Gluten-Free Vietnamese Food

Vietnamese food, like Thai food and Indian food, is naturally GF-friendly in its traditional form. For folks who follow a gluten-free and casein-free diet, dairy is not common in Vietnamese food, so it may be a better choice for you than Indian food. Beverages and desserts are the most likely parts of the menu to contain dairy. As always, check each restaurant’s familiarity with gluten-free best practices and ask about unlisted ingredients.

Vietnamese food also offers many vegetarian options, but beware of a common meat alternative called mì căng or mì căn (also called seitan). This ingredient IS wheat gluten, so it is very important to steer clear of it. Beware of fried tofu as well if you are sensitive to gluten contamination.

A popular option on Vietnamese menus is sandwich bread called banh mi, which DOES contain gluten. To minimize risk of gluten contamination, I would recommend sticking to curries or stews (with a side of rice)

Ca Ri Ga (Chicken Curry) with rice and chili oil

Ca Ri Ga (Chicken Curry) with rice and chili oil

or pho, which is a hearty soup that traditionally uses rice noodles. As with everything, double-check that the rice noodles are not mixed with wheat (not traditional, but possible).

Flank and Brisket Pho with jalapenos, bean sprouts, Thai basil, and fresh lime juice

Flank and Brisket Pho with jalapenos, bean sprouts, Thai basil, and fresh lime juice

All marinades, sauces, broths, curries, processed meats, and fried foods have the potential to either contain gluten ingredients or have an elevated risk of gluten contamination. Restaurants that make all sauces, broths, etc. from scratch are less likely to include gluten because it is not a traditional ingredient.

However, Westernized Vietnamese restaurants may be a double-edged sword—there is increased potential for good communication but also increased risk of nontraditional uses of gluten. For instance, soy sauce is not traditionally used in Vietnamese cooking, but a Westernized restaurant may incorporate it to satisfy Western palates that are more used to the flavor.

If you’re new to Vietnamese food, I highly recommend looking for a restaurant that is very comfortable with gluten-free diners. I have just recently started eating Vietnamese food, and I had the opportunity to try it at a restaurant with a GF menu and staff that were very knowledgeable about gluten. Once you get used to common ingredients and the right questions to ask, it may be easier to communicate if there is a language barrier.

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Gluten-free Vietnamese food options:*

  • Pho: beef broth with rice noodles, vegetables, and your choice of meat (often comes with a plate of garnishes to add additional flavors and/or heat)
  • Pho Sate: pho with spicy sauce
  • Veggie Pho: made with veggie broth and fried tofu (check on fryer contamination risk)
  • Goi: “salad” (check dressings and other ingredients)
  • Rice Vermicelli/Bun: cold rice noodle salad (check on dressings and other ingredients)
  • Com: “rice” (traditionally GF)
  • Bánh Xèo: rice-based crepes
  • Bánh Cuốn: steamed filled rice rolls
  • Spring/Summer Rolls: rice paper, veggies, meat/seafood/tofu, sweet chili sauce (not fried)
  • Curries/Soups/Stews: soy sauce not traditionally used, ask for side of rice (instead of banh mi)
    • Ca Ri Ga: chicken curry
    • Ca Ri Chay: vegan curry
    • Bo Kho: beef stew
    • Ga Ragu: chicken stew
    • Cháo: rice porridge

Watch for:

  • Anything fried: tofu, dumplings, eggrolls, fried rice, etc. (unless the food is not coated in wheat and fried in dedicated gluten-free fryer)
  • Banh Mi – gluten ingredient
  • Mì Căng or Mì Căn (AKA Seitan) – gluten ingredient
  • Stir Fry dishes
  • All sauces: common culprits include plum sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce

Other common allergens:

  • Nuts (peanuts and cashews): ingredient in many dishes in a variety of forms, not always listed as an ingredient
    • Pho is your best bet, but there is a high risk of cross-contact
  • Dairy: ingredient in many dishes (especially desserts) and beverages
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate): used as a flavor enhancer, check with the specific restaurant
  • Eggs: can be found in some dishes (and beverages!) as well as egg noodles
  • Seafood: common in many dishes in a variety of forms

Safest bet:

  • Opt for restaurants with GF items marked and knowledgeable wait staff
  • Select restaurants where everything is made from scratch and communication is relatively easy
  • Communicate with your server about that restaurant’s preparation style and your tastes (a great way to try some new dishes!)

*Refers to commonly-used ingredients only. Gluten contamination is ALWAYS a risk when dining out. Ask about food preparation and anything not made from scratch. Communicate your concerns with your server and consider using a dining card

What’s your favorite gluten-free Vietnamese dish?

8 Comments

  • Danielle says:

    Love this article!! Pho is one of my most favorite things to eat, especially when I’m coming down with a sinus infection. Our local Vietnamese restaurant makes an amazing broth and I love adding lots of Siracha:) steer clear of the hoisin sauce though.

    • Beth says:

      Thank you, Danielle! Pho is the best comfort food, isn’t it!? Are there any other dining guides you would like to see on the blog? <3, Beth

  • Ridley Fitzgerald says:

    I love Vietnamese food, so it’s good to know how to get gluten free options. I hadn’t thought about how anything fried would probably be coated in wheat. I can live with eating un-fried Vietnamese food though.

  • Tony Nguyen says:

    Great article about GF options as I’m starting off the New Year with a tough decision, but it’ll get better.

  • Peter says:

    Dear Beth
    I think it is worth warning your readers that ‘most’ phố noodles produced on Vietnam and labeled as rice noodles on fact have a small amount of gluten added to achieve a chewy texture. Having been frequently on Vietnam over the past four years and being an extremely gluyen sensitive coeliac I have learned not to eat at noodle shops. Where there are noodles labeled as Rice Noodles Gluten Free, these are usually safe for coeliac affected people. The other problem to watch out for is tat noodle shops tend to also offer wear noodles (particularly the instant noodle packs) which are commonly cooked on the same stock.

    I have one supplier of the traditional phố which comes fresh and is steamed daily by the vendor.

    The phố is delicious but may be undermining the health of coeliac.

    Regards

    Peter MacGregor

  • Jace says:

    I agree about being careful with the rice noodles- not all are 100% gluten free. Also I learned that a lot of pho broths contain gluten. It’s in the base seasonings. I am also hyper allergic so I learned this the painfully hard way. Thanks for the article & support for GF living <3

  • This is great. Thank you! I’m currently spending a significant amount of time in Vietnam and it’s much easier here than other places in Asia. I’m headed to Thailand next week, as I haven’t been there yet. Asia is getting better and better by the day with gluten free, but as a celiac it still is not a known thing in terms of understanding!

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