“I think maybe two or three years ago, if you said you were vegan, people would ask if you had to take special vows to some vegan god – it was always viewed as something strangely religious.” Hailing from Ho Chi Minh City, Thanh Truong Thi Nguyen sat with me in the 33 degree heat at her second Saigon Vegan Festival, which she had painstakingly organised to celebrate veganism in Vietnam. Recently, both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have played host to a number of vegan and vegetarian festivals showcasing the best of ethically-sourced, sustainable products and once more Thanh has rounded up an impressive troupe of volunteers to get this one off the ground.
“Five years ago, I was not proud to say “I’m a vegetarian” and people would look at me like, “What’s wrong with you?” but now people understand more, they accept the facts and they don’t question me so much.” Thanh suggests that she followed the traditional “evolution” by spending three and a half years as a vegetarian before she graduated to veganism two years ago. “The advantages were obvious, I felt healthier – I was more confident about where my food was coming from, but also I was happier with my impact on the environment.”
Vietnam has had an odd relationship with the non-consumption of animals given the Buddhist roots of the country. The historical Mahayana variation of Buddhism in Vietnam dictates that the first and 15th day of the lunar month are strictly meat-free for most locals – whether Buddhist or not – although this is more largely observed in the South and Central regions than in the North for obvious reasons.
But it’s only recently that things have really started to change in terms of the perception of veganism. Health is the new wealth to an extent and with the expanding foreigner community, the new black. Active-wear, juicing and mindfulness have all apparently become a thing. The carnivorous members of our society are dinosaurs condemning our planet to certain doom – myself among them – but more and more people are seeing the light so to speak, which for the sake of our species is no bad thing.
These moralistic trends have previously been limited to those who can afford them, until now – it’s no longer just for middle class hippies and yoga enthusiasts – it’s a kickback against the public health issues that the Vietnamese public is waking up to and a luxury afforded by more disposable income. “Now more and more people are doing it for health reasons or even just for the love of animals,” continues Thanh. “My friends will go out now and they’ll eat vegan food wherever possible and I think it’s becoming more accessible, at least here.”
Thanh’s festival came at a time where a spotlight is being shone on the soul of the Vietnamese food industry and as more safety concerns are raised over the use of pesticides, the effects of pollution and the consequences of national dietary habits, it’s a poignant turn-out highlighting how far Vietnam still has to go in terms of culinary development. “Health is obviously a big concern now, cancer is such a dangerous threat and people want to eat more healthily to avoid cancer. Also the environment is a very big issue – more and more people want to be able to trace the origins of their food, so they’re turning to homemade, home-grown alternatives to the traditional markets and shops.”
Change of a national behavioural nature is usually a bottom-up affair and ethical eating is no different in Vietnam, “I think it was the younger generation that are changing things, people want to make sure they have a more healthy and balanced lifestyle whereas people in the past – the monks in the pagodas for example – they had very bland food, very bland lives. For the monks, they have to kill the passion, but people now want to use that passion to create healthy food, but they still want good food.”
Breaking the habits of generations is difficult, but necessity is the mother of invention and with start-ups like GreeOx and sideFresh making headways in the organic farming market, it’s becoming clearer that the public demand for safer, healthier food is growing as a direct response to the alarming tolls on the environment that life here is taking. “People want to be able to trust the source of their food now, many of my friends have families who are growing their own food in their hometowns – no pesticides, a cleaner environment – more rich or perhaps more conscious families are using their savings to produce their own veg,” Thanh smiles for a minute, “They grow it right up there on the roofs of their own homes, so they know where it’s come from!”
With more western influences and an expanding middle class, more Vietnamese people are turning to veganism and full-time vegetarianism in order to navigate the environmental and public health minefield that is dining here, however, Vietnam’s love for meat remains strong. Yes, many are concerned about cancer, about the environment and about food safety in general, but to make such drastic changes in lifestyle is something that takes a level of commitment that many Vietnamese people are not yet ready to make. The vegan and vegetarian movement is growing here, but slowly – Ho Chi Minh City is taking to it faster than Hanoi – but as environmental issues and health concerns grow, along with the capital to make personalised choices on how to deal with them, restrained dietary options look set to expand in popularity.