Southeast Asia ain’t just for the meat eaters anymore. Yes, the bustling markets are full of pig heads, plucked chickens and even dog meat (in some cases), the real pho (you know, the stuff of foodie dreams) is made from stewed beef bones, and Im pretty sure I saw a live cow strapped to the back of a moving moped….but a vegetarian can find him or herself right at home there as well.
I wont lie to you: Vietnamese street food isnt for the carnivore-aversive, and Im half convinced if you play their national anthem backwards you will hear the words “fish sauce” over and over again in different languages. But in most cases, you can find something to delight your vegetarian senses — and you will be less likely to end up on a sleeper train to Hue vomiting repeatedly in the process *true story*. Granted, there were no ingredient lists (and a slight language barrier) so the rich deliciousness of my meals probably had more to do with some sort of pork broth and less to do with soy protein water. But I digress… my stomach was quite happy in Vietnam. And for good reason.
Some may cry blasphemy if you suggest omitting duck pâté from a bánh mì or shrimp and pork from bánh xèo, but I disagree. No one knows mock meat like the Vietnamese (sorry Mom — though you are very good at seasoning tofu). Over 70% of the country’s population is Buddhist or strongly influenced by Buddhist practices. Meaning for two days out of each month, the majority of the country abstains from meat, and instead only eats a wide variety of items that remind them of it in every way.
Faux isnt the only area where the country shines: overflowing bowls of basil, cilantro and other beautiful herbs accompany almost every dish. They are so fresh and delicious, I would have happily wrapped a paper napkin around a handful and eaten them with duck sauce. But I was too busy salivating over unripe jackfruit, which may be the best thing that ever happened to a vegetarian. We weren’t in the country for more than 3 days when I was presented with heaven in the form of a dish that looked like pulled chicken, tasted like artichokes and I am still not convinced wasnt laced with crack. I ate the fruit repeatedly until I got to the point where the thought of it now makes me sick. It is that good.
But it’s not all good news. Vietnam is the place where vegetarian’s dreams are made… and then broken. Noodles, rice and spring rolls can easily come any way you like it, but somehow cant be repeated in the same perfection outside of the country. The opportunity for real mango smoothies (as in a guy behind the counter cutting up just-picked mango and blending it till it fits through a straw) becomes practically obsolete once you step into the airport. ..At least you cant get them for $1 over here.
Vietnam set me up only to be let down when I returned to my home turf. I haven’t yet found a an American-made Vietnamese dish on par with the freshness, depth and mouthwatering perfection of Vietnam. And I wasnt able to bring any presents home because my backpack was half full of “just in case” stale granola, of which I barely made a dent. It’s fine. my 2-year old nieces don’t really need a full scale ceramic dragon anyways.
Special thanks to Intrepid Travel for making this trip possible… and to Hạnh Nguyễn, who made sure there were vegetarian options wherever we dined.