One of the fastest ways to ruin a vacation is by falling sick. As a traveller in a new country, it can be difficult to know what to eat, what to drink, and how to go about your activities while staying as healthy as possible. Here are some great tips on how to stay healthy during your time in Vietnam.
Food and water safety
As a traveler, water safety is a very serious issue. Like many other countries, Vietnam has an underdeveloped water treatment infrastructure in place. Contaminated water is a major source of illness so it’s very important to understand what you are getting into.
- In Vietnam, avoid tap water as much as possible and only drink bottled water. Generally, even locals will avoid tap water and will drink boiled or filtered water at home. Bottled water is almost always available at any local restaurants and hotels.
- If you want to drink something refreshing at a restaurant other than water, an alternative is iced tea (“tra da”, pronounced “cha da”), which is cold green tea with ice. Since it is a tea, it has been steeped in boiling water and then cooled, thereby killing any critters that may make you sick. Most locals will drink ‘tra da’ at restaurants over water simply because it’s safe, more refreshing than lukewarm water, and cheaper than anything bottled.
- As for the ice, use your judgment. Yes, ice outside may not be safe because it may have been made with contaminated water. However, many restaurants buy ice from companies rather than manufacture it themselves, in which case it is quite safe. Many people, both locals, and foreigners, are able to enjoy drinks with ice in them without consequence.
Food-borne illness is also a major concern for travelers, so the meal you eat should be hot and completely cooked.
- Soup like dishes are ubiquitous in Vietnamese cuisine so there are many opportunities to contract some sort of illness. Make sure that the bowl of Pho that you order is piping hot.
- Eat only cooked foods and steer away from raw meats. Although many sushi restaurants will prepare the fish properly, it is not worth the risk if you are only here for a short time. You can try them in countries with higher standard of hygiene in Asia such as Japan, Korean, etc
- Even eating salads and raw vegetables are not the best idea. Adding raw herbs to your hot pho is usually fine but again, you will have to use your judgement. Note that restaurants will flash boil the raw vegetables and herbs for you at your request. Be cautious of fruit – eat fruits that have an inedible skin (i.e. bananas, oranges, watermelon, etc.) and avoid fruits like apples and sugar cane.
A lot of travelers ask about street food in Vietnam. Is it safe to eat? Will I get sick? The answer is not so simple. Here are some things that may help make your decision when considering street food stalls.
- The turnover and volume at the street stall is an important consideration. The more people who frequent a stall, the fresher the food will be. A lot of these stalls do not have a means for refrigeration so they seldom prepare food ahead of time. As an example, the stalls inside local markets serve a very high volume of customers so a lot of their prepared food gets consumed on the day they make it. That is not to say that you will avoid getting sick but the risk is less.
- You can also observe the hygiene at the street stall you are considering. In many cases, you can see your plate being made and if it’s not up to your standards, it is not worth the risk.
- Be observant of the vessels they use. If you see them wash the bowls or plates in tap water and they are still wet when putting your food in it, maybe this isn’t the street stall for you. For this very reason, “banh mi” (Vietnamese sandwich) is one the safest street stall foods you can eat because there are no vessels or utensil involved.
- If you really want to eat street food during your time in Vietnam, reviews from other travelers may be a good source – if many people go to a particular establishment and one of them has become ill, you may get lucky as well.
Most of cities in Vietnam is not overly polluted but you can still feel the difference in air quality when compared to other cities around the world. Protection against air pollution is a must when your body simply isn’t accustomed to it.
- If you are spending a lot of time on a bike, you may want to don a mask to protect against dust and pollution. This is useful if you are going to spend several hours on a bike on a regular basis such as long rides across the country.
- Pollution and dust can also affect your eyes so definitely wear sunglasses or goggles on these long rides because your eyes can start to burn.
As trivial as it may sound, many people get concerned about how to brush their teeth and if tap water is safe for brushing. As we discussed earlier, tap water may be contaminated so it is not safe to ingest. Here are tips on how you can go out this everyday task and still stay safe.
- If you are in Vietnam for a short time, it is not worth getting sick so you should use bottle water to brush or no water at all to brush your teeth. If you are unsure how to say it: nước (is water in Vietnamese)
- For extended stays, brushing your teeth with tap water is said to be a good way to get used to the local bacterial fauna. Many tourists brush their teeth with tap water successfully without getting sick. Again, this is only worth it if you will stay in Vietnam for a longer period of time.
- You may also want to check at the front desk of where you are staying because many of the higher end hotels have an internal filtration system. Keep in mind that the goal of this filtration is not to make the tap water safe for drinking but marginally better so that small tasks like brushing your teeth are hassle free.
Sun and insects
With much of Asia being in a tropical climate, it is important to consider sun safety and insect protection.
- The sun rays are very potent so please protect yourself with the use of a hat and strong sunscreen.
- As for insect-transmitted disease, malaria and dengue fever are the two you should educate yourself about. In Vietnam, the prevalence of malaria is contained in rural areas but dengue fever is more common throughout the country. Both are transmitted by mosquitos so an insect spray that contains DEET is a must.
One feature about Vietnam you may find different than other countries is the number of stray animals. As you travel around, you’ll see dogs, cats, chickens and more. An incredibly important point for you to be aware of is that Vietnam is not a rabies free country. Besides rabies, there are many diseases transmitted through animals.
- Simply steer clear.
- It is imperative that you do not touch or pet any of the stray animals, no matter how cute they are.
Editor’s note: The information contained on this page was complied using real travel reviews about how to avoid getting sick while eating and traveling in Vietnam