One man’s losing battle as an herbivore in Vietnam’s carnivorous society…

My vegetarianism died in Vietnam. No, it wasn’t a craving for a steaming bowl of beef pho that did it, nor the spring rolls – it wasn’t anything like that. It was more a sense of resignation: that in a country where vegetarianism is embedded so deeply in the culture, where three quarters of the population profess to at least sometimes follow a vegetarian diet and where a commitment to eating vegetarian meals is a major tenet of the dominant religion, avoiding meat was just much too hard.

It’s hard because there’s a subtle difference between what it means to be a vegetarian in the West and what the same thing is here. Overseas, while I’d occasionally been goaded for turning up my nose at a perfectly good steak, there was at least an implicit recognition of what being a vegetarian was all about. You have an ethical viewpoint, you draw the line somewhere and you stand by what you believe. In my case, I’d been swayed by both reason and experience; the Hare Krishnas, for example, used to serve cheap vegetarian dishes at my university and their enthusiasm for preparing clean, wholesome meals without killing anything was kind of infectious. It was the joy of simply feeling that you were doing the right thing by not allowing a sentient creature to die just for the sake of your lunch that made an impression on me.

I watched all those “I’d rather be naked” PETA clips condemning cruelty to animals. I read all the literature on how the human physiology is largely herbivorous by nature – ever tried using your so-called ‘canine’ teeth and fingernails to kill an animal? I could see the logic in the broader reasoning for leaving meat behind – 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases comes from livestock farming, and although a field of cattle will deliver more nutrient-rich food than a field of corn, you still need to devote several other fields to grow their feed, which is a massive drain on resources. One study undertaken in 1997 by Cornell University concluded the amount of grain used to feed livestock in the US alone would be enough to feed 800 million people – about three times the country’s entire population.

All these reasons made sense to me – but on a personal level, it was simply the feeling that I could make one simple decision to control such an intimate part of my life that was the clincher – it was an empowering move. I was proud to be a vegetarian, I enjoyed it, and it became part of my mild-mannered character. People in my own country who actually knew me got that and they made no attempt to dissuade me from something that was obviously working for me.

But I quickly discovered those kinds of sentiments hold very little weight here in Vietnam. It’s probably precisely for this very reason vegetarianism has such a well-defined role in the local culture that my own brand seemed awfully peculiar to the Vietnamese people I met. Local friends presumed I was hungry all the time; if we went out to lunch, they’d rather thoughtfully take me to places where I could find food without meat, but then order meat dishes anyway because they were “delicious,” only to get frustrated when I maintained my stance. I was constantly reminded what a “pity” it was I couldn’t enjoy beef and pork. Some people would be cool with me telling them I was a vegetarian until I mentioned I wouldn’t eat seafood either – and then they’d give me those incredulous stares one gets when you’ve said something that doesn’t compute on any level. Clearly, if someone can’t grasp why a vegetarian wouldn’t eat a fish, then we’re not even talking about the same thing.

I’m not the only one who’s had these kinds of experiences here. Blogger Tabitha Carvan of The City that Never Sleeps In writes of a particularly towering, brawny British expat who was warned by locals not to ride a bike here – not because he was too big for a Honda, but because, being a vegetarian, they presumed he was probably so malnourished he was in danger of keeling over at any moment while driving. She confronted a similar logic when visiting a friend’s family home, where, forewarned that she didn’t eat meat, the hosts thoughtfully prepared an omelet for her – but then added pork to it because they didn’t want her to go hungry. My own vegetarian anecdote is a little more dramatic: when my fiancée asked her father for his blessing, it wasn’t the fact that I was a foreigner that was a problem, nor anything to do with my family background, but rather, “He seems nice, but how long is this vegetarian thing going to drag on for?”

The V-Plan
The widespread presumption a vegetarian diet is related to undernourishment in Vietnam seems to trump any concerns about animal welfare here – admittedly, not an issue that gets paid much attention to in a country where human welfare is the larger problem. What that also means, however, is a lot of people here will deliberately turn to a more-or-less meat-free diet if they happen to want to lose weight. Nicole Hankins of Nutrifort Fitness, who works both as a trainer and a nutritionist, has spoken to a surprising number of locals who practice vegetarianism simply in the hope of shedding a few pounds.

“It’s not true that Vietnamese people are strangers to a vegetarian diet,” says Nicole, who has lived and worked in Vietnam for a decade. “There’s actually a big push towards vegetarianism here from religion. Most people are vegetarians for a day twice a month in phase with the moon, when it’s more or less like giving something up for lent. People do it to win spiritual favor too – if you want something bad enough, you’ll eat vegetarian. But most vegetarians I talk to just want to lose weight. For a lot of the men and women here, if you want to slim down, that’s the direction you go.”

I have to admit I never experienced any weight loss or feeling of malnourishment during the years when I followed a fairly strict vegetarian way of life. Vegetarian propaganda tends to dismiss attempts to claim that by avoiding meat you’re going to end up physically deficient in some way. Any vegetarian who’s done their research will tell you all the nutrients you can expect to gain from a hunk of beef can be derived from vegetables as well – anything you need for your food can be synthesized within your own body from the building blocks that occur naturally in plants. There’s only one exception – Vitamin B12 – and you can get that from eggs or dietary supplements.

Then again, I didn’t lead a particularly athletic lifestyle at the time and for those who want to be both vegetarians and physically fit, it’s a little different. “It really needs to be managed,” says Nicole. “I’ve been 70-80 percent vegetarian for the past two years and I feel the difference. Energy wise, you need to snack more – the metabolism is faster, so the energy in your food gets used up faster than it does with animal proteins. Every three hours, I gotta eat. But you don’t get peaks like you would with a big plate of chicken.”

“Most vegetarians do actually lack B12”, she says. “That would lower your energy and make you less active. If you’re not very active anyway, it won’t really affect your way of life. But being mostly vegetarian for me definitely does have benefits. Animal products tend to inflame the body, especially now they’re being fed all those hormones.”

Being active without meat does take some effort and a bit of knowledge of the subject. “From a lifestyle perspective,” adds Nicole, “if I go for a month without eating animal proteins, I feel more fatigued. You need to know how to supplement your nutrients – calcium from your milk, omega 3 from cauliflower, iron from dark green vegetables like spinach. Soy and quinoa have the most complete set of amino acids to substitute for a lack of proteins.”

That said, Nicole doesn’t have much time for the Vietnamese preconceptions about meatless diets. “I don’t think philosophically it’s something most people here have really thought about and they don’t usually know anything about the nutritional side of things. The problem is that here it’s associated with the elderly – thinness and teeth falling out, that sort of thing. There were famines here in the 70s, and it was difficult to even afford meat then. Now, not eating it just reminds people of poverty. Seventy percent of Vietnamese people these days are under 30 and they’re more attracted to Western and fast food restaurants – that’s what they’re aware of and fascinated by. There’s nothing trendy about being a vegetarian.”

For me, I don’t regret giving up the vegetarian diet too much. I saw my mother-in-law going the extra mile to prepare separate dinners for me and I saw how uncomfortable it got at the big get-togethers we’d have where we’d all get to a restaurant and they’d discover the only thing on the menu I could eat was a plain banh mi. Everyone has to keep their ethics in balance and for me, family turned out to be more important than refusing the meat. Sorry, animals – bad luck.

Image by Ngoc Tran