Can two vegans survive a year living in Hanoi?
When you think of great travel destinations for vegans 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 into 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.
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. 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 its notoriety!
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 blew us 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.
“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…
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 spoiled 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 things two vegans learned after living in Hanoi for a year
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 vegan restaurants. 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 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 hell is meat fluff? If you know please drop a comment below to explain.
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 fans 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 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….
Eat Good, Feel Good
On the whole we found Vietnamese food very healthy, besides the MSG they use, and you’ll be eating plenty of fruit and veg. 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 but 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 vegan restaurants were buffets. If you’re like us and have bottomless appetites then you’ll be in your element. There was a big variety of places 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!
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!
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.
All in One Word – ăn chay
As with many vegan situations abroad, most of the problems 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’d be selling and you had to haggle hard but it was definitely part of the Hanoi vegan experience.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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 we constantly felt we needed to do something it.
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. On first impression you definitely wouldn’t guess this.
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 them.
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 its 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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