Is it possible to find any good vegetarian food in Saigon? Fortunately, it is, now more than ever. Twenty years ago vegetarian fare was commonly available, as a matter of necessity. There just wasn’t a lot of meat on the market. And though it might have been available, most folks couldn’t afford it every day. Now with development and relative prosperity, however, it’s on most people’s daily menus. And of course while the Vietnamese dearly love their veggies, they also dearly love anything that crawls on the ground, swims in the sea or flies in the air. “Anything that turns its back to Heaven,” as the saying goes, is good for food.
But there is another old saying here as well: “Take medicine when you are sick, eat vegetables with every meal.” Green food is never far away. And in keeping with Buddhist precepts, many restaurants go veggie on the 1st and 15th of each lunar month. But be wary. Any dish of vegetables may have been cooked with fish sauce or shrimp paste. You’ve got to ask. No one will think of you as a food fetishist or any other bad thing. They will be very willing to help you. But you’ve got to speak up.
If you’re vegan, you’ve got a bigger challenge. But eggs are easy to spot. If it’s a crepe or a pancake in the west, it’s likely got eggs, but the Vietnamese banh xeo crepe does not. And the Vietnamese rarely, if ever, cook with dairy, though they do enjoy yoghurt and ice cream, and they use milk in their coffee. They also offer Laughing Cow processed cheese glop on streetside banh mi sandwiches, although I’m not sure that qualifies as dairy. I’ve always thought of it more as a petroleum product.
At any rate, if you’re looking for green food, just look for the word ‘chay’. If you see that word in the name of a restaurant, it’s all vegetarian. If you see it on the menu, then that dish is vegetarian.
Perhaps the oldest dedicated veggie house in town is Phap Hoa at 198 Nguyen Trai in District 1, near the Pham, a festive and crowded little joint that’s been operating since the early 90s. Here you will find mountains of mock meat, faux fowl and fake fish. Soy protein never looked or tasted so alive. Madame Nguyen Thi Ngoi Nga, a lawyer by trade, founded the establishment. When she’s on the premises she may burst from her adjoining law office into the dining room and greet all in earshot with a big “Hello, dear friends, everybody, welcome!” She radiates good humour, energy and an interest in humanity that is almost fierce. You suspect a bear hug somewhere in the offing.
Phap Hoa specialises in making tofu look and taste like anything in the world but tofu. It can look like shredded chicken breast, skewered beef, mushrooms (why not just use mushrooms?), imperial rolls, a fillet of fish or a duck breast. It’s all very tasty counterfeiting.
All the dishes are Vietnamese, using only local ingredients. And many of the recipes come from customers. They are encouraged to give suggestions for their favourite dishes or for new ideas. I’m assured that the cooks try them all. But how can any kitchen be truly Vietnamese without nuoc mam? During a rare slow time you can ask a cook, and be shown a bottle of a dark, evil-looking potion, made from soy. Give it a smell. Strong stuff. It doesn’t really smell like fish sauce, but an important characteristic of Vietnamese cooking is a pungent aroma. It helps to set it apart from Chinese.
Another traditional choice is Dinh Y restaurant at 171B Cong Quynh Street, District 1, also near the Pham. It’s owned and operated by members of the Cao Dai religion. Among its tenets are service to humanity and reverence for life. So this restaurant came into being to help satisfy those needs. Not only is it a restaurant, it’s also a meditation space on the first floor and a charity outpatient clinic beside the restaurant. “This is how we serve the people,” the manager says.
Here the cook’s specialties are not made to resemble meat, fish or fowl, but simply to look and be delicious for what they are: pates of mushrooms and tofu, spicy noodle dishes with an array of colourful vegetables, aromatic rice plates. Excellence in the kitchen is a part of their religious service. The Cao Dai are a missionary faith, seeking to propagate their message and draw the interest of people, or at least to extend reverence for life and to popularise the vegetarian diet. It might be working. “There used to be only a small number of vegetarian restaurants in Ho Chi Minh city”, the manager says. “But now there are over a hundred. Most of them are quite new. Just look for the word ‘chay’.”