In a country that has so much access to the sea, it's no wonder that people think you're a bit crazy for not eating fish.
Having been a vegetarian for the majority of my life, I've always struggled with the idea of incorporating meat into my diet when traveling. For one, it would be a whole lot easier. And second, the culture and stories you share over food are a way to really get to know a place, a people. I hate missing out on that.
And yet...I'm stubborn. Like, really stubborn. I do not like to give up on things. So when people started to give me the worried looks about traveling to Vietnam as a veggie, I became defiant.
So I was extremely determined to find a bowl of vegetarian Vietnamese Pho when I got there. Pho is a traditional soup dish that's consumed by everyone every. single. day.
Keep in mind that Vietnam is typically hot and humid.
And they're eating soup? you ask. Why yes, yes they are. Typically for lunch, every damn day. Obviously this equated to me needing to eat it at least once. So with this quest in mind, I spent my first night in Ho Chi Minh Googling how to say things in Vietnamese.
Google, at least for me (although I have a feeling I'm not alone in this), typically leads to hilarious results and getting sidetracked. For example, here are some of the words I searched for: "mermaid," "iced coffee," and "techno". Note that Vietnamese is a tonal language and there is absolutely no way to say any of these things without hearing it first... or repeated at you religiously, which in my case still does not help.
However, it seems that the Vietnamese felt sorry for us veggies and gave us a deliciously simple phrase to utter when ordering food. Chay, pronounced "chai", means without meat. Like in most places, you might have to clarify what no meat means.
With fresh vocab acquired, I enquired the next day at the front desk of my hotel where to start my search for my Pho Chay. The front desk attendant, looking highly amused, informed me that there was a chain option that served it, along with a couple of buddhist restaurants and a Pho cafe located near the Ben Thanh Market. Since I wanted to go to the market, I considered myself lucky, took the map he handed me, and headed out in search of my mysterious soup.
The thing they don't tell you in guidebooks and blogs is that the heat in Vietnam envelops you slowly and then builds like mist into your clothes. You turn a corner and suddenly you are drowning in sweat, unsure of what happened from point A to point B. My quick perusal of HCMC became a fight for cold air amongst motorbikes.
Finding my way, the market opened up in a wide, skyscraperless area, people milling about speaking dozens of languages. I sank into the tourist role and prepared to be peppered with questions, demands, and hawking. After finding a fan and getting heckled, I wound my way out of the maze, across the street, and up into the Pho restaurant that's nestled above a coffee shop.
I walked in alone and was looked at strangely, but was offered a spot to sit and brought a cold beer while I waited for my Pho. With only one vegetarian option, I ordered quickly and peeled my legs up from the seat, trying to cool down in the temperate AC.
During my Google rabbit hole when trying to learn Vietnamese words, I began to read about the soup and realized that a veggie version would be easy to make. The soup itself is traditionally made with a fish or meat stock and filled with rice noodles and your meat of choice. Brought to you on the side are bean sprouts, mint, limes, and chili peppers. With only one thing to change, this soup became a no brainer to try and make vegetarian, particularly after having had it not once, but TWICE, while in HCMC, because yes, I did go back. #noshame. Enjoy the recipe below!
adapted from The Kitchn
For the soup:
1/2 lb of dried rice noodles (vermecelli)
1 large onion, cut into chunks
2" piece of ginger, peeled and cut in half
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp whole cloves
1 tbs black peppercorn
4 cups of unsalted veggie stock or broth (I like to make my own, but you can use some from the store)
2 tsp soy sauce
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 cups of mushrooms, left whole or cut into bite size pieces depending on type used
1 red bell pepper
1 packaged of extra firm tofu, cubed
For the toppings:
Mint, to your liking
Basil, to your liking
Hot peppers, to your liking (feel free to substitute sriracha ... or you can be like me and use both)
1 lime, cut into wedges
1/2 cup of Bean sprouts
In a large pot, stir together the anise, cinnamon, and cloves until fragrant.
Add the broth, ginger, peppercorn, soy sauce, and onion.
Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for 20 minutes with the top on.
When the broth has simmered, strain and place back into the pot. Add carrots, peppers, and mushrooms and simmer for an additional 10 minutes, until carrots are tender.
While the broth is simmering, prepare the rice noodles according to the package. Make sure they are still chewy! Strain.
Prepare the toppings however you like. I either bake my tofu or leave it silky.
To serve, divide into 2 bowls. Add toppings to taste.