Is it possible to eat gluten and dairy-free in Vietnam? I have to admit, that was my first thought on planning a trip to South East Asia. I can honestly say, taking my husband and two teenage boys to Vietnam this summer was the best, most inspired holiday choice I’ve made in a long time. This blog gives you an insight into travelling from north to south in Vietnam (we journeyed to Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An & Ho Chi Minh City) and how eating gluten-free & dairy-free is not only very easy but a great, great pleasure.
Embracing local food
For me, one of the joys of travelling is eating as the locals do. And nowhere is this easier than Vietnam. Food is a way of life, a social activity and it’s done everywhere. Locals can be found on the road side sitting on the ground or a tiny plastic chair (think pre-school size) packing their noodle soup away.
Vietnamese food is based on naturally gluten-free foods such as meat, broths, seafood, rice, vegetables, herbs & spices. Nutritionally-speaking, I couldn’t pick a much healthier mix of foods. And as a nutritional therapist, I am always putting good nutrition at the top of my list! However it’s not just what they eat but the fact it is fresh, unprocessed and organic. Hmmm, sort of organic – with a caveat that it may be grown without pesticides, but most markets sit close to very polluted roads full of thousands of scooters. Markets are everywhere serving both locals and tourists, they are jam-packed with seafood caught that morning. Often animals have been slaughtered at 3am just before the markets open. Add to that the wide array of colourful vegetables, fruits and aromatic herbs & spices – it is antioxidant heaven!
The white rice conundrum
There is much debate about white rice being nutritionally inferior to brown rice. You only find white rice in Vietnam. However, from a nutritional standpoint, white rice is very easily digested (it’s virtually pure glucose) making it an ideal carbohydrate source for people with compromised digestive systems. If you’re an IBS or SIBO sufferer then white rice is a preferred carbohydrate so that your body absorbs glucose at the top part of your small intestine BEFORE your gut bacteria can eat it and cause bloating, pain, gas etc. Our tummies were happier than ever throughout our trip – I put this down to simple, fresh, nourishing, unprocessed foods with gut-healing broths. Rice foods were mainly rice paper, rice pancakes, sticky rice and rice noodles. This makes eating gluten free super convenient. Eating simple rice foods is also preferable to the gluten-free processed foods at home made to mimic wheat-based products. Rice paper is used in fresh spring rolls. You’re bound to be on a tour that shows you how to make these, it’s great fun, and the kids loved it! Rice pancakes must not be missed. Banh Xeo is the traditional pancake usually eaten with beansprouts, pork, shrimps, spring onions and herbs (Vietnamese basil, mint, coriander & bitter herbs). Turmeric powder is often used in the rice pancake mix, giving it a yellow colour.
Sticky rice is a mainstay as an accompaniment to meals and is easy to use with chopsticks. Dipped in broth, fish or soy sauce, this is just delicious. Noodles are mainly made with rice flour, but it’s best to check as some noodles may have wheat in them.
I’m crazy pho you
Noodles are the basis of Vietnam’s national dish – pho. You are never far from a pho (pronounced ‘fur’)– choose from pho bo (beef), pho bo vien (beef meatballs), pho ga (chicken), pho tom (prawns), pho chay (tofu). It is essentially a long-cooked broth with meat, spices & herbs that you dress up with accompaniments – fresh lime, garlic, fish or soy sauce. It’s cheap, filling, easy on the tummy and so tasty! The kids loved their bowl of pho and keenly drank the broth with a spoon after the meat and noodles had gone. Vietnamese food is rarely spicy which is good news for sensitive tummies, chillies were available but mostly served separately to add if you wish.
Now this can be a little more tricky. Do check which sauces are gluten-free as some are not and it can vary from north to south Vietnam and from restaurant to street food stall. Fish sauce, the most used condiment is commonly gluten-free. So is Vietnamese soy sauce but this is not so often used. Check for imported versions with wheat protein “protein lua mi” that tourist-driven restaurants may use. Regarding gluten generally, I understand that you need to check more in the north (Hanoi), but in the south (Ho Chi Minh City) more foods are likely to be gluten-free. This subject in detail is beyond the scope of this blog, but here are some useful resources for communicating gluten free:
- Coeliac UK do a useful sheet for Vietnam with a translation that you can use in hotels and restaurants. Find it here: http://bit.ly/2vrCnsL
- I asked my tour operator to translate a card for me, as I am not a coeliac and wanted to explain that I do not have a serious allergy, and I was happy to eat sauces but avoid gluten in more significant amounts such as noodles or dumplings.
- A great blog written by a coeliac https://www.legalnomads.com/gluten-free/vietnam/
- Andrea Nguyen’s view on sauces http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/2011/09/gluten-free-asian-ingredients.html
- Communication is difficult in Vietnam, even with those who speak English. Generally-speaking those under 30 years old are most likely to speak good English as it now taught in all schools. One tour guide, fluent in English, told me that there is no direct translation for gluten, which explained the weird looks I got when I showed my translation card.
One of our hotels decided to play it safe at breakfast on our first morning in Vietnam. I am not sure how much the chef understood of my translation card, but he said “Sit table. I bring.” Ten minutes later with a big smile on his face, he delivered a beautiful green soup with steamed veg to my table. It was totally delicious, even though I had no idea what was in it and he was clearly proud of his efforts. PLEASE NOTE: Coeliacs have to decide how much of a risk is worth taking in situations like these. I also advise you to take some gluten-free snacks with you as a backup. If you plan on taking the overnight sleeper train then definitely take your own snacks.
Regarding dairy-free, this is far easier to navigate as it is rarely used as an ingredient. Many Eastern cultures (including Vietnam) are largely lactose intolerant. I found it was present in ice creams & milkshakes in tourist-driven restaurants and in hotel international buffet restaurants, but rarely found it in traditional Vietnamese food which my tummy and nose can affirm. There are plenty of fruit smoothies as alternatives to ice creams & milkshakes. Luckily coconut milk is used a lot to give a creamy alternative. PLEASE NOTE: Peanuts are used a lot in many dishes, I suspect they are in most kitchens. If you don’t have an issue with them, they go particularly well with seafood.
Beware the hotel international buffet breakfast
This was the worst place to try and eat gluten and dairy-free! Much like being at home. There was plenty of gluten and dairy-laden croissants, doughnuts, yoghurts to appeal to the international traveller. Don’t get me started on the sugar content! There’s no allergen listing as you get in Europe! There were also healthier options such as omelettes (or eggs anyway you like), bacon, vegetables, salads, nuts & seeds, peanut butter & local fruit in all hotels. If you notify your hotels in advance, they are happy to get gluten & dairy-free bread in. Most hotels had soya milk as a dairy alternative. However, there were always Vietnamese specialities too, including pho, rice pancakes, savoury rice porridge and spring rolls. This photo shows one of my favourite breakfasts – rice pancakes with shrimp sauce, pork & vegetable spring roll, salad & fresh lime.
Fast food with a healthy twist
It’ll take you a while to get used to the fact that most authentic street-food style eateries won’t have menus (it’s mainly tourist-oriented restaurants that do). Many eateries each have a speciality and you sit down and within minutes your food is bought to your table. This photo is one restaurant called Bale Well in Hoi An. We delighted in pork skewers, satay sauce, Banh Xeo (crispy pancakes) & salad. We were shown how to eat it (very important you do it the right way!).
Try a cooking class
I have promised myself that with my family, we will try a cooking class wherever we visit in the world. Cooking classes are popular in Vietnam with good reason. The locals love to show you their flair for cooking with simple, fresh ingredients. All food was naturally gluten and dairy-free. Our visit started with a tour of the local market with an English-speaking guide who brought the local culture to life. We then had a meandering river boat trip to the cookery school. First, we learned about the herbs growing in the garden, then we cooked in a Master Chef-style kitchen in the middle of an amazing rainforest setting. We watched some demonstrations and cooked our own rice pancakes, spring rolls, chicken noodle clay pot and even tried our hand at food decoration making tomato roses and cucumber fans. Cooking classes are available in all major cities (Hanoi, Hoi An & Ho Chi Minh City). We used Red Bridge Cookery School in Hoi An and I would thoroughly recommend the whole experience. See the Trip Advisor reviews here http://bit.ly/2xxV0sA
Eating out is dirt cheap
For our cheapest meals eating just a bowl of pho with veg/salad for four of us, this set us back about £6. For meals that involved spring rolls, pancakes, cooked veg we paid from £10 from a small stall to £20 for a restaurant with drinks. If you choose non-Vietnamese food then the prices increase. When we got home to Blighty and paid £60 for an average pub lunch, we were all ready to fly back to Vietnam!
Some of the best food we had was on organised tours. What I love about this is that you try foods you wouldn’t pick on a menu. Plus you’re eating the seasonal, freshest produce that’s available to the chefs that morning at market. There was nearly always a broth with herbs on the table that is great for re-hydrating in the humid heat. Then we tucked into pork, chicken, shrimp, fish, clams, mussels, tofu with lots of vegetables. And, of course, rice in varying presentations. Our overnight cruise on Halong Bay had absolutely wonderful food. We used Swan Cruises who tailored everything gluten & dairy-free for me and seafood-free for my averse-to-eating-seafood older son http://bit.ly/2vQVLdV
Another massive benefit of tours is introducing us all to new flavours; we had no choice with set menus and it was strangely refreshing to have that choice taken away from us. I was delighted the kids couldn’t choose burgers or pizza! We even tried snails & frog’s legs (taste like chicken if you ask me!) on our Vespa Adventures tour of Ho Chi Minh City – this was an amazing tour whizzing around Saigon as a pillion passenger on vintage Vespas stopping off to eat amazing street food. http://vespaadventures.com Our Vespa Adventures tour guide explained that with Vietnamese hospitality, the food keeps coming until you start leaving food to indicate you are full and they feel they have satisfied you. The kids thought it hilarious that food just kept coming!
Travel tips before you go
I highly recommend you seek out a Vietnamese street food café or market stall near your home to try before you go. This is a great way to introduce kids to bowls of pho and eating with chopsticks. We have been back to our local street food stall since our Vietnam trip as we’re all missing pho. Do your research before your trip and choose wisely to avoid tummy upsets when in Vietnam, you are at increased risk of getting ill – their cleanliness is not up to European standards! Here’s my blog on How To Avoid Getting Sick Eating In Vietnam. Let me know in the comments if you’re planning a trip to Vietnam and if this blog has reassured you that’ll you have a great time.
For an Asian-inspired quick noodle soup, check out this simple noodle soup recipe using leftovers & store cupboard ingredients for a quick midweek meal
Jane Barrett is a registered nutritionist and expert in digestive health helping women & children with digestive issues take control of their health through food. She offers support through meal plans, online courses & personalised 1:1 programmes on Zoom.