Travelling in Asia with IBS is scary, but it really doesn’t need to be. This mini-guide shows you how to do it.
Asia ( Vietnam especially ) was one of the most adaptable places to travel on the fodmap diet. Living there is even more do-able with the right tools.
Luckily I’ve been there, done that and survived. Use these tips from my own experiences to keep your tummy in check when you visit this beautiful country.
Asia, Vietnam specifically, was never a destination that I thought I could travel in, let alone live in without my ‘IBS’ flaring up 100 percent of the time. Living in Northern England with IBS on the fodmap diet was hard enough. Let alone trying to learn how to survive in another country. But, sick of the 9 to 5 lifestyle, cold weather and typical journey of life that some of my friends were taking ( house, marriage, kids,) change was inevitable. My stomach misbehaving, was not going to change that. If you’ve read my story, then you’ll know all about my diagnosis of ‘IBS’ ,past battle with disordered eating and hormonal imbalances. Reading my story will probably ring a few bells for you. The gut after all, is the key to optimal health as you will know.
Following the Low Fodmap diet for a few years, helped to keep symptoms at bay. However, new research is showing that staying low fodmap long term is not an option. This in mind, I was determined to adapt to whatever country I fancied and just making my gut accept it, no matter how it wanted to react.
I like to think of my tummy as a little grumpy animal-does anyone else?
One that likes to throw tantrums, make noises all night that keep you awake and then some days goes into a strange, unusual silence ( usually a sign its having a great day and doesnt need attention!)
Your little gut animal is a huge part of you, and obviously everything you do, feel and eat will affect it, it’s inevitable. It’s your job to look after it and make sure it’s happy most of the time. I knew moving to Asia mIght cause a few upsets, but I was willing to take the chance.
Stress on the Senses
Being in Saigon, or anywhere in Vietnam is a sensory stress in general. If you suffer with any kind of anxiety or stress, it can be overwhelming. Learning to accept and adapt will make it more bareable when you’re travelling there. I quickly learnt to; cross roads slowly and strategically, not ride motorbikes ( 3 crashes later…) and to wear a pollution mask (and full head helmet) when on the back of a bike.
We all know now, that stress can actually be the number one contributor to our tummy pains, bloating, IBS-C, IBS-D and all kind of gut related symptoms In Vietnam it’s easy to let it get on top of you very quickly. The skill, is harnessing the crazy and making it work for you.
Once you get over the madness that greets you as soon as you leave your safe air-conditioned complex or air b & b, it’s time to think about keeping your vulnerable gut happy, well fed and healing. Before you even get to this, you will obviously experience a few hiccups ( you’re human!)
Coping with IBS when arriving in Asia
You can prepare yourself as much as possible for low fodmap travel, but it’s impossible to predict how your body will respond to new environments. This is what I learnt in the first few week and months:
#1 You will experience more IBS symptoms than usual in the first week.
Why? Because, as I slowly learnt, my body was trying to get used to new bacterias, sensory overloads, ingredients and environmental factors. For example; some cities in Asia, Saigon specifically, are very polluted. Vegetables washed in the tap water, ice cubes at street stalls and vegetables grown in soil, could potentially give you an upset tummy. Be aware of this and just be very careful what you put in your mouth. Try to eat food that is freshly made and you can see what ingredients are being used to make it.
This is easier said than done when you’re in Vietnam. Especially if you are a complete foodie like me. When I arrived in Saigon, I literally had the longest list of street food I wanted to try and I was not going to let my grumbling gut stop me, no matter what fuss it decided to kick up.
In my soon to be launched ‘Ultimate Low Fodmap Travel Guide’ you will find a full list of foods that are ‘safe’ to eat in Vietnam and tips on how to order in retaurants.
#2 Having a kitchen is not optional in Vietnam
Why? You quickly realise that if staying longterm in Vietnam, you need a kitchen. This is primarily due to the ingredients used in typical vietnamese cooking, that could actually cause inflammation, IBS flare ups and general disruption to the gut flora.
The ingredients I’m talking about are:
- Industrial Oils- These include; Vegetable Oil, Canola, Sunflower Oil, Seed Oils, Maize & Soy Bean Oil ( used often in Vietnam)
- Monosodium Glutamate- Found in cheap Soy Sauce & condiments such as Nuoc Mam ( Fish Sauce) and added as a powder to make your street food extra tasty. Eww.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup ( high fodmap) & Sugar– You will see this added to everything. Mostly in processed snacks ( yes even nuts and ‘healthy products’) condiments and most of your street food meals.
- Soy Beans. Soy causes inflammation of the gut if it is already permeable ( usually the case with sufferers of IBS) You obviously can’t avoid it entirely but there are ways around it.
As much as the focus is on the fodmap diet, at Low Fodmap Travel, I personally promote taking the holistic approach with caring for the gut. I use the fodmap diet to control symptoms and a gut healing protocol to reduce inflammation. You can keep symptoms at bay and help to avoid further damage, just by cooking for yourself or ordering the right things.
If you have a kitchen, stock up on:
- Free range eggs
- Greek Yoghurt if tolerated ( without sugar …’khong duong’ in Vietnamese)
- Coconut oil
- Market Fresh, organic vegetables and fruits ( widely found in Saigon as the expat population is huge)
- Gluten free, Soy Free, MSG and sugar free condiments
- Herbs & spices
- Fresh Fish
- Low Fodmap size legumes and pulses
- Jasmine Rice
- Nut Milk ( Yes widely available in health food shops in vietnam)
The meat can be questionable in Vietnam so, like I did, you may find yourself relying on a more plant food diet. However, the pork can be absolutely fine and is widley used in Vietnamese cooking, so if you find a decent butchers take advantage! There are quite a few in District 2, HCMC.
Following the Fodmap Diet without a kitchen in Vietnam
If a kitchen is not an option, if you’re staying in a hostel or short term accomodation, then don’t worry you will survive, and so will your tummy.
Here are a few tips:
- Find a clean restaurant that can make you simple, low fodmap tummy safe foods, such as plain white or jasmine rice ( zero fermentation so no problems digesting) , fresh spring rolls* and meat or salads.
A few of my favourite spots in Saigon are:
- Mad House (D2)
- Mekong Merchant (D2)
- Spring Rolls from my street food lady in D2
- Relish & Sons (D2)
- Hue Corner ( D2)
- Kokoi’s (D2)
- Hum vegetarian ( D1)
- Prem (D3)
*sometimes the spring rolls come with peanut sauce or fish sauce that contains garlic, make sure to ask for no garlic ( full translation cards available in upcoming guide!)
#3 Vietnam is Fodmap Friendly, when you know how.
Over time, you will learn how to adapt, where to shop, what ingredients are fodmap diet safe and what ingredients will actually help to heal your gut whilst in Vietnam. Some of the herbs and spices, such as fresh turmeric and ginger are ridiculously cheap at the markets in Vietnam so make sure to stock up on those for their inflammatory properties.
Eating out can be tricky, but following a few of the tips i’ve outlined in my previous post, you will be able to work out for yourself a tailored list of places, foods and ingredients that work for you and stop that little animal grumbling.
#4 You and your gut will sometimes hate Asia
When the inevitable happens ( as it does even when you’re at home) and you develop the usual ‘IBS’ symptoms of IBS-C/D, nausea, histamine intolerance, cramps, bloating and all the other lovely symptoms we are treated to on occasion, there are a few things that you can do. No need to figure out for yourself as I’ve been there ad experienced it all for you mysefl!
The best thing to do in these situations is; find aircon, lie down and relax. If it’s a food flare up, but you really need to eat you have a few options.
This one is simple and readily availble anywhere, cheap and tasty. You can also make it yourself
Jasmine Coconut Rice ( with turmeric )
1 bowl of freshly steamed jasmine rice ( make it fresh or just grab some from a local restaurant- it’s literally pennies!)
1 tsp coconut oil
1 inch grated turmeric
½ tsp black pepper
Pinch of salt
Mix in your own coconut oil & turmeric, or the restaurant could prepare it all for you if you ask nicely.
NB: Saigon, and I now believe Hanoi & Danang have an amazing food app called ‘Vietnammm’ so you don’t even have to leave your bedroom for fodmap diet friendly food ( apart from to answer the door) for safe food when you’re feeling crap.
For more foods to calm down an IBS flare up in Vietnam, here’s a FREE download that gives you the above recipe plus one more anti- nausea recipe and a super cheap Vietnamese drink that will help reduce reactions to sneaky high fodmaps.