Ăn chay (ann chai, flat-tone) – I am vegetarian
If you want vegetarian food at a Vietnamese restaurant, just say “Ăn chay“, which is Vietnamese for “I am vegetarian”. Even if you aren’t a devoted vegetarian, you may still want to avoid certain street-food meat in Vietnam, due to concerns with hygiene and dubious sourcing of meat.
Unlike most Vietnamese words, the phrase “ăn chay” is easy to pronounce due to its flat/natural intonation. This is fortunate for vegetarians because Vietnamese is a tonal language with five other tones that are very difficult for foreigners to pronounce. However, the flat-toned “ăn chay” is one of the easiest phrases to pronounce correctly, meaning that you are unlikely to be misunderstood if you pronounce it without knowing much about Vietnamese tones. In contrast, many of the words for various types of meat have exotic tones.
Vietnam Is Great for Vegetarian Food
One of the great things about being a vegetarian in Vietnam is that restaurants and cooks are very accommodating to vegetarians. This is because many Vietnamese are traditionally vegetarian or occasional vegetarians, e.g., many are vegetarian on the 1st and 15th days of Lunar calendar months. Such traditions mean that there is a huge cohort of people to fuel a widespread vegetarian-focus food-industry. Therefore, you won’t be greeted with surprise or ridicule in Vietnam if you are a vegetarian, and ordering should be relatively straight-forward (unlike most countries).
A second great thing about being a vegetarian in Vietnam is the ease of finding vegetarian restaurants using tools like Google Maps: most vegetarian restaurants have the word “chay” in their name. Searching “chay” in Google Maps will reveal a large list of vegetarian restaurants in most big Vietnamese cities. This makes it incredibly easy to find a good restaurant in places like Hanoi or Da Nang.
Ordering Vegetarian Food at Non-Vegetarian Restaurants
Because many Vietnamese are some-what vegetarian, many restaurants will cater to vegetarians, even if it isn’t their main focus.
But beware, some dishes, like Phở, are impossible to convert to a vegetarian option on a whim. This is because a restaurant’s phở broth can be cultivated for 12-24 hours, and often contains elaborate secret ingredients.
Here is a short list of dishes that can or cannot be easily converted to a vegetarian option. Use this list so that you don’t go into a restaurant specializing in Bánh Bèo or Phở and start demanding vegetarian food.
Vietnamese Dishes That Can Be Made Vegetarian
- Bánh Mì – savoury Vietnamese sandwich
- Bánh Xèo – savoury pancake
- Cháo – rice congee
- Mỳ Quảng – flat turmeric noodles
- Mì Xào – fried noodle
- Cơm _ – any type of rice dish
Vietnamese Dishes That Are Not Easy to Convert to Vegetarian
- Bún nem – spring rolls & vermicelli noodles
- Bún chả – grilled pork and vermicelli noodle
- Bánh Bèo – steamed rice cakes (vegetarian options usually available, depending on restaurant)
Vietnamese Words for Meat (Pork, Beef, Chicken, Dog)
If you are a Vegetarian in Vietnam (or if you just want to avoid questionable meat) you should memorize these words:
- Bò – beef
- Gà – chicken
- Cá – fish
- Cua – crab
- Bạch tuộc – octopus
- Ốc – snail
- Dê – goat
- Chó – dog
- Sữa – milk
- Phô mai – cheese
Be careful to pay close attention to the accents and diacritics (learn more about tones and diacritics). For instance, “Cá” means fish, while “Ca” means “song / chant”.
More Vegetarians in the South and Centre of Vietnam
If you are Vegetarian, you can find lots of options in most of Vietnam. However, the Centre and South of Vietnam have many more Vegetarian restaurants, and you will have, in general, an amazing food experience.
There are many mysterious reasons why there are more vegetarians in Central and South Vietnam. One reason is that these areas have a higher percentage of Buddhist practitioners than in the North, as well as other derivatives of Buddhism, such as Cao Dai. Such practitioners may be fully vegetarian, while others may only be partially vegetarian on certain auspicious days.
Other Words Confused with “Chay”
- Chạy (down-tone)- run
- Cháy (up-tone) – on fire
In particular, “cháy” means fire, and you can sometimes see it on restaurant-looking signs advertising fire-roast foods. The “á” diacritic means that it is spoken with an up-tone (like when an English-speaker raises their pitch to ask a question).