When you think of Hanoi veganism is probably not something which springs to mind. In fact, it’s probably quite the opposite. From Vietnamese friends and buddies who had travelled the area I knew that the local cuisine was quite ‘open minded’… to put it one way. Type into google ‘Vietnamese food’ and you’ll see an unbelievable array 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. We wanted to find out first hand and after one year of living in Hanoi we can safely say it’s not what we expected. Keep reading to find out what we discovered after our vegan year in Hanoi…
As two English teachers we were working in Melaka, Malaysia and looking for new positions. Every job search online would show 10 results for Malaysia and about 50 results for Vietnam. After weeks of searching the answer seemed obvious. We knew Vietnam’s culinary reputation but we weren’t going to judge a book by it’s cover. We’ve always set out to prove that vegans can live or travel any corner of the world happily and healthily. So, we jumped in at the deep end. Within a week we had online interviews, jobs offered, visas confirmed and flights booked – we were moving to Hanoi! For two vegans with rigid morals it was time to see if the Vietnam really did live up to it’s notoriety!
We landed and wow, what a change from sleepy Melaka! Hanoi was fast paced, in your face and exhilarating. In a country that is trying to develop so quickly it was amazing to see how much they still hold on to their traditional culture. Plus, one of my favourite aspects of any country – food was high up on their 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 – this place was exciting!
After our vegan year in Hanoi we can confirm that the rumours we’d heard 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…
We realised that after a little getting used to things Hanoi could be a haven to the ethical eater. With more vegan restaurants and dishes than you’ll have time to try, once we knew what to look for and where to look we were spoilt for choice. Hanoi, however, is a double edged sword and it soon became our best and worst vegan destination.
So, here are some of the things we learnt after our year in Hanoi…
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 your looking for some vegan munch. Each week we would pin a handful of new places on our map and spend our free time nipping from place to place.
Eat Good, Feel Good
The food itself is unbelievable, really it is incredibly good! The food in veggie places was just the same as meat versions, just veggie. To do this, tofu is cooked in a variety of ways and we found an astonishing variety of mock meat options. We were blown away when we saw you could buy whole vegan chickens and fish. Whilst some people aren’t fans of lots of vegan meats it definitely had it’s positives in Vietnam.
We didn’t miss out on the local foods and still explored the culinary culture in an ethical way. There was a crazy variety of soups and the speciality Phở and also a huge amount of different veggies which they beautifully fry, boil or cook into other dishes. Our favourite was rau muống (water spinach) which we ate every single day, really, every day.
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.
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!
All Praise the Veggie Days
As a predominately Buddhist country most of the followers are still meat eaters but for two days a month (1st & 15th of the Lunar calendar) people eat ‘ăn chay’. This meant a whole number of normally meaty eateries would make vegetarian 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 incredibly 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 veggie products and veggie shops with crazy varieties of mock meats.
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 from middle aged women. Normally they 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.
All in One Word
Living in Hanoi, 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. Whilst the pronunciation takes a bit of practice, saying this when searching for grub will quickly distinguish whether they can offer you any food. 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!’
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 a vegan should be living in Hanoi.
The culture of meatiness caused us a few immediate problems. 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 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 of 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 we 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!
A lot of 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.
The whole concept of animal welfare and consumption is extremely different 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 vegetarian options and Buddhist ethics could on the other hand consume without consideration. We found that there was a market for almost every imaginable animal product and that many would eat the same types of animals they would keep 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. Not only this but most people are prepared to kill or prepare their meat.
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 are changing and younger generations were less likely to follow their elders. 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.
The first few months spent in Hanoi were pretty shocking. 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 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?
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.
Many friends and family have asked how an animal activist could live somewhere like Vietnam. My response is always that not living 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 and rants 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!