Peter Cornish, resident vegetarian of AsiaLIFE magazine, gets down to the bottom of just what chay eating is culturally all about, and what the future holds for plant-based diets in Vietnam. Photos by Vinh Dao.

Christmas is coming and the fat goose’s days are numbered. As the festive spirit grips, expats throughout the city are planning their traditional feast, looking to see where they can get their seasonal tastes from home.

Along with all the trimmings, the mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce, will sit a lump of meat.  Perhaps a turkey breast, a slice of roast beef or even the traditionally fat goose. Without these, for many, it just wouldn’t be Christmas Throw in a cracker or two, the company of friends, a silly hat, and a corny joke, and the festive celebrations are as merry as they should be. I’m sure our fat anatid friend would be delighted if he knew the part he played in our celebrations. Or perhaps not.

Food in Vietnam

While rice is widely regarded as the staple of Vietnamese cuisine, the country’s food is rich in accompanying dishes that provide the unique tastes many of us are familiar with the world over. From the obligatory nuoc mam to the iconic pho, Vietnamese cuisine is synonymous with flavours derived from animal products, be it beef in your bun bo, pork in your bun cha or fish in your bowl of chao rice porridge.

Vietnam’s culture has long been shaped by colonialism and the results of this are reflected in the country’s food. For more than a thousand years, China shared such dishes as wantons, dumplings and fried rice, all of which have been adopted and adapted by the local cooks to create a national cuisine full of diversity. France’s arrival in the mid-nineteenth century further added to the selection of local dishes, and its culinary influence has left an obvious mark on the local palate.

Although much of the country’s traditional cuisine revolves around meat, poultry and seafood, the Vietnamese diet is also rich in vegetables and herbs, with basil, hot peppers and coriander frequently adding familiar flavours to many dishes. From the rice basket of the Red River Delta to the fresh fruit and vegetables of Da Lat and the Mekong, local dishes offer a variety of ingredients from north to south, reflecting the local cultures, traditions, history and offering a uniqueness in taste that echoes the local environment.

In addition to the colonial influences, the differing ingredients, cultures and traditions that have all helped shape Vietnam’s cuisine, there is another factor that has influenced the way many locals eat – religion, and the role that vegetarianism plays in the Buddhist lifestyle.

History of vegetarianism

Vegetarianism has played a central role in Asian culture and its relationship with food and animals for millennia, in the most part due to religious principles. The same can also be said for Western societies with Pythagoras, the Ionian Greek philosopher and mathematician, rejecting an animal-based diet as far back as the sixth century BC.

Vegetarianism has undergone many changes and variations in the West, with the foundation of the Vegetarian Society in England happening as far back as 1847. People now follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for a choice of ethical, health, environmental and altruistic reasons, yet religion in the West has had much less of an influence in the choices people make concerning their food intake.

With an estimated 85% of Vietnam’s population identifying as practicing Buddhists, one would expect to see vegetarian restaurants on every corner, country wide. And indeed, this is the case if one knows what to look for and where to look, with com chay restaurants to be found easily in most neighbourhoods.

Yet, if you were to ask many visiting foreigners, you would be forgiven for thinking that Vietnam is largely devoid of any vegetarian fare. Although many Vietnamese proudly claim themselves to be vegetarian, the reality means that they are only abstaining from meat on one or two days every month, and on these days, many of them will in fact be eating one of the many varieties of faux meat on offer.

Vegetarianism and Buddhism

When it comes to vegetarianism and veganism, opinions differ wildly between Buddhists about whether it is required, and if so, then to what extent? Early Buddhist teachings did not demand a tradition of vegetarianism, and it is claimed that Buddha himself did not fully abstain from meat.

For many Vietnamese and foreigners alike, Buddhism is just a single aspect of being Vietnamese, and little thought is given to how the Buddhism of Vietnam relates to the same religion as practiced in other countries. Yet, there are defining characteristics which help us to understand their specific approach to vegetarianism.

Along with those countries that fall under China’s historical sphere of influence, such as Singapore and Taiwan, Nepal and Tibet, the Buddhist branch practiced in Vietnam is known as Mahayana Buddhism. The scriptures of this branch of Buddhism tell us that meat-eating is undesirable and karmically unwholesome, yet in practice, their interpretation varies greatly.

While practicing monks often adhere to a strict diet avoiding all animal products, as well as root vegetables from the allium (onion) family, and herbs such as coriander, the Vietnamese Buddhist layperson is much less strict in their approach to chay tinh, or ‘pure’ vegetarianism. Buddhists in Vietnam refer to two approaches to practicing vegetarianism, the first being chay truong, which calls for a lifelong abstinence from animal products and is most often the choice of monks and nuns.

What is practiced by most lay-Buddhists in Vietnam is referred to as chay ky, or part-time vegetarianism, and just requires abstinence from animal products for only a few days each month. Typically the fourteenth and fifteenth and first and thirtieth of the lunar month. It’s at these times that many restaurants will serve vegetarian dishes or host meat-free buffets.

These buffets, as with many of the com chay places in neighbourhoods around pagodas, will serve dishes that are familiar to meat eating guests and contain faux meat. Buddhist monks, and those practicing chay truong, explain that these faux meats, often made from bean curd, are offered to help people move from a meat-based diet to one of vegetarianism or veganism. If what they are eating tastes and looks like meat, many find it easier to make the transition to an animal-free diet.

Part-time vegetarianism, chay ky, plays other roles in cultural and religious traditions in Vietnam, especially around the time of death. For many practicing Buddhists, the period immediately after the death of a loved one is a time for minimising sin to help the departed in their journey to the afterlife and reincarnation.

During the mourning period, close family members will abstain from eating meat, typically for up to 49 days, as a means of cleansing themselves and for ‘purifying’ the steps to the next life. There is a belief that by cutting meat from the diet for this time, the departed can build their karma points and influence how they will return to earth in the next life.

Periods of vegetarianism are also used to support prayer and requests made to Buddha for his assistance. If you have a tough exam coming up, or perhaps an important job interview, a quick prayer at the pagoda followed by a week of vegetarianism can work wonders and help pave the way for success.

For most Vietnamese making a vegetarian diet choice, or an chay as it is referred to, the reasons tend to differ from those making a similar choice in the West. This is especially true for the older generations who are often more devout in their religious beliefs, and follow the principles of ahimsa, or nonviolence.

But as the younger generations feel more stable in their lifestyles, they are starting to make new decisions about their choice of diet, and many of them are jumping on the global band wagon of veganism. And the reasons for doing so differ from their parents’.

New trends

Accompanying an expanding Western expat population, and an increasingly affluent, growing Vietnamese middle class that is no longer concerned about just putting food on the table – Vietnamese are able to make an educated choice about what kind of food is being served.

As the appeal for organic produce, free from dangerous pesticides, takes hold in the market, consumers are actively looking for products providing a cleaner, healthier alternative to the uncertainty of what’s available in many local markets.

The younger generation is becoming more concerned with the image they present to the world, which is reflected in the lifestyle choices they are making. There are those that are driven to an extent by a desire for social status and consequentially participate in virtue-signalling, and then there are those that are legitimately moved towards adopting a wholly new lifestyle, like veganism.

October saw the first Saigon Vegan Festival, a Plant Power Celebration of all things vegan and the lifestyle that often accompanies such a dietary choice.

Organised and hosted by Thanh Nguyen, the festival was planned to coincide with World Vegan Day, and welcomed over 300 guests, some already committed to an animal-free lifestyle and others wanting to explore further before making their commitment.

One locally based company harnessing this new lifestyle trend is Chay, a vegan delivery-only food service with a mission to make healthy living easy, convenient and affordable.  Founded less than a year ago by Trang Nguyen, Chay’s aim is to empower a new generation striving for a beautiful, picturesque body, by encouraging them to live a healthier lifestyle through the food choices they make.

Trang explains her decision to become vegan was born from love – love for herself and love for the environment. In recent travels around Japan and Asia, she found it difficult to maintain a balanced vegan diet and frequently suffered from low energy levels, affecting both her physical and mental wellbeing.

Convinced that veganism didn’t have to mean a lack of protein and low energy levels, she consulted nutritionists on her return to Vietnam and devised an eating plan, rich in flavour, substance and nutrition, and free from animal products. A rapidly increasing customer base attests to the success of her 10-meal package, and those that follow her diet plan quickly see improved health and energy levels.

For a growing number of people, the move towards an animal-free diet is more than the desire for a beautiful body and a healthy lifestyle. As scandals involving the pollution of our environment continue to hit the headlines, how we are treating the world around us is becoming of greater concern too many.

Environmental factors

The consequences of an increasingly polluted environment has an impact not just on our own health, but also on the many animals we share our environment with.

Concern for the plight of animals, whether they are our pets, wildlife or farm animals, remains one of the predominant reasons that people opt for a meat-free diet. With a burgeoning pet industry, and growing awareness of animal rights, many young Vietnamese are choosing vegetarianism to express their new beliefs.

One such young lady is Trang Dang who, driven by her animal welfare beliefs and concern for the environment, is the founder of Green Monday Vietnam. Echoing the goals of the Meatless Monday initiative, Green Monday Vietnam aims to promote healthier, sustainable, and compassionate communities through one simple act – eliminating our consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products at least one day a week.

By omitting animal-based products from our diet for at least one day per week, our personal carbon footprints are reduced dramatically over the course of a year. The result of this is not only a positive impact on our own health and wellbeing, but also on the wider community and our environment.

More importantly, for many vegans, this weekly commitment helps discourage the inhumane treatment of many animals, especially those whose lives are part of the mass-farming industry. According to Trang, “it’s one small change, one day a week, but it’s something each and every person can do to make a big difference in the world”.

So, as we sit down to our Christmas dinner this year, perhaps we can take a moment to reflect on the small changes we can make in the coming New Year, to our own health, our wider community, the environment and to the animals that we share our world with.