What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi

When you think of great travel destinations for a vegan Hanoi is probably not somewhere that springs to mind. In fact, it’s probably quite the opposite. From Vietnamese friends and buddies who had travelled the area we knew the local cuisine was ‘open minded’… to put it one way.

Type in to google ‘Vietnamese food’ and you’ll see an unbelievable array of unidentifiable meats – some which many would consider pets. From an outsider’s point of view it definitely DIDN’T seem like a vegan friendly nation but we’re not ones to judge a book by it’s cover. We wanted to find out first hand what it was like living as a vegan in the infamous capital and it’s safe to say it was definitely not what we expected. Keep reading to find out what we discovered after our vegan year in Hanoi…

This whole Vietnamese adventure started when were working in Melaka, Malaysia and looking for new teaching positions. Every job search online would show 10 results for Malaysia and about 50 results for Vietnam. The answer seemed obvious but in honesty we were slightly nervous of Vietnam’s culinary reputation. 

The whole point of this website is to help you take your vegan morals happily and healthily around the world but we didn’t actually know how long we could last in a country so famous for it’s varied meat consumption. It’s one thing travelling through a destination for a few months but could we commit to a full year?

After a few weeks of deliberating we decided to jump in at the deep in. If the reputation was true at least we could put together some good information to help future vegan travellers. Within a week we had online interviews, jobs offered, visas confirmed and flights booked. It was time to see if the Vietnam really did live up to it’s notoriety!

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
We landed!

Landing in Noi Bai airport and wow, what a change from sleepy Melaka! Hanoi is fast paced, in your face and exhilarating. In a country that is trying to develop so quickly it was amazing to see how much tradition and culture they still hold on to. Importantly to us it was also clear to see that food was high up on the locals priorities list.

We walked through the Old Quarter on our first day and were blown away. Hundreds of bustling eateries spilled out of the shops onto low plastic tables and chairs on the streets. Every one of them filled with people, different foods, different colours and different smells. All being washed down with lots of beer. Exciting really doesn’t cut it, it will blow you away. 

Hanoi really is such a constant rush of experiences and an assault on the senses our vegan year flew by before we knew it. As with every country we tried to have the most authentic experience possible and in our 12 months we really got to know the ins and outs of the culture.

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
Al fresco dining (predominately boozing)

“but what’s it like for vegan in Hanoi?”

We can confirm that the rumours were true… and false. Vietnamese cuisine did include almost every meat imaginable and the concept of a full-time veggie or vegan lifestyle was almost unheard of…

BUT

With a little getting used to things for a vegan Hanoi could be an ethical eating haven. With more vegan restaurants and dishes than you’ll have time to try, once you know what to look for and where to look you’re spoilt for choice. Hanoi, however, is a double edged sword and for us it soon became the best and worst vegan destination we’ve ever experienced.

 

Here are some of the mains things we learnt…

There is vegan food everywhere!

The 75 places Happy Cow lists in Hanoi are only scratching the surface. We were surprised to find veggie places dotted around every street corner, varying from street food vendors to formal restaurants. The Vietnamese word for vegetarian, ‘ăn chay’, could easily be found above restaurants or stalls with little searching. This makes picking places out nice and easy when you’re looking for some vegan munch. Each week we would pin a handful of new places on our map and spend our free time wandering from grub to grub.

So much variety

As a vegan Hanoi not only has a huge amount of vegan restaurants but these places also have awesome variety. A lot of this variety is because of the crazy selection of mock meats used. We were blown away when we saw you could buy whole vegan chickens, fish heads and even meat fluff. What the fuck is meat fluff?

Because of these products many vegan spots had exactly the same menu as meaty places but just used mock meats and vegan alternatives. I know many vegans aren’t a fan of mock meats but there were many positives in Vietnam. The main reason we enjoyed it is because you didn’t miss out on the local foods and could still explore the culinary culture in an ethical way.

Mock meats aside there you’ll also find a big variety of tofu specialities, vegetables and tropical fruits. This is all combined with rice dishes, noodle dishes and soups so you’re never short of new things to try. Despite all the options our diet mainly consisted of Phở, rau muống (water spinach), tofu and tropical fruit. Mmmm. 

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi

Eat Good, Feel Good

On the whole we found Vietnamese food very healthy because of all the vegetables. Veggies had a much bigger share of the plate (or bowl) than most other countries we’ve visited, particularly in Europe. The food was fresh and often cooked to order, with a beautiful mix of herbs and seasoning. What’s more it was about £1-1.50 for a filling meal.

For vegans travellers, many dishes are fried it’s still very easy to stay healthy on the road. If you’re living and shopping in Hanoi then it’s even better as fruit and veg markets are everywhere and they’re very well priced (if you know how to haggle).

It’s Always a Good Time for a Buffet

After just a week of living in Hanoi we noticed that many of the veggie places were buffets. If you’re like us and have bottomless appetites then you’ll be in your element. There was a big variety of veggie buffets ranging from spit and sawdust eateries to swanky joints. Our favourite was definitely Cơm chay Diệu Tâm, a casual lunch time spot where you can have takeaway boxes for on the go lunch. We also loved Chay An Lac, a formal multi-storey restaurant with a blistering amount of traditional dishes, soups and desserts.

Veggie or Vegan?

Of all the ‘ăn chay’ restaurants, the majority we found were 100% vegan. If you found something labelled as vegetarian it’s was still commonly vegan as dairy is rarely used in Vietnamese cooking, even in normal eateries. A lot of the street food stalls sold just one or two dishes however almost every restaurant, cheap or expensive, had a selection of vegetable and tofu side dishes. Two veg, some tofu and a bowl of rice was easy to order in almost any place. We ate A LOT of tofu!</span

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
Two veg and tofu please!

All Praise the Veggie Days

Vietnam is historically a Buddhist country and although most of the followers eat meat for two days a month (1st & 15th of the Lunar calendar) people eat ‘ăn chay’. This meant a huge number of normally meaty eateries would serve vegan food. Even better, a lot of veggie places would have banquets of traditional foods to try, with the crowds of locals who flock to them. They got very busy though, so we got used to some pushing and elbowing!

Green Groceries

Doing our weekly food shop was very, very easy because of the Buddhist community and the amount of vegetables in the local food. Dotted all around the city were street markets selling every fruit and vegetable you’ve ever seen, along with a dozen you’ve never seen. Rice, noodles, tofu and all other ingredients could be found within a 5 minute walk from our flat. A 5 minute drive on the scooter and we had supermarkets filled with vegan products and whole plant based shops filled with a crazy variety of mock meats.

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
A Vegan’s Year In Hanoi

All in One Word – ăn chay

As with many vegan situations abroad, most of the problems we had came down to language barriers. Unless you’re in touristy areas or speaking with university students very little English is spoken. Fortunately ‘ăn chay’ is a saving grace and you’ll see this plastered over most veggie restaurants. The pronunciation takes a bit of practice but saying this when searching for grub will quickly distinguish whether they have anything on offer. This will normally lead to lots of pointing at dishes on the menu and an excited Vietnamese person smiling an saying ‘ăn chay, ăn chay, ăn chay!’.

Drive By Veg!

Besides the brilliant street markets and supermarkets which stock all your veggie needs, Hanoi has thousands of characters who sell a whole manner of things from their bicycle. These tended to be middle aged women who would start off quite grumpy and then you’d squeeze a smile out of them, hopefully. It was luck of the draw what they would be selling and you had to haggle hard but it was definitely part of the Hanoi vegan experience.

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
One of the drive by fruit ladies
What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
We ate fried tofu with this women almost as much as we ate at home. Served with mint leaves, soy sauce and garlic – honestly one of the tastiest things we’ve eaten!

There’s always a but

And this is quite a big but.

There is no way to sugar coat it, thin skinned ethical eaters should approach Vietnam with caution. Whilst there is an abundance of delicious veggie options, outside of the Buddhist temples and veggie restaurants it’s a very different story. This can all be a very grim and shocking sight for animal lovers and people not familiar with the culture. 

I would drive to work through streets which specialised in dog meat displayed in the windows and our local market would be red from freshly killed birds, fish and variety of other things. Some restaurants looked like pet shop aquariums and others resembled pick-your-meat butchers.

Vietnam is not for the squeamish. We met many avid meat eaters who were put off by all the meats displayed in shops and on the street. Though I had been warned by friends, I was still shocked throughout my stay and at many points questioned whether as vegan Hanoi was the right place to be living. 

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
Pin me!
What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
30,000 VND set meal, yes please!

Vegan Problems

The culture of meatiness caused us a few immediate problems. As a travelling vegan Hanoi is paradise in vegan restaurants. Outside of veggie establishments, If you’re not a fan of vegetables, tofu or rice then you’re gunna struggle. We love it, so it was fine. Hanoi does have international vegan options; vegan pizzas, curry and even vegan KFC but we didn’t go to Vietnam to eat pizza did we!

Fish Sauce

We learnt that the Vietnamese love fish sauce. They use it in nearly all their dishes, including things which you’d assume were veggie (vegetable sides, noodles, rice and tofu). We had to keep very vigilant when ordering food and quickly learned enough Vietnamese to explain our dietary needs.

If you’re a strict veggie or vegan I would definitely advise writing down or learning the phrases you need to keep your morals! Inside of veggie restaurants obviously you are fine but it’s a whole other world outside of them. Many eateries will call dishes vegetarian if they don’t contain large amounts of meat, even if it is cooked with meat stock or fish sauce.

I don’t eat meat/fish sauce – Tôi không ăn thịt/nước mắm
Learn it and make sure you get the pronunciation down!

Many times if someone didn’t understand us (our pronunciation is terrible) they would just smile and carry on. Write it down to be safe. Because of the Buddhist culture people understood very quickly the vegan/veggie requirements, the problem was the communication. The Vietnamese are pretty unforgiving when it comes to understanding travellers’ horrific accents so get practising. 

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
A great spread from Loving Hut in Tay Ho

It’s Like Two Different Worlds

The concept of animal welfare and meat consumption is extremely different in Hanoi to other parts of the world and this took some adjusting to. It was bizarre to us how a nation with such a huge variety of vegan options and Buddhist ethics could also consume without consideration. There was a market for almost every imaginable animal product and many would happily eat the same types of animals they kept as pets. 

No Naivety Here

Everything that is kept strictly behind closed doors in UK and many other places is done on the street without discretion. The Vietnamese know where meat comes from and it is often displayed and killed in shops or markets. As opposed to children in the UK who don’t realise their chicken nuggets used to be alive, in Vietnam they are very aware. On top of this the majority of Vietnamese are comfortable killing or preparing animal dishes which is another stark difference from places like the UK. 

Super cheap fruit and veg from the local market, Hanoi
What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
Sarah does love a good papaya!

Leave No Trace

In Vietnam waste is not an issue. When an animal is killed generally ALL of the animal is consumed. Literally, every bit will be eaten or have some use. We’ve statistics that show that

The Smaller the Better?

Over 85% of Vietnam’s meat is produced on small scale farms and we really noticed that the supermarkets were a lot less busy than the small markets. Of the farms we saw, they were relatively small, open and had animals roaming, producing enough meat for the family and bit extra to sell.

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi

Meat is Meat

A common discussion, debate and argument we had and often overheard was about dog meat. The older generations saw dog meat the same as any other meat, although it is generally eaten on special occasions. It was clear to see that opinions were changing and younger generations were less likely to follow their elders’ traditions. Whether this was a change in morals or influenced by international media, it was hard to tell.

More Than Just Dogs

It took very little time to realise that dogs were not the only controversial issue. You didn’t have to travel far to see endangered or protected animals being sold or consumed. We also learned Vietnam has one of the biggest trades of illegal wildlife products. This was something that was particular hard for us and it was difficult to know what or if we could do anything about it. 

What Two Vegans Learned After a Year Living in Hanoi
Those pineapples were so sweet!

Lasting Thoughts

As a vegan Hanoi was a fascinating but pretty shocking place. We are well travelled but we had never seen the quantity and variety of meat displayed and killed in the streets. The first time we saw dog, cat or any exotic animal meat my immediate reaction was that it was completely wrong and we should do something to stop it.

In my opinion, where possible, we should ALL strive for a life free from animal products. There is no excuse or reasoning for Vietnam’s supply and demand for illegal and endangered wildlife trade but is killing dogs for food any worse than chickens? Is one animals life more valuable than any others?

At a glance the Vietnamese meat industry can be seen as brutal and cruel. Whilst this can be true of all meat industries, in Vietnam it is slightly more complex. Once the initial shock subsided I did some research. I discovered that the amount of meat consumed per person in Vietnam is nearly half that of USA, Australia, Argentina and Israel.

I saw more animals killed in my year in Hanoi than a lifetime in other countries but these animals have probably come from small family run farms. The conditions I saw were much more favourable than battery farms. The majority of Vietnamese are aware of where their meat comes from, they do not waste any of the meat and are prepared to kill the animal by hand. Is this an excuse for consumption? Does this make you question which meat industry is worse?

A Vegan’s Year In Hanoi

Every culture is different. What might seem normal on one side of the world could seem alien on the other. One of the beauties of travelling surely is experiencing other ways of life? Whilst this is true, there are certain things that are universal, and in my opinion animal welfare is one of those things.

Many friends and family have asked how an animal activist could live somewhere like Vietnam. My response is always that not living in or visiting a country will not change it’s practices. In fact quite the opposite. If you want to change something then you need to address it. Hanoi gave us more pride and determination with our vegan lifestyle than ever before. It made us all the more aware of what is going on around the world. We know that through conversations we changed some opinions and hopefully saved some animals’ lives. If every vegan travelling abroad can convert one person then it’s a good start!

Should you go? Definitely. The world will never progress if opinions of animal welfare aren’t challenged. Is the meat industry in Vietnam worse than others? You will have to go and decide for yourself!

Have you been to Hanoi? What did you think of the food culture? Let us know if the comments box!

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14 Responses

  • An excellent article thank you. My brother has just married a lovely Vietnamese lady and they are having a ceremony in Vietnam next year. I will definitely write down the sentences you suggest when we travel around.

    • Hey Amy, great that the article can be of help! Also great that you’re going to Vietnam, it’s a fascinating country! Which part will you be travelling to? If you’re thinking of travelling around it would be really useful to learn some of the phrases I mentioned in the post!

      I’m currently writing an article about how important I think learning the local language is for a travelling vegan! Really helps you explore the local food without the worry of consuming any animal products.

      If you sign up to our newsletter we can let you know when we put our next Vietnam post up!

  • Hi Veggie Vagabonds,

    I saw you tweeting about travel and I thought I’d check out your website. I really like it. Looks like Veggie Vagabonds has come a long way!

    Have you thought of building a mailing list? I think people would really like to be signed up to what you have to share.

    Good job on the social buttons, social media is so powerful these days

    Good job with the Yoast plugin SEO is so important these days.

    Also places like supa growth make free software for websites like yours, be worth checking out.

    http://linkshrink.net/7dgYuH

    Keep making great stuff!

    • Hey Jerome! Really glad you like the site and we’re really appreciative of the feedback.

      We currently have the newsletter signup form in the post side bar, so we’d love it if you’d sign up so we can keep in touch. We’re working on making it more visible on the homepage too.

      Out of interest, where did you hear about the site?

      VV

    • Hey Isabella, really glad you like it. We’ll have a more coming up about our experiences as vegans in other Asian countries! Your site’s looking great, really liking the ‘vegan passport’!

  • Great article! Am a recent-ish vegetarian turned vegan with roots in VN and looking to return once I graduate. Mildly worried about the vegan scene over there. Appreciate the website! Would love to see an article about an ethical, affordable, stylish wardrobe.

    • You shouldn’t be worried going back. In terms of food choice, then you’ll be amazed how much there is on offer. In terms of animal welfare….well that’s a different matter. Send us an email if you want any advice about going back, where abouts in Vietnam will you be going to?

  • Thanks for the great post,

    It is amazing what a country like this consumes in the way of what would normally be called a balanced diet.

    Thanks for the stats.

    Cheers Penny…

  • I appreciated reading that thanks.
    I only spent 10 days in Hanoi last month.
    And you know I think I was protected from seeing much of what you mention. I’ve lived in Bangkok and so tire of the constant smell of meat cooking in the Bangkok streets.
    Well I maybe just booked my Airbnb in the right area and didn’t move around to far from it but I hardly even smelled much street cooking. And I was sad that I couldn’t find one veggie market but you’ve made me a bit happier about that now :))
    I didn’t see one animal slaughtered or just after slaughter
    I guess we see what we need to see.
    My Airbnb was in the French quarter I think. Almost opposite Uudam Chay which is probably the most expensive Vegetarian restaurant in Hanoi. They even use cheese in some preparations. Well it was hard to resist such a nice restaurant where most preps were vegan so I ate there a few times and got grab bikes around to a few more restaurants and cafes. Only found one supermarket even and it was small and uninteresting.
    I think I need a map of where the veggie markets are if I go there again.
    All in all I was living a vegan dream in Hanoi because the fruit was so amazing and also cheap. Especially love the giant avocados. I’d go out in the mornings to track down those dear ladies with their fruit bikes. I watched a video of interviews with them at the Vietnamese women’s museum and they have difficult lives. Leaving their children in the villages and only visiting every 2 weeks.
    And staying in rooms in Hanoi with 10 other women. Working from 4am going to the market to buy the fruits, or flowers.
    If I’d see any still on the streets at night not having sold all their fruit I’d buy from them even if I didn’t really need it. Just so they could go home to rest and eat.
    So it’s interesting to hear your experience and I’m glad mine was so sheltered from the slaughter. The benefits of being a tourist I guess 🙂

    • Hey Anjali, firstly sorry for the slow reply, we’re normally on top of responding but your message slipped through. In some ways it’s probably nicer that you were protected from seeing it, there were some really shocking sights. It’s a shame you didn’t find any of the veggie markets, because we were living there and had our own kitchen we made sure to find them nice and quickly so we could make some vegan feasts in the kitchen! Are you still living in Bangkok? There’s a great vegan community there and I think if you can avoid all of the fish and shrimp paste then Thai cuisine can be pretty awesome for vegans and veggies!

      Unfortunately because we didn’t speak enough Vietnamese we never really got to have conversations with the market women but I’ve been told similar stories that they have very difficult lives. It’s situations like that where sometimes we’re happy to pay a little more than locals and know the money is going to help them.

      Where has been your favourite vegan destination?

    • Hey Anjali!
      I had a very similar experience to you! I also stayed in the French quarter and didn’t see any slaughtered animals or bad smells besides Durian fruit!! I also didnt find the fruit and vege markets either. I also saw the iterview with the women street vendors in the Women’smuseum and felt the same things you did! It’s as if i wrote that comment!

      The worst things I saw were in Hoi An at a night market – frogs on a stick (cooked) and chicken feet!

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