Managing dietary requirements abroad can be a real added stress! In some cases, it can put you off travelling abroad altogether.
When a reaction to something you are intolerant to can replicate the effects of the dreaded “Delhi-belly”, it is understandable that many of us with a food intolerance (myself included) feel anxious about eating in a foreign country. Well I am here to help! I have written this post for all of you dairy-free/celiac/vegetarian/vegan travellers, and deliver the great news that Vietnam’s cuisine naturally has lots to offer for us free-from foodies!
Two things which amazed me about Vietnamese food:
1. How incredibly resourceful Vietnamese cooking is.
You will experience rice in its many different forms: noodles, rice paper, bread… and Vietnam’s staple dishes have all been founded upon local ingredients creating delicious, fresh and nutritional dishes.
2. The variety of options available for free-from eaters.
This is partly down to the fact that a lot of food is prepared fresh from scratch, making it easy to adapt dishes. Secondly, this region is not as heavy on dairy and processed products as us Westerners, which brings me back to fresh, made from scratch goodness!
And so, here’s what you could expect to be dining on in Vietnam…
Most hotels in Vietnam will offer western and local options. For those with a free-from diet, breakfast can prove difficult without any access to soy, almond milk or all of the free-from breakfast products available to buy at home. For once, you may be better with the local options for breakfast – which are typically made up of rice or noodles, meat and vegetables. Yes, It can be rather strange at first to eat what is essentially stir-fry for breakfast, but give it chance. Vietnamese breakfast is a great option to ensure you set yourself up for the day properly, and it is much healthier for you than the stodgy offerings on the western menu!
What is it?
You will come across this Asian version of porridge in varying ways across the region. Generally speaking though, Congee is a runny porridge made with rice and boiling water. It is quite starchy and bland, but could be sweetened up by adding honey, jam or fruit – I liked chopped banana in mine. It is a great option for anybody with dietary requirements as it is free from dairy, wheat and meat and all about that slow-releasing energy that will keep you exploring for longer!
*tip: Mashing a banana and mixing it in will thicken it up and add sweetness.
Suitable for: lactose intolerance, wheat/gluten intolerance & vegans.
I love eating fruit, so I was in my element in Vietnam with an array of fresh and juicy tropical fruits on offer such as pineapple, mango, dragon fruit, guava and bananas. Fruit is an easy and healthy option for breakfast and meets all three of the dietary requirements. You could easily make yourself a bowl of fruit for breakfast and often there is some yoghurt on offer which you could top it with (that is, if you are not lactose intolerant or vegan).
*Try not to be put off eating freshly prepared fruit when travelling. A lot of articles out there advise you to avoid fruit you haven’t prepared yourself to avoid risk of travellers’ tummy. And yes, this is advisable. However, personally I found common sense kept me safe. I ate fruit for breakfast at most of the hotels I stayed in here (most of which were 3 star hotels with a G Adventures tour). I would not advise eating chopped fruit from street vendors, because there is no guarantee that they have practised the same level of hygiene as a hotel. It is important to get some vitamins and all of the other benefits of fruit in you though, so just use common sense and you should be fine.
Tip* Pineapple is good for aiding digestion, so if you feel like you have over-indulged, eat some pineapple at breakfast as it is a great natural digestant!
Suitable for: all.
Pretty much all local dishes in Vietnam will be based with rice or rice-noodles and accompanied by meat (or tofu), vegetables and sauces. The local food in Vietnam is delicious, made with fresh local ingredients, and as a result may be considered one of the healthiest diets in the World.
What is it?
Only Vietnam’s famous national dish!
Phó (pronounced “fur”) is a noodle soup base with a choice of chicken, beef, pork, seafood or tofu. It is a nutritious, cheap and healthy option for lunch on the go. Phó is served everywhere from street vendors to five-star restaurants and it should be sampled at least once when visiting Vietnam. Phó comes to you in a deep bowl, containing the broth, your chosen meat, the vegetables and noodles. The other accompaniments such as rice, bok choy, fish sauce, chilli paste and soy sauce (to name just a few), will be served on smaller plates on the side, making phó a very adaptable dish. What’s more, I found phó to be very calming and soothing on the stomach.
Suitable for: lactose intolerance, gluten*/wheat* intolerance & vegans.
Note* I am talking about phó in a very general manner and not taking in to account the many variations you may find in this dish (as people will have their own secret recipe). It is always wise to check with wait staff/vendors what they have used to prepare the phó, in case there are any hidden ingredients ir chance of cross-contamination with allergens.
What is it?
Bánh Mi is another incredibly popular choice for on-the-go eating in Vietnam. It is an example of the French colonial influence upon Vietnamese cuisine as it consists of a long, thin bread roll or baguette. Fillings include pate, chicken, sausage, pork, pickled vegetables, salad, herbs… I could go on. This humble baguette may have been started by the French, but it was perfected by the Vietnamese. Despite local favourite fillings, what makes bánh mi distinctly Vietnamese, the inclusion of rice flour in the dough of the bread makes for that perfect crusty baguette that just makes your mouth water! I think both locals and tourists would have to agree with Lonely Planet, whohave hailed it ‘the World’s best sandwich’. As another cheap, healthy and deliciously fresh street food, bánh mi is a real winner!
Suitable for: lactose intolerance (without the butter or mayo), vegetarians
Whoever came up with the saying that ‘all good things come in small packages’ must have been eating Vietnamese spring rolls at the time…
There are two main forms of the spring roll in Vietnam. The first is made with fresh rice paper and as a result can have quite a chewy, moist, albeit moorish texture. The second, which we are more familiar with in the western world, are the deep-fried spring rolls which resemble those that we order from a take-out back home. My personal favourites were the fresh spring rolls. They just felt fresher and healthier to eat without being deep-fried, and I enjoyed biting in to the chewy fresh rice paper.
Fresh Spring Rolls
What are they?
Fresh spring rolls can make for a great light and healthy snack or an appetiser for a larger meal. These fun little parcels are packed with goodness and sealed in fresh rice paper which should be* gluten, dairy and meat free! Whether you opt for a meat, seafood or a vegetable filling, other typical fillings include vermicelli noodles (thin rice noodles), lettuce, carrots, bean sprouts and herbs such as Thai basil, mint or cilantro leaves. To accompany the spring rolls, you will be served an array of dipping sauces such as soy sauce, peanut sauce, fish sauce or chilli sauce, which compliment the mass amount of flavour packed in to these rolls.
Suitable for: lactose intolerance, gluten/wheat intolerance, vegetarians/vegans.
*note – again, please check with your waiter/vendor for any allergens such as wheat in the paper if you are unsure.
Deep-fried Spring Rolls
What are they?
In contrast, you have the deep-fried spring rolls. Select your filling from a choice of meat, seafood or vegetables to be wrapped up in rice paper, and then they are deep-fried. The spring rolls will then be presented to you with the accompanying dipping sauces, which again could be peanut sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce or chilli. See a pattern emerging yet?
Suitable for: lactose intolerance, gluten/wheat intolerance*, vegetarians/vegans.
Note* If you are celiac, some deep-fried spring roll papers can contain gluten or be contaminated by gluten in the deep fryer in restaurants. Even in the UK, restaurants tend to use the same fryer for several dishes, so it is always worth checking this out if you are unsure. If you are a bit dubious about the contents of the deep-fried spring rolls, you are best to stick with the fresh ones.
Being lactose intolerant, desert is the main part of a meal that I struggle with at a restaurant. In western countries, most deserts contain butter, cream or ice-cream which means I’m often left with the consolation prize of a fruit salad. And, okay, Vietnam does not have as much of a sweet tooth as us westerners, but deserts are on offer in restaurants and one ticks all of the free-from boxes.
Yes, fruit again. But…
Vietnamese people don’t simply chop some fruit and call it desert, they’re better than that! Another must-try in Vietnam is a fruit desert platter which is usually a selection of chopped pineapple, dragon fruit and mango accompanied by a kind of chilli salt, which you dip your fruit in to before eating. When I tried this, it reminded me of the time I took the cinnamon challenge – but far less intense. For those who are fans of the whole sweet and savoury combinations, like sweet and salty popcorn, you will enjoy this!
Every main city in Vietnam has its own local beer. The problem with this is if you are celiac you can’t drink beer. However, you are able to have cider and this is widely available. Furthermore, if you are celiac, you have the option of tasting either a Vietnamese egg coffee or an iced coffee or tea, something I unfortunately had to miss out on.
Egg Coffee (ca-phe trung)
What is it?
It sounds awful but I have heard it is delicious! Egg coffee is composed of an egg-yolk blended up with condensed milk to form a frothy sweet layer on top of a rich blended coffee underneath. It is very sweet and has been likened to tiramisu or marshmallow fluff.
Suitable for: gluten/wheat intolerance, vegetarians
Iced coffee is a popular choice in Vietnam, and there’s no wonder when temperatures often sore in to the thirties! Iced coffee is often served with condensed milk, making for a sweet pick-me-up. However, coffee has even made it into smoothies in Vietnam and you will even find combinations of fruit or yoghurt with your coffee if you’re feeling brave!
Suitable for: gluten/wheat intolerance, vegetarians
What is it?
In my experience, this drink would be better named Rice Vodka as it does pack quite a punch, and most definitely should not be drunk in the same liquid measurements as wine!
During a village tour in Hoi An, I visited a rice wine brewery where I learnt a little secret about rice wine (despite the conclusion that it does not taste like wine at all!).
Due to the fermentation process, rice wine delivers lots of natural good bacteria to your stomach and is relied on for this reason by local fisherman. Not only does it liven one up after a hard day’s work, but it is used to aid in the digestion of meals and balance the stomach bacteria. If you ever feel like you have over-indulged or you feel a bit out of sync, order a shot of rice wine!
Suitable for: all who enjoy alcohol!
A Few extra survival hacks:
What are they?
This year, I decided to experiment with lactase tablets on my travels. These capsules contain, well, lactase – which is the enzyme that digests lactose. They enable somebody with lactose intolerance to eat dairy immediately after swallowing one. In my experience, they work brilliantly, and it meant I could indulge in the odd bit of ice-cream without being hotel-bound for the rest of the day. I suggest you trial these capsules at home before you travel to see how well they work for you, as everybody is different. Personally speaking though, these tablets have enabled me to eat a portion of pasta bake and an ice-cream with no effects. However, I still wouldn’t go mad on dairy and eat the biggest sickliest ice-cream sundae I could find. They do give you a little more freedom when travelling.
If you are in the UK, you can purchase the lactase tablets I used from Holland and Barrett here. Most health stores will stock these tablets.
Pack a few free-from goodies
I always pack some of my favourite free-from cereal bars and even some trail-mix or nuts. Packing some snacks like these are great to have where options for food are very limited. They are also just handy in general when you know you have an action-packed day ahead and are in need of a snack. You can always buy clothes (elephant pants galore!), but you can’t always buy your favourite free-from food. So on this occasion, it is food over fashion!
For some of us, throwing our bodies in to a completely foreign diet is not a smooth transition, and can result in some unwanted heartburn and bloating. Drinking a peppermint tea helps to de-bloat and neutralise stomach acid. It is widely available across Southeast Asian regions and it is the natural alternative to swallowing an indigestion tablet.
So there you have it – my quick guide for free-from foodies in Vietnam! Have you found any foods in Vietnam that are free-from friendly? I would love to know! Comment with your experiences or any questions you have about food intolerances and travel!