As a vegetarian all my life, I was interested in learning about Hanoi’s burgeoning vegetarian scene. I met with Phong Van Doan at my favourite vegan restaurant on Au Co. We sat at the large community table while I sipped on my bowl of bun rieu chay and crispy nem chay cooked in coconut oil.
Doan wasn’t always a vegan. Her mom used to call her “Mongolian” because she mostly ate meat and drank milk. Doan recalls the times when she would make her mom cook her favourite meat dish, thit kho tan, a type of fried crispy pork, every night.
She had dietary problems since kindergarten, but it culminated this summer when her “Mongolian” diet made her bed-ridden for weeks. Like any teen she found refuge in YouTube videos where she stumbled upon Freelee the Banana Girl, a YouTuber who promotes a vegan lifestyle.
After a month of being vegan she started noticing improvements in her health. After two months, she was able to go off her medication.
The dramatic change in her health, and an accidental meeting with a vegan Vietnamese teacher altered the course of her life. She now is a vegan activist and has started a Facebook group called Vegan Hanoi that already includes over 300 members. It’s not all perfect — she understands that the Vietnamese community is still struggling to understand a vegan diet.
Life Without Meat
Quyen Vo, an employee at Bo De Quan (164 Au Co, Tay Ho, Hanoi), a vegan restaurant in Tay Ho, said: “When we first opened, two years ago, we were really struggling. Some Vietnamese customers would come to our shop and say can I have a bowl of beef pho? We would say sorry; we are vegan, and they would say sorry, I cannot eat it because I cannot live without meat. I eat meat every day, if I don’t eat meat I die.”
On any given weekday there is now a steady stream of westerners who pop into Bo De Quan for a quick bite to eat or food to go, and many other Hanoi vegetarian business owners have recently seen growth in the demand for vegetarian food.
Dan Ni, a waiter at Daluva, a more upscale restaurant that offers a meatless Monday special agrees: “I think the number of vegetarians among the Vietnamese population will grow more slowly. A lot of people think that meat is crucial and that you can’t substitute meat for other things.”
It Takes All Types
Matador Network, the world’s largest independent travel publisher, put out a report last year stating seven reasons why all vegetarians should travel to Vietnam. The number one reason is you probably won’t get diarrhoea. It also claimed the word for vegetarian in Vietnamese, chay, is pretty easy to pronounce even without intonation.
In Hanoi I found various types of vegetarians. First, the Buddhists. Some people may assume that because of Buddhism there would be a lot of vegetarians in Vietnam. The reality is only about 12% of Vietnam’s population describe themselves as Buddhist. There are even some reports that claim Buddha himself may not have been vegetarian. These Buddhists still eat a little meat from time to time, but try to eat mostly vegetarian.
There are Hindus who follow a more strict vegetarian diet, abstaining even from foods like onions and garlic. These vegetarians believe that you shouldn’t eat anything that you can’t offer to Krishna. They also believe that consuming certain vegetables and spices will stimulate the central nervous system, and may increase passion and ignorance.
The most common type of vegetarians I met in Hanoi are not absolute vegetarians. “I stopped eating meat five days of the week after watching the documentary Cowspiracy — the effects that eating meat has on the environment is devastating,” said Jolie Lamb.
The environment and chemicals found in meat represents a concern shared by a lot of people. “The animals are fed hormones so they can grow big and fat, then people eat these animals and so are eating all those hormones,” said another person I spoke to, Charline Rieffel.
A Growing Fad
There are currently over 50 establishments listed as vegan or vegetarian on happycow.net in Hanoi alone. There is also a very active Facebook group with over 700 members called Vegan Organic Hanoi.
Once you are connected, finding amazing vegetarian food all across the city is no problem. There are fresh vegetables and tofu everywhere, as well as a growing number of shops selling fake meat. Although, most people I talked to are still weary of fake meat and see it as just another processed food to avoid.
It is not just vegan/vegetarian restaurants that are cashing in on vegetarianism. Veggie burgers, burritos and falafels are among other things that are peppering the menus of most restaurants in Hanoi. If you are feeling really hard-core about your devotion to a vegetarian planet, people in Vegan Organic Hanoi will even help you facilitate creating vegetarian food for your pets.
Veganism has found adherents in big business, as well. Asia’s richest businessman Li Ka-Shing recently invested US$23 million in Hampton Creek Foods, which makes vegan mayonnaise.
Globally, the vegetarian food market is rapidly increasing, as people become more aware of the positive effects reducing meat consumption has on the body and on the environment. And in Vietnam, the vegetarian population is definitely growing, even if it may be led by westerners for now.
For a full list of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Hanoi, click on happycow.net/asia/vietnam/hanoi