Every weekday I eat lunch in the eternally under-construction streets outside of the Keangnam towers, in an industrial, business-tower type of neighbourhood in Hanoi. Lunchtime is all street food lining every footpath and businesspeople squatting and hiding from the heat, getting some lunch down before they leave the dusty footpath for their air-conditioned towers.
Past the bít tết (beefsteak) I walk, past the phở, upon phở, upon phở, past the bún chả, searching desperately for my Miến trộn không thịt. ‘Miến trộn?’ I stop and ask, ‘Miến trộn, không thịt?’ and wait for the blank faces to comprehend that I am asking for plain glass noodles. And then comes the inevitable laughter. ‘Ăn chay,’ I say - vegetarian - the most used and correctly pronounced word in my small Vietnamese vocabulary. My words ripple across the footpath-lunchroom-courtyard. ‘Ăn chay,’ ‘Ăn chay,’ ‘Ăn chay,’ they point and whisper. Yes, yes, I am ordering plain noodles. No, no chicken please, also no beef. Yes, I do choose colourless, flavourless noodles that somewhat resemble eating my own blonde hair over your steaming chunk of meat floating in a meat pool. But the peanuts, onions and herbs give it a lovely flavour nonetheless, I promise! It’s delicious, I swear!
And so I eat my noodles while they watch and I walk away to the whispers of ‘Ăn chay,’ ‘Ăn chay,’ - my lunchtime theme song.
I wouldn’t say it’s hard to be vegetarian in Hanoi, but it’s certainly not easy. My vegetarian morals have become slack when I find the inevitable few pieces of beef in my vegetable noodles, and it becomes less shocking every time when I realise half way through that what I thought was tofu is actually Vietnamese ham. I can’t be the spontaneous epicurean I wish I could be, with the knowledge that whatever I point at on a menu will most likely be more meat than vegetable.
Even for someone who speaks the language and has grown up with Vietnamese food, the pursuit of vegetarianism is not easy. My good friend Linh Le was born and grew up in Hanoi and then studied in England and travelled through Southeast Asia, where she became a vegetarian. And now, living back in her family home in Hanoi, the misunderstanding of what it is to be a vegetarian and why it is that we are vegetarian is so obvious. Her choice to be a vegetarian means that her parents can’t cook for her and her family can’t eat dinner together in a home that may never understand the concept of not eating meat with a meal. It leads to regular fights between the family, and Linh often eating out alone - a result that no one is happy with but is seemingly the only one when there is no middle ground to be found. She says that their philosophy is that once upon a time they could not have meat and now they can, and so they should.
And, of course, there are many reasons why we shouldn’t or why we don’t, but they just don’t seem to make sense here. The same rules don’t apply in a country that is now booming in a way that has never been seen here before, yet still has a strong hold on the principles and traditions of the past. ‘We can eat meat, and so we shall,’ they seem to say, and I am certainly not going to be the one to argue with logic like that.
And it’s not all plain noodles. There are lots to be discovered when you remove all the beef and chicken and look at all the delicious vegetables and tofu underneath. Over time I am finding out the few local dishes I can eat, what won’t just be an empty rice paper wrap if I order it without meat, and which spots to go to when I want piles of delicious vegetables.
If you want it and if you can find it, there is a world of vegetarian cuisine waiting for you on street corners, in back alleys, beside a lake, in a bia hơi or on in the back of a sweaty restaurant, perched on a blue, plastic stool. It’s a world of cushions of tofu steeped in oily, rich tomatoes. A world of fresh mint, coriander and other unknown green leaves piled on top of pickled vegetable slivers and banana flower.
Golden ‘Ăn chay’ spots exist and they’re everything that plain glass noodles, slightly resembling blonde hair, are not.
Bo De Quan, at 164 Au Co, must be the Tay Ho neighbourhood’s favourite stop-and-go heaping, vegan spot for miles. Around the long wooden table sit plates and plates of rice, what can only be described as vegetable and pumpkin mash, fresh pineapple and vegetables, salted and roasted mushrooms, three types of tofu and cuts of eggplant and zucchini. And for dessert, the most delicious banana cơm chay. Go there if you are hungry and you want to feast, because you will always leave full after not being able to stop yourself from finishing your plate - a sometimes difficult feat for a vegetarian in Vietnam.
Then there’s The Loving Hut, an international chain that has found a delicious niche in Hanoi’s side streets and with big bowls. There are six locations in Vietnam, three of which are in Hanoi - the hidden, Old Quarter, Quan Thanh location being my regular. Here you can get it all: every Vietnamese dish a vegetarian has ever drooled over, and all the meat dishes of an expat’s home country and of our past, pre-vegetarian lives. Miến trộn is there with three different types of imitation meat, sweet and sour ribs, phở cuốn (rolled phở) and lemongrass chicken. Loving Hut is part of the Quan Yin method, which believes in not eating any animal products and calls itself the ‘best, easiest, and quickest way to get enlightenment.’ Your lunch will be surrounded by pictures of the Supreme Master Ching Hai, golden amulets made by her, and pictures of vegan stars like Justin Timberlake and Barack Obama (who, everyone knows, was just pictured eating bún chả in Hanoi with Anthony Bourdain), but sometimes there’s nothing like being able to eat Mien Trong as more than just plain noodles.
Sesame, down Lane 12, Dang Thai Mai, in Tay Ho, is the unassuming, three-table restaurant every vegetarian is ecstatic to have discovered. Their specialty, mustard leaf rolls, is a bite into a crunchy, fresh wrap of vegetables and peanut sauce. They have tofu in a creamy mushroom sauce, the freshest banana flower salad I’ve ever tasted and - get this - brown rice. Sit down, take your time, enjoy a combination of flavours you haven’t tasted in a long time, and before you know it you’ll be spending every night there with a book and some time to kill over a delicious, heaving plate of vegetables. (Note: also pictures of Justin Timberlake and other famous vegetarians on the walls here.)
Pay close attention to this one, because, this is a secret that won’t be a secret for much longer: the bánh mỳ cado. Cado: a Vietnamese/English derivative of the word avocado. Bánh mỳ cado: an original favourite, bánh mỳ trứng, or egg sandwich, with avocado slices. It’s the sandwich redefining breakfast, lunch and dinner at the famous West Lake corner café, Café Thom, at 13 Xuan Dieu. Every day, all day, is Sunday brunch, when you can pop on down to the corner, have a coffee or a smoothie and a delicious, overflowing, egg, avocado and chilli sandwich. It’s somehow impossible to get sick of, and is packed full of only delicious, meat-free ingredients.
So, listen, us vegetarians - us oddities among a land of carnivores - we will survive here. There will always be tofu, there will always be vegetables and markets and egg sandwiches and it will all always be delicious. I respect a love for meat - I’ve been there before and I’ve certainly caught myself dreaming about bún chả or a buttery, frying meat barbecue in the Old Quarter, so I get it. But I also appreciate even more the places that go out of their way in a meat-society to serve us ‘Ăn chay’. I don’t need the overpriced, gluten-free, all organic, trendy, vegan restaurants of home to make my stomach happy. All I need is a bowl of plain glass noodles, if it means being able to perch on a stool on a street corner under a blue tarp to protect us from the sun and smile at a chị (older woman) through bites. Or, I’d be happy to just stare at a picture of Justin Timberlake’s face as I eat my vegetables.