We're heading into Vietnam's tourist high season. Visitors -- whether overseas Vietnamese or not -- flock to Vietnam when the weather is cooler and drier. Of course this all depends on where you are. It's just less hot and humid in and around Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), rather damp, cool and dreary in the Hue area, and downright wet and cold to the bone in Hanoi and its environs. As a long, skinny country, Vietnam's regional climates are as varied as its regional foods. If you're going soon, pack layers should you be traveling the entire country.
A trip to Vietnam is nothing without eating lots of Vietnamese food. Jason emailed last week about his upcoming trip and sent this query:
I'll be traveling to Vietnam this December for 2 weeks, and have a question.
I keep hearing about not eating uncooked vegetables, herbs, fruits etc. But I really don't see how that is possible and still enjoy the cuisine. Basically everything has some sort of uncooked herb or vegetable, which is what makes the cuisine so good. With the recent cholera outbreak this seems to be even more of a concern.
Given that I'm going in great part for the food alone, do you have any advice?
Ohhhh yeah. On my first trip back in early 2003, I resisted eating raw lettuces and herbs because I feared getting sick. A doctor in my hometown planted the seed by telling me about his 6-month bout with dysentery after working in Mexico. My parents kept asking if my husband and I didn't want to go elsewhere -- Europe, Mexico (!?) -- anywhere aside from Vietnam where we could fall ill and have to rely on the local medical system. When my dad realized that we were intent on going back to the Motherland, he handed me a care package that included Cipro, a kind of antibiotic that will kill anything.
So when in Vietnam, we'd stare down at a gorgeous plate of herbs that'd just been picked from a large bowl of water and had to force ourselves to pass on them. We'd eat our banh khoai crunchy rice crepes in Hue without herbs. In Hanoi, the pho joints we patronized served no garnishes (a traditional northern Vietnamese approach) and we ate the classic noodle soup just as other locals did -- sans any additions and savored the heady broth, fresh noodles and savory beef. On a daily basis, we loaded up on stir-fried water spinach with garlic (rau muong xao toi) to get our load of veggies. We felt like wimps and occasionally got into fights over whether or not we should risk our lives for raw vegetables. The doctor and my parents' admonitions loomed over us at every meal.
When we got back to the U.S. we felt like we'd miss out on a certain something by not eating the accompaniments. We NEVER fell ill during the trip. I checked in with others who'd gone back and they sheepishly admitted not eating the raw stuff too.
I've traveled in China and other parts of Southeast Asia and basically ate mostly cooked foods. That's okay in those countries because there's little raw vegetables and herbs in their cuisines. The only time I got sick was in Hong Kong when I stupidly ate a salad at a Pizza Hut. Vietnam, however, is different, and what distinguishes Vietnamese food is the abundance of raw vegetables. In fact, herbs are called fragrant vegetable -- rau thom. Not partaking in the raw vegetables and herbs is indeed missing a huge point in Vietnamese cuisine, just as Jason suggests.
Before our last trip back in January 2007, we got thinking and decided to eat it all. Here are our strategies for dealing with food safety in Vietnam:
1) Start and stay healthy. We made sure we were in shape to travel by keeping our immune system up. We got lots of rest before departing and tried not to get stressed out about packing, getting visas, etc. As with any flight, we took Airborne at take off. To get sleep in flight, we took a natural product called No Jet Lag and wore earplugs; we slept with those ugly blow-up neck pillows to ensure we don't wake up in pain. (After reading a tip in GQ magazine, my husband even talked me into wearing a mask but it was too hard to sleep with that on!)
On a daily basis while in Vietnam, I took a few drops of grapefruit seed extract diluted in water. It's bitter but it works for boosting your immune system due to its anti-practically-anything properties. What I use is called Citricidal and it has been and continues to be great stuff for me. It's available at healthfood stores and natural pharmacies. (It's also good for hangovers.)
2) Locals worry about hygiene too. It's always been this way in Vietnam. The billboards, food labels and vendors all worry about keeping things clean and healthy. An ill customer -- not to mention a foreign visitor -- can ruin your business. Wherever we ate, we watched the locals eat. If they set their cilantro sprig of garnish aside and didn't touch the lettuce leaves, we did too. If they dove into everything, we went whole hog.
3) Eat freshly prepared food. Vietnamese food and cooking is about freshness, not just for culinary purposes but for hygiene reasons too. So we made sure to see our being made in front of us. When that wasn't possible, we checked out the staff and joint to make sure things had a good vibe. Whenever possible, we made eye contact and smiled so that people knew we cared.
4) Trust the cook. An honest cook is more likely to not hurt you with bad food. Look her/him in the eye (and or the service staff) before you sit down.
5) Enjoy ice judiciously. Beer on ice is one of my favorite beverages in Vietnam but I ordered my beer with ice in places that look like they got ice from filtered water. That meant that if I were in a village or small town on the square in a little plastic chair, I drank my beer warm from the bottle. My husband came up with a clever strategy of drinking fast. This didn't apply to beer, but other refreshing drinks like delicious fresh sugarcane juice, which had to have ice. We sucked ours up through straws relatively fast to avoid the potentially unfiltered water from the melted ice.
6) Nature's protectors. All that lime, chile, vinegar, garlic, ginger, turmeric and galangal -- they're natural antiseptics. Know that all that comes together to kill potentially harmful bugs and bacteria. Along with the herbs, you've got a powerful phytochemical mix in your food.
7) Peel your own. Unless we were at the hotel's morning breakfast buffet spread where the fruit was already peeled, we peeled our own fruit. Vietnamese people, like many Asian people, peel their fruit. We eat lots of fruit so the nutrients lost in discarding the peel is negligible. My mother won't eat strawberries because it's fruit she can't peel!
8) Take it easy. You may get a little tummy thing that's a matter of your body adjusting. Keep hydrated with bottled water.
The cholera situation right now will make people in Vietnam extra alert so they'll be watching out for their health as well as yours.
Got any tips of your own? Let us know.