Being vegetarian in Hanoi doesn’t seem possible under first impressions. But there are a surprising number of dishes that you can survive on if you’re keen to avoid the Western options.
I’m a big tofu-lover and a big egg-lover, so I haven’t really had many issues in the last few years finding Vietnamese food that I can eat. The main thing I have to be really careful about, though, is the fish sauce! They love it here and don’t consider it meaty, so I usually decline ALL sauce, no matter what they say it is, and add my own soy sauce at home, if needed… if you’re in a restaurant and are unsure whether the sauce is fish-free, check the bottle and make sure it doesn’t have the word cá on it… Cá means fish!
Here are some of the things I’ve been living on for the last few years (Bracketed words are how to pronounce them):
Bánh Mỳ Trứng (Bang-mi-chung)
This is basically just egg in a baguette, yet somehow it tastes SO GOOD!! Maybe it’s something to do with the MSG Vietnamese people love to put in their food, but somehow it’s a wonderful take on the standard egg sandwich – for less than $1! The ladies at the banh my stalls usually fry two eggs in a pan of oil, and put them in the baguette they’ve just heated, add some cucumber/vegetables, onion, and chili sauce (optional). And voila!
Note: you do usually have to specify no meat: “khong thit” (Kom teet)
Bún Đậu (Bun Dow)
Looks basic, tastes great! Essentially just fried tofu and clumps of rice noodles, and yet it ends up being a taste sensation! (my own opinion of course). I have to make sure they don’t give me any sauce as it’s usually fishy, and then I add my own soy sauce (usually chili or garlic-flavoured). Goes down a treat! And again, costs less than $1!
Xôi is basically just sticky rice. It’s a pretty bland dish, though you can get it with a variety of different things (egg, chicken, beef, peanut, pork, etc)…I usually have Xôi Vừng or Xôi Lạc (sticky rice with sesame or peanuts) for breakfast, or I sometimes have Xôi Trứng (with egg) for dinner. Like I said, it’s not the most flavorsome dish ever but it’s a nice, simple, cheap dish that will do a good job of filling you up!
Rau Muống Xào Tỏi (Zau Muong Sow Toi)
This dish is stir-fried water spinach (rau muong xao) cooked in garlic (toi)… you may know it by the name of ‘Morning Glory’. I love it!!! It’s absolutely delicious. Some people have it to go with their dinner, though it’s pretty filling and I’m usually happy to just have this on its own for lunch.
Phở Xao Rau (Fur Sow Zow)
Anyone in Vietnam will tell you that you can’t pass through this country without trying the traditional dish, Phở. Phở is a noodle soup dish, which uses the wide rice noodles (well, in Hanoi, anyway… I think they differ slightly regionally). Typically, the most popular Phở dishes are Phở Bò (with beef) or Phở Gà (with chicken), and it’s very difficult to get a vegetarian one as the stock for the broth is usually from beef bones or chicken bones. There are a few Western restaurants, for example Tamarind on Ma May, which offer vegetarian ones either with greens or with tofu. However, on the street it’s very difficult to find.
Instead, I opt for Phở Xao Rau, which uses the same noodles but they’re fried instead of in a soup, and covered in various vegetables, including tomatoes, cucumbers, spring onions, etc. I also cover them in soy sauce at home. (Xao means fried and Rau means vegetables),
Mỳ Xào (Mee Zow)
This dish is essentially the same as Phở Xao, but uses instant noodles that you might get in a pot noodle, instead of the rice noodles… Personally I prefer rice noodles, but many don’t!
Cơm Rang Rau (Com Zang Zow)
Basically just fried rice with vegetables. It’s not my favourite due to how bland it is, but there are many condiments you can use to add flavour to it, such as soy sauce, chili sauce, lime juice, etc.
Bánh Cuốn Trứng (Bang kwon Chung)
Bánh cuốn literally means roll and trứng means egg (egg rolls) . Usually they come with pork inside of them, so I have to specify khong thit (Kom teet) – No meat!. They don’t look like much either, but they’re pretty filling and with a little soy sauce they’re wonderful! They often include sprinkles of dried fried onion too!
Fried vegetable spring rolls! How can you possibly go wrong with these!?
Gỏi Cuốn Chay
Fresh vegetable spring rolls (not fried)
Đậu Phụ Sốt Cà Chua
This was my favourite dish in Vietnam for over a year, until I decided four times a week was too much and moved onto something else. This dish is just tofu (Đậu / Đậu Phu) cooked in a tomato (Cà Chua) sauce. It’s really tasty, and usually comes served with steamed rice.
Bún Trộn Chay (Bun Chon Chay)
A different take on the Bun Dau dish, this tofu dish comes with the thin rice noodles, a little watery sauce at the bottom like a thin soup, topped with beans, mushroom, fried onion, peanut, and dressing. It’s not a typical street food dish but can be found in many of the cheap Vietnamese restaurants for example on Ly Quoc Su street in the Old Quarter.
Of course, the vegetarian options in Hanoi are not limited to these dishes, these are just the ones I tend to live on. You can find a variety of suitable dishes in the many Western restaurants, particularly in the Old Quarter or in Tay Ho, but they’re obviously more expensive and a little less cultural.
I hope this helps any vegetarians in Hanoi who are finding food choices difficult, but still want to experience the local cuisine.
If you know of any other Vietnamese vegetarian dishes, it would be great to hear about them! I love finding other meat-free dishes on the street!