickly remove it. (Letting the rice wrapper sit in the water can result in its disintegration.) Lay the wrapper on a plate and place about two Tablespoons of the noodle mixture toward the bottom of the wrapper. Add a pinch of each herb and a few pea-nuts (if desired). Fold the bottom of the wrapper up over the mixture, about a third of the way up. Tuck sides of the wrapper in and roll up tightly to form a tube. The damp paper should stick together. Place on a tray or plate and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap until all the rice papers are filled.

Cut each roll into three pieces. To eat, wrap roll in lettuce leaf and dip in chili sauce.

Total calories per roll (not including sauce): 18

Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 4 grams
Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 77 milligrams
Fiber: <1 gram

Chili Dipping Sauce
(Makes about  1 1/3 cups)

2 Tablespoons chopped garlic
2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh chili peppers
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup white vinegar
3/4 cup water
2 Tablespoons thinly sliced scallion

Combine all ingredients except scallions in a blender and mix until smooth. Pour in individual dipping bowls and garnish with scallions.

Total calories per 1-1/2 teaspoon serving: 2
Fat: 0
Carbohydrates: <1 gram
Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 112 milligrams
Fiber: 0

Piquant Cauliflower
(Serves 4)

Cooking spray
2 shallots, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 Tablespoons soy sauce
3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cubed
1 large cauliflower, cut into flowerets
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2/3 cup vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2 scallions, thinly sliced (white and green parts)
Cilantro for garnish

Spray a skillet or wok with cooking spray and sauté shallots and garlic for 1 minute. Add the soy sauce and tomatoes, and sauté for another 3 minutes.

Add the cauliflower, onion, stock, lemon juice, and scallions. Reduce the heat and cook until the vegetables are tender-crisp, about 10 minutes.

Place cauliflower mixture on a platter. Garnish with cilantro.

Total calories per serving: 66
Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 13 grams
Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 280 milligrams
Fiber: 4 grams

Noodles With Mixed Vegetables
(Makes 4 servings)

8 ounces cellophane noodles
Cooking Spray
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon minced ginger
4 shallots, thinly sliced
2 scallions, thinly sliced (white and green parts)
1-2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2-3 Tablespoons water
2 small carrots, peeled and julienned
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
2 summer squash, coarsely chopped

In a large bowl or pot, soak noodles in boiling water for 5 minutes or until they are soft and pliable. Drain and set aside.

Spray a wok or skillet with cooking spray and over high heat, sauté garlic, ginger, shallots, and scallions for about 1 minute. Add the soy sauce, water, and carrots and sauté for an additional 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and squash and sauté for another minute. Add noodles, stirring constantly until they are heated through. Serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 115
Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 26 grams
Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 519 milligrams
Fiber: 2 grams

Green Papaya Salad
(Serves 6)

1/4 cup lime juice
2 Tablespoons water
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
3 cups peeled, seeded, and shredded green papaya
1/2 cup shredded carrot
1/2 cup julienned red pepper
1/4 cup coarsely chopped mint
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
3 Tablespoons coarsely chopped scallions
1/2 cup coarsley chopped peeled and seeded tomatoes
2 Tablespoons sesame seeds (optional)
2 Tablespoons chopped, unsalted peanuts (optional)

Combine first four ingredients in a small dish to make the dressing. In a large salad bowl, gently combine all the other ingredients. Pour dressing over salad and mix thoroughly before serving.

Total calories per serving: 50
Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 11 grams
Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 512 milligrams
Fiber: 2 grams

Vegetable Platter
(Serves 4-6)

2 heads of soft lettuce, such as Boston lettuce, leaves torn in half
1 cup coarsely chopped mint
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
1 cup thinly sliced scallions (white and green parts)
1 large cucumber, peeled and sliced length- wise, then thinly into half-moons
3 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup bean sprouts

On a large platter, place each ingredient in individual mounds, with the lettuce in the center and the other items surrounding it. This platter is a traditional accompaniment to almost all Vietnamese meals.

Variations: In addition to or as a substitution for the vegetables and herbs listed, use 1 cup of thinly sliced onions, 1 cup of shredded or thinly sliced daikon, and 1 cup of shredded jicama.

Total calories per serving: 58
Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 11 grams
Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 32 milligrams
Fiber: 3 grams

Tropical Sorbet and Granita
(Serves 4)

Two 20-ounce cans tropical fruit, such as pineapple, packed in its own juice (for a granita texture) or in light syrup (for a sorbet texture)

Wash and dry the cans. Freeze unopened cans for at least 12 hours or until solidly frozen. (Unopened cans may be stored in freezer until ready for use.)

When ready, remove cans from freezer and open both ends over a cutting board, pushing the fruit out of the can with a wooden spoon. Coarsely chop fruit and place in blender or food processor. Process until smooth. Serve immediately, softly frozen, or pack in an airtight container and freeze for 2 hours, until frozen solid.

Using a melon baller, scoop out sorbet and serve in a parfait glass or ice cream bowl. Garnish with slices of fresh fruit.

Note: Asian markets will offer a wide variety of canned fruit, including canned mangosteen, jackfruit, lychees, loquats, and sapodillas.

Total calories per serving (using pineapple): 170

Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 44 grams
Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 4 milligrams
Fiber: 2 grams

Excerpts from the Mar/Apr 2000 Issue

The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.

This article was converted to HTML by Jeanie Freeman
The Vegetarian Resource Group Logo © 1996- The Vegetarian Resource Group
PO Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203
(410) 366-8343   Email:

Last Updated
March 6, 2000

Graphic design by DreamBox

The contents of this web site, as with all The Vegetarian Resource Group publications, is not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional.

Any pages on this site may be reproduced for non-commercial use if left intact and with credit given to The Vegetarian Resource Group.

Web site questions or comments? Please email