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I’m lucky enough to live in an area of Saigon where there are a handful of good vegetarian eateries (cơm chay in Vietnamese). But Hải Đăng is my favourite. The main reason for this is the sheer variety of vegetable dishes on offer (not just tofu and ‘fake meat’) and, providing you arrive at the right time of day, the freshness of the food. Since I moved to within a couple of minutes’ walk of Hải Đăng vegetarian restaurant, about three years ago, it has changed my daily diet for the better. Each time I enter its simple, unassuming facade (always a good sign in Vietnam) I’m filled with excitement at the colours and crispness of the dishes, and gratitude for the existence of this little, informal treasure trove of healthy, vegetarian fare so close to my home.
REVIEW: HẢI ĐĂNG VEGETARIAN EATERY
Address: 131 D1 Street, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City [MAP]
Price: 20,000-40,000vnd per meal | Open: 6.30am-2pm | 4pm-8.30pm (closed two Sundays a month)
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Located on the increasingly clogged (and imaginatively named) D1 Street, Hải Đăng vegetarian restaurant is in Binh Thanh District, not far from one of the city’s more recent monoliths, Pearl Plaza. I first started visiting at lunchtimes, after swimming in the nearby pool at Van Thanh Park. Its scruffy exterior belies the richness and colour of the food that awaits you inside. If possible, try to get here between 10am and 12noon, when the food is at its freshest and most colourful. Hải Đăng can get fairly busy during the day, particularly when the lunchtime rush is in full swing. Indeed, the place gets positively swamped on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month, when many Vietnamese partake in a vegetarian diet (a custom which has its routes in Buddhism). However, these are also the days when the spread of dishes is especially large and various.
As I mentioned in the introduction, one of the most appealing aspects of Hải Đăng is that there are so many vegetable dishes on offer. Many Vietnamese vegetarian eateries specialize in ‘fake meat’. The assumption is that diners would rather be eating meat but are obliged to eat vegetarian food for religious or dietary reasons. Therefore, many vegetarian dishes are made to look and taste as much like meat as possible. Mostly this involves a lot of meat-shaped, meat-textured tofu – which ends up looking like a gallery of tofu sculptures. These are usually pretty tasty, but it’s so sad not to see any vegetables in a vegetarian restaurant. At Hải Đăng, however, there are only a few tofu-sculpture dishes; the vast majority are bright, shiny and crisp vegetables.
At my last visit, I counted 31 different dishes. Take a look at the photo below. This only represents about a third of the dishes on display that day (I couldn’t fit all of them in one photo). Clockwise from top left: shredded white cabbage and carrot, sliced chayote (a kind of green squash-cum-gourd), spicy baby eggplant, fried tofu and lemongrass, sauteed ‘stringy’ mushrooms (I think they might be enokitake mushrooms), sauteed morning glory with garlic, tofu stew with tomato and onions, erm, god knows what the next one is (someone help me, please), stewed aubergine with chilli, beansprouts and chives, banana flower with peanuts (this is amazing), and bitter gourd with egg. Impressive. There are even more options on the menu. These includes vegetarian versions of classic Vietnamese soups, such as mì quảng, bún bò and hủ tiéu.
Ordering is easy. It’s school dinners-style: point at a dish and it gets put on your plate over rice. The cost is rarely more than 20,000-40,000vnd per person (that’s about $1-$2). Pretty darn good value. Personally, I’ve got into the habit of ordering a bunch of different vegetable dishes without rice and then getting it to take away. Back home (just around the corner), I poach a couple of eggs and serve them on top of the vegetables. This has become my routine for recovery after two hours of tennis in the midday heat. It works a treat.
Hải Đăng isn’t really a ‘restaurant’, it’s a quán, which is essentially a more informal, less fussy, less-money-spent-on-decor kind of place. I quite like the term ‘eatery’ as a general translation of quán. Often, quán can be a little on the filthy side: even though the food might be fantastic, the furnishings and cleanliness may leave something to be desired, especially in the eyes of many foreign visitors. But Hải Đăng scores pretty high for a quán. It’s got a little, clean, air-conditioned dining room, separated from the ‘serving room’ by a glass partition; wooden tables and chairs laid out on a tiled floor; and the walls are decorated with portraits of Buddha and dozens of famous vegetarian icons throughout history (although I doubt the veracity of some of them). Opening times are a bit weird and I’ve often been disappointed to find the place closed. Generally speaking, it’s open daily from 6.30am-2pm and 4pm-8.30pm; or all day on the 1st and 15th of the lunar month (Google that for the solar equivalent); and it’s closed all day for two Sundays every month.
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