We visited Can Tho, Saigon, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay and Hanoi. For specifics on each city, check out each post!
Being Gluten Free in Vietnam
To learn more about what kinds of foods I typically travel with, and navigating airports, check out the TRAVEL TIPS page.
Similar to Thailand and Cambodia, there is very little understanding of allergies or celiac in SE Asia. No one really knew what I was trying to avoid, but I didn't meet anyone that wasn't willing to check and re-check food for me. I was able to find food to eat, but there was a general confusion about what I could or couldn’t have. That being said, the translation card I used (one that I had made for me there) seemed to do pretty well except in a few circumstances.
I also HIGHLY recommend checking out Legal Nomads fantastic guide to Vietnam PLUS she has a gluten free travel card you can find in that same link. I used her card in Spain and found it very helpful. Unfortunately, I hadn’t come across her blog when I went to Vietnam, and I wish I had. I would have relied on it more, and probably gotten more adventurous with food. Honestly, I am writing my blog because I want to be helpful and offer a few restaurants to eat at and some things to see and do – but Legal Nomads writes a really freaking amazing blog. And she spends a lot more time in these countries really learning how to be gluten free.
Side note: Haribo gummy bears are gluten free – I even found ones with English on them to read. Not at all Vietnamese cuisine, but this had basically been my only sugary snack in nearly a month, and…I indulged!
Flour vs Flour
I discovered somewhere in Cambodia that there was a miss-understanding on my translation. Then one day it dawned on me why there was so much confusion in Bangkok - the problem was in writing "wheat flour"! After showing my card numerous times, I kept being asked if I could eat rice. My best guess, is that "wheat flour" is just "wheat". "Flour" would automatically be considered "rice flour". So, when they saw "wheat flour" I think they interpreted it as no "wheat" or "flour (aka rice flour)" and automatically wanted to leave rice off my dishes.
At the very first place we stopped in Siem Reap, Cambodia the server spoke fantastic English, so I asked him to write out a gluten free card for me. I had this same step repeated in Vietnam. A really well done Vietnam gluten free card would have helped trremendously. A tip though, the more complicated your card gets, the less likely you are to have it work. People will get overwhelmed and possibly just ignore your request. Keep it simple.
We ended up asking them to write the same thing that I did in Thailand and Cambodia:
No soy sauce
No oyster sauce
No Koki Flour (I actually didn't know this one, until I was writing this blog after the fact)
Yes fish sauce
Please be careful, I get very sick if eating these foods.
Basically, that worked. Mostly, if people were overly concerned about making me sick, they just gave me fried rice with rice, egg and a few veggies. I think there was typically some sort of vegetable oil and salt. I brought along little packets of gluten free soy sauce that I would try to sneak onto this plain dish to add a little flavor.
General Food Guide
This is the list I put together and carried with me in my purse with me. All of it wasn't used, but it made me feel good having it on me. These are all ideas copied from a number of different blogs and other resources:
No soy sauce (“xi dau”, pronounced “si zau”) – That being said, Legal Nomads said she did not see wheat on the ingredients labels in southern Vietnam. And on our very last night in Hanoi, a fellow traveler with celiac said she wasn’t avoiding soy sauce and had no problems. I avoided soy sauce because I was just too nervous. But if I were to go back, I would probably ask more questions!
No oyster sauce
Fish sauce is ok! (Nouc Mam) – I DID see a blog post about a brand that uses hydrolyzed wheat protein which makes it not gluten free – this ingredient is protein lua mi. But it is apparently quite rare. I never avoided fish sauce.
Stay away from glazes and sauces, especially in street food.
No Wheat (“bot my”, pronounced “bu mi”)
Foods that should be safe.
This is a collection from a few different blog writers, as well as with my own experience, consolidated here – primarily this list comes from Legal Nomads guide to Vietnam:
Banh xeo: A Vietnamese crepe made with rice flour and coconut milk. They are fried and filled with pork, shrimp, onion, bean sprouts and mung beans. Typically this is made with rice flour, but occasionally it is a pre-made mix that also uses wheat.
Banh Khot: miniature versions of Banh xeo, made with herbs and vegetables and fish sauce.
Banh canh: (tapioca and rice)
Bun: A rice noodle, there are a whole slew of bun soups – bun bo for example
Cha gio / Nem: In the south they are often fried rice paper spring rolls. But in the north or northern Vietnamese style restaurants, they are called nem. Nem might be dipped in bread crumbs before they are fried, so it is best to ask!
Chao long: “this is a congee-like porridge, made with rice and some deliciously nutritious offal like lungs and intestines, as well as blood cubes. It’s not for everyone, but it is amazing if you enjoy your grisly parts. Note that they usually come with bread on the side, or chopped inside, but you can just decline them.” (Legal Nomads)
Com = rice: com tam (broken rice), com suon (rice with pork chop), com hen (rice with baby clams). So ‘com’ anything is likely an option!
Goi cuon: fresh spring rolls made with rice paper. Delicious when dipped in sweet chili sauce or fish sauce
Hu Tieu: There are various kinds of Hu Tieu to try. Hu Tieu is made from a pork bone broth and usually has no fish sauce. The noodles can be either flat rice noodles, egg noodles (not gluten free, so avoid this option!) or chewy tapioca ones. There’s a variety of topping on offer, from shrimp, squid, pork and vegetables.
Mi quang: Mi quang noodles are actually made of rice (but often mi/my is a non-celiac friendly egg noodle), served with a smaller amount of broth that is tinted with turmeric. They are wider than pho noodles and quite delicious!
Mien (mung beans) noodles: Mien noodles can often be found in stalls that sell pho. Mien ga, for example, is a chicken noodle soup with mung beans as the noodle base.
Oc: “snails, but an oc restaurant will not only serve snails but also a dizzying variety of delicious seafood, from grilled scallops to lemongrass clams, and so much more. Often these are cooked over the fire or steamed, and I did not encounter breaded options very often. Unlike the fried oysters or breaded scallops of Canada, I was able to partake in almost all of the seafood at these stalls, and it was incredibly tasty. For a primer, please see Vietnam Coracle’s Snails and Seafood guide.” (Legal Nomads)
Pho: Pho is a soup type dish that traditionally is made from a bone broth cooking at least an hour, that has long rice noodles (the specific noodle is where the name pho comes from) and fresh meat and served with heaping mounds of garnishes and a few condiments. You will often find pho served for breakfast…mmm….delicious! I suppose there is a potential that there could be gluten in this dish – but real pho is not made from stock or from anything but rice noodles.
Stay Away From
Banh mi: bread
Nui: macaroni noodles
Hu tieu won ton (won ton soup with egg noodles): however, hu tieu Nam Vang is fine as it is made with tapioca noodles.
Quay: is a fried fritter dough
Street food that has a higher probability of getting you sick includes stir fries (due to cross contamination), certain soups (where it’s hard to know all ingredients) and BBQ-style meat with glazes or sauces.
Sausages and pates may contain gluten
Processed meats as these can contain soy sauce which in turn might contain traces of gluten.
Deep fried meats and fish as they may be battered with flour.
“Marinated meats are in the “ask” category: worth asking if soy sauce was used to marinade. It’s worth mentioning that most of the soy sauces I saw in Southern Vietnam did not have wheat in the ingredients. Soy is often used to marinate grilled meats used in bun bowls, though the bowl above is from Saigon and the soy sauce used did not have wheat as an ingredient. The restaurant was surprised when I was thrilled to read the bottle! I did not yet have a GF card to show them.” (Legal Nomads)
Depending on your comfort level, you can always ask! Some of the above like the meets or sausages might be fine.
We booked our trip through G Adventures! Check out THIS blog post to find out how much WE LOVED THIS TOUR!
Don't drink it. I mean, drink it, but don't drink it from the tap. This goes for most places while traveling, but especially Asia. It's not that it's bad, it's that bacteria exists in all water, and we are used to water from other places. So if you want to experience what it feels like to have your gut adjust, go for it. If you'd prefer to spend your time sightseeing and not on the toilet, I'd recommend bottled water. We are also outdoor enthusiasts and backpack. We have a UV light that kills bacteria both when backpacking outdoors, and for international - but not all are created equal. This was overkill, but we had it, so we brought it, just in case we were stuck in a situation where we didn't have access to bottled water. But everyone drinks bottled water, so that never happened.
Though tipping is very common in the US, it is not required, but becoming more important in Asian countries. If you are doing an excursion, a $1 tip for a half-day, or $2-3 for a full day is appropriate. If there is a driver, perhaps $0.50 for them in addition. You can also consider tipping around 10% for a meal that is adjusted according to service (including no tips for poor service).
A note about bathrooms
Bathrooms can be anywhere from glamorous to a hole in the ground. If you are in a larger city and at a nice hotel and restaurant, you will find western style toilets with toilet paper, and sinks with soap and paper towels. But if you are in a less expensive place or one that is more rural, be prepared to get comfortable squatting and bring your own toilet paper or use the bum gun.
You will encounter squat toilets, and these take a bit to master. But I actually really enjoy squat toilets once I got the hang of them, plus, they're better for you!
Water gravity toilets: This might be an elevated squat toilet, or a western style toilet with water and a small bucket next to it. There is no flush, the force of the water you dump into the toilet is what flushes it. DO NOT put your toilet paper in one of these versions! The plumbing is not designed to handle paper products.
If you want to use toilet paper, you're going to need to bring it with from home. Or steal it from your hotel bathroom. And you will dispose of it in the garbage can (most toilets DID have garbage cans thankfully. I highly recommend bringing along something like these travel toilet paper rolls.
IF you find western style toilets (unless in a nice restaurant or hotel), they will almost never had a toilet seat.
Long distance buses DO NOT have toilets
Trains DO have toilets. The ones on our overnight trains had a western style toilet, but that bathroom got pretty gross by the time the trip was over.
For a fun example, at the border crossing into Vietnam, the bathroom was a port-a-potty turned pit toilet, basically sitting in a chicken coop. To clarify, the below pictures are from an official border crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam. So, that's one end of the spectrum. And when you find a beautiful bathroom designed just for tourists, you will be surprised by the amount of joy it can bring!
I had no idea what to expect on the train. I had been on many day and overnight trains in Europe, but never in Asia. Our tour had booked 3 separate nights of sleeper trains:
Saigon to Nha Trang (about 10-11 hours)
Nha Trang to Da Nang (about 9-10 hours)
Hue to Hanoi (about 14 hours)
After reading completely mixed stories about quality and cleanliness, I was thrilled that we had no issues on our trip. My only complaint was that the air conditioning was blasting, but then at one point it went off and it was crazy hot (and not all cars have air conditioning). I’ve traveled enough on a budget to not be picky about something like that – just bundle up and be thankful it’s not 100. We did bring cotton sleep sheets (sort of like a sheet sleeping bag – silk is much lighter and more compact, but also much more expensive). While we only ended up using them on the trains, I am glad we had them. The sheets on the train appeared to be clean, but I just felt better having my head on my own sheet. If you are staying in hostels, or really skimping on cost in hotels, you may want to consider sleep sheets anyway. I have found many hostels in the US and Europe won’t allow your own sheets for fear of transferring bed bugs, but I didn’t see any warnings about this in Vietnam.
The toilets were not the best, and remember, no toilet paper so bring your own (this goes for pretty much SE Asia as a whole)! Make sure to set your own alarm, before you think you will be arriving. They will announce each stop, but if you sleep through it, you will be buying a ticket back to where you need to go.
We happened to be in a room with our group, so I wasn’t worried about my stuff. But if you are traveling solo or not filling an entire compartment, please be careful with your things! A friend of mine had a very expensive DSLR camera stolen while she slept on a sleeper train in Europe. This is where backpacks come in handy. You can tuck everything of importance in them and sleep wrapped around them, or using them as a pillow or leg rest. Most people aren’t criminals, but you don’t want to be the obvious choice if someone is looking for an easy target.
They do offer food for pay, but our whole group bought food ahead of time. Remember, you might be on one of these trains for 10 or 14 hours, so have enough food on hand to accommodate that. Finding transportable take away gluten free food was a little more challenging for me. I was able to get some simple rice and veggies, but also had protein shake packets and lots of snacks on hand. We had three of these overnight train trips, and I had wanted to be prepared. I recommend doing a little google reading to hear of other’s experiences ahead of time in order to be the most prepared!