Eating Well, and Gluten-Free in Vietnam: What’s Safe, What’s NotBy Jodi Ettenberg
When someone in Vietnam tells you that you are a good person, they don’t say—as they might in the West—that you have a good soul. Instead, they say that you have a good stomach. This idiom is a small testament to the deep and abiding love of food in Vietnam.
Vietnamese cuisine has its basis in five main flavors: salty, sour, bitter, spicy and sweet. Each dish aims to be a nuanced blend of all five. As a Canadian traveling in Vietnam, I enjoyed the subtleness of how the tastes blended together.
But as someone who suffers from celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder triggered by the ingestion of the protein gluten), exploring the country through my taste buds brought its own set of challenges.
The best weapon against the anxiety of getting sick is knowledge. So, as a result of my own research and experimentation, here is a list of foods to eat, and avoid, if you have celiac disease and want to travel throughout southern Vietnam. If you want a most robust means of communicating, you can pick up my detailed Vietnamese translation card, which uses local food names and clearly spells out cross contamination.
Foods to Eat
Even if you don’t speak Vietnamese, the literal dish names in the country will help you navigate quite easily. Bun dishes refer to the noodle called bun. Pho soups are actually named after the slightly-thicker-than-bun noodle called pho. And many other dishes are named for the hybrid of ingredients that comprise them.
Condiments: Choose carefully when it comes to the plum or hoisin sauce served with pho—both usually contain wheat. But the most common condiment of all, fish sauce, is gluten-free.
Street food: In southern Vietnam, predominantly the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City, street-food stalls provide a wonderful haven for celiacs to eat safely. Soy sauce, which contains wheat, is used more sparingly than in the north.
In addition, street-food stalls allow for greater control over what you put in your mouth. When the food is cooked right in front of you, it’s far simpler to monitor which ingredients are used. And because stalls in southern Vietnam often specialize in a single dish, the risk of cross-contamination with oils used to fry breaded products is lower. (Simply avoid those that serve fried or breaded products.)
Banh xeo and banh khot: These fried rice-flour crepes and pancakes are safe, but be sure to ask if the batter has added wheat flour.
Hu tieu: Tapioca-noodle soups, including hu tieu Nam Vang, a delicious version including shrimp, pork and a quail egg.
Goi cuon: Fresh spring rolls, which are wrapped in rice paper. Often called summer rolls in North America.
Mi quang: The exception to the ‘mi/my’ category below, mi quang noodles are actually made of rice and tinted yellow with turmeric, served with shrimp and braised pork, and topped with rice crackers, cabbage and mint.
Mien: Mung bean noodles. Often sold at pho stalls, this thin, transparent noodle absorbs broth aggressively. Don’t miss mien ga, or chicken noodle soup.
Banh Pho: Flat rice noodles. While we often refer to the soup as ‘pho,’ the name actually comes from the noodles, which are made from rice flour.
Bun: Round rice noodles. While there are a whole slew of bun soups—bun mang vit, with duck and young bamboo shoots, is my favorite—all bun noodles are made from rice and are gluten-free. Try bun bo Hue if you like a spicy option.
Banh canh: Tapioca and rice noodles. Try banh canh cua, a crab and rice noodle dish that will make your heart sing.
Com, com tam and com hen: Com (rice), com tam (broken rice) and com hen (rice with baby clams) dishes are plentiful, and in the case of com tam, you can choose your meat or vegetable toppings. Just remember to ask if the dishes contain soy sauce, and choose accordingly.
Chao long: A delicious congee-like porridge made with broken rice and offal like lungs and intestines, as well as blood cubes. It’s not for everyone, but it is nutritious and very tasty. Bread is served on the side, so simply ask for it without the banh mi.
Snacks: Many snacks in southern Vietnam are gluten-free and made from rice paper (banh trang), including banh trang nuong (grilled rice-paper rolls), banh trang tron (a salad of shredded rice paper with quail egg, peanuts, chili oil and green mango) and banh trang cuon (rice-paper rolls with similar ingredients but rolled and cut into a bag).
Foods to Avoid
This is a short list compared to many other Asian countries, given that fish sauce and rice or tapioca noodles are prominent in southern Vietnamese cuisine.
Nui: Macaroni noodles. These are your typical half-moon-shaped noodles. Occasionally they will be bright orange. Regardless, they should be avoided as they contain wheat.
Mi or my noodles: Egg noodles, which are also made with wheat. You can spot them by their yellow color.
Hu tieu won ton: Won ton soup with egg noodles. Though hu tieu is also the name of the tapioca noodles mentioned in the ‘safe’ section, this version uses wheat noodles and wheat-based won ton wrappers, and must be avoided.
Banh mi: Bread and sandwiches made with bread.
Deep-fried fish or meat: Most of these dishes, such as cha ca thang long (deep-fried fish with turmeric and dill), are dredged in flour before frying. This is primarily a Hanoi-style dish, but can be found in the south.
Marinated meats: These are in the ‘ask’ category: it is worth asking if soy sauce was used to marinate the meats before grilling.
Pho may be the most well known Vietnamese dish outside of Vietnam. But there are hundreds of flavorful meals that exist beyond pho and many of those found in southern Vietnam are traditionally gluten-free, allowing celiacs to travel, sample and savor without anxiety.
Jodi Ettenberg is a writer, photographer, and public speaker exploring the world since April 2008. Her website, Legal Nomads, tells the stories of places she visits, often through food. A celiac, Jodi’s guides and translation cards have helped many others with food restrictions eat safely around the world. She is also the author of The Food Traveler’s Handbook, and recipient of Lowell Thomas Awards and North American Travel Journalist Association awards for her writing and photography. She has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC Travel, The Guardian and more. Prior to founding Legal Nomads, Jodi worked as a lawyer in New York for 5 years.