By Chelsea Gallagher and Molly Headley

From ancient Greek philosophers to modern-day heavy hitters in politics, business, and sports, vocal advocates for vegan/vegetarian lifestyles have been around for centuries. We interviewed three members of the Saigon business community, who have renounced meat, to find out why more and more leaders are making the switch.   

Plant-based diets are nothing new. 

Take the calendar back to 580 BC when Pythagoras was busy scrawling down equations that would eventually become the cornerstone of modern mathematics. We all know that Pythagoras had a big brain, but it’s lesser known that he also had a big heart. He argued that vegetarianism promoted a peaceful existence, with the slaughter of animals only adding fodder to the darkest fires of the human soul. Early vegetarians were even called Pythagoreans.

Fast-forward to the second half of the 20th century. The post-war Western world had moved from rations of the gelatinous meat product SPAM to the status of serving Sunday roasts. “Freedom from Want” had been used to market war bonds—and the absence of need continued to be depicted in the media by tables overflowing with meat and other foods. 

The consumption of meat was equated with wealth. And it did create wealth – for the meat industries, whose productions quadrupled between 1961 and 2018. 

Norman Rockwell’s Iconic painting, “Freedom from Want”, was used to promote the sale of war bonds during WWII.
Global meat production has skyrocketed over the last 50 years, with the sharpest growth happening in Asia.

Asia has a higher proportion of vegetarians and vegans than any other region in the world, mainly due to religious and cultural beliefs; however, the production and exportation of meat on the continent have also risen at an astronomical rate. 

As the meat industry has grown, so have greenhouse gas emissions, the need for agricultural land, which promotes deforestation, and the use of freshwater. The world has produced more than 340 million tonnes of meat each year since 2019, yet, there is still famine, malnutrition, and widespread ill health. Pythagorean’s fear that eating animals would ruin our souls has perhaps taken another turn – it is now destroying our planet.  

The last decade has seen a marked rise in the popularisation of plant-based diets to mitigate the environmental and health impacts of meat consumption. What for centuries was considered faddish or even cult-like has become part of a global sustainability strategy. Proponents for vegetarianism and veganism have moved beyond animal rights activists, yogi Instagrammers, and celebrity dieticians. The new plant promoters include high-powered CEOs, government officials, Michelin-starred restaurants and even major food manufacturers. Meat alternatives and vegan dairy products have become one of the fastest growing food sectors, with companies such as Unilever and Cadbury’s getting in on the profits. Kellogg’s has even modified their tag line to advertise that they were “one of the original plant based wellbeing companies.” 

To illustrate how far the public perception of vegetarianism has come, world leaders were served plant-based meals at a G7 Summit in Germany in June 2022. According to Reuters, the menu was the brain child of Germany’s Green party Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to build awareness about the role of meat production in climate change. High-profile CEOs and global leaders such the casino entrepreneur Steve Wynn, former US President Bill Clinton, and Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone have also vocally gone veggie, and they don’t hesitate to use their powerful public platforms to promote their changes in eating habits to the public.  

Vietnam is considered to be one of the best countries in the world for easy-to-find vegetarian options. Meatless substitutes like tofu are readily available. However, meat also has a strong presence in Vietnamese cuisine. One has to make a conscious choice to opt-out. We sat down with three members of the Saigon business community to discover what prompted them to join the growing number of executive leaders adhering to a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle. 

“I’ve been working on a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle for the past three decades,” said Jessica Lu, Executive Coach, and Master Trainer at FranklinCovey Vietnam. “At first, I eliminated pork, beef, and lamb, but over time the smell and taste of meat repulsed me. The media began to focus on educating the general public about the behind-the-scenes in the meatpacking industry, and with this growing knowledge, I eliminated goose and chicken. Shortly after, I was diagnosed with lactose intolerance and eliminated all dairy products from my diet. I felt my body become more energetic, but I don’t believe my diet has finished evolving.” 

David Laizans, Managing Director of SGS Vietnam, agreed that diet changes are a personal process. “I’ve been following a vegetarian diet for five years”, He said. “I still eat a small amount of dairy and believe you must feel comfortable committing to the switch.” 

According to Loan Tran, Leadership Coach and Board member of NordCham Vietnam, finding the right balance of foods when becoming vegetarian can be a challenge. “The first time I tried to change my diet was three to four years ago”, she said. “It wasn’t successful for me then because I began to lose weight, and I had to take more time to research ways to eat a balanced vegetarian diet. The second time was almost two years ago. This time, I followed my heart and mainly adopted a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle out of compassion toward animals. The main challenge I experience is when I travel outside of Vietnam. We have so many options here that when I leave, I crave our accessibility to vegan/vegetarian food.” 

Speaking of Vietnamese veggie dishes, the executives weighed in on their favourites. 

Laizans said, “My favourite vegetarian meal would have to be fresh pho rolls – it’s like a salad wrapped in delicious pho noodles.”

“I love tofu”, said Lu. “I could eat an entire meal with tofu prepared in different ways. My favourite restaurants are SH Garden and Hung.”

Tran found it difficult to choose just one dish. “We have so many local dishes that are vegan/vegetarian, including soup noodles or delicious bun oc”, she said. “I also treat myself to places like Phạm Nghiêm Trai – BonGenSai Japanese Cuisine Vegetarian Restaurant. It’s vegan sushi, and it tastes incredible.” 

One unexpected benefit to going vegan/vegetarian for business leaders in Vietnam is that it can act as an icebreaker.  

“I think it helps me connect with people, especially if the meal or event is a specific sit-down event and the waiter calls out, “who ordered vegetarian?” Laizans said. “Questions will come up quickly, and the conversation will continue a nice flow throughout the meal.” 

Tran takes a more discreet approach. “If we’re not discussing health or lifestyle, I wouldn’t want to bring up vegetarianism”, she said. “When it does come up, people are usually shocked but open-minded. My vegan/vegetarian lifestyle makes me stand out in a crowd due to my positivity and passion.”

Pythagorus would be happy to learn that meat-free lifestyles are no longer relegated to the realms of subversive thought. Positivity and passion for the future of our planet are now key components in our search for sustainability.  

Never miss an update about our events and articles
Tim Burrill
Membership Manager & Executive Assistant
If you would like to learn more about our events and membership, or have other questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.