Vegan Home’s emblem hangs outside an old building that sits nestled among small storefronts a block from Hoàn Kiếm lake. Stepping through the shadowy entrance, the corridor winds past a courtyard where women laugh as they drink trà đá. Chickens cluck at their heels and the sound carries up the rickety stairs and down the hallway to Vegan Home’s doorway.
Inside, the space is warm and bright. Staff emerge from the narrow kitchen one after the other carrying trays of freshly made food to top up the diminishing arrangements running the length of the buffet. Diners sit in groups of two or three, talking quietly as their chopsticks dance around their plates.
“I wanted to make it easy for people to find a vegan meal every day.”
Vegan Home’s owner, Dung, tidies the buffet and then steps back to observe her work. “I wanted to create a space that only served vegan food,” she says about the restaurant, observing as customers peruse the buffet options. “I wanted to make it easy for people to find a vegan meal every day.”
Dung and her family opened Vegan Home a year ago. Open only for lunch, the buffet serves vegan versions of popular Vietnamese dishes. Today’s menu features vegan phở served with mock meat, and vegan pâté.
Like Dung, all of the Vegan Home staff are vegan. Dung ate a plant-based diet for three years before switching to a vegan diet last year. She says she has felt her health improve since making the shift. “We want to inspire people to not only eat vegan food, but to adopt a vegan lifestyle,” Dung says. “It’s better for the environment and for our lives.”
Across Vietnam, people who practice Buddhism may eat vegan full-time, while others who are less strict eat vegetarian on the first and fifteenth of every lunar calendar month. Abstaining from eating meat on these days is thought to bring a person wealth and prosperity.
At a nearby table, Shinegi Duong, a local tour guide and language instructor, eats from a plate overflowing with vegetables, rice, and various forms of tofu. Shinegi has been coming to Vegan Home since its opening. She has a large vegan social media following and has featured Vegan Home in a video on her Youtube channel (Shinegi Vietnam), naming the restaurant as her favorite vegan buffet in Hanoi. “The cooks have a lot of knowledge about cooking healthy, so I really trust eating here,” she says.
Eating vegan is not a new practice in Hanoi. Across Vietnam, people who practice Buddhism may eat vegan full-time, while others who are less strict eat vegetarian on the first and fifteenth of every lunar calendar month. Abstaining from eating meat on these days is thought to bring a person wealth and prosperity. In the past ten years, veganism has caught on among the younger generations, especially young women, as people see the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. The increasing number of vegan buffets in Hanoi, especially ones with an appealing, modern aesthetic, such as Vegan Home and the popular Veggie Castle, illustrate the escalating popularity of eating vegan.
Shinegi is part of this increasing young demographic. She made the switch to a plant-based diet over a year ago. “The reason I eat vegan food is because it’s delicious and I know the benefits,” she says. She was inspired to change her diet when reading books about the mental effects of abstaining from eating meat. “I want to be calm and relaxed,” she adds, “so I started to eat vegan food.” Around that time, she also made new friends of various ages and ethnicities who eat vegan. Shinegi witnessed the diet’s positive benefits in their lives, which further encouraged her to change her own diet.
Shinegi began regularly releasing content on her Youtube channel a year ago. “I’m a sharing person,” she explains, “so I like to make videos because they’re more lively.” Focusing mainly on Vietnamese language and vegan cuisine, her videos usually feature foreign friends and showcase vegan food settings. “I love food and I love meeting people,” she notes excitedly.
The video Shinegi created about Vegan Home details the buffet’s varying daily dishes. In it, she speaks with a foreign couple about the differences between vegan food in Vietnam and elsewhere. A French man she speaks with notes that, in Vietnam, vegan food features tofu and mushrooms instead of the beans and lentils that are commonly found in vegan cooking outside of South Eastern Asia.
“I have some friends who didn’t eat vegan before, but after they come with me [to a vegan buffet] they love it,” Shinegi recalls, laughing. For herself, she says that making the switch to a plant-based diet was made easier by having vegan friends to eat meals with. After introducing her own friends, they began to regularly eat at the buffets out of habit. “I feel like I inspire people to eat vegan food,” she says.
As vegan and vegetarianism have grown in popularity, restaurants across Hanoi have increased their meat-free options to attract diners. Bun Cha Burger, located in Truc Buch, offers both meat and vegan options of their famous namesake burger.
“Food has soul and this connects with the chef, who gives their own passion, love, and character to the food.”
Owner Mai Thanh Tran says, “I like green food, which helps me so much to enjoy and feel great after the meal. I like to create everything relating to greens, seeds, and nuts.” On the Bun Cha Burger menu, non-meat eaters can choose from vegan beef, vegan “chả” (or vegan pork, as in bún chả), mushroom burger, or bean burger. “In my opinion, anyone who wants to cook well needs to know how to communicate with all of the ingredients.” Mai states, “Food has soul and this connects with the chef, who gives their own passion, love, and character to the food.” She notes that some foods are able to emote a feeling, creating a reminiscent moment as people consume a dish.
Elvira Hoby, the founder of Xin Free, is another passionate cook who understands the art of using unexpected ingredients to create incredible flavors. “There’s something really interesting about it,” she says in her kitchen as she prepares batches of hummus to be shipped out to mini markets across Hanoi, “the way you can use seeds and nuts to make a creamy sauce or replace everything you have in the non-vegan world.”
Elvira and her team recently made vegan “fried chicken” for Melting Pot’s Taco Festival this past June. The process involved repeatedly freezing and thawing tofu, which gave it a meat-like texture. The tofu was then battered and deep fried and served in a crepe taco. Xin Free’s vegan jackfruit “pulled pork” taco won second place at the festival. The judges reportedly were astonished that a meat-free version could be so delicious, especially when all of the other contenders offered more traditional meat options.
Xin Free is known among Hanoi’s vegan community as an innovative vegan business. Elvira recently created a spreadable vegan cheese with herbs and flowers pressed into the top, showcasing Xin Free’s impeccable and recognizable decorative style.
Elvira is no stranger to creating phenomenal flavors out of unconventional ingredients. Her vegan journey began when she and a previous partner adopted a vegan diet together while she was living in the UK. “I was cooking a lot at home at the time,” she recalls, “and that was my own little food discovery journey. I was experimenting with all sorts of things. I remember making chickpea cookies and avocado brownies, cashew cheese and vegan mac & cheese. I discovered how many things you can create without using the obvious ingredients, and something about that really appealed to me.”
Xin Free is known among Hanoi’s vegan community as an innovative vegan business. Elvira recently created a spreadable vegan cheese with herbs and flowers pressed into the top, showcasing Xin Free’s impeccable and recognizable decorative style. Elvira’s catering platters are equal parts enticing food and edible art. She says food styling is her favorite part of her work. “I feel so pedantic sometimes,” she laughs. “The herbs won’t be sprinkled in the right way, and it feels so silly but I am so specific about it.”
Xin Free’s concept began when a friend encouraged Elvira to sell the hummus Elvira had made on a whim through the Facebook group, Hanoi Beautiful. Her first flavors were pesto, caramelized onion, Moroccan, and sun-dried tomato.“The response was huge,” Elvira recalls. “It was very popular.” The next week she advertised four different flavors, to even more success. Xin Free still sells hummus and falafel through Facebook, and is also stocked in five markets, mostly throughout Tây Hồ. “I’m not naturally a business person, so this is all accidental,” she says, ”but a happy accident for sure.”
Because Shinegi is also from a small Vietnamese town, she says that her family does not understand the benefits of eating a vegan diet. She explains that her family worries that eating plant-based does not provide enough nutrients and she will be hungry more quickly than if she also ate meat.
Elvira recalls being a part of the Vegan Festival at Thống Nhất Park last November. According to Vietnam News, the festival was attended by 30,000 visitors and featured nearly 1,000 vegan dishes. “The event [was] also a day for participants to relax, enjoy nature and contemplate artistic works and creative models showcasing love for the earth.”
“For every kind of Vietnamese dish, there was a vegan version,” Elvira remembers. Xin Free’s offerings at the festival were not as successful as the more common Vietnamese dishes represented there. “Hummus is just a bit too confusing for people who've never heard of it before,” she says, adding that hummus can be an odd texture for people who are trying it for the first time.
Elvira no longer eats a solely vegan diet, but vegan cuisine still features heavily in her own cooking. Her fiance is Vietnamese, and at first he did not enjoy Elvira’s meat-free meals. Elvira explains that when her fiance was growing up in a small town, Vietnam was very poor. “Meat was not something his family had every day. It was just a special occasion thing. They had lots of eggs and tofu. So they associate not having meat with that time; when it wasn’t a choice. So now, meat is a sign of the good times.”
Shinegi agrees with this, saying, “Meat is always more expensive than vegetables, and in the countryside if you are served a piece of meat, it will be very small.” Because Shinegi is also from a small Vietnamese town, she says that her family does not understand the benefits of eating a vegan diet. She explains that her family worries that eating plant-based does not provide enough nutrients and she will be hungry more quickly than if she also ate meat.
However, something vegans and non-vegans agree on is the positive environmental and health effects of eating a plant-based diet. “It’s a balance, a doing-what-you-can kind of thing. I think that idea is very accessible to a lot of people,” says Elvira. “If my brand makes more people interested in vegan food and reducing their consumption of non-vegan food products, that would make me very happy.”
Some quotes have been edited for clarity.
Vegan Home: 17B Tràng Thi, Tràng Tiền, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, website
Bun Cha Burger: 43B Trúc Bạch, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, website
Xin Free: website